Thanks go to Michael Abbot for his kind words about my blog yesterday. Michael was also very generous to me when I was starting up this blog, taking time out of his posting schedule to offer some invaluable and detailed advice to a total stranger. When I began my hope was that I could write something that would be worthwhile and interesting to some of the bloggers and game writers whose own work I enjoyed so much.
In a couple of my recent posts I've floated the idea that the satisfaction we get from many games comes from our sense that we are collaborating with the game's designers by learning the rules that govern the game's world, helping to realize a shared set of intentions. The end that these rules leads us towards is determined by the designer, but he has to communicate these rules to the player through the game's design, and being communicated to in a complex and sophisticated way is enjoyable.
Several recent games (Bioshock, Portal, and Metal Gear Solid 2, to name a few) have portrayed this relationship in a sinister light. They depict a situation in which the designer makes all the significant choices, and is set on manipulating the player by creating a world in which she has the illusion of freedom. But I also played a game this Spring that reminded me that game design isn't all about being imprisoned by a hostile demiurge: Clover Studios' Okami.
I see Okami as a game about three artists. The first artist is Issun, a tiny artist/swordsman who accompanies the player throughout the narrative. Since the player assumes the role of the wholly silent and (mostly) unflappable Shinto wolf-Goddess Amaterasu, Issun provides much of the character by playing the Sancho Panza role; he makes laughable passes at life-size dames, throws jibes at Amaterasu, and preens. His character exemplifies all the virtues of Okami's narrative, particularly its slightly ribald sense of humor and mock-epic grandeur. This story is told in a fairly traditional way (through scripted dialogue and cutscenes) but its reimagining of Japanese folklore as a video game breathes a level of charm and imaginativeness into its story that puts even the recent Zelda outings to shame.
The second artist is the player. While the basic gameplay of Okami resembles that of the Zelda series, the game also introduces a new wrinkle into these conventions with its addition of the “celestial brush” mechanic. At points in the game the player can freeze the action on-screen, bringing the swirling multicolored brushwork of the game's environments to a halt. These backgrounds are replaced by an ink-and-paper rendition of the scene, and the player can manipulate the game's world by drawing on it with a paintbrush. (This is hard to convey, but the effect is like Chuck Jones' famous “Duck Amuck” cartoon, in which Daffy is tormented by an off-screen animator.) The player solves puzzles, fights enemies, and navigates her environment by using these brush skills: you draw bridges across impassable rivers, gusts of wind in the air, lilypads on the water. While there are some hiccups in the implementation of this idea, the celestial brush mechanic is a genuine innovation on the mechanics of action/adventure games.
And the third artist is the designer. About ¾ through the game, the narrative takes an interesting turn as you visit Issun's village and the game begins to center on the role of the artist. We learn that Issun's people, a race of artists, are messengers of the Gods, and that the function of art is to inspire reverence for these gods (and, by extension, the natural world they represent) by telling the audience of their benevolent deeds.
When I hit this point in the story I realized that the game's creators had deliberately accomplished this very aim by making the player inhabit the role of the Gods and shape the world through her use of the game's mechanics. The game communicates a set of values (traditional piety and reverence for nature) by having the player act out the illustrious deeds set out in the designer's plan. Okami is not about player choice or freedom; as a game it is largely about figuring out the script that the designer has made for you by learning the world's rules. But when its story and gameplay come together, the wonderful thing about Okami is that you feel as if you are creating a piece of art by sharing your power of choice with an artist, the designer.