Made-from-scratch cookies. Tailored clothing. A Porsche. Handmade products are cherished by enthusiasts but thoroughly impractical for normal people. Splendors of the world, unfortunately, are best enjoyed by those without constraints on time and finances. This is part of the reason why many independently developed 2D games look and feel the same. It’s more practical to plug an idea into off the shelf parts than build everything from the ground up. Audiences usually aren’t savvy enough to notice (and often good ideas will get by just fine), but it creates discouraging layers uniformity and repetition inside of genuine inspiration. In 2016, recognizable tools and familiar engines are the realities of modern game development.
This is what makes Owlboy’s enduring presence so fascinating. It was created by five people at D-Pad Studio over most of the last decade and somehow hasn’t suffered the terrifying misfortunes of feature creep or abandonment. Almost every aspect of its being is designed with impervious intent and executed with an invisible process of refinement. For Owlboy to even find its way to market is an achievement and being good on top of that is an intense surprise. They don’t make games like Owlboy simply because the time, money, and dedication required to do it is practically impossible procure.
One look at Owlboy in motion is enough to foster belief in D-Pad Studio’s unorthodox process. It operates at a high resolution without the compromise of chunky sprites and vacant backgrounds, and a careful use of color and variable lighting allow it to behave like a fluid work of art. If Axiom Verge was a complete embrace of 8-bit Metroid, Owlboy feels like a supercharged version of a Super Nintendo platformer. Custom animations for every character and richly detailed environments are applied and discarded at an alarming rate. It’s OK, however, because Owlboy perpetually keeps another trick up its sleeve to impress the player.
In basic operation, Owlboy subscribes to principles established by Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and embraced more recently by Ori and the Blind Forest, Outland, and the aforementioned Axiom Verge. It’s a sprawling open world guarded by barriers that are removed either through natural progression or via mechanical upgrades. Caverns, jungles, ancient ruins, and the wide open sky are packed with enemies, not to mention several environmental hazards inherent to each area. Boss fights and stealth missions also make frequent appearances.
Owlboy may be a member of Metroidvania’s congregation, but it doesn’t feel beholden to its beliefs. Upgrades are relatively minor and entirely reliant upon finding Buccaneer coins hidden in each level. Rather than spend them at a shop and stress over ideal setups, you’re simply awarded a health bonus or slight weapon upgrade incrementally. It’s all based off of how many total coins you can find, and Owlboy prioritizes health boosts over combat conveniences. Killing all of the enemies in a small area, flying through rings, and poking your nose inside every corner are actions usually rewarded with some coins
An aspect of Owlboy that I wasn’t prepared for regards the disposition of its main character, Otus. The prologue, which doubles as a tutorial, positions Otus as a willing but flawed student. He can’t do anything right, and his mentor seems predisposed to torment him for it. Otus also happens to be mute (a common videogame protagonist trait that Owlboy actually explains and embraces), further lending his peers and community suspicions of incompetence. In the hands of the player Otus exhibits no obvious disadvantage, but to many of his peers his looked upon as incapable and unequipped. This is a beautiful metaphor for a normal life inside of an unconsciously cruel and judgmental world.
Creating a downtrodden and unassuming character and thrusting him into a heroic position is nothing new, but Owlboy’s careful handling of Otus and means of allowing him to express himself speak to a tender notion of living with an obvious disability. Some of the residents of Otus’ hometown, Vellie, treat him with doting empathy. Many, especially soldiers, are terrible and nasty. Another, a local professor, operates on a more complex level. He understands Otus isn’t incapable and recognizes his disability isn’t an obstacle, but on one specific occasion he still doesn’t believe what Otus has to say. Via proxy through his friends, Otus is telling the truth about the nature of a certain relic, but the professor still finds him incredulous and dismisses his statement. This is a perfect and nuanced example about how you can think you’re treating someone with respect while still mistrusting their drive for engagement.
Otus’ friend Geddy, a local mechanic in Vellie’s military, seems to be the only person who treats Otus with patience and respect. Conveniently, Geddy is also Otus’ mechanical link to the surrounding world. On his own, Otus has the ability to fly around, perform a spin dash, and barrel roll either through the sky or across the ground. Geddy, however, can be grappled into Otus’ claws with no penalty and fire weak shots with a pistol in any direction. This effectively makes Owlboy into a short range twin-stick shooter.
Owlboy’s identity shifts further as Otus meets new friends. A close-range shotgun with an intense cool down timer shreds either monsters or pieces of the environment. Another character comes standard with a grappling hook, used either to blaze through windy areas or wrap enemies up in sticky silk. Otus is free to switch between any of them with relative ease, and Owlboy even comes up with an in-game excuse (teleportation!) for the player’s need to literally drop Geddy and the rest of Otus’ crew into the unseen abyss at a moment’s notice.
Opposition unfolds in a manner designed to test Otus’ slowly escalating abilities. Cave creatures can only be shot in the back, centipede-things must be decimated in segments, and others require an assist from a flame-lit and explosion-prone creature that happens to follow Otus around a dark cave. Many of Owlboy’s enemies submit to platforming tropes but a few, like the aforementioned sentient torch, are quite inventive. Owlboy only stumbles when it panics and mashes the quantity button, choosing hoards of the same enemy in an enclosed area over a more strategically designed assignment (and yes, I am talking about that lava ape boss).
Environmental challenges split an even amount of time with combat. Infiltrating an enemy ship demands Otus stays out of sight, occasionally seeking refuge in air ducts up top. Pulling switches and racing to the closing-door’s location induces brief acts of desperation. Instances that leave Otus in complete darkness can be annoying, but their brevity is favorable. Closing segments of Owlboy clip Otus’ wings (metaphorically), instead relying on precision leaping or calculated, Mega Man style disappearing platforms. This is not Owlboy’s strength, its controls are adequate if not especially tight, and it’s the only instance where narrative and motivation takes precedent over performance.
Dips in consistency are evened by Owlboy’s endearing story. Robotic pirates threaten Vellie and the floating islands that surround Otus’ world. It is neither complex nor especially original, but it’s conveyed and controlled with an earnest regard for character growth and zero trace of cynicism. Geddy cares. Otus cares. Seeing their presence and their beliefs threatened and broken produces genuine empathy for both characters. Owlboy is passionately written and the way its characters deal with trauma feels honest and committed. Obviously I have no insight into D-Pad Studio’s process but it feels like Owlboy‘s narrative and plot were laid out before it’s environments were constructed, which is a surprising rarity in game development.
“Thoughtful consideration” is Owlboy‘s complete method of operation. If you pull back far enough the original and the generic seem identical, but a closer inspection (or hindsight) reveals acumen only made possible by expressive devotion and imagination. Differences may seem imperceptible at first, but Owlboy’s sympathetic characters and gorgeous construction devour any suspected immunities to the charms of handcrafted artistry. Owlboy is a one-off rarity that somehow escaped the assembly line.