Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Game Review or Love Letter: You Decide

Imagine my surprise a few Sundays back when I opened the Daily News and found that one of their writers had composed a cleverly coded love letter to our very own Okami. Careful reading of the story revealed that:

She is a new adventure game for an aging console.
Possibly a creepy comment about how he amuses himself while reading her blog?

Through sheer effort and boundless creativity, she is beautiful and vivid.
I cringed at his awkward attempt at poetic flourish.

Her visual presentation is stunning.
He opts for the direct approach in case she missed the point in his previous, muddled comment.

Of course, she isn't strictly a visual experience.
It's always a good idea to let a woman that you admire her for more than her looks, though he probably should have elaborated just a little. I give him an 'A' for effort and a 'D+' for execution.

She captures the visual beauty of a painting.
I think she's probably gotten the point by now.

As I read the article, two things became apparent. The first was that Okami's fame has finally begun to spread beyond Canada's borders and the second was that the author has somehow obtained pictures of the J.D. Salinger of the blog world and is disturbingly fixated on her looks.

Don't believe me? See for yourself by reading the article below. Pay special attention to the items that I've helpfully highlighted.

Thinking outside the box
Visual artistry trumps computing power for Okami
BY ROBERT ASHLEY

Okami is a stunning game - and it's for the good ol' PS2.

This holiday season, two video game hardware manufacturers, Sony and Nintendo, will roll out new gaming platforms. Their wildly different price points - $249 for the Nintendo Wii versus $599 for a fully featured Sony PlayStation 3 - and divergent design philosophies (the Wii focuses on an innovative new controller design while the PS3 comes armed to the teeth with top-shelf graphics technology) make the two boxes appear worlds apart, but they share a common sales pitch: Game designers can't dazzle you with groundbreaking new games until you plunk down the cash for a brand-new box.

Okami, a new adventure game for an aging console, is proof positive that they are wrong. Through sheer effort and boundless creativity, Okami's developers at Clover Studio have produced a world so beautiful and vivid, it stands shoulder to shoulder with anything running on this season's new hardware, and it does so on Sony's six-year-old PlayStation 2.

How do they pull it off? By simplifying everything. Where many games take their cues from Hollywood blockbusters, Okami looks to an older visual tradition: painting. Its depiction of rural Japan is simple and colorful, outlined in thick black ink, and projected onto textured paper. Seen in motion, the game is a painter's imagination come to life. Okami's visual presentation is stunning, and it's a direct result of technological restrictions, according to producer Atsushi Inaba.

"Originally, we were aiming for a photorealistic look for the game," Inaba says via E-mail from Japan. "But the [PlayStation] hardware wasn't quite advanced enough to realize the level of realism we wanted, the grand beauty of nature."

So Inaba and his team searched for other ways to visualize their ideas. They found a solution in the Japanese art of Sumi-e, a simple but bold ink painting technique.

"One of the designers stumbled on a great idea during some brainstorming, and that idea turned into the Sumi-eart style that gives the game its unique look," says Inaba. "The initial designs we had were very plain compared to how the game looks now, but everyone on the team was extremely excited about the possibilities."

Of course, Okami isn't a strictly visual experience. Inaba and company sought out an equally inventive way to interact with their painterly world. "Once we nailed down the visual style, I thought it was a shame that it wasn't tied to the game play at all," says Inaba. "After much experimentation on the part of the whole team, we finally came up with the celestial brush."

The celestial brush is an in-game paintbrush players use to paint objects and actions into being. Players traverse the land, painting cherry blossom trees and meadows into bloom by drawing simple cues onto the screen with a standard controller.

While Okami captures the visual beauty of painting and takes up the paintbrush as a tool in the game, Inaba bristles at the idea that his work could itself be considered art. "Personally, I do not like it when games are called 'art,'"says Inaba.

"Art is created by artists and artisans for people who appreciate art. Games are made to be enjoyed by gamers."