Instant Divinity! or, Immersion in Okami
Although Clover Studio’s name may not be an intentional blend of the phrase “creativity lover,”  the visionary stylings of Okami are certainly in favor of this rumor. Developed by Clover Studio for the PS2 and ported to the Wii by Ready at Dawn, Okami is an action-adventure game framed by Japanese mythology and cel-shaded artwork that simulates a living sumi-e brush painting. In order to save Nippon from evil demons, the sun goddess Amaterasu inhabits the playable form of a white wolf at the game’s start. In addition to traveling from quest to quest, it is the player’s task during the adventure to use her “Celestial Brush” to perform acts of divine intervention. While these unusual game mechanics might seem to require a conscious suspension of disbelief, some of its most implausible features are actually essential to a consistent and immersive gameplay experience.
What makes these features immersive rather than interruptive is their implication in Okami’s greater gameplay metaphor of omnipotence. This metaphor mediates the “gap between gameworld and player or…gap between player and avatar”  in order to “help at least approximate or “fake”…experiences,”  such as the experience of being divine. As described in their paper “Games about LOVE and TRUST? Harnessing the Power of Metaphors for Experience Design,” Doris Rusch and Matthew Weise point out that dealing with this gap “creatively” can bring the player incredibly close to “stepping into the shoes of the hero [and] into the body of a completely different species.”  The player-avatar relationship, aesthetic schema, and Celestial Brush interface metaphor in Okamiact in concert to navigate this gap, and create an immersive experience in being omnipotent.
While all videogame players commonly experience some feeling of omnipotence during gameplay, Okami uses the physical concept of omnipotence to create an immersive experiential gestalt. Because the player’s avatar appears on the screen across from her, is not a literal representation of her, and acts based on discrete input from a library of possible interactions, there is a necessary physical disconnect between the player and the avatar she controls.  This type of indirect control, however, is comparable to the type of power an omnipotent being is commonly assumed to have and be able to exert. Because the main character is characterized as such a being, the player is more able to identify with Amaterasu and see her indirect manipulation of the wolf as being meaningful to the game’s spiritual narrative. Furthermore, this “provide[s the player with] a perspective about how things are and feel like”  beyond her basic control of the white wolf, so that common gameplay mechanisms and unique interactions serve as further immersive tools.
One exemplary way in which Okami reinforces the player’s immersion in the character Amaterasu is in the depiction of dialogue between Amaterasu and other celestial beings. When celestial characters are addressing Amaterasu, they invariably occupy the center of the screen and appear to address the player directly, rather than Amaterasu’s avatar (which isn’t even visible on screen). However, when the character “gives” a brush technique to Amaterasu, the object representing it symbolically transfers to and is imprinted upon the wolf’s chest. This creates a deliberate distinction between the player-god Amaterasu, who operates on an intellectual plane of control, and the avatar, who is solely a control for input and output in the physical realm. The gap between the player and the character Amaterasu is thereby mediated as the player experiences being addressed as Amaterasu herself, and her physical control over the avatar is conceptually mirrored in Amaterasu’s supposed omnipotence.
However, Torben Grodal points out that being so deeply immersed can “cause fatigue and eventually a sense of lack of control,”  as the player is still only an agent within a demanding game space. After all, the above example comes from a cut scene in which the player has little to no control. To give players more control over how they play the game without diverting from the conceptual framework, Okami describes common mechanics such as saving and battle avoidance in unique spiritual terms. Saving, a “player-generated process” , takes place only at shrines and is framed as a spiritual activity, where the player’s experiences are being recorded in the greater fabric of existence. Likewise, demon battles take place only upon contact with “demon scrolls,” portals which allow a player to chose whether or not to engage in battles during the gameplay. Extending the concept of omnipotence to such basic processes as saving and battle-avoidance allows the player to remain immersed in this spiritual framework while exercising her own agency as a player.
Just as the concept of omnipotence uniquely explains the gap between player and avatar as part of an immersive experience, Okami’s sumi-e aesthetic uses the gap as “part of [its] toolset”  to create a cohesive spiritual framework. The sumi-e style of brush painting is intimately and historically connected to the depiction of Japanese mythology, and the cel-shading of Okami is deliberately a closely correlative graphic style. While “realistic” graphics are integral to sports games, this is mainly because their game worlds must correlate in graphical quality and perspective to the television coverage people are accustomed to – a different visual problem than that faced in Okami.  Even to those unacquainted with the historical conveyance of Japanese mythology, the vivid and organic sumi-e graphics create an “environmental spectacle that evokes myth, magic and mystery,” said by Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska to be “particularly important to games set in high-fantasy locations.”  This creative visual language is distinct from the physical world’s, taking advantage of the gap between player and television screen in order to immerse her in a moving, interactive painting.
One particular virtue of depicting the game world as an interactive painting is that it allows the visual elements to tell a story of their own. Like a painting immerses the viewer through symbolism, color and brushwork, “cinematic techniques shape style and tone and add connotative meaning…serv[ing] the additional function of communicating between game-system and player.”  Techniques such as the appearance of flowers growing at Amaterasu’s feet and the visible whirling of the wind are two of many aspects of Okami’s particular “richly imagined special world, full of enticing things,”  stated in “Emotional Game Design” to stimulate the player’s voyeuristic instinct and immerse her more emotionally in the gameplay. More literal communication between the interface’s art and the player is particularly exemplified by the use of symbols in the HUD to convey meaning unique to the game’s scope.
