Futility. The quality of having no useful result. It’s a dramatic term and one that many games have to contend with on a conceptual level in order to create art built on challenge and achievement without alienating those who struggle to reach what the work expects of them. At the root of many interactive works is an oscillating dance between short-term failure and long-term success, where repeated attempts are carried out to complete a given set of goals, and victory is eventually secured.
This divide between futility and failure is tantamount to build upon from the perspective of game design. But what exactly does it mean when it is applied to the player, or player character, themselves? Even when success is achieved, what does any challenge completed or achievement gained mean in the face of personal failure? And when the common element between each failure is yourself, how do you reconcile that sense of futility?
These questions swirled through my mind as I played Owlboy, a game that so fundamentally engrossed itself in the concept of futility that the tutorial section itself is a testament to an exercise in it for the player character of Otus. Within a nightmare of the past with his beloved mentor Asio, it becomes clear that Otus is not reaching the heights or capabilities that his lineage seems to demand, and with every shortcoming, that sense of futility becomes even more present.
And yet…for this young Owl, failure is not the end but a new beginning.
Even in the face of it, he will grow and overcome what shortcomings he may have and eventually change the world, not by being greater than his antagonists but by being humbler. By being kinder. By being someone who knows that failure and destruction are not where things stop, but instead where you have to come back and start again, and again, and again, until you make things right for good.
Developed over an extensive period starting in 2007, Owlboy was created by D-Pad Studio and released in 2016, with physical versions of the game published by Soedesco. It’s a game that I admit I had long been interested in the development of but found myself unable to really dive into upon its actual release back in the day, with it coming out squarely in the middle of my last year of college. The fact I was able to finally take in this title in all its glory felt momentous all on its own, and in particular, I took great pleasure in looking over every area with fine attention to detail.
In the same vein of other independently developed search-action affairs like Iconoclasts or Axiom Verge, the focus of Owlboy in terms of gameplay is on exploring interconnected locations that each feed into one another while also taking down monstrous bosses and completing feats of ability to advance through each area. What sets this game apart from many other search-action titles, however, is the fact that the player character Otus is capable of full, multi-directional flight, meaning he can ascend and descend through the world and its various floating islands without being inhibited by the typical milieu of gravity.
What Otus possesses in acute movement capabilities however, he is somewhat lacking as a combatant, unable to cause damage to most enemies or even destructible objects found throughout the game world on his own. To supplement this, Otus gains multiple allies throughout the experience who can, with the push of a button, be summoned and carried through each section with him, able to shoot projectiles of varying types and often providing a unique gameplay conceit all on their own.
At its heart, this is a bespoke game, one that could only be called artisanal in its presentation and design. Simply put, there is so much jam-packed into this title that I could not begin to describe all of it in a single article, as every section and subsection of the game often introduces multiple new mechanics and gameplay ideas in succession, keeping the game feeling fresh and intriguing from start to finish.
So much of this experience is just taking in how it all looks and feels, how every little gust of wind or flickering flame brings the world and its characters to life that much more. The development period may have been long for this title, but you can certainly see how that time was well spent, as each area, in terms of gameplay, audio, and visual acuity, are all so generous that you almost wish you could spend a bit more time in all of them. And it’s that very existential concept of wanting to spend even longer in each part of this game’s world that brings me back to what I can only imagine was a constant point of anxiety and concern for its own development team: futility.
While the freedom of movement and aid of allies brings much to this experience in general, it’s emphasized over and over again that Otus is an extremely emotionally hurt individual. Called a “mute” by those who wish to deride him, his non-verbal and meek nature is often expressed as a source of aggravation by his mentor Asio, who frequently tasks Otus with difficult endeavors, only to dismiss any achievement because the end result isn’t what he desired. And while Asio or those like him are not present in every section of the game, this conceit comes back again and again, that even when Otus completes a stated goal, he still fails to reach the conclusion he desires…often with catastrophic consequences.
This even comes through with Otus’ allies and friends, who, after several specific points in the adventure, lament that they must not have done enough. Perhaps there were others, more heroic in stride and capable in ability, that could have made things right, imaginary figures that tower over the player character in terms of what might have been instead of what is.
Or maybe that is thinking too small. As the story opens up, it becomes clear that the events taking place were put into motion by the mistakes of beings far “greater” than Otus or anyone like him could ever hope to match. And after all, if people as great as them fell to despair in the face of futility, unable to face their mistakes and unwilling to accept a reality that enshrined them forever… What hope does a little Owlboy have?
Despite the hope that Otus places in those around him to have the answers to know what he needs to be to rise to the occasion, after a specific turning point in the narrative, even they start to give in to that sense of futility. At multiple points in the adventure, the allies that Otus has gained come and go, marking a change in terms of what he is capable of doing. Without the full ensemble, the world feels that much smaller. Everyone is hurting, and nobody seems to have time to listen to someone who can’t even say what they are feeling aloud, no matter how clear it is that they are hurting as well.
But, as the focus of the narrative, who better to understand that than Otus himself?
Every character in Owlboy, in one way or another, is hiding some great failure or pain as they struggle through the midst of some kind of transition in their life. Whether it is the passing of a mantle, losing your home, or grappling with the weight of your legacy, failure is not so terrible to face when you have those who recognize your worth all the same, which is something Otus, from the very first nightmare, is clearly struggling to come to terms with. He views himself a failure as a pupil, as a friend, and as a person. But with time, it becomes clear from a humbler perspective that failure…isn’t real.
The actions the player character takes throughout the experience may not always fix the problems they are seeking to solve, but that doesn’t mean any of it was fruitless. The very concept that an action taken for good will ultimately have no real, useful result is one that can only come about from someone who is in the midst of great pain. When you can’t see outside of that pain, how do you reconcile what you’re feeling with the reality that your actions, and their consequences, do genuinely have an impact for the better?
Otus makes the world around him a better place by learning more about those Owls that came before him, befriending those that are truly friendless, and being a good person more than a great hero. There may be events far beyond his control, destructive actions taken by individuals with centuries of malice and fury in the making, but that does not diminish what he can do in spite of all that.
The game begins with a nightmare of inadequacy, of not feeling like he is up to potential that so many seem disappointed he is unable to achieve. But, in one of the final sequences of the game, this nightmare of past futility is supplanted with a dream of present and future possibility.
And what a rebuttal against failure that truly is.