Time Ex­tend

Cul­tural icon: the spark of di­vin­ity in Clover’s com­mer­cial dis­ap­point­ment


Brush­ing up on Clover Stu­dio’s

Okami, the most cher­ished of com­mer­cial un­der-achiev­ers

Pub­lisher Cap­com De­vel­oper Clover Stu­dio For­mat PS2, PS3, Wii Re­lease 2006

Ac­cord­ing to the fa­ther of Dead Or Alive, Tomonobu Ita­gaki, there’s a say­ing in Ja­pan: “the weaker dog barks more”. This barbed com­ment wasn’t aimed di­rectly at Okami – in­tended in­stead for its direc­tor, the no­to­ri­ously out­spo­ken Hideki Kamiya – but it might as well have been. As the game awarded the du­bi­ous hon­our of a Guin­ness World Record in 2010 for Least Com­mer­cially Suc­cess­ful Win­ner Of Game Of The Year Award, there’s lit­tle room to ar­gue against Okami be­ing the runt of the Clover lit­ter, at least in a nar­rowly de­fined sense. Ita­gaki couldn’t have known that was com­ing when he de­liv­ered the jibe in 2008, but he could not fail to be aware of the im­plo­sion of Clover shortly af­ter Okami’s re­lease, or of two years of slow sales for the game.

Yet Ita­gaki’s words carry un­in­ten­tional mean­ing. Where fi­nan­cially ‘stronger’ games have been forgotten, Okami has en­dured. This dog’s bark is not an in­signif­i­cant yap­ping, but an in­flu­en­tial shock­wave that howls across two gen­er­a­tions of videogame hard­ware and three con­soles. It even got a se­quel, 2010’s chibi-styled Okami­den for DS. A HD ver­sion for PS3 ar­rived as late as the end of 2012. None of th­ese are triv­ial ac­com­plish­ments for a game that had sold just 600,000 copies world­wide by 2009, made within an in­dus­try of­ten crit­i­cised for its aver­sion to risk.

Okami is a fine il­lus­tra­tion of why unit sales should not be the only yard­stick for videogame suc­cess, and of the in­her­ent ten­sion in a cre­ative medium where al­most ev­ery work is sold as a prod­uct, or a por­tal to them. Be­cause it’s pre­cisely the qual­i­ties that make Okami so bril­liant that seem to have worked against it when it first came to sell­ing it­self in a glob­alised mar­ket­place: the way it draws so deeply from the well­spring of com­par­a­tively niche Ja­panese mythol­ogy, and ver­sa­tile brush me­chan­ics ide­ally suited for touch­screens or mo­tion con­trols on hard­ware that of­fered nei­ther. It’s hard to sell to play­ers what they can­not pic­ture.

So in 2006, Okami on PS2 was a game out of time. In some re­spects, it was anachro­nis­tic, ev­i­dently scaf­folded upon a sim­i­lar struc­ture to The Leg­end Of Zelda:

Oca­rina Of Time. There’s the hub-and­spokes dun­geoneer­ing, the pro­vin­cial start that quickly links the fate of a vil­lage with a shad­owy men­ace that threat­ens to devour the land. And then there’s that grad­u­ally un­locked ar­moury of Ce­les­tial Brush pow­ers, which gives playable sun god­dess Amat­erasu and her bug-sized com­pan­ion, Is­sun, power over the world as well as fear­some abil­i­ties in com­bat. On the flip side, it would take the then-ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy of a Wii Re­mote to re­alise the mimetic po­ten­tial of a me­chanic based on drawing while still of­fer­ing a com­bat sys­tem of dodges, blocks, coun­ters and pro­jec­tiles tied to con­ven­tional but­tons.

