Wherefore Art Thou Okami? (Games I'm Currently Playing)
Which is why it's so sad for me to find out that Okami's gameplay is rather pedestrian. I've been championing games to try and be artistic and creative; to try and push the boundaries of realism by giving us games that look exquisite like Okami. And so Capcom has managed to give us a game that looks like nothing we've seen before -- they really managed to make the game look like ancient Chinese paintings come to life. But the question must be asked:
What are you trying to accomplish by making the game look like it does? There should always be a creative reasoning behind such decisions. And right now, Okami doesn't quite feel like it has one. Previous to playing Okami, I had wondered how, exactly, I felt about another one of Capcom's visually experimental games: Killer 7. And after playing Okami for a small period of time, I realize now how much I love Killer 7.
Killer 7 is really what an artistic game is about. It's not just the looks, it's the whole package put together -- the sparse visuals combined with the mind-fuck story combined with the eclectic music combined with the very unconventional and restrictive gameplay. Many found the "on-rails" movement of the gameplay a poor decision by the makers of the game. But if you imagine playing Killer 7 running around in circles trying to find hidden items and seeing if there is something in that shed that's just actually a background decoration, the game would have suffered greatly. That's not what Killer 7 is about. It's not about interacting with environments. It's really about trying to convey the sense of insanity and the unstable psychoses of the characters in its story. So, accordingly, that's what the all the elements of the game are there for. For example, one of the main gameplay elements, the "blinking" to make all of the invisible enemies appear, is completely superfluous. Blinking is free (it costs no meter or anything) and the fact that your enemies are invisible rarely comes into play because you can blink as many times as you want in rapid succession. But knowing that there could be an invisible enemy somewhere adds to the paranoia of the game. And in regards to the visual, the simplistic style used is just one other element that creates the overall package. The sparseness of the imagery, the skewed angles at which most of the areas are presented, and the washed out look really help put the player into the mood of someone who's not quite there.
Playing Okami also inspired me to return to Shadow of the Colossus, a game which I started a while ago and had put on hiatus. Shadow of the Colossus is another game that is highly touted for its visual style and atypical gameplay. And surely enough, immediately after picking it up again, I remembered what was so enjoyable about the game. Everything in the game was designed to help create a very distinct mood of feeling small and lifeless. The protagonist has recently lost the love of his life, the only thing that brought color to his world, and every element aids in conveying this atmosphere. The missions are very one-track minded: there isn't anything to do outside of your one goal of taking down each Colossus. The fact that there are no basic enemies to fight along the way adds to the sense of scale. Everything feels big so that you, in turn, feel insignificant. And then, there are the visuals. The colors in the game are very monochromatic and evoke a mood of sorrow. And the Colossi are designed in such a majestic way that, because of their visual representation, you never get the feeling that what you are doing is correct, adding to the emotional distress and anguish of your character. The Colossi come in all shapes and styles, but are never truly depicted as obviously evil nor hideously ugly. Making enemies unappealing is an often used convention to allow players to feel it's okay to kill them. But because the Colossi aren't like this, the question if what you are doing is right plagues your mind during the entire course of the game.
Finally, a third game that I recently played popped into my head: Rez. This is a game that chose to implement a visual scheme that is more sparse than any game I can think of since the advent of disc-based console games (outside of Vib Ribbon). But the reason the graphics worked well wasn't because it was visually stunning. It worked because the reduced emphasis on the graphics helps us focus on what Tetsuya Mizuguchi, creator of Rez, wants us to focus on: the audio sensations. The game is really about keeping you in tune with the music and the rhythm of the music. It's no surprise that the game doesn't feel right at all without the vibrating controller. Everything is designed to strengthen that auditory experience. So again, the graphics helped the game through the visual technique of making itself less important so it could be secondary to the audio.
