A breakdown of the merits and missteps of Okami's design.
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.