The story, mean­while, was a mod­ernised take on some­thing an­cient, based heav­ily on the mythol­ogy of Shinto, the way of the spir­its or ‘kami’. It’s an im­por­tant part of Ja­panese his­tory, for­merly the state reli­gion and a be­lief sys­tem that dates back to be­fore the sixth cen­tury. You might never think of

Zelda as es­pe­cially western­ised, but it’s far eas­ier for out­siders to wrap their heads around a blond hero with a leg­endary sword than the con­cerns of a god in lupine form drawn from a pan­theon in a rit­u­al­is­tic tra­di­tion that has no clear par­al­lels to west­ern re­li­gions. Shinto is at once an in­sti­tu­tion, a cul­tural back­drop and a clus­ter of rit­u­als. While it in­cor­po­rates deities of sorts, it also con­cerns it­self with es­sen­tial hu­man good­ness and pu­rity. To truly un­der­stand it, you have to be in­grained in Ja­panese cul­ture, and to an ex­tent that goes for Okami’s mythic sto­ry­line, too.

It’s not that Okami is about cul­ture, rather that it is sat­u­rated in it. You don’t need to know that act one of the game bor­rows lib­er­ally from the tale of how kami god of the storms Su­sanoo – in leg­end the brother of sun de­ity Amat­erasu – de­feated the eight-headed dragon Ya­mata no Orochi to ap­pre­ci­ate the plight of a maiden due to be sac­ri­ficed to a ser­pen­tine de­mon. You don’t need to know that the gor­geous vis­ual style is a di­rect de­scen­dant of wood­cuts and sumi-e ink paint­ing – a 2,000-year-old Zen dis­ci­pline that stresses the pri­macy of en­er­getic, char­ac­ter­ful brush­strokes – to ap­pre­ci­ate the way stylised, thick-lined grass and flow­ers spring up be­neath


Ammy’s paws when she runs. You don’t need to be an ex­pert in cal­lig­ra­phy to revel in the grainy tac­tile feed­back when you sum­mon the Ce­les­tial Brush, the world flat­tens to rice pa­per, and you swish the bris­tles about the screen to trig­ger a godly power. But there’s no es­cap­ing it ei­ther – ev­ery tale you hear and ev­ery frame you see is im­bued with the weight of pe­cu­liarly Ja­panese his­tory. So even though en­gag­ing with it is op­tional, per­haps a lit­tle cul­ture shock for western­ers is un­der­stand­able.

Be­sides, you’ll get much more from the game as you bet­ter un­der­stand where it is com­ing from. No cor­re­spon­dence course is nec­es­sary: you’ll be sur­prised what you’ve soaked up on a re­peat playthrough. The game’s box art is an ex­cel­lent ex­am­ple of the lay­ers avail­able to peel back across the course of this 40-hour-plus adventure. On first con­tact, you have a Ja­panese word against a red sun with swirling red flames in­side, plus a white wolf nearby. Not a lot of con­text, though per­haps you note the sim­i­lar­ity be­tween the crim­son orb and the Ja­panese flag or its so­bri­quet as the Land Of The Ris­ing Sun. Then you learn that Okami means ‘great god’, that the white wolf is the god­dess of the sun, and that those flames match the flour­ishes on her fur when she is seen in her true di­vine form, which re­quires eyes at­tuned to the spirit world. It’s a mul­ti­lay­ered pun hid­den in plain sight. And that’s just the English ver­sion.

And in all things, Okami is ir­rev­er­ent, reg­u­larly plant­ing its wag­ging tongue firmly in cheek. The Su­sanoo of leg­end is an au­gust and cun­ning war­rior, whereas Okami presents the player with Su­sano, a bum­bling cow­ard who ini­tially needs di­vine as­sis­tance to smash a boul­der. You will at least have be­come broth­ers in arms by the time that Ammy and Is­sun head off to Sei’an City. Kono­hanasakuya-hime, mean­while, is a blos­som kami and a sym­bol for the fragility of hu­man life. Whereas Sakuya in Okami is a con­spic­u­ously well-en­dowed young spirit who man­i­fests at the Kono­hana tree and who gets to be the butt, or rather bust, of a dirty joke about the places the diminu­tive Is­sun can squeeze into. But then kami aren’t al­ways well be­haved in leg­ends ei­ther: get­ting Orochi blind drunk on sake is a key con­stituent of his de­feat in the tale.

