I've been trying to work out what it is that troubles me about Ori and the Blind Forest, a marvellous action-platform game from the independent developer Moon Studios, released for Xbox One this week. I think the problem, at root, is that you don't need me to tell you that it's an indie game. Every aspect of Ori screams this – from the deliciously florid, Ghibli-esque visuals through the studiedly "evocative" and "emotive" storytelling to the late '90s tenor of the puzzle design, which leans heavily on ideas from Metroid and Castlevania.
I've had an absolute blast playing it, and so have the reviewers – going by reactions at the time of writing, this is a strong contender for Xbox One's game of the year. But Ori is also a reminder that "indie" is no longer a simple statement of fact about the circumstances of a product's creation. In the eyes of the market, at least, "indie" gaming has become something rigid and quantifiable – a distinct set of aesthetics (pixel art; high-colour; non-naturalistic), design influences (a lingering fondness for old platformers and shmups) and plot themes (anarchic, nerdy humour or teary-eyed earnestness).
It's something you can appreciate at a glance, before you've been told anything about the game, much as you can spot the influence of Call of Duty in a first-person shooter's reliance on an iron-sights view. And it's thus something that a ponderous, risk-averse corporation like Microsoft can get behind in the confidence that it'll find an audience, because everybody vaguely knows what they're in for when they pick up on the "indie" stylings. This is good news inasmuch as it means games as great as Ori have more hope of seeing daylight, but it's also problematic, because the whole point of the "indie" ethos as hitherto understood is surely to make a game that eludes categorisation.
Ori's beating heart is a timeless feedback loop of exploration, discovery and retreat, perfected by other developers in decades past. The game's hallowed forest – all graceful twists of runestone and blazing sweeps of foliage – is a single colossal environment, broken up not by artificial-feeling level transitions but by hazards and barriers that can only be overcome using specific powers. These powers aren't "unlocked" in the same dreary, pound-per-hour sense as a Call of Duty perk; they're uncovered, earned, after following a chain of puzzles and challenges to its conclusion.
One of the consequences of this is that you get a genuine kick out of retracing your steps – backtracking to obstacles that once seemed impassable after acquiring the relevant ability, such as a triple jump. This fosters a completeness of action and insight that linear games can't hope to offer, however fiendish the tools they place at your disposal: every power you dig up is an opportunity to learn more about somewhere you've already visited. The abilities themselves are also brilliant fun to wield. Special mention goes to the "Bash" skill, which allows you to deflect projectiles at enemies or interactive objects while simultaneously punting yourself in the opposite direction – a trick that can be used to travel great distances without touching down.
If Ori is spectacular and intelligent, that doesn't mean we shouldn't raise an eyebrow at the extent to which it leans on conventions – particularly when it professes to push boundaries. The game was unveiled as a piece of "unique" art – a game that would make us cry, that would be "ever-changing and fresh". This reached a peak of absurdity for me in February, when a senior producer tried to bill Ori's use of manual checkpoints and an RPG-style ability upgrades tree as "innovations", rather than standard procedure for action games of all stripes. You could lob similar complaints at the vaunted emotive storytelling, which boils down much of the time to "watch this cute thing suffer while listening to soulful orchestral music". It's affecting in a starchy, unsubtle way, but a bolt from the blue it ain't.
The same is true of many of the indie projects Microsoft chooses to spotlight. Also last month, I was shown the Xbox One version of State of Decay – the charmingly rough-edged zombie survival sim that took Xbox 360 by storm in 2013. I enjoyed the original's intricate NPC psychology and base management systems, but I suspect that it succeeded largely because it looks and plays rather like the much-feted and very venerable PC sim DayZ, which has yet to arrive on console. It was, in other words, a game green-lit by Microsoft with one eye firmly on what already works.
When the publisher has courted outright weirdness from indie releases on Xbox, it has often approached the situation with the heavy-handedness only a massive public corporation is capable of. The key title here is barmy time-travelling detect 'em up D4, one of the few Xbox One games to make extravagant use of the Kinect peripheral. It's the work of legendary Japanese auteur Hidetaka "Swery" Suehiro, designer of the equally odd Deadly Premonition. Speaking to Gamasutra over Christmas, Swery revealed that Microsoft had pushed him to write things into D4 that "would become internet memes".
The publisher's thirst for ultra-viral gags and memorable surrealness was a "huge obstacle" during development, he told the site. "I overcame it by rewriting the script seven times. To overcome it personally, I just kept drinking tequila and believed that what I was doing was right." Such fumbled attempts at creating edgy, "viral" products speak to Microsoft's insecurity about brand perception – it has always been regarded as the faceless, profit-driven suit alongside Sony's bulletproof hipster chic and Nintendo's carnival of whimsy. The pressure to look "cool" must be particularly acute right now, as the publisher struggles to regain traction among hardcore players after shooting its own foot off with the announcement of a broad entertainment focus for Xbox One.
I'm aware that I'm guilty of retreading old ground here myself. There's nothing all that strange about Microsoft's struggle to find a balance between the orthodox and the odd: the evolution of every creative industry or art form is defined, in large part, by the fluid relationship between twitchy, unpredictable visionaries on the periphery and cautious or complacent moneymen in the centre. Still, if these kinds of growing pains are natural and inevitable, it's important to resist efforts to sell us fundamentally safe ideas in the guise of free-spirited invention.
What I want from Xbox One's independents aren't sublimely executed gems that look "indie", but games I simply didn't see coming. There are, in fairness, a fair few genuine surprises to be found on Xbox One – Press Play's Kalimba is particularly worthwhile, a 2D platformer in which you steer two characters at once down parallel, colour-coded routes. But for too much of the portfolio, I get the sense that "indie" is just another label. A touch more boldness is necessary.
Ori and the Blind Forest is released on March 11th for Xbox One and Windows, with an Xbox 360 version planned for later in 2015.