OMORI, which I will be referring to as “Omori” from now on, represents the potential of storytelling through video games at its best, and highlights the extreme limitations the medium has at its worst. I want to be clear: Omori is a great game. It has a ton of ambition and tells a very meaningful story. I look back at this game and believe it did many things right. But one question about the game somewhat haunts me: did it need to be a video game at all?
Omori has two cores. One is its story, which is a very tough examination of a teenage shut-in, and his imagination, who has not left his house in four years. This core has special modern relevance as it’s based on the hikikomori (see what they did there?), alienated, isolated lifestyle many modern people live. The other is its gameplay, which is about as antiquated as it gets as a traditional sprite-based JRPG with a silent protagonist set in a real-worldish setting like Earthbound, or Pokemon Red/Blue. There’s also splotches of Undertale, references to Paper Mario, and a billion other predecessor video games that Omori makes homage to in its gameplay and writing.
These cores are at odds with each other. Many storytelling tricks that Omori hopes to accomplish with its tale can be done much easier in a movie or a book where the creators have complete control over how a consumer will consume their content. But a video game creator can relinquish some control of the plot over to the player. There are many games with linear narratives that do not allow this–Earthbound and Pokemon Red/Blue for instance do not let you choose to advance in the game without taking down Giygas or beating Team Rocket. There are even plot-first games that are wildly beloved by fans that also do not allow the player to make meaningful decisions in how the plot advances, like my favorite visual novel series of Ace Attorney.
Yet Omori does let the player make meaningful choices in how the plot plays out. And I think it is here where the fact that Omori is a video game rather than a movie or book somewhat lets the endeavor down. Maybe some larger context about the plot would help with what I am trying to say. Obviously, there are large spoilers ahead, so you shouldn’t read them if you have any interest in playing the game. Everyone else who is here by accident or cares enough about the game to read a review about it but not enough to consider playing it, you can continue.
I said before that Omori is about a shut-in. Omori is the nickname of Sunny, a seventeen year old boy who decided to not come out of his house ever again after some incident four years prior to the start of the game. Not only that, Sunny has gone effectively mute during this time. He does not speak during the game at any point. This is an homage to the “silent protagonist” trope JRPGs love, but makes sense in-game for Sunny to be silent. The game opens with Sunny alone in his parents’ house with everything in the house boxed up in cardboard boxes because he and his mom are moving out in three days. A light bit of psychological horror occurs to Sunny as he walks around the dark, empty house, and he falls asleep. He wakes up in White Space, a bright, cheerful imaginative realm that has the bulk of the “actual gameplay” of Omori. In White Space, Sunny goes by “Omori” and spends the time in White Space hanging out with his three childhood friends, Hero, Kel, and Aubrey; his sister, Mari, is the party’s main support. After some lighthearted fun, the last member of Omori’s core group of friends, Basil, is taken away in another psychological horror segment. The plot of the White Space in general is attempting to rescue Basil.
When the game feels it reaches a good climax in the White Space, Sunny wakes up, and this is when the player is given an extremely large amount of control as to how the game goes and where the fact that Omori is a video game is a problem for its storytelling. Sunny wakes up and hears a knock at his door. You, the player, are given the choice to either open the door or keep it closed and wait for it to go away. Reminder that Sunny has been a complete shut-in for four years. There is zero reason he would ever open this door going by his character up to this point. He has his imagination to live in with the White Space. His mother tends to his physical needs for food and shelter. There is nothing to entice him opening that door.
But you, the player, can tell him to do so. And opening the door is required to understand what happened in Sunny’s life that led him to this extreme anti-social state. This sort of decision would not work in a movie nor a book. It simply does not make sense. But a video game creator can make an extreme amount of tension between a playable character’s personality and backstory and what you, the player, can make them do. Take Pokemon as an example. Characters in Pokemon games will always, always praise the main character as a very kind individual that takes very good care of their Pokemon. But there is a stat called “Happiness” every Pokemon has that players can purposely lower by purposely feeding them bitter medicine or getting them knocked out, and there is a move called “Frustration” that does more damage the lower the Happiness stat is. And yet if you beat the Elite Four and Champion with a team of fully frustrated Pokemon, the professor will still call you a kind soul that believed in their Pokemon. It’s silly! But also demonstrates one of the very hard things game makers have to do when crafting a story: making the player’s choices understandable in context.
