Ôkami – “Pretty as a picture, and flat as one…”

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Traditional Japanese art has always been in love with its country’s magnificent landscapes. The word “zen” usually comes into mind when staring at such moving depictions of nature. A sense of deep, yet thoughtless contemplation eventually takes you over as you gaze the grandiosity of its imagery. The minimalistic detail, the lack of color and the vast depth of field (in absolute contrast with the absence of perspective) give the paintings a notion of stillness that is unique to their art. Yet, their contemplative nature doesn’t make them dull or inexpressive; quite on the contrary, it allows the viewer’s eye to fully explore the emerging contrasts of these depictions. Soothing as it may seem at first, Japanese art is also violent, cacophonic and cruel, though, like many aspects of its society, such violence remains hidden from the untrained eye.

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As a fan of Japanese art in general, I was eager to see how much of it would be present in “Ôkami”; I felt, from watching the never ending screenshots and conceptual art, that for the first time, classical themes of Japanese culture were going to be explored in a videogame. Not that the colorful, hip, excessive j-pop (or j-poop, whatever you prefer) modern game aesthetic doesn’t have its place, it does, but I never thought of it as the right way of translating Japan’s feudal History and cultural roots, at least, not in the same way as Hokusai’s paintings, Kurosawa’s movies or Ryuichi Sakamoto’s compositions. Not that these are the purest of Japanese artists (they certainly aren’t), but they managed to build bridges that us westerns could cross so to better comprehend their society; they defined our notion of what Japan “is”. In videogames, these attempts have been feeble, at best, with the only works that I would consider to be to true to Japanese aesthetic being Ueda’s masterpieces: “Ico” and “Shadow of Colossus”. Because, whether you like it or not, there are many Japanese games corrupted with western notions of dimensionality, space, color and narrative, along with the boring sense of aesthetic realism that haunts nearly all American videogames. Just look at “Onimusha”, “Resident Evil”, “Metal Gear” (and so many other popular series) and ask yourself what part of Japan “exists” inside these games. And the ones that do elude these notions tend only to look upon “Animes’” and “Mangas’” clichés to depict Japan. And so, I rested my hopes on “Ôkami”, a game that, in my mind, was bent on overthrowing such crude notions of Japan to the backseat of videogames.

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“Ôkami” presents itself as an attempt at bringing popular Japanese folklore, legends and myths into the form of a classical fantasy story. As a player, you take on the role of Ammaterasu, a Sun Goddess reincarnated in the body of a wolf that after 100 years of slumber, lives once again to free Japan of an evil demon named Orochi. Free like only a wolf can be, I started my journey through Nippon, gently running through its fields and meadows, gazing at the blossomed cherry trees, the sparkly, blue lakes and the white covered mountains. I was in love with the pictorial aspect of “Ôkami’s” Nippon, where it seems as if an artists’ brush is painting the scenery as you run along through his canvas. It’s an imaginary Japan, one that undoubtedly inhabits in its people’s minds and dreams. The sense of style feels true to its nature, lush colors filling up the screen, helped by the impressionist technique of “cel-shading”, allowed beautiful and perfect depictions of traditional Japanese architecture and landscapes. Yet, a closer look at the its visual aspects also dims their shining light: everything just seems a tad too “colorful” for an oriental aesthetic (that upholds the use of contrast and mainly primary colors) and characters’ designs and animations end up being too silly to engage true feudal Japan’s ambiance. The sad thing is, looking at Keigo Kimura and Shinsyu Narita’s conceptual art (that once in a while appears in story-driven sequences), that the tone was spot-on in the first place, with their art truly referencing the “motifs” of traditional Japanese Art. In comparison, the final product is just too sugary coated and flashy; probably so, in order to sell the game to a wider gaming audience. It’s ironic that “Ôkami” failed to connect with that same audience, and that the ones who revere it are the ones who weren’t benefitted by that poor design choice. Still, minor flaws considered, it comes out as one of the best artistic designs in modern videogames.

