My girlfriend speaks softly. She’s a ghost on the phone. If you ever met her in person, you’d lean in a little when she introduced herself. You could say it’s her personality. But you’d only be half right. The other half has something to do with a very large truck that collided with her small body when she was seven, leaving her in such a state that the doctors who treated her became locally famous. While the miracle docs lined up for pictures in the newspaper, Erin was still unable to communicate; it was years, she tells me now, before she could speak loudly and clearly enough for people to understand. But overcoming her disability didn’t erase its traces. 25 years after the accident, she still speaks in the hushed tones of a frightened child, often loud enough only for herself to hear.
My dad was about 40 years older than Erin when he had his own accident. We were together in the van: I walked away without a scratch, but he never walked again. Like Erin, he was never totally independent after that. Though it would be years before one of his lungs gave out, softening his own speech and leaving him attached to oxygen tanks, the intervening time taught us both that to be disabled is already to lose your voice. People will talk down to you, and not just if you happen to be in a wheelchair. They will decide your limits, and if you’re lucky, they’ll pretend not to be frustrated when you fail to meet them.
Worse, people will talk for you. Sometimes this is necessary, and with close friends or a loving family, it doesn’t have to involve a loss of dignity. But not every family is held together by love, and not everyone has friends. If you’re not among the lucky, the person that cleans and changes you might be the only voice you have. And an abusive caretaker—whether it be a teacher, nurse, or parent—is worse than a prison warden for the disabled person that has no one else to fight for them. For the mute child, who has never known anything else, life itself becomes a kind of solitary confinement.
When we first meet Owlboy’s young protagonist, Otus, he is being talked at by his new mentor Asio. Otus can’t speak, so as in every other conversation in the game, he participates through a set of remarkably articulate facial expressions and body postures. Around Asio, Otus spends most of the time with his owl cloak wrapped tightly around himself, staring glumly ahead. “In time,” the imperious Asio says, “I will mold you into the spitting image of myself.” Otus just fidgets.
Asio’s expectations turn out to be higher than his young adept can meet. When Otus struggles with his studies, Asio makes his disappointment known and transfers him to manual labor. When Otus has trouble flying for the first time, Asio berates him: “Most students pick this up instantly.” Eventually he gives up on Otus completely. He tells him to go talk to the townspeople to “ask them what they think about you and your ineptitude.” At this point things get strange. As Otus trudges along, the world goes dark and begins to splinter into pieces all around him. The people we will later recognize as his friends manifest as cackling ghouls that mock him as he strives, with characteristic doggedness, to carry out this most degrading of assignments. They encircle the young owl as the world falls apart; he can only cower until the nightmare is over.
It is striking, to say the least, that a game which has the levity and freewheeling inventiveness of a Studio Ghibli film introduces its hero with a sequence of cold abuse. But this is the unlikely balance that Owlboy achieves. From its unforgettable opening sequence to its equally devastating conclusion, the game never lets us forget that its hero is an unusually vulnerable one. He can’t even defend himself when the local owl bullies—cheekily named Fib and Bonacci—tease him. Nor does Otus gain fabulous new powers as the story goes on to deal with all the strife; the most he can do is stun foes with a stylish twirl of his cloak and escape.
What Otus gains instead is friends. His three regular companions can do all the things Otus can’t—blast the bad guys, ascend the waterfall, communicate—as he tirelessly shepherds them around. It is a brilliant twist on the classic Metroidvania format: instead of finding the grappling hook you need to cross that uncrossable ravine, you go and grab a spider to spin you a rope. But it is also an insightful illustration of how the abilities of the disabled depend on those around them, as Otus’ range of motion and ability to resist danger waxes and wanes over the course of the game.
The silent protagonist is not, of course, a new idea in videogames. On the contrary, we have become all too accustomed to inhabiting the stoic avatar that is less “everyman” than “no man.” In the Doom or Dark Souls games, where your character is the plaything of forces beyond their control, it makes narrative sense for them to stay quiet. And those military shooters that want to capture a certain ideal of American masculinity—the strong, silent, murderous type—also have a kind of justification. But just as often, it is a cheap way of forcing the player’s empathy by making them identify directly with the blank avatar. It is far more difficult to create a character that is both self-sufficient enough to communicate and be relatable enough to inhabit.
This points to one of D-Pad Studio’s many outstanding accomplishments with Owlboy. Otus is as instantly likable as any of the bullied kids we’ve encountered in other stories. But since most of us will be unable to sympathize with his particular handicap—and since that handicap is consistently highlighted as the adventure progresses and new conversants emerge—there is a distance between us and the owl boy that makes us root for him, and care for him, even as we are the ones in control of his actions. Otus is presented as an agent, not as a victim or a puppet—but his agency is fragile, contingent. By not allowing us to know what he is thinking, the game paradoxically makes the protection of his interior self that much more important.
This identification with the game’s hero is expertly facilitated by D-Pad’s artists, who have a particular talent for conveying personality through small details of character appearance and movement. Memorable as he is, Otus is only one of Owlboy’s large and vibrant cast of characters, none of whom could be confused for each other. There is Mandolyn, the musical light of Otus’s home village of Vellie, who serenades our protagonist at the outset of his journey with an adorable bob of her ovaline head. There’s Twig, aka the Troublemaker, who wears a buff spider suit and out-webs Peter Parker in order to hide his embarrassing heritage as a lowly stick insect. And above all there is Otus’s best friend Geddy, who dresses like a certain famous Italian sidekick and waves his arms around like a giddy ape when he gets excited.
