Owlboy And The Tragedy of Human Nature
Owlboy is a game developed by D-Pad studios over a protracted 9 year development cycle. Every aspect of the game is a work of art, meticulously pieced together with delicate care. While it has mostly gotten well-deserved positive reviews from critics, some people have voiced disappointment at the story arc and how the game was eventually resolved. Note: I’m about to talk about how the game ends, so an obligatory warning that there are massive spoilers ahead. If you haven’t already played it, go buy it, right now.
On the pirate mothership, it is revealed that the titular “owlboy” is not referring to Otus, but is actually referring to the mysterious cloaked figure, who is actually Solus. Otus merely serves as a distraction so that Solus could steal the relics from the pirates. Once the heroes follow Solus up to Mesos and beat him into submission, it is revealed that Solus masterminded the events of the entire game, promising the pirates power in exchange for retrieving the relics, then using Otus as a distraction to steal the relics and use them to power the Anti-Hex to save the world.
Unfortunately, as the heroes immediately point out, this resulted in the destruction of Advent and the deaths of countless innocent people. Had Solus just asked for help, all of this could have been avoided, and the world could have been saved without incident. Solus admits that he felt he had no choice, as he simply had nobody he could trust. Our heroes offer to help finish the ritual, at which point Molstrom shows up and ruins everyone’s day. Solus’ methods have finally backfired on him, and he is now too injured to complete the ritual—but Otus isn’t. In an act of desperation, he imbues Otus with the power of the artifacts, and Otus is able to complete the anti-hex in his stead, obliterating Molstrom in the process and saving the world.
A lot of people take issue with this ending for two reasons: One, it means almost everything you fought for in the game technically meant nothing, because you are actually working against Solus the entire time. Two, the entire thing could have been avoided if Solus had just trusted someone, anyone, instead of engineering a ridiculously convoluted plot to get what he needed through deceit and betrayal. Otus and Solus here represent a hero and an anti-hero. They are both fundamentally good people with flawed goals for opposite reasons. Solus is doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, whereas Otus is doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. Solus is doing the right thing, which is saving the world, but he achieves it by sacrificing thousands of innocent lives and betraying everyone. Otus is unknowingly dooming the world to destruction, but only because he and everyone else is operating on faulty information. He always chooses to do the right thing, and to trust others.
This is important, because the way the game ends is crucial to the narrative of the story and the underlying moral. Solus may have nearly saved the world, despite his questionable methods, but he would have failed at the end. Molstrom would have found him and easily defeated him, taking all the relics and then destroying whatever was left of the world as it rose into space. Only after Solus explained everything to Otus was Otus able to finally do the right thing for the right reasons, thanks to the friends he made on his journey holding Molstrom back. By doing this, Solus allows Otus to atone for failing to secure any of the relics, and Otus absolves Solus of the evil he had committed in the name of saving the world by annihilating Molstrom with the anti-hex.
The whole point of this story is that it doesn’t matter how many times you fail, so long as you eventually succeed. Otus may have failed to save the world over and over and over, but at the very end, as the world is coming apart at the seams, he is finally able to succeed, and that’s what matters. This moral hit me particularly hard because I instantly recognized what it represented - failing to ship a game over and over and over. Owlboy’s story is an allegory for it’s own development, and on a broader scale, any large creative project that has missed deadlines and is falling behind. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve failed, because as long as you keep trying, eventually you’ll succeed, and that’s what really matters. The game acknowledges that humans are deeply flawed creatures, but if we work together, we can counteract each other’s flaws and build something greater than ourselves.
This is why I find it depressing that so many people object to Solus’ behavior. Surely, no one would actually do that? However, at the beginning of the game, Solus’ defining character moment is being bullied and abused by the other owls. His response to this abuse is to become withdrawn, trusting no one, determined to do whatever is necessary without relying on anyone else. This is exactly what happens to people who have been abused or betrayed and develop trust issues. These people will refuse help that they are offered, pushing other people away, often forcing an intervention to try and break through the emotional wall they have built to try and keep themselves from being hurt again. That’s why you have to fight Solus first, because he’s spent his whole life building a mental block to keep other people out, and Otus has to break through it to force him to finally accept help.
Far from being unbelievable, Owlboy’s plot is entirely too real, and like any good work of art, it forces us to confront truths that make us uncomfortable. Owlboy forces us to confront the tragedy of human nature, and deal with the consequences. At the same time, it shows us that, if we persevere, we can overcome our flaws, and build a better world, together.