The Aesthetic Failure of Okami

It’s often the case that any discussion regarding Okami inevitably ends up revolving around comparisons to The Legend of Zelda. How does Capcom’s adventure title stack up to Nintendo’s highly-venerated franchise? Does it fall short? This is a problem. For one thing, the most interesting thing about the last decade of Zelda has been witnessing the series slowly but gradually buckle under its own weight with each successive installment. It hasn’t exactly been flying high. Secondly, the conversation glosses over the one reason anyone cares about Okami in the first place: its sumi-e art direction.

Set Zelda aside and the more compelling question has always been in asking how well Okami lives up to the philosophy behind its own inspired, brush-like aesthetics. Thinking about that, though, brings up another, more unfortunate query: How did it misfire so badly?

The only ink the painter is allowed to apply to paper is that which is needed to capture a subject’s essence.

Developed centuries ago, sumi-e (literally, “ink painting”) is a painting style that’s been used to wonderful effect by artists like China’s Xia Gui and Japan’s Sesshu Toyo. As Arthur Wesley Dow wrote in Composition, a sumi-e artist must “put upon the paper the fewest possible lines and tones…Every brush-touch must be full-charged with meaning, and useless detail eliminated.” In other words, the only ink the painter is allowed to apply to paper is that which is needed to capture a subject’s essence.

In some respects, Okami certainly lives up to this inspiration. Its visual dynamism was unprecedented for its time, and has since rarely been eclipsed even by the power of current technology. Flowers sprout in Amaterasu’s wake as she runs through fields. Ink strokes swirl through the air to signify flowing winds. By allowing players to cover the screen in a canvas and enact change in the landscape through their painting, the title also vividly re-imagined what it meant for a brushstroke to be “full of meaning.” A simple line could create bridges over impossible gaps, while elegant circles could bring barren trees to blossom.

For a universe brought to life by a style that throws out unnecessary details, however, the actual world of Okami is overrun with them. Producer Atsushi Inaba said his goal was to have players interact with and feel the power of nature, but this is often overshadowed by a number of excesses. Even the tiniest of accomplishments result in the player being showered with gifts: furniture, money, wooden bears, beads, praise, paintings and other trinkets that are rarely, if ever, actually used (much less treasured). In a title hoping to reflect the powerful essence of nature, shouldn’t bringing a barren world back to life be enough reward? The game even nods towards their pointlessness by later suggesting you should just sell everything. On top of this, Okami never stops talking; it’s constantly instructing, directing and giving away solutions to its puzzles.

When Henry Bowie wrote On the Laws of Japanese Painting, he commented on the burden that sumi-e artists shouldered when they picked up an ink brush. “Should [the student’s] subject be a tree, he is urged when painting it to feel the strength which shoots through the branches and sustains the limbs.” It is a supremely confident style, so much so that an entire painting must be completed at once and without pause. No corrections tolerated. If they’re needed, the piece is considered a failure.

Okami’s confidence doesn’t seem to extend past its audio/visual experience. At one point in its sequel Okamiden, an elderly man tasks me with scouring the area to find a collection of journals. My first thought is that these must be important, but instead he concludes, “If you can find all our journals, well, I just won’t know what to say.” The painter is throwing ink on the canvas via plenty of side quests, but there’s no sense of purpose. What do these journals mean?

On another occasion, I’m told to restore a tree sapling planted on the roof of a house. As I make my way there, I’m told another two times to remember what to do! When I bring out the canvas to paint, the game pauses again to say, “So you just trace the outline, right?” These are only two instances, but both titles are filled with examples in which players are inundated with text and camera movements that are not only superfluous, but also solve the very puzzles you’re supposed to.

The reason sumi-e uses as few strokes as possible is because, according to Dow, “the painter expected the beholder to create with him.” The viewer is employed as an active participant in the creative process, applying the filler while the artist boldly provides the necessary structure. With Okami, though, there is either a lack of confidence in itself or in the player. One has to wonder what exactly the viewer is meant to bring to the experience here; he or she is simply following orders.

Still, the point isn’t necessarily that Okami failed because it didn’t strictly adhere to sumi-e principles. Unfortunately, though, it always seems to err on the side of excess when choosing a more minimalist approach would’ve done two things. It would’ve not only brought the game more in line with its fantastic art direction, but also would’ve made for a tighter, more rewarding experience. As it is, Okami is a title sorely in need of an editor, and so when it asks if all we have to do is “trace the outline,” we already know the answer. If only it were that easy.

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Follow Jordan on Twitter @JordanMammo.

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  • Daniel Buck

    Using Okamiden for examples to critique Okami is a flawed method, just as it was a heavily Flawed Sequel.
    I would Argue that Okami succeeds in many places on many of the points you have raised, just as it fails (and It unquestionably does so) where you have pointed out. It's combat is a perfect balance of efficiency and Art, allowing for quick and methodic fights when you are in a hurry or driven by narrative imperative, but full of explorative depth, rewarding you for finding new and expressive ways to engage in combat and use the brush strokes. The sequel had none of this, and it's fights were long and repetitive.
    Okami is not just a game about Sumi-e, It is a game about faith and folklore, a section of social construct rich in unnecessary detail and complication. I felt that it's world and characters reflected it's themes and motifs damn well.