Okami\'s Conceptual Artwork

And then… the story started, and all the beauty fell into a deep pit of pop culture stupidity. It all starts with a silly bouncing sprite named Issun, a wandering artist that seeks knowledge in the ways of Ammaterasu’s “Celestial Brush Techniques”. He’s the comic-relief character of the game and Ammy’s companion throughout his long journey, a buddy like the ones in all road-movies. But… he’s stupid. Really stupid. I mean… really, really stupid. Not funny, just… plain stupid. The minute he appears in the game, he starts blabbering about the breasts of a fairy where he was hiding, a sexist joke often repeated throughout the course of the entire game, with an annoying sound effect posing as his voice (just imagine a ten year old with a screechy voice imitating Japanese, and then, repeat that awful sound through hours and hours, and you can start imagining the agony of it all). From there on out, “Ôkami” loses its heart, with its story becoming less and less engrossing and eventually slowing into a halt. The much awaited, self-proclaimed folkloric “myhos” that was used to create the story, turns out to be nothing more than a bunch of fairy-tales told in a childish tone, designed to capture the “imagination” of anime-following teenagers and wee-little ones with short attention spans, by using crude jokes and worn-out cinematic references (like bullet-time action sequences featuring Ammaterasu and other Ancient Gods: what the hell does “The Matrix” have to do with Japanese religion???). The religious undertone of the story, its cultural roots and its patriotic messages are only addressed in the final stages of the game, and even then, are mostly overlooked in favor of j-pop cheesiness; just like watching a bad Disney movie that went straight to DVD. It feels awkward, out of place and downright wrong to use such references in this context; it’s not like this is “Devil May Cry” or “Viewtiful Joe”: this is a game that deals with a country’s values and History… and then just makes fun of it all, just to keep the audience “entertained”.

Okami\'s beautiful graphics in action.

And though the background of the game is lacking, considering its ambitions, the gameplay could’ve saved the day, by providing an engrossing exploration of this modern view of Japan. But it doesn’t. Exploring Nippon with “Zelda’s” free-roaming notions, allows you to contemplate the game’s backgrounds and artistic endeavors, sinking in the scenery and appreciating the trip. The action, following “Devil May Cry” principles with some platforming involved (no doubt, influence of the director, Hideki Kamyia, of “Devil May Cry” fame) is well executed, even if it doesn’t go very well with the theme at hand. The addition of a new gameplay mechanic, the brush techniques, which allow the player to draw objects in-screen, to solve puzzles and aid combat, is perfectly fitted in the game, adding a sense of uniqueness to gameplay mechanics that borrow so much from others. However, all of these good efforts are put to waste by an ill-conceived level design that does nothing to focus the player’s experience: scenarios are usually too big, requiring too much running about to carry out simple tasks, and levels feature numerous side-quests, items, and mini-games, but none of them really add to the experience, becoming mere bait for completionists with too much time on their hands. All this becomes duller, because the game engulfs nearly 40 hours of gameplay that could’ve easily been squeezed into 10-15 hours of juicy action and plot. Most of the action is just boring and repetitive, with the plot doing little to lead you on, to the point of making you want to leave the game unfinished. Once again, the preconception that larger games are better seems to have interfered with good design choices, where less is usually more. Remember, it’s not how long it takes; it’s how long you’ll remember it that counts. Something movies and music have discovered a long time ago.

Ôkami conceptual artwork

If you’re still reading this, you’ll probably dismiss this huge text as rambling and rant, but this is my honest opinion of “Ôkami”: take it, leave it or bash it, it’s your choice. In my opinion, games should be judged by their ambitions and goals, and “Ôkami” fails miserably in attaining them, neither managing to be a particularly entertaining game (it lacks momentum and consistency), or to be a true work of art (lacking courage and affirmation for what it tries to accomplish). It’s shallow, uninspired, its beauty is skin-deep, and it says nothing about traditional Japanese culture, which seems to have been its main “motif” before it was “lightened” for younger gamer audiences. It is common place to say that younger audiences connect with greater ease to more mature themes than the opposite; that is why the latter “Star Wars” trilogy failed, and why “Lord of The Rings” didn’t (see how much Peter Jackson compromised his vision to achieve success in younger demographics). Had “Ôkami” stayed true to its vision, and it would probably have been a success, otherwise, it just ends up being another videogame with bold ambitions, and little content to back it up. Face it, there’s as much Japanese culture here as in any run-of-the-mill j-pop boyz band. Even Takeshi Kitano’s films or Mamoru Oshii’s animes, that portray modern-age Japan, feature more recognizable classical Japanese artistic codes than “Ôkami” does, and it’s set in pre-Edo period, when those trends originated. As much as I would’ve loved to applaud “Ôkami”, I cannot, for it mistakes flash with substance, color with aesthethic, story with message, and art with entertainment.

