What a game Okami is. I loved it when I first played it, though in recent years, I’d started to wonder: maybe that game went on a little long, maybe I was thinking about it through rose-colored memories? As it turns out: yeah, sure, the game does go on a little long, but wow what a game it is.
Mostly I love how humane a game this is. It’s a game where the key area unlock mechanic involves blooming cherry trees, where feeding animals is a key leveling up mechanic. But I also love the art in the game: it’s beautiful, it’s unusual, it’s integrated into the story and the mechanics. It’s got all the considerable Zelda-style goodness of construction as well, and I enjoy the Japanese tales that are woven throughout it.
Thinking about it more in the context of The Nature of Order: so many parts of the world in this game feel so alive. I’m used to this to some extent in towns in adventure games / RPGs, though even here I think Okami does a quite good job: e.g. your initial village is small, but it feels like a small village where everybody knows everybody else, everybody has relations and feelings with everybody else, the village has rhythms, traditions, and a past history, the village looks at you through the context of that past history.
But where Okami is more unusual is in how that feeling of life extends to the countryside and even the dungeons. The countryside doesn’t exist solely for travel and monster fighting: people live there and carry out their lives, and the plants and animals are a key part of the experience. (And one that also links back to the village experience, with the linkage of all the guardian saplings. There are monsters in the countryside, but they too are a part of the world: if you respect them, they won’t hurt you. (At least during the day: I guess part of respecting them is staying inside at night!)
The dungeons are mostly in the Zelda vein, but some of them do a good job connecting to the rest of the world (e.g. the water dragon or the Emperor), and the Moon Cave may be my favorite dungeon in any game. Again: monsters are people too, they’re part of the world, and the chef really does care about Orochi.
I’m still coming to terms with Dragon Age: Inqusition. I frequently give the game a hard time, and the above is really why: the large environments, as glorious as they can be, don’t have the same pervasive feeling of life as Okami‘s do. Too many ruins that are placed because the game’s designers seem to want you to run into structures every so often; too many fetch quests in an attempt to bring a connection where none is present; too many herbs to pick because, well, that one I can’t justify. (Though the flip side is that Okami has too many pots to smash.)
Having said that, it is a little odd to praise Okami‘s environments, given how tiny they are while still having less topographical texture than similar-sized chunks of Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s environments! So I’m probably doing a combination of giving Okami a bit too much of a pass and being too hard on Dragon Age: Inquisition.
And of course what’s really going on is that there are aspects of Dragon Age: Inquisition that I love as much as many parts of Okami, and for much the same reason: the feeling of life and connectedness that can be there. (If I didn’t care about the game, I wouldn’t get so annoyed at it!) Your interactions with your companions are wonderful (and it’s not a coincidence that the DLC that focused on those relationships is by far the best piece of DLC for the game); your home bases are small enough to feel like, well, home, and while those home bases themselves don’t have quite the same feeling of connected history as your starting village in Okami, the game makes up for that by pulling in connections from previous games to form a foundation.
There are sparks of life elsewhere, too: sure, the Hinterlands is full of quests I don’t care about, but then you run into the family that raises horses and, well, they feel like a family made up of people with their own feelings, contexts, beliefs, and drives. And most of the time, when I read a document lying around in a building somewher, I skim it and hit the B button before it’s really entered into my brain, but every once in a while a piece of lore really resonates with me (Andraste’s Mabari, say), and I’ll never pass by an entry of Hard in Hightown.
Ultimately, though: given the choice between a smaller-scale game that manages to be suffused with life and connections versus a larger-scale, more polished game where the life and connections are less omnipresent, I’ll go for the former. Not that I’m against large-scale games or polish: if life is there as well, and if that life appears frequently enough, then I may end up falling in love with those games, too. But I suspect that a larger scale makes it hard to focus consistently on that feeling of life. (There’s a reason why Dragon Age II is my favorite game in that series.) And connected, free-form environments are always a double-edged sword; they give you more control as a player, which sets up the possibility of bringing more of your life into the game, but the flip side is that those environments also give more room to do activities that ultimately don’t nourish you. (So there’s also a reason why I in general prefer the Mass Effect series to Dragon Age.)
Also: if games are going to continue to have you do rote activities to rack up points, and if games want to do that in ways that nourish you instead of separating you, they could do a lot worse than having one of those rote activities involve a lovely and peaceful cutscene of you feeding animals…
This post has not been revised since publication.