Note: Thanks to Cart Boy and Whitey Fox for edits.
It sounds so obvious as to be worthless a statement, but video games are defined by their interactivity. From the most linear visual novel to the most open-ended world, the medium holds together by the idea that the player is the primary director of the action. A number of games and developers like express this more literally or directly, by allowing players to interact with and alter their worlds in various ways. Beating one stage in Mega Man X causes others to change in different ways. Certain choices in Mass Effect can save or damn your friends, love interests, or even entire races over the course of the series’ first three games. To a broader extent, most allow you to design a character with a unique name, appearance, or style of action.
For Ōkami, the 2006 swan song of Capcom’s now-defunct Clover Studios, this idea of players making their mark took on a literal, painterly quality. Being an agent of the world becomes akin to a painter over it, directing the action and changing the world simply through the move of a paintbrush. Every aspect of the game’s design, from its cel shaded art to its Japanese setting to its narrative themes, comes from this idea of treating the world like a canvas.
The game gets at this idea through a structure that’s sort of a cross between ActRaiser and The Legend of Zelda. You play as a wolf goddess – Amaterasu, the reigning solar deity of this depiction of ancient Japan – tasked with restoring the land after it has been plagued by demonic forces and curses. While you do have basic weapons based on the Imperial Regalia of Japan, your primary power comes from a “Celestial Brush” you use to alter the world. In and out of battle, pressing a button pauses the game and gives the screen into a faded appearance of a Japanese scroll. On that “page,” you can draw symbols to create things – wind, bombs, slashes from a nonexistent sword – that suddenly come to life the moment you go back to the action. The wealth of powers are used for combat, exploration, and sometimes just bemused interest on the part of the player.
The Brush’s powers are diverse and widespread. Drawing a circle around a massive, withered cherry blossoms brings it to bloom, driving the curse out of each section of ancient Nippon. A giant loop summons a powerful wind that extinguishes fires and turns hanging banners into temporary platforms. A circle or crescent in the sky turns night into day and day into night. Lines drawn from puddles or fires turn into water and flame. It’s worth noting that these abilities are very open in their application; you could, for instance, draw a fire line from a lit torch, a bonfire, an enemy set ablaze, or even a flaming sword wielded by Amaterasu. Some combine as well, like how you can summon lily pads to stand on otherwise dangerous water and then push them with wind.
Functionally, these techniques are not drastically different from most “powers” you might get in a traditional adventure. While descriptions of Ōkami as a Zelda clone when it was released were somewhat overblown – possibly because the actual Zelda game that came out the same year, Twilight Princess, also had you play as a wolf part of the time – it is an adventure game based around exploring an overworld and dungeons to acquire special abilities that unlock more of the game. The powers are more divine, but they serve similar purposes: opening locks, breaking through obstacles, and allowing access to seemingly impossible areas. What makes them special comes from the way you perform them as actions instead of through tools, being things you have to draw using the DualShock 2’s Joystick. This creates two specific sensations: one of playing with the world through drawing, the other of a disconnect between that drawing and the character.
In a Zelda game, you would use an item like the Gust Bellows or Tornado Rod to create a strong wind, but literally making the wind simply appear on the screen in Ōkami carries a greater sense of power and wonderment. The perspective of the canvas gives you the sensation of actually drawing on and playing with the world, not just an actor within it. The physical disconnect between the character and the powers gives the latter a sensation that you’re playing with a power far greater than yourself. You literally summon the power almost out of thin air, and characters in the game react to it in kind. It’s a feeling you get when drawing ink randomly over people and monsters causes it to splat in their faces for a few seconds before they to wipe it off, or from drawing lines on the ground that turn into blossoming flowers.
The concept is also thematically rich. Games often struggle to create a personal investment on the part of the player; it’s hard to get caught up in a grandiose story when you’re also being nudged to goof off and test the limits of a sandbox or notified of a pointless achievement. Giving the player such a direct command of how the world works – not through the perspective of a Real Time Strategy or simulation game, but through this one mechanic – helps develop that investment. It’s a more “hands-on” approach to this kind of action-adventure gameplay, which has the added benefit of putting you in the mind of a deity. The narrative drives this as well, frequently implying that you’re playing as not only Amaterasu and an engine of her godly powers, but also an artist painting and depicting the events of the story after the fact. These three different levels of character, god, and artist mean you aren’t simply adventuring through the world; you’re a beloved guardian of it.
This is reinforced through other systems, particularly its equivalent to experience points. Instead of getting points from defeating enemies, Amaterasu gains “praise” for acts of divine intervention, like restoring the land, feeding animals, or defeating bosses, which can be used to upgrade various things like health and the well of ink you can use. Along with secrets like upgrades for the brush techniques, finding new avenues for restoring the world reward and encourage exploration.
Perhaps the most exciting reward of all is also the one with only aesthetic benefits: making this figuratively and literally picturesque world even more gorgeous. I included Ōkami in a list of games that use their art in compelling ways, and it is a paramount example of singular art direction in the medium. The washed out cel shading evokes ancient Japanese ink wash painting, giving the game an oddly nostalgic quality with colors that pop through a slightly grainy filter. When cursed, the world is a morass of black blobs laid over sinister red lighting; driving out that aura turns the landscape into a bountiful array of colors and lines. Outlines for objects even react to camera movements by becoming dynamically thicker or thinner, just to look the most satisfying for where they are on screen. No other game looks quite like this one, and few can compare to it.
Allowing players to make a literal mark on the world in such a literal way isn’t unique to this game – you can see it in Jet Set Radio, Splatoon, Super Meat Boy, and others – but Ōkami approaches the concept with a specificity in its inspiration. Like The Wind Waker or the upcoming Cuphead, its artistic inspiration influences the rest of the production, from the emphasis on cherry blossoms to the bold lines delineating objects and movement. It is that specificity and inspiration and consistency that has made it a cult classic, garnering praise that has lasted far beyond its paltry sales on the PS2. And if recent rumors of the game’s 2012 HD release coming to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in December pan out, its world of lily pads and divine ink may stay in players’ minds for some time to come.