Overall: 3/5

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    • Shake
    • June 13th, 2008

    ““Resident Evil”, “Metal Gear” (and so many other popular series) and ask yourself what part of Japan “exists” inside these games.”

    YOU HEARD IT HERE FIRST, CAPCOM DECIDED TO MAKE A VIDEO GAME BASED IN A CITY WITH CHRIS REDFIELD, MEMBER OF S.T.A.R.S. FIGHTING HORDEWS OF ZOMBIES, BUT THEY DIDN’T.MAKE.IT.JAPANESE.ENOUGH.

    METAL GEAR SOLID, YET ANOTHER EXAMPLE. Solid Snake, infiltration agent? US Weapons of mass destruction? NOT JAPANESE ENOUGH!

    Jesus Christ, I’d understand if you mentioned Naruto, but those games NEVER set out to portray Japan….at all. You might as well ask “what part of Japan “exists” in Soul Plane”.

    • ruicraveirinha
    • June 14th, 2008

    First up, thanks for the comment, always a pleasure to participate in a discussion. Onto the answer:

    Of course they don’t set out to make it Japanese, that is my whole point. The most famous Japanese games feature no artistic identity that we can associate with Japan. How many American videogames betray their origins? None. Games, as an artistic medium, are a product of cultural and social background, and Japanese authors often forget where they’re coming from, adopting Hollywood aesthetics in determent of their own culturally rich past. Sure, you can blame it on cultural globalization and whatnot, but that doesn’t change the fact, that “Japan” doesn’t exist in videogame realm.
    Resident Evil, Metal Gear and so many others, are games that could have been done by Americans – that is my criticism, nothing else. And sure, there are games out there that feature those recognizable Japanese traits, but those are rare, especially if you exclude modern day Anime quirks (which I would hardly describe as flattering to Japanese culture).

    • melvox
    • June 21st, 2008

    Truth be told, my friend…

    The reason why these games were made was to make money…don’t blame the writers/directors of the game. surely they wanted to make it more artistic than possible. However, they mostly were cut short because the ones who call the shots said that they might not sell or may not become appealing to gamers….so you could say that they may have been forced to tweak/cut some stuff out and insert new ones.

    just my though….

    • ruicraveirinha
    • June 21st, 2008

    melvox, you’re probably right. And if not regarding this game, surely regarding many other games. Still, the game has a director signing underneath and ultimately, he must answer for his work (even if he is not solely responsible for it).

    What you refer is a problem of an industry that is too commercially driven, but lacks a broad consumer audience. For far too long, the industry has failed in creating niche markets for different audiences, which would allow authors to choose more artistic or commercially driven works according to their will. It’s a sad reality, but every flagship title is aimed at the same mass audience of gun-ho loving teens, with little to differentiate each one from the next. Games like Ôkami, ICO, Rez, or even Psychonauts, ultimately fail in selling because the mass videogame audience just doesn’t care about more artistic games, going from one hyped up super production to the next. And until games like these succeed, authors will never have creative freedom, for games are still too expensive, and no company will want to risk their money on a risky project.

    But I would be cautious in blaming the companies. As in every free market, they supply what the audience demands, and sadly, right now, the videogame audience only demands one or two videogame prototypes, the big action blockbuster, like “Gears of War”, “Halo 3” or “Grand Theft Auto IV”, or the casual party game, like “Rock Band”, “Wii Fit” or “Wii Sports”. Let’s all admit it, these are the only two markets present today in the industry. And no artistic game can succeed, unless he somehow fits in one of these scopes.

    So, yes melvox, you’re opinion is sad… but true.

    Thanks for the comment. Hope you enjoy the blog.

