“Oh, our Merciful Mother, Okami Amaterasu…”
In early 2006 Clover Studio released Okami for the Playstation 2 in Japan. Several months later it crossed the oceans to Western audiences in North America and Europe, and eventually found new-found life when re-released for the Wii in 2008. Okami, meaning both ‘Great God’ and ‘Wolf’, was immediately recognized and appreciated by Western critics for its distinct Sumi-e and Ukiyo-e visual style and unique take on the Zelda genre of action-adventure. I believe it can be safely assumed that most people who have played the game — who have seen it in motion — have shared Michael Abbot’s impassioned response:
All I know is that when I look at this game – its flowing streams of watercolor flowers; its ink-and-wash brushstrokes; its Zen-inspired landscapes; its radiant creatures and dancing demons – all rendered through textured filters of canvas, parchment, and wood – I am awestruck by its fluid elegance and beauty.
In a reply to a reader comment, Michael goes on to suggest that the visual language of Okami is not merely cosmetic, but an important aesthetic that “communicates meaning to the player”.
In an especially discerning post titled Three Artists in Okami, the pseudonymous Iroquois Pliskin separates Okami into three layers and assigns an artist to each. The artist of the narrative is Issun, the tiny character who accompanies Amaterasu and records her deeds through paintings. The artist of the game is the player, who uses the designed mechanics to literally paint solutions and create a ludological work of experiential art through play. The third artist is Clover Studio, those who designed the game in such a way so as to communicate “a set of values (traditional piety and reverence for nature) by having the player act out the illustrious deeds set out in the designer’s plan.” He contrasts this last benevolent relationship between player and designer with the more “sinister” ones that exist in games such as Portal, BioShock, and Metal Gear Solid 2. Whereas Okami’s design celebrates the player, these other games have been criticised for sometimes being condascending and insulting (The most famous example of the latter appearing in Clint Hocking’s critique of BioShock).
Matthew of Magical Wasteland briefly reminds us about the excellent game score, which is “…at once sweepingly grand and surprisingly intimate, blending the traditional and contemporary, it draws upon a tremendous range of sources and associations over the course of the player’s journey.” Indeed, the music is such an integral part of the experience that many pages in the Okami Official Complete Works art book are annotated with specific tracks from the Official Sound Track that the reader is meant to listen to concurrently.
“…a bridge of hope across the skies…”
The defining element of Okami’s gameplay — what immediately separates it from Zelda — is the brushstroke interaction. Yu-Chung Chean of Game Design Reviews calls this a quasi-mode, a game mode where “the whole process of going into the drawing mode, doing the brushwork and finishing it by letting go the R1 button feels like one action.” Zelda, in contrast, requires that the player potentially break immersion by leaving the game world to navigate several menus to choose the sought-after item or action.
In his critique on Popmatters, L.B. Jeffries uses the brush technique in one of his many examples of how Okami successfully exploits the interactive nature of videogames to provide a narrative experience simply not possible in purely passive media: “The moment where you must help Susano by inking in the sword slashes for him also explore a relationship that would otherwise not work: having the audience actively enjoy redeeming a fallen hero.”
The brushstroke interactions are used to overcome the numerous environmental puzzles, but players will find themselves using it often in combat with the various demons that wander Okami’s Nippon. Dan Bruno of the blog Cruise Elroy wonders why he found the combat to be downplayed, and speculates that it was largely due to the fact that the brushstroke attack mechanics were “a greater test of my memory and problem-solving than of my reflexes.” As time is paused during the brushstroke quasi-mode, the pressure to react quickly is not as emphasized as in other action-adventure games. He also suggests that the ability to easily avoid combat, and the rarity of combat-heavy dungeons, successfully “reflects Okami‘s thematic focus on life and rejuvenation.”
“…and now will I rejuvenate this dying world by growing against the cold snow.”
On Malvasia Bianca, David Carlton writes that the ongoing rejuvenation process that makes up the majority of Okami, or more specifically the fact that this rejuvenation allows the player to gain experience and level up, is “A very humane way to design a game.” Dan Bruno agrees, and confirms the effectiveness of the design when he tell us “I look forward to reviving Guardian Saplings not just so that I can progress through the story, but so that I have a new area to explore and nurture.”