But the visual language of Owlboy’s characters is outdone by the grammar of its world. Owlboy has been in development for nearly a decade, and in that time it has already won numerous awards, and garnered accolades for its gorgeously pixelated 2D world. They are all warranted. But what really stands out across the game is how this lovely world locks, slots, and snaps together.
True to its Metroidvania heritage, the game has Otus and his pals engage in a mixture of puzzle-solving, exploration, and surprisingly meaty combat. (Those underwhelmed by the pop of Geddy’s pellet gun in the Owlboy demo will be pleased with the shotgun-wielding pirate that supplants him.) But most memorable are the ways Otus must interact with his ever-shifting environment to progress through areas: squishing rainclouds to turn snarling firedogs to stone, or twirling balletically on enormous screws to open distant doors. There feels like an endless variety of these bizarre challenges, and the fluid, dynamic interaction of the game’s moving parts makes it a joy to carry out every one of them.
This joy is aptly captured in Jonathan Geer’s soaring score, which puts most other videogame soundtracks in recent memory to shame. This is genuine composition: there are no pseudo-nostalgic synth reveries or lazy ambient drones filling time here. Just listen to the game’s theme—buoyant, boundless piano arpeggios fall into one another as warm strings and French horns paint a vivid picture of this blooming world. Even when Geer integrates chip music in the theme for Otus’s home town of Vellie, he is able to string together a marvelous contrapuntal dance from the simplest of components, mirroring the game’s own contemporization of the 2D platformer.
It is important to emphasize this in particular—Owlboy uses an older model of videogame, but it is not a “retro” title in the sense that its meaning or pleasure derives from nostalgia. On the contrary, the game’s sheer creative energy makes it feel fresher than most modern titles. That this energy was sustained over the course of nearly a decade of development, and that the end result is so perfectly cohesive, is something of a small miracle in a difficult industry. And it is hard to imagine that anything could inspire such devotion from D-Pad’s small team over such a long time other than the plucky owling whose story this ultimately is. The world belongs to Otus; the creators enabled him, but the player’s privilege is to set him on his way, and watch him rise.
Owlboy takes shape as an ascent. As you battle the mechanical pirates that threaten your kind, and dig into the owls’ past, you rise into progressively higher layers of this skyworld: Tropos, Strato, Mesos …This vertical directionality is paralleled by the increasing mobility and strength of your group. But when you ascend to the final and highest area, gravity takes its revenge: the air becomes too thin for Otus to fly, negating his most significant ability in the game. Otus’ companions, eager for answers and resolution, hurry ahead in spite of the fact that the owl boy can no longer keep up. And so Otus is left alone once again, hopping carefully over gaps between platforms like the 1980s had never ended.
This is a subtler moment than it seems. We’ve all seen the movies where the hero is drained of their powers at the critical moment, but wins anyway. When Otus loses the basic power of flight, however, his friends don’t immediately rally around him or bolster him up the way we might expect. Their interest shifts almost imperceptibly from the caravan to its destination. Certainly no one would say Otus is a burden, if we could step into this world and ask them—but he’s also no longer leading the caravan.
It is perhaps the most primal and enduring fear of the physically disabled person that they will be left behind like this. And the fear is justified. My girlfriend describes most of her childhood in these terms: friends walking on ahead because her bad leg wouldn’t let her keep up, or worse, teachers berating her in the middle of a crowded playground for episodes of temporary paralysis. I am no better than these people: as a teenager, I remember walking 10 steps in front of my dad’s wheelchair when we went to the movies. To say that it was unconscious, even instinctual, scarcely makes it less abhorrent.
But unlike owls, we have been gifted by nature with the capacity to transcend our most abhorrent instincts. We have the ability to befriend those who genuinely need friends, and to encourage others to do so through works of art that depict the joy and power of companionship. Owlboy is itself as joyful and powerful an example of such art as I can recall. That it also happens to be an exceptionally well-crafted and tasteful videogame made by a very small group of people may not entirely be a coincidence.
As for Otus—he eventually regains his ability to fly, and the support of his comrades. At the peak of everything, the pack faces an unexpected (and unexpectedly difficult) final enemy who throws into question the history of the owls, the purpose of the quest, and the fate of the cosmos as a whole. That the game chooses to go to the audacious physical and metaphysical heights it does in these final moments might be surprising, given its overall focus on smaller matters of community and tactile problem-solving—but it also feels entirely earned, and confirms the player’s sense of unexamined depths beneath this world’s beautiful surface.
Or maybe this isn’t the right language for Owlboy. There are no depths in two dimensions—only degrees of altitude, currents of resistance, vectors of descent and lines of transcendence or transascendence. These compose the true vocabulary of the game, and its truest joy. You can master this vocabulary without being able to speak a word. All you need is a computer, a bit of imagination, and two working hands. But if your hands don’t work so well, hit me up. I’ll play through it with you.