    • Chet
    • July 3rd, 2008

    Honestly, i think your absolutely wrong but obviously everyones entitled to an opinion. The game got great ratings and its quite difficult to find it with a score under 9. Of course not everyone will agree its the greatest thing ever created but the people who enjoyed clearly out weighed those who disliked it. The art was beautiful and the game was very well liked by the majority of people who played it, i mean if you post the most mildly negative comment on an Ôkami video on youtube, you will be hated and get as many thumbs down that the site will allow, but that just because how much people enjoyed it and feel the need to protect it. But the voices were made to be something unique but i guess they could get annoying. Although everyone keep in mind this game was designed mainly for the younger audiences. I thought the design, game play, artwork, and plot were original and had so much thought put to it. Though i wouldn’t suggest this game for those who are into the whole war game theme of shoot, kill, blood splash, oh boy i just blew that guys head off thing, but for people who enjoy like the Final Fantasy series or are animal lovers, i think they would flip for it. But you are right on a few points, i mean even the creator admitted that there were mistakes in the game and that no, it was not perfect which probably isn’t the most encouraging words I’d expect from the person who made it because if he is lacking confidence in his own creation it makes me think he didn’t do all he could have which is really disappointing because the potential of the game probably wasn’t reached.
    I do get your point but im still a huge fan of Ôkami even though its not perfect.

    <3,
    Chet 🙂

    • ruicraveirinha
    • July 3rd, 2008

    Hey Chet, thanks for the comment. Lemme just clear up a point:

    “Of course not everyone will agree its the greatest thing ever created but the people who enjoyed clearly out weighed those who disliked it.” – whether people love or hate Ôkami is pretty much irrelevant to me, for a simple reason: the day critics reply others’ opinions is the day critics are no longer needed, because their opinion is a mere reflection of the audience or other critics. So, what A or B thinks means nothing to me, and I hope everyone thinks like this. I hear what people have to say, and love doing so, in order to enrich my opinions, but as long as my convictions stand I won’t change one bit.

    I know my opinion on Ôkami is hardly consensual, but I’m okay with it. It’s backed up by arguments that reflect my own point of view, and I think it would be hard to counter them in a way that would make me change my mind. You CAN like Ôkami’s plot, but I challenge anyone to say that it is anything more than just a childish anime-like story, with the density of an origami bird.

    I’m okay with other people loving Ôkami, specially considering how bad games can be. Ôkami is way up in the stratosphere of videogames, it’s just that I feel it fails in achieving its full potential (that’s what the 3/5 stands for, and not for Ôkami being a mediocre game, which it’s not). I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it here: Ôkami had the potential to be a new “ICO”, a new standard in videogame art, and sadly I don’t think Kamyia realized it, and preferred to keep the game business as usual. Our loss.

    Again, thanks for the comment!

    • goat
    • July 22nd, 2008

    i really like his work he has been trying with all this things and i am only looking at this website because i was given a homewotk to ao some artist research on hime and i am really impressed with all his work that i have seen. when i even saw the drawing that he drew the animals in it was amazing.

    • Panda
    • July 30th, 2008

    Thank God someone saids it! I couldn’t even get to the first dungeon because of this game’s lame attempts at authenticity. I’m Japanese and I was thoroughly offended by people telling me that I didn’t “get this game”. I love games that have a good atmosphere and really pull you into the universe like Legend of Zelda or Metal Gear solid series, so in a way this game did not have to be accurate it just had to make a cool vibe to it. It could have skewered Japanese culture in a massive parody but it sells itself as being “AUTHENTIC”?! Fudge that! Don’t buy this game japanophiles.

    • dude
    • August 9th, 2008

    To be honest Okami was pretty easy in my oppinion, well seeing how i only get up during the day to go to the bathroom and eat. Oh well. Im very lazy during the day…………. I dont sleep at all so you can call me an addict. LOL.

