Owlboy on forgiveness
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s some spoilers for Owlboy. Which has birds, kinda. So yes, I guess it is birds too. But mostly spoilers.
You’re presented with a few thematic threads during the opening of D-Pad Studio’s charming 2D adventure, Owlboy, as protagonist Otus’s lowly social-standing is established. Despite being one of the few surviving members of a proud and ancient race, he is continually scorned by his superiors, bullied by his peers and is, at best, deemed insignificant by even those that like him.
Unfairly, the reasons for his being on the lower rungs of life are completely beyond his control. He was born mute and unable to fly with the same grace and guile typical of his kind and is therefore seen as clumsy and stupid. He is a constant disappointment to his mentor, Asio, who believes him unable to perform his societal duties of protecting the floating village of Vellie from the frequent attacks by robotic sky-pirates, and sticks with him solely out of devotion to their race’s tradition.
During this demonstration of his social standing, we get a glimpse as to how badly Otus takes the words of others, underlined in a short, dark scene where he not only internalises the criticism he has received but also imagines that which he hasn’t. It’s a wonderfully relatable moment where we see how his confidence is eroded by the mere thought that he might let others down, and it’s here I thought that Owlboy might explore the subjects of self-doubt and imposter syndrome.
It also crossed my mind that Owlboy might serve as a warning about the follies of ableism, as Otus is reminded of his lack of speech and clumsy aviation at every perceived failure, yet continues (and ultimately succeeds) in his attempts to save the world in spite of his ‘shortfalls’, and the doubt placed on him because of them.
These threads are only really flirted with, however, rarely explored with any thoroughness outside of the opening. He never confronts his confidence issues, for the most part behaving as if he never had them by smiling his way through the adventure, while commentary on his disabilities is seldom drip-fed, and only when back in Vellie where Asio blames him for everything.
One theme is allowed to grow, though, and is woven wonderfully into both Owlboy’s story and its core mechanics. That theme is forgiveness.
When off tackling dangerous temples, intimidating pirate airships and scary forests, Otus can summon and carry others who provide projectile attacks in combat, where Owlboy plays out like a lite bullet-hell shooter. The first of these companions is Geddy, Vellie’s engineer and Otus’s only true friend, who provides the most vanilla of gunfire.
The second friend that Otus makes is Alphonse – an explosive-shotgun wielding pirate, whose first interaction with Otus is as enemies.
While exploring the Owl Temple – Owlboy’s first proper dungeon – Otus and Geddy bump into Alphonse and his then-partner in crime, Dirk, as the robotic pair attempt to steal the mysterious artefact hidden within. A fight ensues and, when both pirates are beaten, Alphonse makes clear his intention to surrender. He airs his concerns about the nature of the pirate leadership and their recent actions, leaving Dirk to sneer and leave him to the mercy of Otus and Geddy.
And mercy they provide.
Given assurances that Alphonse wants to atone and will help them take down his former masters, the pair is able to forgive him and welcome him into their little band of unlikely world-savers. His flaming shotgun becomes essential, not only in combat, as his firepower and portly frame help in opening up new areas and in solving puzzles, which then leads to them meet Otus’s third friend, Twig.
Twig is a humanoid stick insect that fancies himself as a spider and is, again, initially a foe. Under the promise of his family’s safety, Twig has been terrorising Vellie with low-level mischief to dilute defensive attentions, a fact that seems to rile Geddy in particular.
After Otus, Geddy and Alphonse clash with Twig, and he too is dumped by the pirates, our heroes find themselves with another decision to make. Twig explains that he was unaware of the extent of the pirate’s malevolence and is deeply sorry for all he’s done. He is then also welcomed into the fold, a decision that once again expands Otus’s range of attacks and world accessibility, only he’s not accepted quite as smoothly as Alphonse.
For Geddy, this is one reconciliation too many. He’s livid. At Twig. At Otus for even considering it. At Alphonse for being sympathetic to Twig’s situation having just lived it. Unable to forgive, Geddy leaves the group and heads back to Vellie, completely missing Twig’s full, understandable reasoning for agreeing to the pirate’s plan.
And that leaves Geddy, consistent with Owlboy’s ongoing theme, to make a predictable and timely return later, himself begging forgiveness for abandoning the team. A plea that is, true to form, met with open arms. And wings.
Even the surprise final boss, Solus – an Owl himself and the shadowy puppet master that has been orchestrating everything – has had good intentions the entire time, but has been going about everything in the worst way possible by underestimating the comprehension and compassion of those closest to him. And despite making enemies of everyone at this late stage – pirates now included – he too pleads for forgiveness and help to complete his plan.
Seeing Solus’s regret and understanding the logic behind his scheme, even if the pain that came before – the lives lost and cities destroyed – could have been avoided, Otus and friends are again willing to put it aside for the greater good. They help their biggest enemy complete his ritual during the climactic moments, and in doing so Otus saves a world that largely treats him like he shouldn’t exist.
That’s what stuck with me. Throughout Owlboy, Otus is continually presented with the chance to turn his back on those that have done him wrong – both to those that are meant to be his allies but treat him badly, and those that would do the world harm. Time and again, he has the chance to let the ‘bad guys’ get what anyone else would say they deserve and yet every single time he listens, responds only with empathy and kindness, and gives them an opportunity to make amends. Each time he does, both his options and his horizons expand.
For all of Otus’s perceived weaknesses, it’s his ability to offer a second chance to those that show remorse for their mistakes that becomes his greatest strength and is, ultimately, what allows him to save the world.