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
EVERY TALE YOU HEAR AND EVERY FRAME YOU SEE IS IMBUED WITH THE WEIGHT OF PECULIARLY JAPANESE HISTORY
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