Why are you such a failure?
Owlboy asks you this question within the first ten minutes of the game—in the tutorial that you can’t fully complete.
I’ve always felt incapable and short on talent—even when I’ve come out on top, I’m always seeing where I went wrong. So this question cuts to my core. I just accept it as a reality:
I’m not good enough.
As Otus, the Owlboy, I feel comfortable in this “not good enough” role. Otus can’t do much on his own. While he has wings, he can barely fly at first. He’s mute. In danger, he’s almost defenseless: while he can spin-”attack”, it can barely be called an attack. And while he can spin-dash, there’s zero-invincibility frames, making it more dangerous than useful. Otus can’t even pass his training. His teacher gives up on him, and leaves him alone with his feelings of disappointment.
Power-ups work differently in Owlboy than other metroidvania games—a genre defined by consistently adding to yourself—all of your new abilities come through recognizing your own weakness, and inviting others to fill that gap. The first “power-up” you get is Geddy, your trustworthy green-wearing friend. Full of passion and compassion, Geddy makes a great best friend, and an even-better air-gunner. At any time, I can press the “Geddy button” and BAM! He’s teleported into my owl-hands and ready to shoot bad guys—turning defenseless Owlboy into something that can bite back.
Otus’ failing tendency—his need for friends (and their “powers”)—makes him whole. It’s through recognizing his own shortcomings and inviting help that he becomes strong enough to succeed. Yet, these friends don’t come easy.
Sometimes friends start out as enemies. Take Alphonse for example, a pirate who participated in the raid on Otus’ village of Vellie. Forgiveness takes some time, but fortunately Otus is quick to forgive. I assume this is since he’s used to needing understanding for his own handicaps (being mute and underperforming as an owl). Once hearts are mended, Alphonse offers to help with his flame-shotgun, delivering the most powerful attack in the game.
Three abilities; three friends are all you ever get. Three is slim. In any other “epic adventure,” you would lose count of all the new friends (new powers) dropped in your lap. But Owlboy isn’t interested in power; but relationships. And as such, it focuses on intimacy instead of popularity.
That intimacy glows off of Owlboy like neon lights. You get close with Geddy, and Alphonse, and even Twig. The constant teleporting-in occurs thanks to your magical device, but the shock of being instantly teleported into a violent scenario takes trust. You see that trust grow—associates develop into trusted companions who know just how to lift you up. Okay, your wings do most of the lifting, but your companions are quick to hook, shoot, or burn at a moment’s notice.
Wiser people than me have told me that you can only ever really have two to three friends. I never listened to this—and despite having hundreds of “friends,” very few of them really “cover my failures” and help translate these failings into strengths. But looking back, I can see three: my wife Jessica, my pastor, Wayne, and my buddy Vince.
Most of all, I’m confident that my failures are all on full display for my wife. Still, she comes alongside me anyway, constantly covering my gaps and insufficiencies. I feel confident saying that if you’re married, you’re quite familiar with the concept of an intimate friend who covers your weaknesses.
I don’t think it’s a big spoiler to say that Owlboy ends with victory. Otus overcomes being a failure—in his mentor’s eyes, and everybody else’s. As Otus leans heavily on his friends, he conquers the evil plaguing the sky-towns where he lives. The world is restored. Those who were quick to point out Otus’ failings, are humbled.
It’s here that Owlboy reminds us of the beauty of failure: that when you’re set-up as a failure in the eyes of the world around you, that you’re most capable of proving them wrong—and in weakness, most ready to ask for help.