Warning: This piece contains light spoilers from the first three hours of the game.
As an ever-growing number of Producers focus their efforts on Story-Rich, Character-Driven gaming experiences, it becomes increasingly clear that Video Games as a medium are equipped with the tools that are necessary to craft a form of narrative unlike any other. Exemplified by the AAA and the Indie alike, studios are becoming more ambitious than ever before; and, as a consequence, the prominence and importance of their unique strengths become more evident with time. If utilized to its greatest effect, a video game – once thought of as nothing more than a superficial, fleeting distraction from the pressures of one’s daily life – can transform into a tale with the potential to touch the hearts of players from all backgrounds, often in a very personal or emotional manner.
Just as with any other form of personal entertainment, though it may not be a reflection of the scope of the modern industry, gaming is often what one turns to as a way to allow the weight of their struggles to be lifted from their shoulders; replaced by the immersion of oneself into settings rich with fantastical imagination, distant and detached from the gravity of their own world. One’s awareness of reality fades into the distance, as the illusion of the game overtakes the thoughts that consume us when left alone with only ourselves for company – and when the time comes to set down the controller, unembellished realism stands ready to welcome us back to the complications of our lives. Whether a pleasant form of decompression, or a brief reprieve from otherwise-constant stress, this effect manifests for all who choose to engage with the medium, regardless of the individual intensity of its impact. It is here, within the dissonance between immersion and detachment, that OMORI, a 2020 Indie RPG, takes advantage of its inherent strengths to weave together a narrative that reconciles both concepts into one unified experience that utilizes that contrast in order to characterize the conflict at its core.
“Welcome to White Space.
You have been living here for as long as you can remember.”
While all video games adhere to that basic tenet of serving as escapism, OMORI possesses a perceptive awareness of the role its medium plays in the lives of players, and transforms the process detailed above into an integral cornerstone of its identity. Within the game, the stage for its exploration of these concepts is set by two divergent contexts in which the player finds themselves – the insulating reverie of the Dream World, and the uncompromising reality of the day-to-day life of its main character, Sunny; known in the realm of his own mind as Omori.
As established by OMORI’s opening hours, the Dream World is characterized as a land of imaginative spectacle; complete with eccentric creatures, fantastical environments, and a whimsical adventure inspired by a distorted refraction of past events. Rather than serving as a temporary construct, as a retreat from the uncomfortable and often emotionally oppressive responsibilities of life, there is an immediate implication of long-term familiarity; a world that Sunny has come to know as his own, more genuine and palatable to him than the world of reality itself. It is here, where the clarity of authenticity acquiesces to the hazy bliss of repressive illusion, that the game is truly able to leave its mark on the one now immersed within the wonders of its narrative. The player, in unison with Sunny, experiences the setting through the eyes of his headspace identity – Omori – and are perpetually surrounded by the distinctive features of this context – characteristics that would be standard and unremarkable when placed alongside other video games of its genre, but, with their very implication, shatter preconceived notions and play a significant and unsettling role in the narrative of OMORI.
When immersed within the Dream World, Omori is accompanied by the caricatures of his friends in Real Life: Basil, Aubrey, Kel, and Hero, woven together into an inseparable group by Sunny’s sister, Mari. As a general observation, the tone and atmosphere taken when in their presence is one of high-spirited charm and the innocuous leisure of youth; however, by the same measure, their characterization can be described as naught but the superficial joy of an unambiguous world, inoffensive to both Creator and Observer. As the circumstances of the Dream World march ever onwards, Omori, Aubrey, Kel, and Hero hurl themselves into the unknown time and again, inevitably granting the player an intimate familiarity with the unique, emotion-based combat system that the game employs.
In OMORI, the frame of mind of characters within the gameplay is a core aspect of the flow of battle – and all participants, from ally to adversary, make extensive use of the mechanic. Here, the apparent simplicity of the cast within the Dream World becomes apparent once more, as common trifecta of emotional states within that context – Happy, Sad, and Angry – are given greater intensities that are, universally, only accessible by one out of the four: Omori himself. Aubrey, Kel, and Hero possess the ability to reach the second stage – Ecstatic, Depressed, and Enraged – of any emotion, but are never granted access to the third – Manic, Miserable, and Furious – in any scenario. In this way, the Creator can be perceived as the most dynamic of all the entities in his constructed realm, but the mechanic simultaneously lends itself to the implicit implication of the counterpart caricatures being in possession of a negligible amount of emotive depth.
In a final conformation to the general rule of the RPG, the confrontations themselves are extensive in length and endure far beyond what is natural – contrivances that are standard in other video games, and yet are active contributors to the eventual unraveling of one’s preconception of the experience.
