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by L.B. Jeffries

1 Dec 2008

Over at the Infovore blog, Tom Armitage wrote a very interesting essay about using games to tell stories specific to their medium. Just as a TV series is constructed differently than film in terms of story and ideas, so too should video game plots stick with their specific merits. If all you do is create a game that relies on cutscenes with basic gameplay mixed in-between, then your experience will be little better than a movie with buttons. In order for a video game to be great, it must not only draw influences from other mediums but also make them work in ways that only it can. Stories that involve accomplishment, overcoming obstacles, and other elements of “play” are adept to certain mediums. Capcom’s Okami is an excellent example of this concept in action. Though not without its faults, the game deserves some inspection for using several narrative devices that could only be used in a video game. In any other medium, it simply wouldn’t work to tell the story in Okami.


That story is that of being a Sun God who is spreading nature and rejuvenating the landscape. The first time this occurs in a film would be fine, but the numerous times Amaretsu restores a pool, tree, or landscape would quickly get old. In a game, however, with the reward of celestial points and the cutscene in which you see the result of your work, it suffers no feelings of repetitiveness. Healing the land over and over again combines with the sense of accomplishment in a way that allows a narrative that would otherwise be dull for a passive observer. The participation with the celestial brush uses similar elements. Seeing Amaretsu perform a miracle in a T.V. episode would easily become trite after the third or fourth time; in a game the fun of seeing people’s reaction to things changing mystically is always rewarding because it is no longer the miracle we’re looking for, it’s the reaction to what we’ve done. 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 brush lets the player find value in redeeming Susano that would otherwise not be present for an audience. Lord of the Rings could not have had Legolas take all the credit from Aragorn without infuriating some audience members, but because it’s an element of the game design, Okami is able to competently explore such a story. We no longer look for the vindication of our hero getting credit for their actions, we feel the accomplishment of helping the bumbling underdog.


Analyzing the plot of a Japanese game can get tricky if it delves deeply into their culture. As a Westerner, I don’t have the understanding and basic knowledge that is necessary to appreciate Okami’s nuance. I picked up on stuff like the Nansō Satomi Hakkenden references, but constantly miss the Kanji tweaks and nuance. I’ve delved into enough anime to at least understand that a lot of complicated stuff is going on just in those tiny details. I doubt the Greek Gods make much sense to someone who hasn’t read about them extensively, so the conundrum is understandable. I also…ah…didn’t finish the game. I got about half-way through and realized I was literally forcing myself to play for the sake of some misguided sense of professionalism. I’m not alone in failing to finish the game—MTV Multiplayer did a stat crunch based off posted hours on the Wii network and deduced that on average, most Okami players go for about 15 hours and then quit. By my clock, I was in Orochi’s dungeon helping make the sacrificial dinner at that point. So whether or not you actually finished the game, let’s talk about why some people have trouble with finishing the game when it’s gorgeous, entertaining, and fun to play. What’s interesting about this is that even though I find prohibitively long games to be annoying, I also still regularly play them. For as much as much as many critics fail to grasp that a video game is not just a movie with buttons, there are still certain elements that can be borrowed from linear mediums with video games. What can be observed here?


It can be counter-intuitive to contrast two video games to one another, but in Okami’s case putting it next to Twilight Princess yields some interesting results. Chiefly, although Twilight Princess is a much more stereotypical game in terms of art and plot, more people statistically have finished the game. One reason might be what an IGN video review of Okami observed, the dungeons in Okami are much more organic and fluid. There isn’t always a moment where you realize you’re in a dungeon or when you’re interacting with people, the two modes are blurred. In the Moon Temple when you first go inside there are people to talk to and fetch quests to perform instead of the usual dungeon activities. Conversely, just when you’re done collecting the Dog Warriors to enter the Wind Shrine, you find out there are three more scattered all over the landscape. On the surface these don’t seem like problems because they don’t impede gameplay. What they do instead though is chop up the flow of the game. The flow of a video game is the correlation between player expectation in contrast to what the game is giving them. What Twilight Princess delivers in this regard is precisely the feature that the IGN review mentions: everything is clearly labeled and organized in that game. When you enter a dungeon, you’re going to be doing dungeon type things for a set amount of time. Usually an hour or two, with a nice new item to be found, and a big heart container at the end. The precise number of dungeons and their locations are all neatly laid out on the map and whenever I’m done screwing around the huge world, I can roll up to one and create a precise sensation of accomplishment. That doesn’t really exist in Okami. I have no idea how many Cherry Blossom trees I need to go heal, the brushstrokes are granted at seemingly random times, and I was still entering brand new portions of the landscape 15 hours deep. The result is a game where the flow just keeps going and going without me having any real way to stagger my engagement.