    The pictures are very well drawn.
    ttyl, dude 😄

    • someguy
    • September 18th, 2008

    “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”

    To you, the reviewer, you may see this game as trash but for me, Okami is an artistic and a very original masterpiece. I enjoyed almost everything in the game like the great japanese style graphics and the action involved with it (except for a few minor lags in some parts of the game). Okami got me occupied for many weeks since I got it, and I was never disappointed by anything. I’m not a hardcore gamer nor a game critic, I’m just an average gamer. I don’t really care about pop culture and all that kind of stuff many people rant about too. Although Okami does have minor flaws in the game such as computer generated voices for the most part and the lags, I consider it a great masterpiece churned up by Clover and Capcom. A fantastic masterpiece, but not the PERFECT one, since some of the aspects could have improved. Okami is the best game I have played in a long time. BTW, if Issun’s “voice” bothers you that much, why not just turn the volume down? And come on people, Issun’s not that annoying.

    As for my ratings,

    Gameplay Mechanics: 5/5
    Level Design: 5/5
    Narrative: 3/5
    Art Direction: 5/5
    Soundtrack: 4/5

    • ruicraveirinha
    • September 18th, 2008

    OK. First up, “Ôkami” isn’t trash, and I don’t remember ever writing it was. I agree with you on that. “Ôkami” is, from an artistic point of view , beautiful… really beautiful. You loved the game and that’s fine by me. But my overall appreciation of the piece is that it fails in attaining its full potential because of the author’s desire to make a quirky, infantile, funny game that would appeal to kids as well as adults. I found this paternalist authorship insulting to my intelligence, but that’s me. Like you, I loved the visuals and the musical score (marred only by the sound effects, which is why it didn’t receive a maximum score as the visuals did), but a game is more than that. It’s a conveying of thoughts, ideas, messages… a narrative, an interactive narrative. That’s where I my thoughts collide regarding “Ôkami”.

    And it’s not just Issun’s voice, it’s the words that come out of his mouth, which coincidentally, are the ones you listen during the majority of the game. A Fairie that makes boob jokes? Please, I know that’s Kamiya’s sense of humor, but how dumb and unfunny can it get? And notice how it is disruptive of the game’s atmosphere, feudal japan with a touch of new-age Shintoist mysticism. That’s the problem. I can accept low humor in DMC, it fits the bill in a B-Movie parody kind of game, but in “Ôkami” it feels wrong. When all a game can instill in its audience is a poor brand of off the shelve humor, that contradicts the story’s setting, ambiance and moral themes, then something is wrong with that game.

    You might think otherwise, and that’s why different people have different opinions and interpretations about Art. I never expected a lot of people to understand my criticism of “Ôkami”. Ask me for Art, I’ll give you “ICO” and “Shadow of the Colossus”; “Ôkami” is sugar candy entertainment… incredibly beautiful sugar candy entertainment, but sugar candy entertainment nonetheless.

    Thanks for your input. Hope you continue to enjoy the Blog.

    • someguy
    • September 19th, 2008

    First, thanks a bunch for taking your time to read my comment. I didn’t think anyone would respond to my comment and so soon. Always feels good to participate in a blog.

    Alright, I shouldn’t have used the word “trash” when I posted earlier so sorry about that. I completely understand what you go through regarding Issun, and yes, he proves to be quite a pervert in front of Sakuya and Rao but I didn’t mind that in the game. It’s also true that he does get repetitive and boring throughout and really knows how to ruin a good game with execessive butchering of his “voice”. Issun can be a real nuisiance, but the flaws were forgivable enough for me. Anyway, that’s not what I really wanted to talk about.

    Besides that, the interactiveness of the game was suprisingly good, like when you tackle a character they will respond in various ways and messing with them with celestial brush powers. As for the challenge of the game, the monsters and bosses were fairly easy enough to defeat, but the ones that required a strategy to beat like yellow drummer imps and bud ogres were a pain, especially when they gang up against me in large numbers. The puzzles were a no-brainer because Issun had to shout out the answers in red, bold text when I could just figure it out myself. I think Okami would have been a lot more challenging if there were no hints and Issun just kept his mouth closed. (Imagine defeating a boss enemy and nothing happens, until you have to look up and find a constellation yourself.) Actually, there was one puzzle that I was stuck on (I spent almost 20 minutes on it) which was the room with the flaming ball in the moon cave after the cannon part.

    Also, Okami is the first game which featured a wolf main character that I played (except Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess, but Link was only a wolf half of the time) and who dosen’t like a wolf wielding a weapon on its back? I enjoyed beating the crap out of enemies a lot, especially with the sword, and close combat was entertaining enough for me. The average time to beat the game is about 25 hours, which is pretty long.

