Post by Game Design I student Jessica McCully
Okami – developed by Clover Studio and published by Capcom, released on PlayStation 2 in 2006 and the Nintendo Wii in 2008. Years later, it remains one of the most unique and memorable games I have ever played, and ranks highly if not first in my list of absolute favorites. From the image above alone, Okami stands apart from so many other games even made today. The aesthetic stands out immediately – painterly, hand drawn, strongly influenced by Japanese traditions and designs. Conveniently, the game’s story happens to be focused on many of these same aspects. The story and world draws heavily from Japan’s feudal history and powerful Shinto mythology. You become Amaterasu, the Shinto sun goddess, given canine form in order to battle your ancient enemy, the demon Orochi. The art blends the beautiful style of a watercolor painting with the calligraphy and designs of Japanese tradition. Amaterasu’s main weapon, and your most important game mechanic, is the Celestial brush, with which you draw symbols with power and elemental abilities to battle enemies and influence the game world.
This isn’t concept art.
Made only more stunning by the 2012 HD Remake for the PlayStation 3, the stylized design in Okami carries meaning beyond its remarkably appealing and timeless aesthetic. The art, like the setting and the narrative and the music, blends seamlessly into the creation of a world that Okami is working to convince you that you are a part of. In my opinion Okami succeeds at this effort, and succeeds beautifully.
The brush mechanic, especially on a Wii controller, with physical motions drawing the Celestial techniques on the screen in front of you, fits naturally beside the other design decisions Clover Studios made to create the essential experience of Okami, and provides an unusually tangible relationship between you and the game world. While admittedly finicky at times, the motion controls here are in my opinion one of the best uses of the Wii controller, adding to the immersion and strong atmosphere of the game instead of detracting from it.
As you play, you are Amaterasu – the unrecognized hero, the ancient goddess on her second wind, doing everything you can to protect the world from certain destruction. But as you journey forwards, you don’t forget the needs of the common people that you pass, reflected by the actions and side quests you can take for them, such as finding lost objects or purifying land that has been corrupted by the demons. And you are rewarded for your good deeds with praise – as a god, your strength depends on the belief people have in you, after all – which can be used to enhance your abilities with extra health or ink levels.
The strength of Okami, and what makes it so enjoyable to play, is the level of care and skill that was put into building the game’s world. Okami’s world, Nippon, has a culture of its own – similar to historic traditions in Japan, similar to Shinto mythology, but set apart in its own ways.
When comparing Okami to other games, especially those with American developers and American audiences, it’s easy to see the starkly different cultures that Okami is drawing from and guess why they would set it apart from the games we’re used to. Yet that culture – and not just the Japanese influences, but also the unique culture Okami makes for itself – is what allows the game, alongside the compelling and surprisingly long story-line, to keep the player engaged and invested, in my save file at least, for over a hundred hours.Every part of Okami’s gameplay matters because the world matters. You care about the characters because the actions you make affect them and because their interactions with you make them real. You feel attached to Amaterasu because, despite her lack of words, her character and personality shines through. Your journey across the land of Nippon is meaningful because the game convinces you to care about it – the world, it’s people, and your duty to protect them. When you kill the monsters roaming the countryside, you aren’t just gaining money, you’re protecting the villagers and restoring the health of the land. Endogenous value seeps through every action you take while playing, and if that wasn’t enough to keep you playing, the epic story, memorable characters, and breathtaking art direction give something for everyone.
None of this would be possible if the world presented in Okami wasn’t convincing and immersive. Okami does this by creating a culture that is compelling in both its uniqueness and it’s familiarity, aided by the perfect fit of its art and music, and using this culture to tell a powerful story with the player at the center.
From the perspective of a designer, Okami reminds me of the importance of a good and thoughtful story, and even in a game that isn’t driven by a strong narrative, how much it can add to let your world grow into something meaningful and real. With that philosophy behind you, and smart choices in art and music at your side, making a game as meaningful as Okami becomes possible. And from my experience, it would be a beautiful road to walk down.