***Spoiler warnings for Ori and the Will of the Wisps***
I have played Ori and the Blind Forest at least three times, and Ori and the Will of the Wisps twice. I love these games—they are fun, challenging, beautiful, and full of encouraging themes like self-sacrifice. However, I can also critique the things that I love, and something I noticed in my latest playthrough of Ori and the Will of the Wisps is unfortunate ableism.
At first, I was super excited that the creators include a disabled character in this sequel. A playable disabled character! Whaaat?
Ku is an owlet that hatched from the egg you recovered in the first game. She is born disabled, with a deformed wing that prevents her from flying. At the beginning of the game, Ori, a forest spirit and the game’s protagonist, finds a large feather from Ku’s dead mother, and they tie it on to Ku’s wing. She is able to fly this way, and she excitedly soars off with Ori on her back. They fly into a storm, Ku loses the feather, and they both fall into unknown territory, separated and alone.
On the positive side, Ku has some really neat things going for her. When you play as her, you can only soar and flap once before you fall back to the ground. This makes puzzle solving interesting and challenging. You learn to play within her capabilities. The fact that she can learn to fly with an aid, but it doesn’t “cure” her disability, is great representation.
On the negative side, you only get to play as her for about half an hour in a twelve-hour game. And you only play her when Ori is present, riding on her back. This is a common, ableist trope—that disabled people don’t have agency on their own. Ku’s main purpose in the narrative is to be saved by Ori—another harmful trope. The main emotion she shows is sadness because she’s disabled. Her entire story revolves around her disability (in reality, disabled people do have personalities that aren’t completely snuffed out by their physical conditions, and it would be nice to see that reflected in fiction).
Ku also ends up killed by the villain, and her death “inspires” Ori to keep moving forward. Disabled characters as inspirations are tiring. I don’t exist purely for other people’s encouragement.
Unfortunately, it gets worse. At the end of the game, Ku is magically healed. She gets a fully formed wing. …Yay?
Abled, healthy people consider this a happy ending, because why wouldn’t you want to be healed of your disability?! The thing is, I have a chronic illness, which means I’m not likely to ever be healed. But I’m still living a joyful, fulfilled life. Characters receiving healing for their disability is an ableist trope, because it’s not something most of us can aspire to. While it can be nice to live vicariously through characters, in this case, it’s just a reminder of how I’ll never be healed like that. Narratives like this perpetuate the idea that you aren’t truly whole or acceptable, and won’t truly be happy, until you’re healed.
The options for disabled characters in stories are usually a) character dies, or b) character is cured—as though disabled lives aren’t worth living. It’s a little ironic that Ori and the Will of the Wisps manages to fall into both of these tropes.
There is a chance for Ori and the Will of the Wisps to redeem itself somewhat, however, because the game features another disabled character: the villain, Shriek. Shriek is an owl, too, but her wings are even more deformed than Ku’s. She has a layer of stone all over her body, so her wings are long, hardened structures that she walks on like crutches.
Eventually, you learn Shriek’s backstory: that she sought out friends and a home as a child. In a flashback scene, the Moki, the cat-like residents of the forest, are afraid of her and run away. Then, she comes across little owlets, who seem happy to accept her, but their parents loom over them protectively, glaring at Shriek until she goes away.
Shriek grows up angry and bitter, understandable for someone who has been rejected by everyone around her.
Thus, you might expect her to be treated with empathy by the characters who know her backstory. But Baur, the giant bear that relays Shriek’s backstory to you, says, “She is lost. A pitiful creature. Her heart is stone.”
Yep, there’s just no hope for Shriek. Another character has decided her fate for her. She’s disabled. Lost. Stone-hearted.
Instead of pointing to how people’s reactions to her disability contributed to shaping her character, which it seemed like it was going to do, the game slams the door on hope and blames Shriek for her evilness. It’s too late for her. She can’t open her heart now. She is only to be feared, pitied, and destroyed.
Near the end of the game, the wisps hit Shriek with a blast of light that breaks apart pieces of the stone and decay from her wings, enabling her to fly away. She returns later, still angry, still evil, to steal the wisps light. Cue final boss battle.
Ori defeats her, of course, and she ends up fleeing, her body returning to its decayed, stony state as she settles under the decayed statues of her parents, presumably to die. It’s like the game is punishing her for “rejecting” a cure.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps is supposed to be a story filled with hope. It’s about rebuilding a world that has been plagued by decay, helping others, and self-sacrifice. Unfortunately, the game’s message is coloured by the fact that this better, “ideal” world doesn’t make room for people with disabilities. Disabled characters are only acceptable if they are cured, and they are viewed as monsters to be feared and pitied if they aren’t.
My hope is that writers and creators will continue to work towards changing this narrative. People with disabilities, like me, aren’t monsters because our bodies work differently than others. We aren’t unacceptable until we’re cured. We are loved. We are valuable. We matter.