A specific example of meaningful symbolism comes in Okami’s unique depiction of health loss, a mechanic common to videogames but specifically framed by this game’s mythology. Artfully using the ubiquity of sun symbolism to reinforce the player’s impression of Amaterasu’s divinity, health is depicted in units of solar energy that relate to the strength of her presence in the body of the wolf. This allows the game-world-generated process of death to be explained as Amaterasu’s divine spirit fleeing the body of the wolf, rather than as a feature inconsistent with this experience of omnipotence. The ink pots in the HUD are a somewhat less direct reference to Amaterasu’s divinity, as they refer to her ability to power the Celestial Brush but attempt to remain consistent with the metaphor of the brush itself. To balance these metaphors, the vanishing of ink pots from the HUD is supplemented by the white wolf’s flaming weaponry vanishing from her body, so that the visuals completely convey that depleting the metaphorical ink supply has thereby depleted the avatar’s power supply. This visual redundancy helps further immerse the player in the gameworld, as it reinforces its metaphorical frameworks and immediately alerts her to her shifting ability to use the Celestial Brush.
Because of the gestural nature of Celestial Brush interactions on the Wii, its use allows for seamlessly parallel actions between the physical and the game world. While it initially seems like a stretch that gesturing with the Celestial Brush is relevant to the “world beyond the game,”  the brush techniques of the game are almost all exactly akin to the brush techniques of traditional Japanese art. Thereby learning how to execute the crude basics of Japanese brush painting, the player develops a connection to Okami’s artistry while onlookers can appreciate the gestures’ significance. The gestures can also be gratification of their own, as an exuberant gestural flourish can be a complete outlet for the player’s energy and spirit. These gestures are thereby linked meaningfully with Celestial Brush techniques, making the game an exception to concerns about trivial gesturing.  Should a technique fail, the player is bound to ask “was my artwork good enough?” rather than “did the control stick misread my input?”, signifying that extending the brush metaphor to its gestural input allows the player feelings of ownership and greater immersion in their role.
Learning how and when to gesturally perform these miracles is also critical to the player’s engagement with the game. In the earliest stages of Okami, the player has only a few brush techniques that she can use. In the words of Clint Hocking, this is the “number of elements implicated in the [Celestial Brush] pattern,”  which increases as the player learns more techniques. Integral to the gameplay is becoming comfortable with a growing library of miracles and learning their applications. The gameplay’s complexity also increases over time, as the player learns to apply the same brush techniques to a growing variety of tasks. Meanwhile, the Celestial Brush’s tolerance decreases over time, as defeating later enemies requires a higher mastery of the techniques. According to Clint Hocking, when these forces of implication, complexity and tolerance act “in concert…[they] immerse [the player’s] left brain in the game.”  Likewise, the Celestial Brush mechanic causes players to think like a god despite still working within the game’s constraints.
The immersive power of the Celestial Brush is exemplified by Amaterasu’s battle with the Spider Queen. Earlier in the Tsuta Ruins, Amaterasu acquires a “Vine” technique that causes an open Konohana blossom to shoot vines to Amaterasu or a hook in the earth. With two such patterns of use, there is some complexity to how and when the technique should be applied. As the player recognizes Konohana blossoms surrounding the Queen mid-battle, she knows that she should implicate the “Vine” technique, but how? Because there isn’t much time between the Queen’s attacks, there is a low tolerance for applying the technique incorrectly. However, when the player notices the hooks on the Queen’s back it calls to the pattern of painting vines to hooks in the ground. As the player becomes aware of what she has to do, any errors are likely on account of inaccurate painting, a mistake the player can directly learn from as she rapidly seeks to improve. Indeed, recursing the brush technique on the Queen’s back hooks will temporarily stun her, and allow the player to go in for the kill, gesturally slicing at her innards to implicate the Power Slash technique. Forced to think quickly in terms of the Celestial Brush’s powers and patterns, the player experiences both a physical and mental immersion in Amaterasu’s abilities and responsibilities.
Because of the creative use of gameplay metaphors and abstraction in Okami’s game world, the player experiences an exceptional connection with its conditions. Amaterasu’s relationship to the white wolf successfully parallels the player-character relationship in gameplay, mediating its gap and causing the player to uniquely identify with Amaterasu. Because the goal of sumi-e is to capture the essence of an idea, and not to replicate it, the sumi-e aesthetic of the game is a purposeful abstraction that creates a library of immersive gameplay metaphors. The Celestial Brush is a successful example of this, as an effective interface metaphor which keeps the player grounded in the visual language of the game world and reinforces their sense of omnipotence. By finely tuning these metaphors, Okami turns being a mythological Japanese god into a successful game experience – rather than a mere feature of the story line.
- Ashcraft, Brian. “Breaking: Clover Studio is Dead.” Kotaku, 2006.
- Rusch, Doris / Weise, Matthew. “Games about LOVE and TRUST? Harnessing the Power of Metaphors for Experience Design.” 2008.
- Grodal, Torben. “Video Games and the Pleasures of Control.” From Zillmann, Dolf and Vorderer, Peter (Eds.) Media Entertainment. The Psychology of its Appeal. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
- Lantz, Frank. “GDC: Game Developers Rant II“. March 24, 2006.
- King, Geoff / Krzywinska, Tanya. TombRaiders. Space Invaders. Videogame Forms and Contexts. London, UK: I.B. Tauris, 2006.
- Rusch, Doris. “Emotional Design of Computer Games and Fiction Films.” From Jahn-Sudmann, A. / Stockmnn, R. (eds.), Games Without Frontiers – War Without Tears. Computer Games as a Sociocultural Phenomenon. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
- Bogost, Ian. “Persuasive Games: Performative Play.” Gamasutra: The Art and Business of Making Games, 2008.
- Bogost, Ian. “Persuasive Games: Gestures as Meaning.” Gamasutra: The Art and Business of Making Games, 2009.
- Hocking, Clint. “i-fi: Immersive Fidelity in Games.” in GDC 2008, Game Developers Conference. 2008.
December 18th, 2009