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Sunday, April 21, 2024

'Omori' Is the Horror RPG of Your Dreams (or Nightmares)

After shattering its 2014 Kickstarter fundraising goal tenfold in a matter of days, the surrealist psychological horror RPG Omori finally released on Christmas Day, 2020. Filled with quirky humor, characters that feel real, and tag-team emotion-based combat mechanics, Omori is a genre-bending RPG that is not only cute and imaginative, but a sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat thriller well worth the wait.

The game, in its charming 8-bit pixel and hand-drawn sketchbook styles, offers a glimpse into the psyche of Omori, a young boy experiencing the dizzying breadth of human emotion, from joy to the depths of fear and anguish. While it may feel like your typical cutesy RPG Maker game, Omori succeeds in navigating deep themes of darkness, including depression and anxiety, in the haunting and beautiful delusions its protagonist creates to escape his reality.

Omocat, a clothing artist and illustrator turned game developer, initially dreamed up Omori, an echo of the Japanese word for young male social hermits, or hikikomori, in a series of early 2010s Tumblr webcomics. Both the comics and the game feature Omori, a young boy trapped in Headspace, a room of white. Around him are only the bare essentials: a tissue box, cat, laptop, sketchbook, and a blanket on a floor that is always cold, all illuminated by a single black light bulb. The game wastes no time setting the scene, telling the player: 

“Somewhere in the back of your mind you have an inkling that things weren't always like this. Your story is already over. You just have to remember it.” 

As you explore the outer confines of the room, you find a door that leads out of the isolated white room into a colorful Dream World, one filled with friends, adventure, relaxing picnics, and a seemingly never-ending laundry list of side quests. Listening in on petty arguments, teasing, jokes, and blooming flirtationships, you get glimpses of the young teenagers in all their teenagedom. From Hero, the perfect older brother who can charm his way out of any situation, to Mari, Omori’s older sister who is always ready to heal the crew with her picnics, Omori’s friends navigate the dream world with their own special abilities, confronting any danger that might arise.

In combat, the teens must learn to master teamwork as well as their own emotions, spanning from neutral to extreme emotional states like mania and misery, as the game ramps up with increasingly challenging (though never unmanageable) bosses. By being in touch with their own, and each other’s, mental states, the children quickly learn the only way to win is to work together. A core mechanic is “following up” on your friends’ attacks, working together to deal extra damage to enemies, as well as triggering different emotional states to have special, stat-modifying advantages. The colorful, hand-drawn animations of combat, from attacking sketchbook-like sprites to the individualized animations of abilities like Headbutt, Twirl, and Annoy, add a childlike flair to the gameplay. In tag-teaming attacks with Omori, for example, Aubrey is shown texting him and, upon getting a lukewarm “thumbs up” response, being filled with feelings of love and hitting her enemies where it hurts (their hearts). With quirky chance encounters and plenty of potential combinations of special abilities, followups, and items, there is enough novel and amusing content to keep combat engaging for the most passionate gamers.

At the core of the dream world is Omori’s relationship with Basil, Omori’s sweet green-haired friend who spends his days photographing his friends and growing flowers. Shortly after the group’s heartfelt reunion in the dream world, Omori and his friends meet up with Basil. Turning page after page of a scrapbook, the friends reminisce fondly on memories of making flower crowns, eating junk food, and spending time together laying in the sun, until Basil comes across photographs of memories he had forgotten, or perhaps repressed. As Basil realizes what he has seen, his face drops with fear just as Something, a black and white shadowy figure representing the manifestation of Omori’s psychoses and fears, pulls him into the void, the ground sinking under his feet. Left dazed and confused by the interaction, Omori and his friends resolve to find Basil no matter what it takes, piecing together the events that led to his mysterious disappearance. 

Once finally acquainted with both the Dream World and Headspace, we are introduced to Omori’s reality bit by bit, a parallel in many ways to the world he has constructed in his mind. The architecture of the Dream World, we discover, is inspired by familiar faces, interactions, objects, and landmarks from Omori’s reality. We enter the real world three days before Omori is set to move out of his hometown. As luck would have it, Omori is able to reunite with his friends, catching each other up on the last four years they spent apart. It is in these exchanges, interspersed with side quests like working part time as a grocery store fly-swatter or saving up to buy comic book store memorabilia, that we discover the events that contribute to Omori’s retreat into seclusion in both worlds.

Playing through, I was moved by the game’s explorations of grief, reflecting on the power of nostalgia to conjure fond memories of the past, as well as a deep sadness for what can no longer be. More so than searching for a “good” or “bad” ending, though they definitely exist, Omori pushes the player to explore the extent to which someone can go to bury their reality—and what it looks like to not only unearth but accept the truth, no matter how ugly it might be. 

Beyond the charming suburban-scapes and crayon-colored portraits of friendship, it becomes clear there lies something much more nefarious below the surface. While his friends are splashed with color, their dialog filled with wonder and excitement, Omori is depicted as always silent, with a blank, emotionless stare—his special ability being the ability to stab and slash at the world around him. As soon as Omori starts feeling comfortable in the fantasy of the dream world, or in the familiarity of his present-day reality, he is pulled back into the box that is Headspace, a room where he is able to disengage from the pain of living and the pain of revisiting the traumas that plague him. 


Unafraid of the bizarre and dissonant, Omori stands as an homage to the past, with nods to Nintendo’s 1994 release Earthbound, a recently reclaimed cult Japanese classic that explores American capitalist culture while the player confronts evil lurking in a plethora of worlds and suburban-scapes. While met with mixed reception at the time of its release, Earthbound spurred a new generation of genre-bending games that blended action, horror, and humor, all wrapped up in familiar, 8-bit pixel nostalgia. 

Exploring themes of psychological despair is not new to the RPG genre, in which simple game mechanics (though some, like those of Earthbound, are more difficult than others) allow narrative-rich stories to take center-stage. It is in this medium that Omori thrives, allowing players to pace themselves fairly easily through the marathon of narrative content filled with hand-drawn animations and scored by a haunting 179-track OST. 

Other contemporaries like 2004’s Yume Nikki, a game (and a developer) whose origin story is as shrouded in mystery as the dream world it creates, explore similar themes by leaving the player to explore mazes and piece together fantasy and reality. With its gameplay driven by self-paced, freeform world exploration, Yume Nikki is all about atmosphere and anticipation—with the haunting soundtrack to match. Perhaps the strongest influence on Omori is Toby Fox’s 2015 hit Undertale, a subversive and comedic combat game known for giving the player the choice to not fight anyone. Placed at the crossroads of comedy and horror, Omori is as much about the humorous, semi-absurd dialogue and interactions as the deep, dark narrative development of its characters. That said, some of the most satisfying moments are following the tangents, like collecting bad jokes (and one not so bad joke) in a book, or becoming a Rock, Paper, Scissors champion, dueling against your neighbors on a Gameboy-like interface.

With the cult fanbase of other narrative RPG games and the plethora of community guides and walkthroughs cropping up in the weeks since its release, Omori has the promise and replay potential to become a cult classic. As Omocat and her team are wrapping up the project, working on a Nintendo Switch port, as well as fulfilling the remainder of the Kickstarter rewards, Omori’s fan community, composed of both early backers and new fans, is also hard at work, uncovering the treasure trove of achievements, story paths, and other flourishes that the team has meticulously embedded within the game. It is important to take a step back and appreciate the space the game leaves for the player to experience genuine surprise and horror, especially in the moments where the characters’ disjointed “memories” start fitting together. Omori serves as a testimony to the power of games to examine one’s identity amidst psychological turmoil, pushing into the depths of the human psyche.

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