Image Caption: Shriek (left) looms threateningly over Ku (right) as the two owls gaze at each other. It is night time, with the moon being obscured by clouds, the sky eerie indigo. Ku is standing dangerously close to the edge of a cliff.
Content Warnings: The following article examines and discusses various forms of ableism present in both fiction and reality. Reader discretion is strongly advised
Ori and the Will of the Wisps was among my most anticipated video games of 2020. A sequel to the gorgeous and heartfelt Ori and the Blind Forest, which I consider one of my personal favourite games, I was very excited to see how the sequel would continue Ori’s story. In many ways, the game surpassed my expectations, as I greatly enjoyed exploring the sequel’s new location, the forest of Niwen, using Ori’s new abilities, and assisting the many new non-player characters (NPCs) by helping recreate their community of the Wellspring Glades. This spirit of reciprocity is one of my favourite aspects of video games, and witnessing how helping others would benefit the community as a whole was an uplifting and cathartic image to witness. So it was a shame, to discover that this kindness and goodwill were not extended towards the disabled characters present in the game.
As a disabled woman, I have become well aware of the variety of tropes present in the media that perpetuate stereotypes, myths, and other ableist messages directed toward disabled people. While my understanding and experiences of ableism have come from my life as an autistic woman with anxiety and depressive episodes, learning about the different experiences of my disabled peers, and how ableism in media affects them, is extremely important. By being able to properly recognize the various forms of ableism present in the world, we are better equipped to unlearn harmful beliefs. Thanks in part to the numerous resources available from disability activists and disabled media critics, I have been able to analyze and recognize how Ori and the Will of the Wisps relies on ableist narrative tropes.
Ku the owlet and Shriek the owl are two central characters to the narrative of Ori and the Will of the Wisps, who are both disabled. The two characters’ story arcs are inseparable from their disabilities, with numerous scenes in the game emphasizing the importance of how being disabled affected their lifepaths. Unfortunately, instead of offering a respectful depiction of disabled characters, both Ku and Shriek are characterized in ways that perpetuate harmful messages about disability.
Ku: The Martyr
Image Caption: Ku holds up her right wing and looks at it sadly. She is standing in a forest surrounded by mushrooms, flowers, and other flora. The sky is orange with the afternoon sunlight
Ku is Ori’s adopted owlet sister, who hatches during the game’s opening cutscene, where the player witnesses Ku’s first year of life under the love and care of her adopted family. During this scene the player learns that Ku was born without several feathers on her right wing, making it very difficult for her to fly. She tries flying on two different occasions during this extended cutscene but only manages to hover briefly before plummeting. However, once Ori gives Ku a feather, originally from the owlet’s deceased mother, and enlists the help of Gumo to tie it to her wing, she can fly.
While the intention of this scene was meant to be a positive one, with Ori and Ku working together to help develop a prosthetic wing, in retrospect this scene comes across as being less about identifying with Ku, but rather with Ori. During this sequence, the player primarily controls Ori and the scene where the player can play as Ku experiencing her first flight only lasts for half a minute at most. This is very typical of media portrayals of disability, where narratives based on disabled characters do not focus on their experiences and perspectives, but rather on their abled family members. One example of this is the 2011 independent video game To The Moon where the viewpoint, both in terms of the narrative and on disability, is from the neurotypical Johnny Wyles rather than his autistic wife River Wyles.
Image Caption: Ori (left) holds a feather up to Ku’s right wing. They are standing on a dock in a swamp during the evening, with the moon visible behind the clouds
Additionally, the game’s opening sequence unintentionally invokes images of “inspiration porn”, a media trope used to show disabled people as being “exceptional” for simply existing and doing ordinary everyday activities, which in turn is used to “inspire” and “motivate” abled people. As disability rights activist, and coiner of the term, Stella Young observed these narratives reinforce the idea of disability being something inherently negative, as opposed to a normal and natural part of a person’s life. Ku’s first flight scene is an example of this, as she is doing something other birds are capable of, but the fact she is using a prosthesis to do so reinforces a narrative that objectifies disabled people.
The topic of playability and character agency is also extremely important to consider when examining Ku’s entire character arc in the game. Aside from the brief scene of her first flight at the beginning of the game, Ku is only playable for one other sequence in the game, right after locating her in the Silent Woods. These two sequences combined account for roughly half an hour of gameplay in a game which takes an average of eleven hours to complete. During both these sequences, she cannot be played without Ori, which makes it clear that she is a dependent character rather than an independent one. I was extremely disappointed to learn this sequence was a one time experience, as I felt Ku and Ori working together to navigate through the level was both a fun change to the gameplay I was used to in the Ori series and a delightful example of two siblings working together in a video game to solve a problem.