There are lots of games that utilize mini-episodes in a larger structure: Silent Hill 2 and Call of Duty 4 work in precisely that manner along with countless other games. The difference here is that Okami’s length starts to work against it. The blurred game activities and exploration are elegantly done throughout the game, but the problem is that it’s a steady stream of gameplay instead of organized bursts. That kind of game flow can’t sustain a player for more than…about 15 hours, I guess. What do you do for really long movie? A long book? You do exactly what Twilight Princess did, you break everything up into sections and chapters. You do what Grand Theft Auto does and make each mission take about thirty to fifty minutes before you go back to roaming the setting of the story. This isn’t supposed to be an indictment of Okami, just an exploration of why precisely it didn’t do as well at this as you’d think it would. The setting, story, and art are all perfectly gorgeous but it’s interesting to puzzle over why that still wasn’t enough to keep people playing. It’s easy to write off consumer culture as wanting nothing more than to play games about being a space marine or ultimate badasses. And the countless games that feed into that easy impulse should be criticized for it. For what it’s worth, though, there is a reason people have trouble finishing Okami, and that means they aren’t getting the full experience with it. As those who toiled through and finished the game will attest, the reason I outlined is not a very good one. It is, however, a reason.

by Lara Killian

1 Dec 2008

This past weekend, NPR ran a short piece on Weekend Edition where, as usual, I learned something new. Though it’s a bit tricky to find any information on it via Google, in January the Library of Congress appointed the first ever National Ambassador for Children’s Literature.

Sometimes I think you don’t realize you need a post like this until someone really great comes along to fill it. That someone is Jon Scieszka, author of some of the most clever kids’ lit since Roald Dahl.


The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, told from the wolf’s perspective, has become a storytime staple, making kids laugh and also serving as a great lesson in point of view. Scieszka’s strength lies in realizing how smart kids really are, and how much they appreciate a funny book that doesn’t underestimate that intelligence. What little boy would turn down hearing a book called The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Fairy Tales?

NPR’s piece features a short interview with Scieszka and it’s worth a listen for anyone interested in children’s stories – or in getting kids to read. They’ll be asking for these new classics again and again – and they’re smart enough for adults to enjoy, too.

Ambassador Scieszka’s term lasts for two years, so he’s almost halfway through. Although I’m sure he’s doing an admirable job promoting children’s literature as part of his current duties, it’ll be interesting to see who gets to fill his shoes in 2010.

by PopMatters Staff

1 Dec 2008

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
The stupidest movies can make me well up. I don’t know why as I am generally quite cynical. I’m not going to embarrass myself by telling you guys.

2. The fictional character most like you?
Fritz the cat.

3. The greatest album, ever?
Frank Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy. This is a terrible question for me to have to answer, and an arbitrary response

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Trek.

5. Your ideal brain food?
Fresh vegetables, raw nuts.

by Sarah Zupko

1 Dec 2008

Hometapes Records out of Portland specializes in smart indie rock and has released quite a few critically acclaimed releases in its young history, including 2008’s Pattern Is Movement release that we deemed worthy of an 8. For the discriminating hipster/vinylphile, Hometapes has released a number of gorgeous limited edition vinyl albums with numbered album art and other special features. Shedding’s self-titled LP comes in light green vinyl with three art inserts and a uniquely numbered fold-out cover. The aforementioned Pattern is Movement LP includes a digital download of the record packed with bonus features as well as a number of printed photographs. Even the CD version includes a little batch of fold-out photos. Nick Butcher’s recent Bee Removal album is packaged as a white vinyl release with hand-screened cover art. Cyne’s erudite backpack hip-hop is also available on a double LP as well as CD. These little touches speak to a strong commitment to artfulness across mediums. In an era of ever more disposable culture, Hometapes works hard to make things meant to save and treasure.


by Mike Schiller

1 Dec 2008

Ignore the corporate tie-in for a second. The Nintendo DS is the current safe haven for addictive, brain-taxing puzzle games, and this particular Puzzle Adventure actually continues that tradition magnificently. The game puts a candy-coated shell around Reversi (or Othello, or whatever other name you have for the game where you transform your opponent’s pieces by surrounding them with your pieces), and yet the gameplay does not cater to the young demographic that it courts. I was oddly surprised and delighted when I was handily defeated by the very first opponent I faced, and the game’s difficulty simply doesn’t let up. The story is incidental, the colorful characters may or may not be a distraction, but there’s no mistaking the quality of the puzzling. The Neopets brand as a whole has its issues, but this particular tie-in will keep you tapping the screen through the long winter break and beyond.


//Mixed media

Because Blood Is Drama: Considering Carnage in Video Games and Other Media

// Moving Pixels

"It's easy to dismiss blood and violence as salacious without considering why it is there, what its context is, and what it might communicate.

READ the article