    I think I covered everything, thanks for reading this (if you’re still reading this) and it was a pleasure to be in this blog. (I’m moving on to other games now)

    • ruicraveirinha
    • September 19th, 2008

    I see your point in terms of interactivity, and agree partially. When “Ôkami’s” dynamics are based on original mechanics, namely the Celestial Brush, the game is a breath of fresh air, that I agree. But the game also employs much of Zelda’s exploration, to the point of plagiarism, even if it slightly improves it, by making it more linear and less puzzle-like. The action remains a simplistic port of DMC, which is not a surprise considering this is a Kamyia game, but it still entices the thought that more could’ve been done in this area. I think “Ôkami” deserved better action mechanics, ones that would’ve tapped into the celestial brush more prolifically, and a less disjointed means of exploration, that wouldn’t involve mindless running with little objective. Hence my not so perfect grade on both Gameplay and Level Design.

    As to your other points, I agree with the most part, I simply do not appreciate them as much in light of the rest of the game.

    I’m the one that appreciates the comments. Once again thank you for participating. It’s always a pleasure.

    • blah blah
    • September 23rd, 2008

    what came out 1st? legend of zelda twilight princess or okami? i got the 2 mixed up but if okami came out b4 TP then it aint plagiarism & more like inspiration to prior zelda games like LOZ wind waker
    also i saw a lot of other games that are like legend of zelda and the director of okami says that LOZ influenced okami on the games development

    • Notmyreal name
    • September 9th, 2009

    you are an idiot, that game is amazing

    • Heather
    • September 22nd, 2009

    I disagree with everything, but maybe I view this differently.

    I don’t remember ever seeing any press for this game touting is as being “authentic” japanese anything. I recall it being touted as a videogame with some bits and pieces taken from japanese folklore and mythology, (which there was) done in a unique cel-shaded “sumi” style as opposed to the more traditional 3D videogame graphics.

    The game is visually beautiful, I enjoyed the gameplay–and I loved the story. I’d say maybe you had the wrong expectations–I bought this game having only ever seen a few gameplay clips, and had no idea what to expect, story-wise. Yes it was cute in places and silly and Issun is a little pervert but I found it entertaining–which is the point of a game. Looking for seriousness, authenticity, or anything resembling cultural or historical accuracy in a videogame is like trying to find same in Hollywood. The movie might win an oscar, but everybody’ll say it was bory as hell.

    I thought it had some outright beautiful moments, and I cried like an utter baby at the ending scene. I am not a “japanophile” or an anime lover.

    I will admit the first weekend I got my hands on this I spent the whole weekend holed-up playing it, and when I re-emerged into the world I found it very very odd that nobody spoke in the strange Okami gubblespeak that was used in place of voice-over. Once you get used to it, it’s genius. I know a lot of good games that were utterly wrecked by soddy voice work. (I also had to surpress the urge to draw circles on every dead tree I saw. I get a little over-immersive with games sometimes.)

    • ruicraveirinha
    • September 22nd, 2009

    Opinions are opinions, you are as entitled to one as I am. We’ll agreee to disagree.

    But our disagreement stems from a fundamental difference in terms of our own perspectives on media entertainment. From your text, I deprehend you look unto video games for the pleasures of entertainment, nothing else. I, on the other hand, look deeper, and search for what you call “cultural and historical” value. Yes, great works often get the “everybody’ll say it was bory as hell” comment, but I, as others, will appreciate it far more than just some piece of derivative hollywood drivel. If it wins an oscar, surely it must mean something, no? Perhaps. Whatever the case, for me, there is much more to entertainment than just numbing your brain with constant endorphine spikes through dozens of hours. Entertainment is a powerful tool to dissect and simulate human life, and human life, I’m afraid, is not only about selfless pleasure.

    Cheers, and thanks for the comments!

    • cher
    • August 6th, 2011

    i loved okami and am now writing a major research assignement on the minimalism zen/ japanese artwork. this site is amazing thanks!

    • ruicraveirinha
    • August 6th, 2011

    If you want, be sure to drop on by with it. Would love to read it.

    Cheers!

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