Image Caption: Ku’s funeral scene. Ku’s body has been placed underneath a small tree in the middle of a swamp. Leaves have been placed on her body like a funeral shroud. Ori is standing next to her body, head tilted down in mourning. Four Moki’s watch the scene in various parts of the background, their body language indicating their sympathy for Ori’s loss
Aside from having two only playable sequences, Ku is a highly inactive character who engages in brief moments of proactivity, only to quickly revert to being a passive character for Ori to save. Ku attempts to fly once and then gives up, Ori thinks of the idea to create a prosthetic wing. Ku’s first flight results in her getting trapped in the Silent Woods, where she waits passively while Ori goes out to rescue her. Ku attempts to protect Ori from Shriek, only to wind up getting killed by the older owl. Her death is then used as a means of further motivating Ori to rescue the forest of Niwen, since doing so may bring her back to life. Ori’s goal throughout the entire game is to save Ku, which reinforces harmful messages about how disabled people, especially disabled women characters, are presented in the media. From the disabled perspective, this is the idea of disabled people being helpless without the assistance of abled people. Meanwhile, from a gendered perspective, this invokes the “damsel in distress” and “woman in refrigerator” tropes, which put women characters in perilous situations who either must be saved or avenged respectively, to motivate the central narrative. Combined these tropes display a strong implication that disabled women are helpless without the assistance of an abled hero, and unable to be active participants in their own lives. These ideas have many negative consequences for disabled women and are commonly used to justify denying our autonomy and restricting our independence. This does not mean disabled women do not encounter struggles in our lives, a topic which should certainly be discussed and addressed, but showing our narratives through an abled perspective as only victims to be saved denies us our agency.
Shriek: The Monster
Image Caption: Ori hides in fear underneath a pile of bones as they try to avoid Shriek’s gaze. Shriek looms overhead and glares suspiciously at the pile of bones, talons readied to strike. There are several piles of bones throughout the scenery
Shriek the owl is the major antagonist of the game, whose presence looms over the player as they hear her terrifying screams and learn about her cruel actions from denizens of Niwen. Her most noticeable action in the game is killing the owlet Ku, an action that motivates Ori to go out and save both their sister and the forest. She is also a character who is greatly affected by the Decay, the force that is slowly destroying the flora and fauna of Niwen. The vast majority of Shriek’s body has the appearance of a living statue, with her wings being essentially two stone pillars, resembling and used as crutches to walk on since they are incapable of flight. After the player collects the second wisp they learn more about Shriek’s backstory from Baur the bear, and make an important discovery: Shriek was born disabled.
Image Caption: A young Shriek (center) is surrounded by three abled owlets. All four of them express body language indicating their curiosity with each other. They are on the edge of a forest, with the sky being orange and purple from the sunset in the background
During a cutscene the player witnesses Shriek’s early years as an owlet, as narrated by Baur, including the moment she hatched. We see that the Decay had completely overtaken everything that surrounded her egg, including her parents who perished while watching over her, before she was hatched. As a result of this Shriek was born with stone-like flesh, unlike other, abled, owlets. Since she is unable to fly with her wings or walk on her talons, she instead uses her Decayed stone-like wings as crutches, which she uses to walk around. She makes her way into a valley untouched by the Decay and meets three young, abled, owlets. All of the owlets are curious about each other and want to be friends. However, before a moment of contact is initiated, adult owls arrive and threaten Shriek, showing that she has been rejected by her species. Heartbroken the young owlet returns to the Decayed landscape from which she hatched, forced into a life of solitude and exile.
After witnessing this sad scene, I had expected the game’s characters to showcase more empathy towards Shriek and her struggles. It would have been a fitting parallel as Kuro, the major antagonist of the first Ori game, also received a cutscene that reframed the player’s previous comprehension of the character’s actions and thus made her more empathetic. Instead, we get this line from Baur: “She…is lost. A pitiful creature. Her heart is stone.”
Image Caption: Baur the bear tells Ori his opinion of Shriek, after the player witnesses her origins in a cutscene. The text reads “She…is lost. A pitiful creature. Her heart is stone.” The characters are surrounded by a snow-covered forest.
As opposed to empathizing with the experiences of a disabled character who had been rejected by her people due to her disability, or at the very least acknowledging how this ableism had negatively shaped her into the person she is now, the game exclusively blames Shriek for what has happened to her. This is, unfortunately, not a new phenomenon as many people who are disabled find they do not receive the same amount of empathy for their struggles with bullying as their abled counterparts. We are told to fit in with abled people, to try and meet them halfway, and to stop being so “weird” or “different” from everyone else. Meanwhile, abled people have been (un)consciously taught that disability is something to be treated with fear, distrust, and/or disgust, and to speak as though they are the authority on our lived experiences. The use of the word “pity” is especially frustrating, as pity has been used against disabled people in many different ways. Many abled people view disabled people as tragic objects of pity, which is both dehumanizing and demeaning, and further emphasizes the narrative that a disabled life is an inherently “tragic” life.