As stated, in a vacuum, all of these facets of the Dream World could be interpreted as entirely natural. The cast might simply be behaving as the children that they are, the mechanics of the Creator’s emotional states could very well have been given increased depth due to his status, and the combat system may merely be functioning in a manner as exaggerated as any other RPG’s. It is when dreams become interlinked with reality that the juxtaposition truly terraforms one’s understanding of these establishing factors, and reveals the significance of their purpose within the wider context of OMORI.
The existence led by Sunny in the ‘real’ world is, in practice, a lifestyle of unfulfilled solitude and an aversion to interaction with society at large – to the extent that, by the time of the introduction, he has become entirely silent, and does not speak to anyone. The reasoning and depth behind his behaviour is beyond the scope of this particular examination of the game, but for the purposes of the topic at hand, what holds most relevance is these broad details of his being – and the atmosphere crafted by his relationship to the conditions of the individuals and environment around him.
Standing in stark incongruence to the ethereal and uniform ambience of the Headspace Realm, Real Life is intentionally designed to appear discomforting and unattractive by every meaningful measure of its context. Idealism crumbles into ruin as the bitter taste of reality illuminates how complicated and imperfect life can be with its sobering light. Thrust at the player is a web of characters and relationships in disarray with one another, dysfunction blighting the innocent visage of the impressions given by the caricatures introduced within the Dream World. Implication establishes the distance between Sunny and Kel, as the latter reaches out to the former in a way that suggests that they have not seen one another for an extensive period of time – as well as the abnormality of Sunny responding to his invitation, or even leaving his house at all. Hero, ever-present and one of two core anchors for the cast in the realm of dreams, has long since departed for college, focusing on his own life outside of what was once established as a tightly interconnected group of close friends. Basil, the central character around which the fictitious adventures of headspace revolved, appears disconnected from Kel and Sunny; nervous and reluctant when approached by both, he maintains a blatant sense of detachment from their advances, speaking of their friendship with the subtext of its relegation to the past.
Most outwardly distinctive of all is Aubrey, characterized within the Dream World as a cheerful, affectionate, and empathetic soul. Far from a reflection of the idealist caricature that has come to be familiar to the player through the time spent within her up to that point, she is instead reintroduced as an antagonistic, dismissive, and closed off delinquent leading a gang of miscreants around their town. As Sunny and Aubrey come face to face with one another, the potential for their initial reunion is contaminated by the circumstances of its occurrence. Their encounter comes by reason of her companions terrorizing Basil, her former friend, under her watch – and in the end, despite the history that ties them all together, her retaliation to Kel’s objections to said treatment leads into a conflict that forever challenges the way one perceives OMORI, both as a narrative and as a video game entirely.
Throughout the existence of the genre known today as RPGs, one constant that has continuously endured is the inherent lack of realism in character durability, both in regards to playable cast members and opponents in battle. Characters flow through combat with a level of endurance that defies belief, as blows that would otherwise mortally wound are shrugged off as a decreasing percentage of an HP Meter – and such has always been the accepted, but now naturally overlooked, convention of gameplay. OMORI, too, conformed to this expectation – within a realm that was specifically defined as fictitious. It is within the Dream World that the player observes occurrences that are standard to gaming, and only possible in our world within our imagination. Accustomed to the concepts that are standard within both the industry and headspace alike, neither the player nor Sunny himself initially consider the implication of using a knife, their weapon throughout dreams and reality, to assault an individual within the context of Real Life. With naught but a single press of a button, one directs the other to attack Aubrey with all the consideration of one that has been desensitized to the severity of their measures through years of convention – or one that has spent so long immersed within the absurdity of their illusory creations that they can no longer preemptively judge the consequences of their actions.
In an instant, reality strikes as a bolt of lightning through the mind of the player that actively used a knife against a teenage girl in Real Life. She herself may have held a bat embedded with nails, but its usage was restricted to intimidation, never direct assault. The battle ends as quickly and decisively as it began, Aubrey having been reduced to a state in which she can no longer stand against Sunny and Kel, and indeed no longer wishes to be in their presence at all. Kel is alarmed at the player’s possession and usage of a Steak Knife, and immediately confiscates the weapon from the hands of the boy who, moments earlier, utilized it in order to attack another individual. It is here that the truth finally sets in – this is not the Dream World, where fantasy is reality. This is the real world; a context in which wounds are meaningful and impactful, food items do not heal damage to the body, and bandages or genuine medical aid are the only ‘health recovery’ that exists. It is a chilling and meaningful moment that establishes harsh and merciless realism as the only underlying ‘mechanic’ of the alternative setting, and it is not the final time that expectation of non realistic outcomes leads one to revelation.
