Wednesday, April 28, 2021

OMORI and Storytelling Shorthand

 Endgame OMORI spoilers

Content Warnings: suicide mention, some pretty grisly violence

I like sad stories. A whole lot of people do. I think it’s viscerally fun to experience intense negative feelings within the safe space of a story. It feels good to get worked up over fake people suffering in a book or on a screen. It’s a kind of emotional roller coaster; a tragic end can be just as moving and satisfying as a happy one. Crying literally releases endorphins.

Some folks empathize with characters in their stories so hard they can’t engage with sad stories. It gets too intense for them, they can’t deal with it. I think that’s totally legit, even if I obviously don’t feel the same way.

OMORI is a sad story. It’s a riff on Mother-style RPGs. You spend most of the game in the dream world of a boy named Sunny. Most of the dream world is light and cute and fun. But -- and you probably know how this goes already -- there’s something dark bubbling under the surface. Something happened to Sunny. And the journey of OMORI is slowly piecing together what that something was, and how to move forward from it.

It’s a game about untangling trauma. It’s a very rich tradition. To name some that were instructive for me: Silent Hill, Final Fantasy VI/VII, Xenogears, Yume Nikki, Problem Attic, Trails in the Sky the 3rd, LUCAH: Born of a Dream and countless visual novels and other text games all touch on the idea to varying degrees. OMORI is part of the specific subset of those games where parts of the game world itself literally represent the inner psychological turmoil of the protagonist. 

(You could argue that many classic games focused around exploration have a lot of the same psychological edge, they just don’t make the setting explicitly a dreamscape. I don’t think a game needs to take place inside someone’s mind to be about trauma in a spatial sense, it just helps make things nice and clear.)

So, you play around in Sunny’s dream world. Every five or so hours you leave the dream and spend some time in the real world. And it’s there you start to piece together the larger story. It’s revealed less than ten hours in that Sunny’s sister Mari, a very nurturing and kind presence in the dream, is dead in real life. 

I was a bit relieved to see this dropped on the player so early. The true end route in OMORI is about 25-30 hours long. I knew A Reveal was coming, because I’ve played games like this, and if the reveal 23 hours in was “his sister died a while back and he’s sad about it” I would’ve rolled my eyes. Nope, things are much more nuanced and miserable than that.

Again, you probably know how this goes. You spend more time in the dream world. You go back to the real world for little interludes, and more about the larger story is revealed. Things get more and more sinister. The horror flavor gets more and more pronounced. Dream denizens allude to some unspeakable ugly truth that you mustn’t discover.

The dream’s artifice collapses. For a few hours, OMORI becomes a straight Yume Nikki riff. Instead of cute little Mother worlds, the spaces are overtly abstract and psychological (although not quite as abstract as Yume Nikki). The dread gets deeper and deeper.

The truth is revealed. I knew something was coming the whole game. But the reveal of what that something is still surprised and disturbed me. It somehow managed to be way more awful than I expected, without tipping over into feeling unbelievable and unearned. It’s very well-done. The specific nature of the reveal is the reason I’m writing this essay, but we’ll get to that a bit later.

The last couple hours are all about parsing together a way forward from that unspeakable unnameable awfulness. The reveal is that OMORI isn’t a game just about trauma and grief -- it’s also about guilt. The kind of guilt most of us will hopefully never experience. Where you’ve done something utterly reprehensible that can never, ever be undone, and you somehow have to move on from that.

The story explodes into mesmerizing, soul-rending catharsis. Sunny stares down his own self-loathing, his own suicide instinct, and finally starts the eternal work of forgiving himself. Because OMORI is about giving yourself permission to live when you feel you have no choice but to die. 

It’s meticulous and mature in its build-up and sustains its last notes for exactly as long as it needs too. OMORI doesn’t flinch from the ugliness of its subject material. It doesn’t luxuriate in the violence like pornography either. It hurts the player just enough to make its climax soar.

I’ve played a lot of games with moments like this. But after finishing OMORI, I wasn’t sure I could name a single one that landed these big moments quite as hard. Sunny’s story is going to stick in my heart for a long time.

Because this is Sunny’s story, first and foremost. Aubrey and Kel and Hero and Basil all play a part in it. Mari too, of course.

We're always, always using shorthand when we tell stories. It's inescapable. You paint one piece of the scene closely, and leave other parts implied or barely sketched. You're always choosing to fill in one character's perspective, while leaving another's less fleshed out. The act of storytelling is always choosing what to show in the frame and what to leave out.

Shorthand isn’t something to shy away from. If you tried to fill in every detail of the world of your story, you’d rapidly wind up with something unwieldy, extremely long, and not much fun to engage with. You always have to leave some things implied, unstated.

It’s something to embrace, willfully and mindfully. That second part is important, because when you rely on shorthand without realizing that’s what you’re doing, you can unknowingly say something ugly. Because shorthand self-perpetuates, like a virus. People grow up experiencing stories that use a certain shorthand, then tell their own stories using the same tools and symbols.