So this all brings me back to the question again: Okami is beautiful and a true work of art visually. But why? Why go through all the trouble making the game look so incredible when, in the end, all we are doing is playing a clone of Zelda games? Can this game really distinguish itself, gameplay-wise, from other Zelda-like games, such as Beyond Good and Evil? As I began my tour of Okami, I completed the first initial mission (that, by the way, all these types of games seem to have) and I ended up in a town. And there were people. And they all had some sort of problem, whether small or large. And I ended up playing a bunch of mini-games to earn bonuses. And playing a fetch quest to solve a puzzle on how to get out of the town. And in the midst of all this, I was struck with a really bad feeling: I've played this before.
To add to the already very Zelda-like experience, there is a small fairy-like character who follows you around and, just like all fairies in the Zelda games do, calls you by a cutesy nickname and points out everything to you. And you collect money to buy items at shops. Oh, and all the characters talk in a non-sensical, sing-song mumble just like all Zelda games. Basically, we have Wind Waker all over again. Okami is a game we've played before but with a much nicer coat of paint. But regardless of how you paint the outside of a house, the inside is gonna look the same.
"But wait!" you say. "Of course the graphics are pertinent, you moron! The game takes place in a fictional ancient Asian land and all of the power-ups you gain are performed through Brush Strokes!" Well... yes and no. Let me address those one by one:
1) Yes, the graphics represent the environments very well. I never said they didn't. Much of this game references Japanese mythos, as hinted by the instruction booklet, and by having the visuals represented through classic Asian art style, it aids the creation of the world tremendously. But if you are going for this sort of Japanese mythos, why is the game delving into the land of cutesiness? I've mentioned the comical sprite (who obviously hates being called a "bug") that follows you on your adventure calling you "Ammy" as opposed to Amaretsu, your actual name. All the characters talk in those cartoonish voices. One of the main characters starts off as someone repeatedly made fun of. And then there are random humorous jokes spattered throughout the game's dialogue, including, at one point, a very anachronistic joke made at the expense of a female character's bosom. This is ancient Japanese mythos?
If the game was really truly interested in achieving the right feel, you would probably have created a more grand and formal mood. I would have made every character mumble nonsensical words in the style of spoken words of a Chinese opera (that would have been really cool, even though I grew up hating the way Chinese opera sounds). Characters would be more majestic and serious. And the humorous dialogue would be replaced with more colloquial and poetic language, giving us the proper sense of history and mythology. So far, the only thing that helps the mood is the graphics and music. Again, if that's whatthey were trying to acheive, they have to remember that it's really the whole package that counts.
2) Hitting R1 to bring down the "painting canvas" to perform my attacks, so far, has no functional difference than going to the submenu and equipping the bombs in Zelda. The only difference in Okami is that I have to draw the bombs. On top of that, the strokes rarely consist of more than just circles and lines. Ancient Asian calligraphy is very beautiful, and the strokes are very important. If you really wanted to help the feel of the game, they would have allowed you to draw more than just circles and lines and maybe had you write some very simple Chinese or Japanese characters (though I do understand the difficulty of this given that you are just using an analog controller for painting). So far, the use of the paint strokes hasn't afforded me much in terms of the overall package. I'll admit that the first time I cut down a large tree, I was pretty floored by how cool that was. But once you get back into gameplay, the painting actually hurts the game. It affects the pace, forcing you to stop and freeze everything every time you was to draw a line.
And in the end, that's all the painting becomes: an aid to your quest. The painting should have been the point of the gameplay, not merely a tool to help you. This game was begging to be made on the Nintendo Wii, where you could paint strokes in real time. Could you imagine the game if Amaretsu, herself, couldn't actually attack? Instead, you could have ran around with the wolf avoiding enemies while attacking with the paint brush in real time. And how fun would it have been to use the paint brush during platforming, jumping over large chasms and drawing in platforms, a la Kirby Canvas Curse? Take a cue from games even as old as Bionic Commando on the NES. They took jumping away from your character to emphasize the use of the bionic arm. So in Okami, they should have taken away your ability to attack to emphasize the painting.
