Friday, January 16, 2009

Crutches and Swords: Thoughts on Genre and Okami

I have had a great time reading Jorge's recent discussion of genre and the conversations it has spurred. Jorge deftly exposes the failure of genre in one breadth while eloquently defending it in the next. I find myself being swayed in both directions, depending on which game I am thinking about. There is a particular game, however, that leaves me ambivalent as to whether genre is a positive force. This game is Okami.

Okami fits solidly into the action-adventure genre: the gameplay challenges are mix of combat, treasure hunts, and environmental puzzles. There is a modest upgrade status upgrade and monetary system. The overworld is sprinkled with hidden treasure chests, the map is is dotted with mini-game filled villages, and dungeons are used to move the story along.

I argue that the genre can be further specified by calling Okami a "Zelda" game. A raft of similarities position Okami squarely on the shoulders of everyone's favorite green-clad hero. Amaterasu shares Link's fondness for silence and penchant for small, impish travelling companions. Like Link, she has power over the sun, the moon, the wind, and small explosive devices. Link expands his health bar by collecting fractions of hearts, Amaterasu does so by collecting fractions of "sun stones" or some such nonsense. Both characters traverse dungeons in which they acquire a magical talisman that also happens to be the key to conquering that dungeon. I could go on, but suffice to say that Okami is firmly rooted in some very old genre conventions.

This has proven frustrating on numerous occasions. Combat is passable, but it is much simpler than Zelda, which makes the frequent fights a chore. Okami would be better served by a break with the genre's traditional combat mechanics; forsaking physical attacks in favor of more fully realized brush-stroke combat would have added to the game's originality. Amaterasu's silence leads to NPCs delivering long-winded soliloquies replete with painfully obvious plot exposition. Like Zelda, none of the characters speak a human language, and instead prattle on in a repetitive, cartoonish drone. Not only does the game feel long at times, it actually is long when measured in hours. I am about thirty hours in and, based on the story, I fully expect at least 5-10 more hours lies ahead of me.

At the same time, the game uses its length as a way of challenging established Zelda conventions. About ten hours in, a major false ending tricked me into thinking the game was over. I had just vanquished a particularly nasty boss, one that I thought was integral to the story, but to my surprise it lead to the unfolding of a larger narrative. Without the pre-conceived ideas over what constituted a "final boss," I would never had this pleasant surprise. Although Amaterasu does not talk, her translator Issun, taps into some the imagery of Link's Navi. As a sarcastic, often lecherous, reluctant hero, Issun serves to engage with the historically bland characters of Link's fairies. In fact, Issun is eventually revealed to be a full-fledged character who hails from an established society of minuscule artists. In comparison to the squeaky-clean dialogue of Zelda, Okami's numerous boob jokes show that the writers were willing to put a unique spin on the game.

Okami has a distinct personality, but it manifests itself in the settings, rather than the gameplay. Although the game may feel like Link walking around in a quasi-medieval Euro-centric, Okami's world looks like a magical amalgamation of Japanese folklore. The scant references I actually understand augment the game's vibrancy and individuality, something I would probably not notice as clearly if it did not feel like a familiar game. The juxtaposition of familiarity and novelty recalls the exploits of games who tried to do something similar, such as the Goemon series.

Is Okami ultimately served by established genres? The game is simultaneously bogged down by tradition, yet enhanced by its willingness to playfully engage with the tropes of its lineage. For Okami, genre is employed as an unnecessary crutch and wielded as a subtle blade. The problem is, the game does not know when to lean and when to swing. It exists as a monument to the sloth genre generates as well as the creativity it engenders.

Perhaps it is a good thing that genre exists in its current form, for it simultaneously provides historical grounding, artistic inspiration, and a sharp warning against relying too heavily on tradition.

1 comment:

  1. I dunno...i LOVE Okami, but i love Zelda even more. Zelda is my #1. Okami is my #2. About Zelda and Okami sharing similarities....i reluctantly admit i realise there are SOME similarities, when i REALLY think about it...other than that, when i play Okami, i get that japanese feeling...something ancient and known. A folklore. A part of nature. When i play Zelda...i feel a vibe that gives off a legend unfolding. A legend that will determine Hyrule's next Link and Zelda reincarnation, where they live...Who they are...their personality...their fate. i get a sense of adventure with these two I'm needed. The feeling of having a destiny to save your homeland, no...the WORLD. This is the feeling i know lies in these two games.