Video games are art. Video games are not art. Some video games are art, and some are just mindless. So the debate on whether video games should be considered art rumbles inextricably on, without ever being resolved. Every so often, something as beautifully unique as Ōkami, released for the PS2 in 2006 and the Wii in 2008, will be produced, resetting the whole debate. In this instance, if justice had been served, Ōkami would have sold millions of copies and ended the debate forever. As it is, it will remain beautiful, but forever obscure. Is it art? Undoubtedly!
Inspired by Japanese Sumi-e watercolour and woodcarving art, Ōkami is defined by that techniques dependency on simplicity and symbolism – the only ink used being that which is absolutely necessary to capture the essence of the subject. By doing so, you ensure the soul of the subject is captured. Brought about partly by the limitations of the PS2 in rendering photorealistic 3D graphics, the developers of Ōkami, Clover Studio, decided that adopting this watercolour style would produce something unique.
Amaterasu, the Goddess of the Sun is featured on the front cover in full flight. Running through fields, flowers sprout in her wake, and ink strokes swirling through the air to signify the winds, symbolizing her centrality within nature. Demons have invaded her watercolour world of Japan, bringing a black fog which sucks life from anything that it touches. Her task is to drive away the demons and restore the land to its natural state, utilizing a magic paintbrush for which the player is responsible. Draw a circle in the sky, and the sun will come out. Draw a mask, and you will disguise yourself as a demon.
The world is colourful and vivid, echoing the landscapes of a Hokusai painting, and the richness of this world, mixed with adventure game elements reminiscent of Nintendo’s Zelda series, make for a long and engrossing experience, with each new chapter and location revealing a new and beautiful landscape to manipulate. A shame then, that with near-universal rave reviews, and an IGN Game of the Year Award, that Ōkami sank without a trace, and signaled the demise of Clover Studio.
The market for games featuring a wolf with a magic paintbrush is a small one. Or so it first seemed. In 2012, a HD version of the game was released, allowing another generation of gamers the opportunity to experience the splendor of this abstract interpretation of medieval Japan.
This followed a sequel for the Nintendo DS, Ōkamiden, which retained the same game mechanics, and like its predecessor, landed on a platform which was right at the end of its life cycle. Ōkamiden sold more copies than Ōkami ever had, prompting the re-release, and hopefully, etched the outlines of a possible further sequel.
An interesting aside. The Wii version of Ōkami was released after the closure of Clover Studio. Prepared by production house Ready at Dawn and original distributor Capcom, the pair seemingly found the task of tracking down the original cover art work too great a challenge, and decided to import it from the IGN website. Unfortunately they forgot to remove the IGN watermark from the image. If you look closely at your copy – around Amaterasu’s mouth – you might spot it. Capcom quickly offered to issue new copies to concerned gamers.