But as it is, you simply use the appropriate brush stroke to solve whichever puzzle needs to be solved. And in the meantime, your character can attack with your standard chain combo (square, square, square... and yet more squares if you buy power ups) just like most games. And you can buy items that aid in your combat at shops just like most games. And can power-up your attributes just like most games. And can equip new weapons just like most games. And, in the new bane of video gaming, must hunt down things for "collection" purposes. When I first fed some birds in the game, I thought it was a nice little touch, complete with a skippable animation sequence that was there for no other reason than for you to watch the animals eat. But then I saw that in a sub-menu, I now had found 6% of the birds in the game. And then I noticed that there are a whole mess of empty slots to be filled in by all the new animals you find to feed. I nearly cried at the revelation of the purpose of feeding these creatures. Do I really look forward to trying to make sure I find 100% of the animals? Not at all. Why not just let us feed them because it's cool to feed animals?
Speaking of feeding the animals, I think that, besides the Japanese mythos, the other prominent theme of Okami is the idea that we benefit from being one with nature. There is a lot in this game with bringing things to life, creating peace with the land, feeding animals, and just being really good to the flora and fauna overall. I love how Amaretsu temporarily leaves flowers wherever she runs, sprouts temporary patches of grass where she lands from jumps, creates lily pads in the water when she swims, and other such effects. But this hasn't factored largely into the gameplay (thus far). In fact, if I'm supposed to be bringing life to nature, why am I rewarded for cutting down every plant and tree I see with the slash attack of the paintbrush? It's the equivalent of mowing the lawn in the Zelda games. Cutting down grass in Zelda games gave you supplies and money and health. Same goes for Okami. You can take the time to slice down every tree you encounter, pretty much. Shouldn't you be punished for that? You can use your power to bring dead trees back to life, and then proceed to cut them down right before your eyes. And you should, too, because you get items! Of course, the trees soon regenerate, but the fact that it is beneficial to cut down trees sorta ruins the whole "nature is good and precious" theme.
Well, I've spent the whole article, so far, really making Okami sound horrible, I admit. In all honesty, the game isn't horrible. In fact, it's fun. It's a lot of fun. If there was any game you are going to be similar to, Zelda is a good one. But as a result, it's fun in a way that we've had that fun before. I've only put a few hours into the game so far, so I'm hoping the game will grow more serious and grand as it goes, giving me more of what I was hoping to see with the game. I think the impressive graphics really set me up to expect the game to be something it wasn't. That much attention paid to the graphical style, I thought, meant that the makers really put a lot of thought into the overall package. But now it just feels like it was something they tacked onto the game as an after thought. In fact, a video was released on GameVideos.com that showed a side-by-side comparison of Okami in its original style (more realistic) and Okami in its current form (artistic style). Both are very impressive visually, but it does give you the realization that the whole painting style of the graphics wasn't something that was planned from the beginning. That's a shame because, if it were, they could have made something very beautiful and abstract. I am aware, however, that such a game might not sell well. Yes, video games are a business, so the choice to make the game as Zelda-like as possible with all of your standard Zelda formulas is an understandable one: it's more marketable.
(GameVideos.com video embedded below. Click on the "Play" button to view video.)
(As an aside, I would have loved to have been in the boardroom when Fumito Ueda, creator of Shadow of the Colossus, told the heads of Sony that there would be no basic enemies to fight in the game. "So the Colossi are the bosses, right? What are the regular enemies?" "Nothing. There are no enemies. You just have to find the Colossus." "Wait, I thought I just heard you say there are no enemies. Ha ha ha ha!! Forgive my aging ears. What did you actually say?" I gotta wonder how he managed to swing that one by.)
But I still can't even find this game at my local Best Buy, so I have the feeling the game isn't selling too great anyhow. After seeing the two versions in the above video, however, I sometimes wonder if the game would have been better off with the realistic graphics, given that the artistic graphics really just feel like a skin applied to the game. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad the game was made the way it was, as I will love showing this game off to all of my non-gaming friends.
But that's all it ends up being, really: a show-off piece. The nice thing about games like Killer 7 and Shadow of Colossus is that, after I'm done showing the game off to friends, I'm eager to shoo them away so I can sit down and play the game. With Okami, I just feel like it's another one of those "job" games that is just enjoyable enough that I feel obligated to play through and complete. Hopefully, though, after putting more hours into the game, I will find myself more consumed by it.