In Nature and Nurture: Okami and Practicing Shintoism, Mike Leader points out that the extent to which the player restores the natural world of Nippon is entirely optional, but encouraged as a logical extension of the narrative. In a brilliant example of ludonarrative consonance, Mike explains that “the player, encouraged or manipulated into these objectives for completion’s sake or otherwise, actively participates in the worship of nature.”
Attempting to draw from Okami lessons that are applicable in the real world, Michal Wisniowski of Mentisworks suggests that the game “equates the prosperity of humans with the prosperity of the natural environment” and that by “granting the player powers of nature, Okami shows us that natural forces are strong enough to effect change in the world.”
The cutscene that appears when feeding wild animals was the source of some contention as to its thematic value. Dan Bruno agrees with a reader comment that criticizes the cutscene for being the only rejuvenation action other than the epic “uncursing” of an area that takes the player out of the game world. The New Gamer’s Glenn Turner, however, argues that the importance of this feeding scene is being underappreciated: “It’s a small moment, but it serves as a reminder as to Amaterasu’s benevolent nature, as well as reminding the player of the peaceful world that Amaterasu is fighting for.” He then notes that “there’s no other moment: not even in the game’s loading screens: when you’re unable to do anything but sit and contemplate.”
“… the sweet aroma of blossoming flowers … wherever your travels may take you.”
The ludological and geographical divisions between town, overworld, and dungeon — so common in action-adventure games of this sort — still exist in Okami, but, as David Carlton points out, the boundaries between the three have never been more loosely defined. Rather than each type of area serving a very specific and unswerving purpose, the “towns and overworld interpenetrate, overworlds are destinations rather than simply areas to traverse on your way from town to town or dungeon, and the extremes of dungeons are muted.”
L.B. Jeffries points to these blurred boundaries as the reason he could not continue playing the game for more than 15 hours (about the halfway mark). Without any solid idea of when new brush powers were going to be granted, or the precise number and location of the dungeons, he found that “the flow just keeps going and going without me having any real way to stagger my engagement.” This kind of sustained flow was ultimately draining for him, and perhaps one of the contributing reasons that numerous other players never finished the game.
“Were I to have my powers once again, these rivers of heaven would soon overflow with stars.”
Player comments concerning game length seem to be unanimous, in that they expected Okami to end around the 12-15 hour mark after the defeat of the first boss, and that it would have been a better game for it. What they were actually met with was the introduction of another demon-god and brand new areas to explore. Yu-Chung Chen summarizes his experience plodding through the game: “Instead of being able to estimate the amount of challenges to come and eagerly expecting the actual ending, I was thinking: let’s see how many of those chapters there are.” The narrative build-up to a final confrontation was never fully realized, as it was never entirely clear to players when the game was going to end.
Michal Wisniowski offers a potential narrative explanation for this repetition in a post titled Okami: Thoughts on Karma. Drawing on his understanding of Buddhist Karma, he explains that Amaterasu’s “actions, and those of other characters, during the first encounter with the opposing forces of the game remained in part unresolved. By the laws of karma those events began to repeat themselves, yet with greater intensity.”
The excessive length of the game is due, in no small part, to the large portion of time the players spends smashing pots and collecting items. Glenn Turner, in his post Okami: Gorging on Excess, takes the game to task for relying on the genre staple of item collection in a way that seems to contradict the natural themes of Okami: “The collecting of these treasures and artifacts exist in-game for no thematic purpose in the game other than to line your wallet”. Ink pots, yen, and even Amaterasu’s weapons are called out as being unecessary. He ends, however, by recognizing that the repetitive tasks that do support the narrative — blooming withered trees, feeding animals, collecting art for the bestiary scroll — are what makes the game such a rich experience. In regards to these good elements of excess, Glenn writes, “Okami is loaded, almost bloated, with these sort of extravagances and often is better for it, weaving in character nuances and making the world feel more fleshed out and alive.”
“The mortals tend to forget that which they cannot see…”
I’ll end this critical compilation with a quote by Kamiya Hideki, (Creative) Director and Writer at Clover Studio, from his message to us that appears in Okami Official Complete Works:
Within the many comments that I have made all over the place, I have always stated that “I love games.” But I don’t mean it like “I love any game.” The games that I am referring to when I say “I love games,” are the games that moved me, that stayed with me even unto this day, those excellent games that I appreciate and respect. As a game designer, I can see a “light” in my predecessors. Every game comes in a different package, but those with an almost holy light that shines with an irrepressible brilliance are the ones that will go down in history as epics.