It’s that lack of def­er­ence, a will­ing­ness to cherry pick the weird and ex­cit­ing, that pro­duced a game with a play­ful char­ac­ter and an out­stand­ing cast. Few could for­get Mr Bamboo, the avun­cu­lar and rather ob­sessed old man who teaches you the dig­ging minigame to get a spring work­ing again so he can make his bamboo wares. Equally mem­o­rable is be­com­ing in­volved in the sad tale of his adop­tive grand­daugh­ter, who you help re­turn home to the stars. Nor will you soon find a par­al­lel for the cryptic Waka, who tests Ammy in battle across the game to gauge her power, but charms with his cock­sure pro­nounce­ments and pen­chant for out-of-place French turns of phrase.

It’s part of why Okami is age­less: the ap­peal of this world is not sim­ply

me­chan­i­cal, but in im­mers­ing your­self in a quirky slice of world cul­ture. All videogames cap­ture some­thing of the time and place in which they were made, but few are bold enough to root them­selves so wholly in one eth­nic back­ground. A paste of generic high fan­tasy is safer, per­haps spiced with a tinge of me­dieval Euro­pean ref­er­ences. The fu­ture is un­writ­ten, which leaves room to ad­dress mod­ern con­cerns against a shim­mer­ing back­drop of fil­ters and glossy tech, also al­low­ing stu­dios to show off their en­gines. As a re­sult, a lot of videogame worlds feel broadly sim­i­lar, but not so Okami’s Nip­pon, a ro­man­tic and idealised Ja­pan that ex­ists only in sto­ries and the heads of the few hun­dred thou­sand who played the game.

On the ev­i­dence of those sales, how­ever, de­vel­op­ers are right to worry that drawing so deeply from one niche is akin to com­mer­cial sui­cide. But this is an­other way in which Okami was ahead of its time.

En­slaved: Odyssey To The West would con­duct a sim­i­lar ex­per­i­ment in 2010, be­ing a colour­ful con­sole adventure with high pro­duc­tion val­ues and a story rooted in eastern myth – and also fail to meet sales ex­pec­ta­tions. Not un­til 2014 did Up­per One Games’ Never Alone con­vert real-world folk­lore into a truly vi­able sell­ing point, turn­ing enough of a profit for pub­lisher E-Line Me­dia to buy the de­vel­oper with an eye to ex­pand­ing its sta­ble of ‘world games’. Yet it took a cul­tural shift to make Never

Alone pos­si­ble: one where smaller-scale games are sold on con­sole store­fronts, and dig­i­tal dis­tri­bu­tion has en­cour­aged greater grad­u­a­tion in pric­ing mod­els.

Okami never had th­ese ad­van­tages, but it re­mains an early mile­stone in a still-emerg­ing nar­ra­tive about how videogames en­gage with real-world is­sues and her­itages. It has long been a ray of hope beam­ing from the cave en­trance of an artis­tic medium reg­u­larly dis­missed as the pur­suit of chil­dren and the puerile, as mere en­ter­tain­ment with noth­ing to teach us about the world. Okami proves that crit­i­cism false, and it also de­fangs Ita­gaki’s com­ment by hav­ing in­spired a fan­base that’s still pas­sion­ate about the game nine years af­ter re­lease. That’s in no small part be­cause this light­hearted master­piece had the self­be­lief to make play of over 2,000 years of quintessen­tially Ja­panese mythol­ogy.

FROM TOP Okami isn’t afraid to dress its cast dis­tinc­tively: Waka’s Tengu-like hat of­fers a hint about his sword skills, and Kokari’s seems to be a tip off about his timid na­ture

You can see the ger­mi­nat­ing seed of Plat­inum in Okami’s com­bat sys­tems. Equip a re­flec­tor weapon as a sub and you’ll gain ac­cess to a counter that trig­gers with a well-timed block, while a glaive main can be charged to de­liver a pow­er­ful strike

Restor­ing na­ture is a deep­rooted theme in Okami, with a me­chan­i­cal and vis­ual pay­off. Heal a blighted area and you’ll be re­warded with Praise to spend on up­grades

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