Okami, released in 2006 by Capcom’s now-defunct Clover Studio, received widespread critical acclaim for its cel-shaded visuals, gameplay, and soundtrack, making it one of the most unique titles of not only its generation but even to this day. One of the game’s signature features is the Celestial Brush, which enabled players to pause the action and draw various symbols on a canvas that allowed Amaterasu to perform actions such as spawning bombs, cutting enemies, and blowing wind in different directions for combat, exploration, and puzzle-solving. Beyond its gameplay applications, this mechanic accurately reflects Mary Flannagan’s concept of “Critical Play”, which is the idea that developers “create or occupy play environments and activities that represent one or more questions about aspects of human life” (Flannagan 6) While the plot of the game wasn’t designed to make players ponder about human life per se, it does heavily focus on characters from Japanese Shinto spirituality and legendary historical figures, meaning that it comes with its own set of questions that revolve around how it represents the culture that inspired it. One such question is how developers use the medium of video games to reinterpret famous stories in folklore and mythology in a way that respects their roots and doesn’t come across as pandering.
One way in which the Celestial Brush implements the concept of Critical Play to reinterpret these classic folktales is through its presentation, where the game pauses and presents a canvas for players to draw various shapes and symbols onto, giving them the impression that they are painting the action on screen. This is important because it allows Okami to not only depict its actions on screen with a similar amount of reverence as the ink wash paintings these folktales were told on while also serving as a functional mechanic for players to get acquainted with. Additionally, the added details of the ink’s texture as well as the ink bowl on the upper right corner of the screen give credence to the idea of the game’s events being painted by an artist. Another way in which this mechanic utilizes Critical Play is how it impacts Amaterasu herself, where she gains a plethora of abilities from Celestial Brush gods that are inspired by the Chinese zodiac in order to explore new areas of Nippon in order to save it from evil forces such as Yamata no Orochi, serving as a parallel to those respective tales. These methods fall in line with how Flannagan defines Criticality in video games, where it “can be fostered in order to question an aspect of a game’s ‘content,’ or an aspect of a play scenario’s function that might otherwise be considered a given or necessary” (6) In other words, the Celestial Brush brings aspects of its mechanical design and aesthetics into the forefront as a way of showing players how these Japanese folktales and mythologies can be reinterpreted in video game form by respecting their origins while also serving as a practical purpose in gameplay.
Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play: Radical Game Design (The MIT Press). Illustrated, The MIT Press, 2013.