We don’t know too much about the internal world of Mari, Sunny’s sister. We’re deliberately left in the dark about it, but it’s clear that Sunny’s trauma has something to do with her. In one of the first real world scenes, she takes the form of the one-eyed specter that haunts Sunny throughout the dream. The game wants us to suspect there was something evil or just off about Mari. It’s instrumental in the game’s building tension.

We do pick up some things about her. She plays the piano. She has a romantic relationship with Hero, Kel’s brother. She makes delicious cookies. She saved Sunny from drowning in a local pond. She’s extremely sweet. 

In the dream world, Mari functions as your save point. She lays out nice picnics at a bunch of different spots throughout the dream, and whenever you find one you can save and heal up by eating a tasty meal Mari prepared. You can also just hang out with Mari, and watch cute animations of all your friends playing around.

About ten hours in, we find out Mari is dead in the real world. All of your friends are pretty gutted about it. Her death is what led to your friend group splintering apart, some years ago. The real world sections of OMORI are about slowly piecing together that friend group again, seeing how all your friends reacted to Mari’s death in different ways.

About 20 hours in, we find out she killed herself in Sunny’s back yard by hanging herself under a tree. It adds an extra layer of understanding to why everyone’s so cut up about her death. No one knows why she did it. Which is just how it goes sometimes, tragically.

About 25 hours in, we find out the truth.

If you’ve played games like this, it probably won’t be that big of a surprise. Sunny murdered his sister. In an angry moment, likely spurred by tension over their upcoming piano/violin duet recital, he pushed her down the stairs in their home. She hits the ground in exactly the wrong way and dies. After crying for a while, a plan emerges to avoid getting in trouble. He stages a suicide. Sunny drags Mari’s corpse out behind their house, ties a jump-rope around her neck, and hangs her from a tree.

The murder may have been an accident. But the violence he does to her body afterwards is calculated and deliberate. 

We don’t know much about Mari, ultimately. Because the story isn’t really about her. It’s about how bad Sunny feels for the violence he did to her. It’s about finding a way forward from grief, trauma, overwhelming guilt. The story landed for me because, even though he did something extremely awful, I want Sunny to find a way to live. I don’t want any child to think there’s nothing they can do but die.

Mari is, ultimately, shorthand. The story’s catharsis depends on making us feel Sunny’s guilt as acutely as possible. Making us feel culpable for murdering his sister and violating her remains is certainly an effective way of getting there.

There’s something pernicious about this, right?

I can name several other games about trauma, grief, guilt with this exact plot turn. Where the story orbits a man’s guilt for hours and hours, slowly crashing inwards. And then finally, the reveal: he killed a woman that was important to him. In all cases, the woman in question is only characterized in broad strokes, because her story isn’t the one that actually matters. What matters is how bad the man feels for hurting her.

To get more general with it, I can name many, many games about someone being very sad because a woman they liked was hurt. Trails in the Sky SC has a particularly funny example where in two back-to-back chapters, we find out two separate male characters, both deeply wounded, have suffered because different women they cared about died. Both have almost identical flashbacks. It’d be comical if the writing wasn’t so strong otherwise. Locke, Cyan, Setzer, and Shadow in Final Fantasy VI all have their own special flavor of dead woman backstory. In these stories, and in many stories like this, the women in question are only loosely defined.

These aren’t stories about violence against women. The violence is just shorthand, a narrative device, a tool to get us where the story needs us to be.

This isn’t some kind of sweeping moral judgment. It’s an observation of an ugly pattern. 

It’s certainly not an original observation. I realize I’m jumping into a conversation people have been having for decades, centuries, with varying degrees of nuance. But OMORI’s take on it is particularly striking to me both because it worked so well and because the violence Sunny does to Mari is so unbelievably intense. Emotionally it feels about one step removed from a story about a rapist’s journey to self-forgiveness. 

I don’t think the game’s evil for a couple reasons. Sunny’s a child. There’s a sense that he doesn’t understand the scope of the evil he’s committing, not until well after it’s done. And the depiction of the violence, for me, did not cross the line into feeling exploitative. It gets close though.

I like sad stories. I want to see characters I love hurt and bleed and die. I want them to get put through the fucking wringer, and then either triumph over or succumb to despair. I want suffering. Because sad stories are how we prepare our souls to deal with the endless trials and despairs of real life, and because sad stories are fucking fun as hell.

The nuance here isn’t about whether an individual story is evil for using the shorthand. It’s about pointing out that the shorthand exists, so that we can be conscious about when we engage with it. Maybe there’s a slightly different story we can tell, one that doesn’t reach for the shorthand of “a woman they liked suffered” when it needs a reason for a protagonist to feel bad. 

And maybe we should be extra-careful telling stories about men who hurt women. Stories about their guilt, their trauma, their suffering, and not the suffering of the women they hurt.

Our world and culture are shaped by men who hurt women. They define so much of our art and the discourse around it already. It’s a poison that’s seeped into all of us; it’s inescapable. And when we tell these stories, it’s at least in part guided by how that poison’s affected us. 

So, let’s be mindful about it. Let’s be mindful of these patterns, of how we live in an ugly society that reduces women into objects, and be careful about doing the same in our stories. Let’s try not to let the poison control us.