That atmosphere – one of uncomfortable truth and personal shortcoming – prevails throughout Real Life in its entirety, beyond that which was revealed by the subversion of common combat convention. Weight is given to all that occurs within this context for characters on a personal level, just as it would be for our own world. The reality of one’s mental and emotional state is never as simplistic and filled with delight as imaginative settings such as the Dream World would like to convey them to be, nor are our own sensibilities ever so easily dealt with. At the end of the first day spent with Kel, OMORI exemplifies this just as it does all others – with a delicate, thoughtful touch that unveils hints of the depth of psychological complication concealed behind the enamouring facade of Sunny’s headspace. Night has long since arrived by the point in which the two boys finally separate and return to their own homes. As the player steps through the door, the game offers a brief pause before unleashing a room of nightmares upon both Sunny and the one experiencing what he observes through a gaze of hyper awareness and terror.
Enveloped by the darkness of evening’s stygian embrace, Sunny’s house manifests within the boy’s mind as an irrational encapsulation of a particular fear he is stricken with: arachnophobia. Through his perception, every corner draped in shadow is instead beset with spiders, sections of his otherwise-familiar home have become an insurmountable fortress of incomprehensible horror, and wherever he looks, his surroundings have transformed into a petrifying abode of all that triggers his repressed phobia. A flight of stairs that, in reality, is but a few short steps, is instead perceived by his terrorized mind as eternal and unending – a feeling that many a player may be familiar with. Spider legs reach out to strike at Sunny as he ascends that infinite stairwell, and every time they do, he is seen curling into a ball, shaking and shivering until the dread that has overwhelmed him fades enough to resume his ordeal. Until, finally, something unknown appears to him at the very top of the stairs – and assaults his senses once more, in a climactic culmination to his nightmare-turned-reality.
Just as the confrontation with Aubrey represented the dissonance between fictional endurance and genuine wounds dealt to real individuals, the encounter with the creature spawned from Sunny’s arachnophobia illustrates the extent of the contrast between the focus in tone between Real Life and the Dream World. Where the trifecta of emotional states – Happy, Sad, and Angry – held prominence within headspace, one single emotion dominates the appearance of emotion throughout the real world – Afraid. Where the encounters in the realm of dreams were charming and diverse, accompanied by an active and lively soundtrack to accentuate the colorful and unique presentation of the game, this engagement is tense and harrowing, punctuated by an entirely different, harsher choice of OST that is entirely appropriate for the leaden and somber visual appearance of the moment. It is a deliberate choice that solidifies the mood constructed by all that has led up to this point; one that offers the player yet further glimpses into what Sunny is attempting to escape through his headspace.
At the end of it all, when Sunny has focused enough to dispel the terror of the night from his mind, what is left is the cause of the ordeal itself – one individual spider, easily crushed by stepping over its form. A disproportionate amount of actuality for a reaction so severe, perhaps, but an experience that is easily understood by those who share fear similar to his own. The player returns to the bedroom, chooses to allow Sunny to rest, and descends into the realm of dreams once again, now armed with knowledge from both sides of the game, and immune to the beguilement of dreams – or so one may imagine.
Indeed, upon re-entry into the Dream World, players may be initially unable to view the context as they previously had. Fresh with the memories that defined reality, the illusory nature of headspace is made all the more apparent by the immediate return of that contrastive tone destroyed by the truth unveiled throughout the introduction to Real Life. However, as Sunny and the player familiarize themselves once more with the setting through the eyes of Omori, this feeling may begin to fade away, driven off by one’s re-immersion into that charming and entertaining world. The juxtaposition of reality is nearly forgotten, and one may even find themselves embracing magic that had been previously driven off through sobering realism – until the narrative tears away that sensation by exposing the cracks within the Dream World’s masquerade, returning them to the context of the Real World, and disconnecting both protagonist and player alike from the escapist shell that had begun to dismiss the gravity of realism from their conscious thoughts.
This is the crux of OMORI’s employment of this tool for narrative purpose, and the core of what makes it such an effective instrument in leading players to a greater understanding of what the developers are attempting to convey. It is often said that the narratives that resonate the closest to the ones experiencing them are those that speak to them when its subject matter is most relevant to the circumstances of their lives – bygone or yet appropriate. When the individual in question possesses an intimate familiarity with the topic at hand, a connection is formed between them and the narrative they focus their attention on. OMORI contrasts dreams and reality in such a way that it can be understood by any and all who are exposed to its contents. The worlds known by Sunny are his alone, but the game has the ability to place the player within his mind and guide one to lose themselves within a concept that, in varying ways, is so familiar to any of the individuals experiencing it.
Throughout OMORI, the player comes to comprehend and appreciate the human being that is Sunny to a degree that they would be otherwise unable to – not through being told of his psychological state from an external point of view, but by coming to know his mentality themselves, and the reasons for the dissonance between the escapist and realist contexts that the game ties so fundamentally to one another to tell the protagonist’s story. Just as we all have our own rationale for using entertainment to disperse the gravitas and fatigue of our own complicated lives, so too does significance lie behind the specter of Sunny’s captivating Dream World. As Real Life and Headspace draw ever closer to one another within OMORI, this fact becomes ever more apparent, as the truth casts an ever darker shadow over the horizon, more astonishing and prodigious than one could ever imagine.