Biased Notes Vol. 6: Okami

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: Observations below are based on the first several hours of the HD version of the game.

1. It’s refreshing to play a game where you bring harmony to the natural world through spiritual and artistic means. Okami suggests that faith is a two-way street in terms of how humans relate to deities: sometimes we need a miracle to restore our trust in a higher power, and sometimes a god, for motivation, needs to hear that we believe. That last bit might not be news to anyone, but it’s significant that the game puts you in the shoes of a benevolent god. In Okami, you’re always in “god mode,” just not the mischievous, egotistical, destructive sort we usually see in games. The greatest illustration of omnipotence comes with the game’s most distinct mechanic: when you paint as the white-wolf goddess Amaterasu, the color of the world is sapped out until you finish your brushstrokes, implying that you can operate from another dimension as your physical form rests on earth. Okami is also a feel-good game on a superficial level, thanks to the cute animals and the flowers that pop up as you run and jump (is there any doubt that Okami helped inspire 2009’s Flower?). Now that I’ve gotten this out of the way …

2. I wish the irritating adoration for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time wouldn’t have happened so that maybe, just maybe, Issun in Okami wouldn’t have happened. Issun, your nagging companion in the game, descends from Ocarina of Time’s Navi, a character that is a tutorial rather than an actual character. To make matters worse, Issun speaks in audible gibberish that would fit snugly into a show or direct-to-DVD movie aimed at three-year-olds. Issun goes beyond hand-holding (which would be condescending enough): when I learned that some villagers had turned to stone, Issue told me that we needed to get to higher ground. At that point, a big arrow appeared to guide me to higher ground, and even though I followed the arrow’s direction, Issun would not stop telling me that we needed to get to higher ground. I would not be a god of patience, I can tell you that.

3. Why is combat in this game? Hours in, I’ve only taken one hit from an enemy. The whole thing goes down like this, almost every time: I run up to a foe, I mash a button like I’m playing a third-rate beat ’em up, the bad guy falls down, I paint a line across the loser. It wasn’t interesting the first time, and it wasn’t interesting the 100th time. The other variation (just as dull): a projectile comes at me, so I paint a line across it to send it right back to its thrower. Does a god even need to fight? (Don’t cite Kratos.)

4. More than once, I have fantasized about being able to play the prologue of Okami. It’s a gripping story (reminded me of Beowulf), and imagine the weirdness of experiencing it from the perspective of the mysterious wolf savior. That you can only watch and listen to the prologue makes me recall my frustration with having to tolerate Issun’s orders. Okami wants you to assume the role of a god, but not without guidance. This tension stems from the fact that it would be hard to feel godly if you didn’t know what was going on. So Okami overcompensates.

Tutorialization As an Aesthetic Flaw in Games

Note: This is an open letter to Chris Bateman at international hobo. All replies are welcome.

Dear Chris,

Your post, “The Aesthetic Flaws of Games,” covers a flaw called “perplexity.” I think your first paragraph on the flaw sums it up well:

The final kind of aesthetic flaw I want to draw attention to here is of a slightly different nature, and relates to the Third Rule: no-one plays alone. The essence of this rule is that an artefactual reading of games, treating them as isolated objects, is an incomplete reading of a game, because every game that has ever been made, or ever will be made, is situated in a network of player practices that prepare the player for that experience. The clearest example is with the first person shooter, the control scheme for which is so ingrained among the majority of contemporary players that games using a modified form of this scheme can generate aesthetic displeasure. This is what I am calling perplexity, the experience of re-learning what has already been learned differently, or learning under conditions of insufficient information e.g. a bad tutorial.

This flaw gets at something the Angry Video Game Nerd often says. The Angry Video Game Nerd reviews a lot of games on the Nintendo Entertainment System, and he frequently criticizes games that don’t follow the common two-button NES scheme ingrained into players via Super Mario Bros. and other pop games: “B” for attack and “A” for jump (and don’t get AVGN started when the “Select” button performs an attack or jump). Thinking about the NES also draws me to the last word in your paragraph above — tutorial.

The tutorial didn’t exist, to my knowledge, in any NES game. Instead, every game had a manual. The game manual was its own artform. You couldn’t advance in some NES games without using key information from a manual. Some manuals were more pleasurable to read than others. Some of them stood out more than others.

Just like the manual, the tutorial can be an attempt to sidestep the potential aesthetic flaw of perplexity. Unlike the manual, the tutorial often doesn’t stand by itself. Sometimes the tutorial is optional and even accessed from a menu rather than offered through an in-game prompt. But a lot of developers attempt to integrate tutorials into the actual game.

In my experience, the inclusion of an in-game tutorial can result in a significant aesthetic flaw. I’m not talking about a bad tutorial; a bad, uninformative tutorial ties into the flaw of perplexity. The aesthetic flaw I refer to exists because of the attempt to avoid perplexity.

I’d like to call the flaw tutorialization, but perhaps others would call it overtutorialization or something else. I can see this flaw in a couple of different forms. One form is in a game that lays the tutorializing or “help” messages on too thick or to a condescending degree. I immediately think of Life Is Strange Episode 1. For example, Life Is Strange has puzzles, but the protagonist, through a voice-over, tells you exactly how to solve them, defeating the point of the puzzle. Another offender is A Bird Story, which clutters the screens with arrows (as I point out in the penultimate paragraph of my review) even though it is obvious where you can travel.

Another form of this flaw is when the tutorial is pretty much the game for an extended period of time. It can be particularly unappealing, not to mention annoying, when a game tries to pass off tutorializing as part of the story. Shin Megami Tensei IV comes to mind. To start, Shin Megami Tensei IV puts you in a dungeon to train as part of the story. But it’s obvious you’re playing a tutorial, not the game, and the game takes too long saying what it needs to say. I quit playing Shin Megami Tensei before its tutorial ended.

There are a few in-game tutorials that I would call aesthetically pleasing. The best one is in Final Fantasy III on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. You reach the tutorial well after the game has established the story and the familiar turn-based combat system. The tutorial comes in the form of a school in the game’s first city, Narshe. (You could miss this tutorial if you don’t enter every building in Narshe.) When you enter the school, you see a bunch of nonplayable characters who all look the same. These characters look more scholarly than other characters. When you talk to these scholars, they share a unique brief lecture on features or tactics of the game. This in-game tutorial is fun, clever, informative, unobtrusive, and unpretentious. It adds to the aesthetic appeal of Final Fantasy III and to a sense of place in Narshe.

Having said that, I would like to see the game manual artform make a comeback (to please Digital Totalitarianists: if not in paper form, then as an out-of-game document). The tutorial has mainly been an eyesore and an earsore, a distraction from the non-tutorial (i.e., the important) aesthetics of games.


Jed Pressgrove