I think Omori fails at establishing a good reason why Sunny is even able to open this door. Heck, one of the early horror scenes is him being unable to make it down the stairs in his own house due to fear. It is purely by the fact that I, the player, could control him and make him open that door. Other indie games have grappled with this idea of the player being an active character in the game that non-playable characters (NPCs) will try to talk to (the player). Undertale is one of those indie games that does it lightly; the final boss will call out the player by whatever name they input at the start of the game. Doki Doki Literature Club goes way further in examining the NPC-player dynamic by having an NPC fully take over the game as if they were the player in control of everything. Omori doesn’t acknowledge the player’s influence in the game. The closest it gets is characters in White Space indirectly referencing Sunny as they know it is Sunny’s imagination that White Space is in. I think it’s fine that Omori, the game, doesn’t try to grapple with the metafiction of players controlling a game, but it needed something to make Sunny’s decision to open this door make sense in-universe.
Why am I harping so much on this door? Well, like I said, so much of the game’s narrative hinges (door joke) on whether the player chooses to open the door or not. If you open the door, it turns out that Kel was the one knocking on it, and he drags you out of the house to do random stuff because he wants to hang out during these last three days before Sunny moves. It also triggers an in-game flag that lets you, the player, go down the route for the “best ending” to Omori. Should you keep the door closed like Sunny would probably do, you go back to the White Space. Sunny’s imagination gets a lot more disturbed. You, the player, will be locked out of the best ending and have one of four unsatisfying endings in comparison. This sort of storytelling is acceptable in choose-your-own-adventure books, but can you imagine if you were watching Citizen Kane and were told what Rosebud meant only if you answered a trivia question correctly?
But video games are really just jazzed up choose-your-own-adventure books, so they’re allowed to get away with it. In fact, they should be encouraged to get away with it even more, and at very granular levels. One of the huge limitations for storytelling in video games is exactly this. In theory, a creator could make a game that allows the player to do ANYTHING and create a satisfying set of consequences for every action made like in real-life. This is obviously very hard to do, but it hasn’t stopped game makers from trying. Detroit: Become Human is a great example of a game having that sort of ambition with every scenarios in the game having multiple endings that lead the player down very different paths. And from a game perspective, it gives a huge amount of freedom to the player in leading the narrative in a way that is impossible compared to books or movies. The main letdown is that every scenario and all the writing in Detroit: Become Human is absolutely godawful.
Omori has very good writing. As the game plot unfolds and more about the incident that drove this group of six best friends apart and sent two of them spiraling into anti-social depression that they cannot get out of, the more you really care about the characters and wanting them to heal past it. And besides the overarching plot, there is so much clever and funny incidental dialogue and situations. Just like a good Earthbound or Undertale spiritual successor should be, Omori can switch between funny and serious at the drop of a hat. You’ll go get life-saving medicine for a neighborly grandma and then meet her parody of a grandson 20 seconds later. And it works because that is the sort of tone-flipping that is expected from a Game Like This.
Going back to my overall criticism, Omori is a great story with a great gameplay hook but the two are usually at odds with each other. There are a few times where Omori being a video game absolutely works in its favor for storytelling. The first goes back to my earlier topic of the tension between the player getting to choose what the characters do, and what choices game creators provide players. There are a few times when Omori (not Sunny) is stuck in a room with nothing to do to advance the game, save one thing. CONTENT WARNING SELF HARM The player is forced to pause and make Omori stab himself with a steak knife to advance the game. It’s a lot like the trolley problem where it feels so bad to make the decision to have Omori stab himself rather than have the game go into a cutscene where Omori stabs himself with no control from the player. Though I will say the game goes back to the well one or two too many times as it gets less impactful.
Another great merge of gameplay and story in Omori, the game, is when you enter Black Space. White Space was Sunny’s imagination creating a playful area to cope with the incident four years ago, but it wasn’t the first thing that Sunny imagined in the wake of the event. Black Space is the much darker and scary version of Sunny’s imagination. Players must trudge through at least 10 or so of these horrific scenarios imagined by Sunny at his lowest with the ability to go through another 10 or so if they’d like to see everything in there. The scenarios are sick and depraved and full of very disturbing imagery and spritework. It’s a very chilling dreamscape exploration. It’s too bad that Yume Nikki did this sort of thing prior to Omori since Omori does a much better job contextualizing the dreamscapes compared to the very loose “game” that was Yume Nikki. It almost feels like the creators of Omori wanted to make Yume Nikki But With Plot. Anyway, I think that letting the player experience Black Space however they wish is what makes it a very effective storytelling device compared to similar explorations of a dark mind in a movie–it’s not that movies can’t do this effectively, it’s that the added control a player has on seeing the scenarios as much as they want and in the ways they want that makes them more personally impactful for a given player.
