Praising Praise (An Examination of the Experience Mechanic in Ōkami)

When it comes to writing characters that are gods, it can be very tempting to write one that is far too powerful. While omnipotent beings can serve a function in storytelling, as protagonists they can wind up being completely uncompelling. When you take an all powerful or even just slightly overpowered protagonist and turn that into the playable character of a video game, the consequences can be even further reaching. Part of what makes video games interesting is their inherent challenge. Playing as a character that can do as they please with little challenge has a fairly limited appeal. At the same time, it can be frustrating to lack agency knowing full well that the character being controlled is divine in some way. In the Capcom published game Ōkami, the issue of power balance and challenge gets handled in two basic ways, which both serve to make the game work within established video game mechanics, as well as to weave an interesting story that is dependent on the game mechanics.

In Ōkami, the player takes the role of Amaterasu, essentially the god of the sun and universe, reborn as a wolf so that she can help the people of a fictionalized ancient Japan defeat the evils that plague it. The key factor in all of this, though, is that hardly anybody knows that the wolf is a god. This is played as a joke to some degree as the player is basically reliving something that the game explains has already happened before. In practical use, this storytelling device ties in to the power management system of the game through the use of Praise. Due to the population having lost their faith in the gods over time, Amaterasu’s power is fairly minimal at the start of the game. During the course of play, Praise can be earned through various means, such as feeding wild animals, ridding the landscape of beacons of evil, and restoring plants to full bloom from states of decay. The earned Praise can then be spent like experience points to increase Amaterasu’s abilities. What’s so interesting about this particular type of experience system is that it really gets to the core of what this game is about in a fairly subtle way. Where general experience points work just fine mechanically, Praise helps eliminate the feeling of an arbitrary mechanism by closely tying it and the story together. You, as a player, are motivated to do good deeds in as many ways as possible in order to become more powerful, getting to the heart of the idea that gods are a direct result of peoples’ belief in them.

What makes Praise even more interesting as a game mechanic is that very few of the things the player can do to receive Praise are recognized as having been done by the player. Amaterasu can affect the world around her using different divine techniques (like creating wind, or making the sun rise), but it isn’t apparently evident to the non playable characters that this white wolf is what is making it happen. Still, the effects are perceived as having occurred through divine intervention, and that restored faith is what turns out to be more important than direct recognition for having fixed things in the world. Ōkami hammers this point home well since the things that reward the player with Praise are fairly trivial matters on the surface. At one point the player helps a boy go fishing. In another instance, the player fills a bucket of sake. The methodology of having these little tasks be what are required to become more powerful has a couple of different effects. The first is that it emphasizes that even a god is not above doing the small things that must be done in order to achieve one’s desired goals. Second, it demonstrates that aiding other through guidance is more valuable than just doing everything for them. In a gameplay sense, it doesn’t quite always work this way as often times it seems that the player is basically tricking the non player characters into thinking they did something (Amaterasu has to use divine techniques as mentioned before to fulfill all of the tasks that would otherwise be impossible), but even that works in the sense that they now have the belief that they can do what they set out to.

This idea of working in the background is complemented very nicely by the characters throughout  the game that do recognize Amaterasu for what she is. From the start, the non player companion, Issun, recognizes the player immediately and quite rudely tries to make everyone else recognize her as well. Some of those that end up playing one of the biggest roles in the context of gameplay are the Celestial Gods. Through these gods, the game grants the player more agency by revealing techniques that allow the player to manipulate the world in various ways. To get these abilities, an incomplete constellation must be found and the missing stars must be painted in the sky using a Celestial Brush. As the constellations are completed, a Celestial God reveals itself and grants Amaterasu a new ability. There is a bit of humor played out in these encounters as well. Once revealed, the gods will invariably open with “Ah… Amaterasu. Origin of all that is good and mother to us all...”. The surprise in seeing her, while slight, comments on the overall condition of the game’s population and the strength of their belief. The god Bakugami even blatantly expresses his concern over this phenomenon, lamenting “Too often, it is easy to forget that which we cannot see. Hidden away, I had lost track of you. But now my soul is at ease”. This small exchange encapsulates the main theme of the game in a way that doesn’t feel too overbearing. That, again, is a testament to the quality of the game’s incorporation of its mechanics as an extension of its story.

Ōkami’s overall strength as an adventure game rests on the implementation of its core ideas. It wants to express the idea that the player is not omnipotent, so it created a set number of abilities and a system of ink containers which limits how long these abilities can be used. Additionally, the game wanted to convey the idea of action through community, so it made the player seek out numerous characters throughout the game that either give the player new abilities or, more simply, allow access into new areas. This is how you create an interesting god. The status of the god and the health of the world are so interconnected that the player isn’t embarking on a quest as an arbitrary inhabitant, but rather, working to heal and preserve a world that, ultimately, the player was responsible for creating. It’s hard to imagine a more compelling god than that.

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