Ōkami HD – Art as a Catalyst for Peace
On my venture through Agata Forest, I come across a family of hogs. I have plenty of seed bags in my possession, and I halt — as I’m always running, but never weary — to offer them a meal. The page turns, we are transported to a secluded heaven of lush greenery, and I watch a piglet graciously dine on its needed meal, content with the hospitality I have awarded.
I’d allow the scene to continue for eternity. The game presents that option; but I know there are others in need of my benevolence elsewhere in this corrupted world. This scene is repeated numerous times throughout a single playthrough of Ōkami and it is arguably the most important moment in the entire game, every time it happens. It is particularly included as the game’s defining scenario, a thesis statement arguing the significance of generosity, and the humble rewards granted as a result.
Ōkami is daring in the most unassuming manner possible. The game pits players in the role of a god, almost shrugging it off as a mere mention; then tasks them to engage in combat by placing brushstrokes to the page, literally defeating enemies with art. Its narrative follows an eclectic and buoyant cast of would-be mortal heroes whom the protagonist deity, Amaterasu constantly aids, despite their ignorance to her divine intervention. Her underlying task is to reform the beauty of the world, painting over cursed natural landscapes with vibrant colors and animated foliage; going head to head with a reawoken malevolent foe hell-bent on casting the world in darkness.
All this with the jovial personality of a wandering artist seeking friendship and wisdom. The developers at the adjourned Clover Studio understand that saving the world from oppressive forces can only be accomplished through delightful, stimulated motivation. They design Ōkami with the intent of grasping the audience’s attention visually, then allow the player to breathe their own sort of Life into the environment, as well, laughing all the way.
This deliberate ‘feel-good’ aesthetic hearkens back to the early years of 3D gaming. Ocarina of Time similarly drops players into a semi-open world where NPC characters are the more important than the more basic underlying objective. In fact, Ōkami wears its Zelda influences proudly on its splendid cel-shaded sleeve, and not only for the purposes of aesthetic pleasure.
Ōkami is committed to ancient Japanese folklore. Stories that carry the weights of gods but orchestrated by noble mortal men, armed with little weaponry and a whole lot of faith. Clover Studio reach back into the past and recreate those familiar themes into a single title for a modern machine, through an interactive art medium wherein the performer is granted the abilities of a literal god. It is a history lesson indebted to the importance of compassion and pride as a conduit for development, both structural and internal.
Those brief interludes where Amaterasu offers food to the various animals in her kingdom allow the player to bask in the glory of their power. Ōkami is as much a game about being an all-powerful god as it is about the importance of maintaining that power and using it for the utmost good. Faith is entirely maintained by the presence of a higher power. When the fumbling, lazy warrior, Susano attempts to show off his strength, Amaterasu is there to convince him and the doubters who surround him of his abilities. But his faith is connected to the heroic lineage weighing on him, a dedication to the great warrior ancestor, Nagi who long ago banished the evil Orochi with the aid of godly Shiranui in a similar wolfish form.
The central characters of Ōkami have identities which weigh heavily upon them, reminding them of their individuality and significance to the world around them. It is the outlet through which we exhibit compassion and understanding of the world around us that simultaneously strengthens and emboldens it. For Amaterasu, the world is a canvas upon which the lush vibrancy of foliage and living things are placed to populate it. Only the limits of the page upon which she paints are endless, and the sole provider of color is the kindness she demonstrates.
Kindness in Ōkami is a mindless, inherent action. It is the most optimistic of games I’ve personally experienced, arguing the notion that even in the face of ultimate destruction, the light finds a way into the darkest of nights. Simply painting the sun across the sky brings back the day, and Ōkami presents this as a startlingly beautiful reconstruction whenever the player assumes that responsibility.
Responsibilities in Ōkami are never dried out or laborious. Clover Studio place so much emphasis on the significance of players’ actions no matter what task they are carrying out. Unfortunately, not every moment of the game is necessarily ‘Fun,’ for certain tasks provide little challenge or require only minimal effort.
But simply reading a sign presents a gorgeous view of a newly-discovered temple; clicking a button to feed a flock of birds will transition over to that Life-affirming scene of benevolence; stroking the brush across an enemy to easily wipe them out carries the symbolic weight of the most complex works of art. Certain moments may feel unengaging in regards to gameplay, but never dull or uninspired.
Every action made confirms an intense attention to detail in craft from the developer, from the characters’ various movesets in battle, to the deceptively three-dimensional landscapes, to the very ground beneath Amaterasu’s paws as she runs through valleys and villages. For as much has been said already about Ōkami’s unique and staggeringly-wonderful artistry, it doesn’t feel enough.
Few AAA titles present such a tale of vast importance, wherein chaos and ruin are imminent, without succumbing to the pitfalls of sentimentality or needless urgency. Battling dark forces is as delightful a venture as frolicking in the fields, for only becoming one with nature and acknowledging its deliberate beauty may one truly understands the importance of conserving it.
Ōkami is about an artist striving to make a positive difference in the world through her work. Placing control into the hands of the player universalizes the concept, signifying artistry and creative output as the greatest virtue to mankind. Perhaps even the very validation of humanity.