  • Justin Simonson

    Mr. Mammo,

    I agree with Daniel's comment above, completely. Okamiden and Okami are completely different games, even if they are closely related. I enjoyed Okamiden (I know many did not), but not nearly as much as Okami, which is one of my favorite games of all time. In fact, one of Okamiden's primary strengths is the feeling of nostalgia for Okami.

    I don't know how you can say Okami was a failure. Editing might have enhanced the minimalist aesthetics of sumi-e in non-aesthetic ways, but would that have enhanced my love for the game or enjoyment of it? I don't believe so.

    The sumi-e aesthetic is only one aspect of the game. Another aspect, another goal that I felt Okami's creators aspired to accomplish, was to create a world that felt lush and rich and lived in and old, filled with beautiful vistas, grottos, animals, characters, habitats (be they landscape, cave, or building). The only game I can think of that accomplishes that goal as well is Beyond Good & Evil.

    Now for artistic gamers like you and me, the beauty and the fun of exploration are probably enough to show us all of those things: we will seek out every secluded bit of scenery simply because we can, and because the developers were kind and hard-working enough to create it and include it. We will talk to every character because they seem interesting. But for the average gamer, this is probably not enough. There are likely many gamers who experienced truly beautiful aspects of the game because they were looking for one of the elusive 100 beads (which I treasured the heck out of, thank you very much). There are probably other gamers who care a bit less about the beauty of nature, and who would have been disappointed by discovering and following a hidden trail of sky flowers only to be rewarded by a pretty vista; for those gamers, having a chest to open adds a bit of reward.

    Were too many of the treasures in those chests a bit lack-luster? Yes. I would have preferred if every bit of pottery or statuary was unique, so that I could be satisfied with completing my collection; when I already had a statue of that particular god, it didn't come with the same "ooh!" of delight. Of course, it did have a cash value, which was nothing to look down on, as some powerful techniques and rare items cost money. And that goddess in the well was pretty demanding. I also am cognizant of the fact that placing a unique item or character in/on _every_ one of those hidden caves, and cliffs, and holes, grottos, and islands would have added time, effort, and money to the developers' budgets unnecessarily, and those costs were real. I don't think it's possible to argue that all those caves, cliffs, holes, grottos, and islands were unnecessary. They added immeasurably to the aforementioned feeling of richness.

    You complain that characters (and the game's interface) tell you what to do too often. I agree that's true for Okamiden, but not for Okami. I never felt like I was getting an irritating deluge of information. And I know there are other gamers out there who are either not as clever or not as patient (or who have stepped away from the game for a few weeks due to busy life schedules), who appreciate frequent reminders about their task at hand or how to do a particular move.

    In short, I feel that you make the mistake critics are so often prone to making: you equate imperfection with failure or (just as sad) you equate _what you perceive as imperfections_ with failure, even though other users/viewers/players see those imperfections as strengths. For me, Okami (and I'll make the caveat that I played the original on PS2, and never played the Wii version) was a near-perfect experience. Heck, it's one of the few where the ending made me cry. I would be hard-pressed to think of anything about it I would fight to change.

  • rmharman

    I had a conversation once with one of the designers of Dead Space — the guy who origianlly developed the dismemberable ragdoll models that were fundamental to the creepiness of the necromorphs. He was frustrated that his game had been dumbed down, having the game remind people, well into the game, that, duh, they had to dismember enemies to kill them. But apparently in play-testing, some significant portion of the audience was having problems with that.

    Ultimately, for-profit game companies are not designing for people who read game blogs, let alone for people who write for them. They're designing for the median gamer. The median gamer, it turns out, enjoys a constant stream of rewards (even if they don't go completionist on finding all of them), and often needs reminders and instructions. I appreciate it when a game gives me the option to nuke some of its hand-holding — e.g. Skyward Sword at least let you kill the giant representation of the controller that hogged a big chunk of screen space — but I can't get too upset at the designers for doing what lets them sell more copies. They're trying to make a living, as well as making art. And Okami was some pretty spectacular art.

  • Jo Jo

    Lame article. Misses the point. Why should a designer adhere to these strict "rules" if ultimately they produce a fun and beautiful game. After playing many games for many years Okami still stands out in my mind as a uniquely enjoyable experience. It accomplishes the difficult task of building its own distinctive world, aesthetic, and tone. IMHO it succeefs on many levels.

  • http://www.brindlebrothers.com John Brindle

    Mammo only used Okaiden to illustrate two examples, which were relatively unimportant in the article, and which are replicated at many points in the three or four hours of Okami I remember.

    This all pretty much chimes with my experience of Okami. Behind its elegant art style it simply wouldn't stop talking at me and making me collect things; I'd hoped the game would be as formally interesting as its aesthetics. While I stopped playing it for a few hours (and correct me if it suddenly becomes amazing later on), it reminded me a little of Psychonauts, which has a similar problem, only less extreme: beneath its joyful invention and sharp writing it is on one level a fun but merely competent platformer with an extremely inelegant reward system involving way too many random trinkets to pick up and way too little to do with them.