Thursday, March 08, 2007

Further Thoughts on Okami

The winners of this year's Game Developers Choice Awards were announced today, with Gears of War picking up a number of awards, including Game of the Year. While Okami unfortunately wasn't picked for Game of the Year as I had hoped, it did win for Best Character Design (yay Amaterasu!), and received an award for Innovation (along with Wii Sports and a Flash game called Line Rider...what a great year this has been for the game industry!). And now that I'm about halfway through the game myself (it took my game-tester roommate over 40 hours to complete, and I'm only about 22 hours in), I can say with certainty that Okami deserved that and a lot more.

The experience of playing Okami is unique and strangely uplifting (to read an overview of the plot and some coverage of critical reception of the game, check out the Wikipedia entry). I never could have imagined how enjoyable it is to experience running around the countryside as a goddess in wolf-form, restoring life to dead trees and polluted pastures, freeing and feeding the wildlife (who fall in love with you as a result), leaving in my wake an endless stream of flowers and leaves instead of the usual piles of bloody corpses. While the emphasis is on creativity, there is certainly conflict and a large battle aspect to the gameplay - and Amaterasu is equipped with some handy weapons and excellent fight moves with which to conquer enemies. But much of the gameplay, including battles, relies on your skills with a paintbrush - with which you sort of "interrupt" the game, which then reveals itself as an ancient scroll. Once you've extracted yourself to this meta-level, you are then able to simply "draw in" desired narrative turns or devices based on a series of brush strokes you learn over the course of the game. Thus, you can use the brush to "slash" your enemies, or draw a stream of water from a nearby river to extinguish a fire-demon, or draw a sun in the sky to illuminate your path. As a result, you're constantly reminded of your concurrent roles as a character AND as an author of the game narrative and experience. As a goddess, you are both of the universe of the game but also above it - which is a great, reflexive subject position to provide for a video game player who is already occupying these concurrent roles, though not always this explicitly.

The game itself is quite immense, with many areas to explore and revisit again once new skills (i.e. brush strokes) are acquired. The first half of the game revolves around the return of an old enemy that (according to the ancient myth, in all its ambiguity and contradicting versions) Amaterasu helped to vanquish 100 years ago, who is now back to re-attempt domination of medieval Nippon. The surprising thing is, while the plot leads up to an eventual re-match that at first seems to signify the end of the game, you soon find out that the "end" is not the end, but simply the first albeit major step in a much larger quest. Now presented with an overarching quest of undefined scope and even content, you are reassured by several characters that when faced with a seemingly insurmountable task, your best bet is to tackle it one component at a time...much like a PhD, or a comprehensive exam reading list. The gender representation is a bit tongue in check - our travel companion is a bug-sized "lady's man" who incessantly hits on the beautiful sprites and big-breasted priestesses we encounter throughout our journey. Amaterasu herself is apparently quite beautiful - you occasionally encounter someone who can see your true form - although the avatar is (so far) solely represented as a stately white wolf...though I'm sure there will be some kind of "reveal" by the end of the game. Overall, though, I've found that these elements are treated with humor and again with reflexivity, this time on the genre conventions of fantasy/adventure video games (well, video games in general).

More to come once I've completed the game in full. So far, though, Okami is headed to my list of favourite games of all time for its innovative and unique gameplay experience, stunning graphics, and engaging gender-inclusive narrative.

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