I’m a couple of hours into Okami right now and I’ve got to tell you, I’m more than a little bit ambivalent about it.
I was going to take a few minutes to lead up to my thesis here, gingerly drawing my opinions and ideas from their snug housings with mighty tongs of metaphor and analogy but I’m just not up for that right now so, if you would, let me cut the crap: I am torn because two things are pulling my opinion in diametrically opposite directions. Those things are:
- Okami is gorgeous, full stop. The game is rendered entirely in cel-shaded watercolors, and moving around in the game environment is fluid and beautiful, like wandering about in a vivid Hiroshi Yoshida watercolor. The central conceit of the gameplay is entirely original but still well-balanced, making both combat and interaction with the environment tricky and fun.
- The dialogue, the writing, is terrible.
And not casually inadequate, either. Comprehensively, thoroughly bad. Past the introduction, there has been virtually no text that I could point to on-screen and say, well, that’s at least in the same area code as OK. Standing here, I can kind of make out OK way over there.
And it’s heartbreaking. They’ve got very different aesthetics but, even so, Okami is visually comparable to Shadow Of The Colossus and the later Cyan Worlds games. The background music is tastefully done and entirely listenable. And somehow it still teeters right on the edge of unplayable. The dialog is just that bad.
One of the first things that happens in the game is that you meet your ANSI-standard plucky, diminutive sidekick; a fairly standard Jiminy-Cricket-type character who provides you with little hints and guidance during the course of the game. This isn’t an unforgiveable sin in anyone’s books, I don’t think; it’s a pretty common device, in fact. Some games, especially the more open-ended quest games, are big and complicated, and to make them accessible to a wider audience this little voice will occasionally spur you on with little hints to get you to over the next hump in the storyline. I don’t think it’s the greatest creative device in the world, but it’s not automatically a disaster, either. In The Ocarina of Time, for example, you’re working with Navi throughout, and Ocarina is a strong contender for the best video game ever made.
But this thing in Okami just. will. not. shut. up. It’s like wandering around the Louvre shackled to an eight-year-old who’s jabbing you with a fork and asking you if you like that, huh, do ya, how about this, jab, between bouts of trash-talking random passersby. And that’s nowhere, just nowhere near the worst of it.
I just wish that there was a way to turn all that stuff off and get on with the game. Even being able to quickscroll past it before it hits my eyes would be fine, but alas.
Lore Sjoberg recently wrote that “writing about technology is like having sex in a bathtub: If you don’t know anything about sex, it won’t help to know a lot about bathtubs.” A good line and true if ever there was one, and worth remembering; great writing requires a great writer, just as much as great code requires great coders. But one of the great joys of Shadow, Riven and their very rare kin isn’t just the quality of the writing. It’s the fact that there was so little of it; what was there was carefully crafted, but no more of it is there than absolutely necessary. Their creators, generally speaking, let the game speak quietly for itself.
Okami, not so much. Very sadmaking.