Image Caption: Shriek prepares to stomp on Ku using her stone wings. Ku stands at the edge of the cliff they are standing on, looking at the ground below, realizing she is trapped
Additionally, it does not help that Shriek is yet another example of disabled characters getting vilified in the media. There is a long-standing history in various forms of media of disabled characters being portrayed as villains, and most of these portrayals conjure up ableist notions about disability. Disabled and disfigured bodies are used as a visual shortcut to emphasize that the characters are villains, usually in contrast to an abled protagonist, as though villainous behaviour is inherently linked to disability. As discussed by Dr. Naomi Lawson Jacobs “disability is represented as a horrific tragedy, the source of nothing but bitterness and anger at the world” which in turn motivates characters to act in villainous ways. The film industry has a long history of giving their villains “scars, burns or marks as shorthand for villainy” such as Scar in The Lion King, Doctor Poison in the 2017 Wonder Woman film, and numerous villains present in the James Bond film franchise. In the case of Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Shriek is one of the few characters in the game to be directly affected by the Decay. Every time she appears in the game it was clear that part of the reason why the player was meant to fear her was not just because she was a powerful giant owl, but because her Decayed flesh was presented as a physical manifestation of her cruel character.
From Bad to Worse
Image Caption: Shriek sits underneath the fully Decayed corpses of her parents in a desolate landscape.
Despite my immense frustration with Ku and Shriek’s treatment by the game’s narrative, I continued onwards. I still held onto the slightest sliver of hope that the game would allow Shriek to redeem herself, just as the antagonist of the previous Ori was able to achieve her redemption, or that Ku would be playable again before the end of the game. Unfortunately, neither of these hopes turned out to be a reality, and instead, the fates of these two characters demonstrated more harmful and ableist narrative tropes.
After obtaining all of the wisps, the player experiences a cutscene where Ori is attacked by Shriek. However, before delivering a blow the owl is blasted by the light of the wisps causing several pieces of the Decay surrounding her body to break apart and fall off, revealing undecayed flesh underneath. With her wings unfurled for the first time, Shriek flies away, returning later in the game to steal the light of the wisps and initiating the final boss battle. After this battle Shriek flies away in defeat, returning to her birthplace in the Silent Woods. As she crashes into the ground her body returns to its originally Decayed state. She then settles underneath the corpses of her parents, closes her eyes, and presumably dies. Meanwhile, as Ori merges with the light of the wisps, Ku is revived by the light and her disabled wing transforms into the fully-feathered wing of an abled owlet.
Image Caption: Ku rises off the ground from her resting place in healing light. Her right wing now has the same amount of feathers as her left. Naru, Gumo, and several Moki surround her and watch in amazing shock
What is concerning about these characters’ fates is not only how they ended, but what they say about disabled people. As discussed by Susan Nussbaum disabled characters in the media are commonly given three fates: they are either cured, killed, or institutionalized. Curing refers to instances in narratives where a disabled character becomes abled, either through “hard work” or a “miracle”, and they go and live a “happier” life. Disabled characters being killed happens quite frequently to disabled villain characters, as killing villains is a typically expected outcome for antagonists in the media, but it also occurs to disabled protagonists as well. Several of these films end with the disabled protagonist committing assisted suicide such as Me Before You and Million Dollar Baby. These deaths imply that it is preferable to be dead rather than to live disabled and that disabled people are unable to achieve happiness.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps implements two of these ending types, with Ku being killed as a disabled owlet and then “cured” as she is brought back to life abled, and Shriek is killed off and admonished by the game’s narrator for rejecting the offer to be cured. While these character fates are dramatically different the overall message of these endings is the same: that disabled characters’ lives are viewed as inferior to the lives of abled people.
Unfortunately, these harmful messages are also present outside of fictional narratives and have damaging impacts on the lives of real disabled people. Abled people in the real world truly believe that disabled people do not deserve to exist, viewing our lives as burdens, fates worse than death. This reasoning is used to “justify” their murder, sterilization, neglect, forced consumption of toxic “cures”, traumatizing conversion therapies, or other abuses towards disabled people typically conducted medical professionals and caregivers. To have the vast majority of fictional media depictions perpetuate the idea that disabled people do not deserve to exist as they are adding fuel to an already present, and extremely dangerous, mindset.
Image Caption: Young owlet Shriek backs away in fear as she is confronted by a group of adult owls who are screaming at her. Their expressions are anger and disgust, while hers is fear and confusion
Ori and the Will of the Wisps is a game about rebuilding a world on the verge of destruction and working together as a community to help restore that world. Unfortunately, the game’s message is hampered by the implication that a better world is one where disabled people do not exist. By having the game’s sole two disabled characters be either helpless damsels or irredeemable monsters, whose bodies are meant to elicit pity or fear respectively, Ori replicates numerous harmful narratives surrounding disabled people both in the realms of fiction and reality.
It is frustrating to see that even in video games where the central narrative focus is on helping others and working together to solve problems to make the world a better place, this same level of empathy is not allotted to disabled people. Disabled people are worthy of kindness just as much as abled people. Disabled people are allowed to feel angry at injustices we encounter in life. Disabled people should be allowed to be the protagonists of their own stories, rather than side characters who serve more as living plot devices in a narrative. Disabled people should not be viewed as monsters just because their bodies or minds do not fit within a narrow definition of “normal”. If we cannot work to change the narrative, and give disabled people the empathy they deserve, then we are adding another drop to the proverbial ocean of ableist narratives present in fictional and real worlds.
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