The art of ‘Okami’ is a bold stroke for the future

By Josh Korr
tbt*-Tampa Bay Times
October 6, 2006
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Considering the importance of graphics in video games, it’s surprising how few games have made a lasting visual impact.

Too many games churn out some variation of overused sci-fi or fantasy tropes. Even memorable game characters like Mario — a squat Italian man — and Link of Zelda fame — an anonymous elfin knight-boy — are just generic caricatures. (To be fair, a lot of games try to depict reality, which limits the possibility of visual experimentation).

Where is the video game equivalent of Looney Tunes auteurs Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng; movie artistes Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam; or comic book trend-setters Frank Miller and Dave McKean — the figures whose unique styles and sensibilities change the possibilities of what a medium’s visual art can do?

The new PlayStation 2 game Okami might not make it into the pop culture pantheon. But its brave attempt to show us something different and beautiful is a refreshing break from all the derivative dragons, soldiers and aliens out there.

Okami tells the story of a Japanese land that’s been covered in darkness by a freed demon. You play as the goddess Amaterasu, who returns as a wolf to fend off the demons and bring color and life back to the world.

The wolf and other quirky characters come alive through the slashing brushstrokes and muted palette of a traditional Japanese painting. The effect is entrancing.

Burning fires look like swirls of tissue paper rising to the sky. A village elder’s pinched face droops to a ski-jump of a beard – a simple pen line that wouldn’t work with regular 3-D graphics. Dollops of shading and thick black lines turn seemingly flat landscapes into richly textured valleys.

The best part is, you get to draw some of this. By using Amaterasu’s “celestial brush,” you can make trees bloom, bring out the sun, slice enemies in two, and use many other powers by drawing certain strokes on the screen.

Unfortunately, the rest of the game wasn’t made with the same care. A 15-minute introduction makes for a tedious start, and good luck keeping track of all the gods and demons mentioned. There’s no option to skip through much of the game’s text, making the intro and some of the dialogue unbearable.

The story is an interesting departure from typical save-the-world/damsel video game tropes, but tonally it has nothing to do with Japanese folktales. The speech and narration rhythms are all wrong; a talking bug gets too cutesy as Amaterasu’s sidekick, calling the wolf “Ammy” and using anachronistic slang like “Aw, man … This is getting’ heavy.” And characters “speak” in a grating, inarticulate babble that’s a cross between a rooster’s gobble, adult bleats in the Peanuts cartoons, and the pasty-faced teen’s voice-cracks on The Simpsons.

Still, the game’s look and unexpected world more than balance out the annoying parts. What’s important is that Capcom is trying something different.

Sometimes being a visual visionary is enough. Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton haven’t directed many great movies, but they’ve made a lot of influential ones. Here’s hoping Okami has the same effect on the video game world.

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