SPOILER ALERT: Ōkami IS SPOILED BELOW
By the time Ōkami came out in 2006, I was already prepared for the next console generation. Instead of playing Clover Studio’s latest release, I spent my evenings on my Xbox 360 in Coagulation and Gridlock. The Burning Crusade was in full swing and I was leveling a young blood elf hunter.
It’s safe to say that Ōkami flew under my radar, as it did most for most people. In 2007, the original release had only sold around 270,000 copies. Despite overwhelming critical acclaim, people just would not buy the game. In the end, critical success doesn’t mean commercial success. Games such as Psychonauts and Beyond Good & Evil, while appreciated, spelled death for their companies.
Despite that, a re-release on the Wii did garner more sales and Ōkami has secured its place as a beloved title in the hearts of gamers everywhere. It’s one of the few games to approach an adventure in the same vein as the Legend of Zelda series. Miyamoto and the gang’s influence is felt throughout all the fields of Nippon.
While its influences are clear, Ōkami still manages to be unique and unwaveringly true to itself as a complete and coherent work. Little, if any of its parts, are vestigial or extraneous; they work together to create a greater whole.
There is a clear theme that runs throughout Ōkami and its narrative: people do not believe in the gods anymore. In the century since Amaterasu’s last incarnation, Shiranui, defeated Orochi with the help of the great warrior Nagi, people’s faith in the gods has waned.
None of the events in the game really help their case, either. Shiranui came down to Nippon with Waka in the Ark of Yamato and all the demons that plague Nippon over the course of the game come from the Ark.
Even though Shiranui and Nagi were able to seal Orochi away, the demons are a constant source of problems over the years. Orochi’s return and the subsequent spread of evil after his second defeat plagues a city, puts one under attack by a guardian dragon, and another under siege from demons straight from the Ark.
When she’s not fighting great evils, there are many opportunities for Amaterasu to help out the citizens of Nippon. She helps a young boy lost in the woods find his lost dog and learn how to fish. She helps Mrs. Orange with her laundry and pushes around a snowball to help a child make a snowman.
Each of these tasks reward one of Ōkami’s primary resources: Praise. This is a renamed experience point system used to level up Amaterasu’s health, ink pool, wallet and Ancestral Pouch, further upgrading and empowering her. Praise is the source of her strength, a reward for her divine work down to the smallest details of the world. Narrative and optional sidequests reward the player with a more powerful character. Without Praise, she remains as powerless as she does at the beginning of the game.
As the world is restored and people are helped throughout Amaterasu’s journey, she grows more powerful. By the end of the game, when she has recovered all of the Celestial Brush techniques, she is a stronger, more godlike being than in the beginning.
Still, Yami, the final boss, proves to be too much. Even after a hard fought battle where Amaterasu recovers all the Brush techniques stolen from her, Yami takes them away again and destroys their source, the constellations.
It’s little Issun, who couldn’t board the Ark of Yamato with Amaterasu, that saves her from defeat when he realizes his role as a Celestial Envoy and spreads the word of Amaterasu’s deeds throughout Nippon.
People realize that their canine benefactor is actually another incarnation of their sun goddess. A hundred years before, she was known as Shiranui. Now, they know that the wolf is the origin of all that is good and mother to them all, Amatersasu.
The surge of faith that comes from the people of Nippon returns Amaterasu to full strength. Despite the Day of Darkness that empowers Yami, Amaterasu shines bright through the shadow. The Praise of her believers allows her to banish Yami’s evil.
Praise functions as both an important aspect of gameplay and narrative. The narrative theme of faith in divine beings is represented in gameplay with the Praise resource. While it’s one thing for the game’s cutscenes and dialogue to discuss the disappearance of the gods, it’s also supported in gameplay. It’s up to the player to restore nature and help the citizens of Nippon.
The coordination of the gameplay element Praise and the game’s narrative makes Ōkami a more coherent experience. Play and narrative work together, balanced on the fulcrum of Praise. The game all comes together in that final cutscene where Issun proselytizes about the wolf’s work and lets everyone know that the helpful canine is their sun goddess. All the work to garner Praise is made narratively relevant when the citizens, inspired by their god’s work, sing their praises.
Part of the beauty of Ōkami is the small tasks that reward Praise, like making dead flowers bloom again or feeding animals. It builds Ōkami to be a game that is truly about a god that cares for her world. With such a strong core element, the game never misses a beat in its theming or structure. Everything is kept relevant to the core theme of Praise.
The importance of Ōkami is in that central theming. Many games suffer from feature bloat or they waver in their attachment to their core element. This creates games with a contradiction between their narratives and sidequests. In a series like Mass Effect, it can be somewhat jarring to take the time to help out a random civilian when you have the impending doom of the entire galaxy on your mind.
Because Praise is an element that is directly related to Amaterasu’s abilities, all of the sidequests are made relevant at the game’s climax. This keeps the game’s features united and maintains player immersion.
In The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles, it doesn’t really make much sense whenever you ignore the crisis of the Greymarch to help that one random wood elf get a sweet roll. A pursuit of connected systems reinforces the coherency of the game and combines the two (often separate) sides of narrative and gameplay. It strengthens the fourth wall. Things make sense.
In Ōkami, it always makes sense to bring that poor, withered tree back to life.