When I first met Toby while exploring the village of Vellie with Otus, the protagonist of Owlboy, he was just a typical NPC you get to meet in any given action-adventure. Seemingly a slacker that made himself comfortable in the hot springs of the peaceful village and whose function was to give me some context via some lines of dialogue and enliven the place. On top of that he enabled me to extrend my health bar by teaching me how to withstand the heat of the springs for a while. Hours later, after half the world had fallen apart and I felt like I had experienced a globe-spanning adventure, I didn’t even remember him and when another NPC asked where Toby might be, I most certainly didn’t know who he was referring to. Toby really had not left a lasting impression.
Owlboy is not an extensive game regarding its length, but it makes up for that with heartfelt moments and lovable characters. Otus is a puny main character without any self-esteem and notable abilities. He is mute and bullied for it, he can’t fly very well and doesn’t fulfil any obvious function for the community. And while such protagonists in other games gradually learn new skills and become the heroes we want them to be, nothing like this happens to Otus. In a scary world where no one wants to be alone, he instead finds friends that help him compensate for his shortcomings and emphasize his own strengths. The adventure he is dragged through is way too much to take for Otus and he is merely a helpless spectator, while events unfold that he is not able to control.
When I left the small village in a desperate attempt to save the great capital and flying island of Advent from destruction, I didn’t expect to fail, because that’s not how video games work. Advent seemed to be serving as the main area of the game, but as soon as I arrived, the floating island was torn apart before I could even admire its praised splendor and the city was gone. Later in the game, I had no reason to return to the place, but my thirst for exploration drove me there. Advent was gone, of course. But amidst the ruins, there was Toby. Sitting there all alone. Most players will never discover him there, and yet I was rewarded with a truly moving moment.
When I entered the area, the wonderful piano piece “Such Perfect Peace” by Jonathan Geer started playing. The track is very different from the rest of the soundtrack and brought a calming peace to this place of utter destruction, After a while I found Toby who told Otus about the wonderful life he spent in Advent, until he had to bury his wife. Only then did he come to Vellie to Otus and the others, where he spent his days with alcohol in the hot springs. Most likely to forget. Suddenly it made sense that it was Toby who taught Otus how to endure pain at the beginning of the game. But now that his home and his wife’s grave had been destroyed, he woke up from his hazy existence, wanting to remember and returned to this place. The sadness about Toby’s fate, which was clearly reflected in the mute little owl’s facial expressions, was accompanied by Toby’s surprisingly positive monologue. Otus, who was unable to save Advent despite his best efforts, must have been as distanceless to this story as I was. And for a moment of peace and quiet amidst the shattered remains of a once beautiful city, Otus and I were the same person. Up there in the middle of nowhere, where there was nothing to find for the player except the most beautiful sequence of one of the most beautiful games I have ever played.
Owlboy was made by Norwegian developer D-Pad Studios and is full of such moments and a true gem. It has been in development for almost ten years, first appeared in 2016 and is now available for PC, Switch, PS4 and Xbox One.
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