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