The last noteworthy merge of gameplay and story for me was a very small touch 30 seconds before the ending of the game. Due to a string of events, Sunny winds up in the hospital. If you chose to open the door and go out and help people in Faraway Town where Sunny lives, the people helped send Sunny flowers with personalized thank you notes detailing the impact Sunny (and thereby you, the player) had on them. This is something only video games can do. It’s truly a beautiful touch.
But speaking of things only video games can do, we are 15 paragraphs in, and only now am I going to discuss the moment-to-moment gameplay of Omori. As said a long time ago, Omori is a traditional turn-based JRPG exactly like Earthbound with quirky enemies, real-world items like Soda Pop and Jacks as your combat tools, and the standard slew of HP/MP/Attack/Defense/Speed stats. It does two slightly unique things on top of a very basic battle system. #1 is that your party builds up a heart meter every time a party member is hit by an attack, and those points on the heart meter can be used for a special combination attack with 12 unique combinations. It’s pretty cute and I liked the addition. #2 is a Fire Emblem-esque weapon triangle but with the emotions of Happy, Sad, and Angry. I never interacted with this part of the battle system. I think it was a cute idea but just not very important.
Yet I must say that the game’s biggest fault is that the moment-to-moment dream world/White Space gameplay that takes up 2/3rds to 3/4ths of the game’s time ultimately feels superfluous as far as the main plot is concerned. Again, White Space is Sunny’s imagination. It has no bearing on the real world. There’s a lot of very cute flourishes in the White Space. Basically every character in it that isn’t one of the core six in Sunny’s group of friends is a slightly-off cartoon inspiration of a character from the real world. Like the annoying Sweetheart in White Space is candy shop owner Miss Smiley. And the White Space has two pretty fun dungeons with Sweetheart’s Castle and Humphrey the Whale, but… they’re just filler. They have no bearing on Sunny. They reflect Sunny’s emotions, and the White Space gets scarier if Sunny is scared of the real world, but the White Space doesn’t contribute to Sunny’s growth. I guess that’s the point of White Space in the end, that it was a safety blanket that was doing much more harm than good, but I, the player, wasted 15-20 hours in it so it feels a little disappointing that it didn’t do much good.
The battle system feels like it was made simply to set up the old Earthbound final boss trick where the only winning move is to Pray. The game has like 5-6 fights where that’s the moral. Strangely enough, they’re all in your head, and you’re expected to beat up Aubrey in the real world rather than try to forgive her in the moment. Don’t get me wrong, I love Earthbound’s final boss, and I think every time you’re asked to spare someone in Omori makes sense, it just also gets cheaper and cheaper the more it’s done. And I think it was done 2 times too many. Bottom line, I just wasn’t convinced that there needed to be any battling or leveling up in Omori–it could’ve told the story just as effectively without it since all the setup for the “Calm Down” “”fights”” didn’t justify the entire battle system in my opinion.
My final complaints are that I think the character writing for Mari is a little weak. She’s too perfect. Which I get is why Omori shutting himself off because of what happened to her, but it stands out when the core party members of Kel, Hero, and Aubrey all feel very human compared to her. I also found the character of Basil very strange once I learned his role in the incident. He had so much guilt over an incident in which he really didn’t do much, but I wasn’t in his situation when I was 12 so I can’t judge him too much.
I want to circle back to an earlier point that the game’s biggest problem is that the choices are too limited and the consequences are too far-reaching. If you don’t open that door, you’ll play another 15 hours or so of a slow-paced JRPG and just not know why anyone did anything they did, including why Sunny shut himself off. That’s frustrating. And it’s frustrating that you’d be expected to play through the 3-5 hours of prologue to get back to that choice and then play the next 15-20 hours to see what happened, presumably with a guide this time. I am fortunate that I am very well attuned to what game makers typically want their players to do and found my way to the super secret good ending where everything is explained and everyone gets their happy ending, but the developers can’t expect everyone can get there. I think it’s great that players do have a lot of choice as to how this game goes–I simply wish it was more upfront somehow about the consequences, and also telegraphed the “right thing to do” in a better way.
Finally, to close out the review, I think it’s important to discuss the game’s music and graphics. The music is very good in-the-moment but I didn’t hear a single standout track that I’d want to go look up and listen to on my own time. The graphics are an incredible mix between sprites and hand-drawn animation. They are extremely beautiful when they want to be, and extremely unnerving when they want to be. Omori has the best graphics and animations of any game I’ve played. It is truly something special. So many little touches and animations that make it great.
In short, Omori is an extremely good game that shows some of the potential of games as a storytelling medium and runs into a lot of pitfalls that current game developers fall into when trying to make video games with good narratives. It is absolutely worth playing despite my complaints about opening a door. The animation alone is worth the $20 you’ll spend on it. Thanks for reading.