This summer, former Vice President Al Gore enjoyed a new surge of celebrity thanks to a movie that showcased his efforts to get people around the world to care about melting ice caps, chopped-down forests and a rise in global temperatures. “An Inconvenient Truth,” the documentary chronicling his tireless campaign, followed Gore and his props: a laptop, a slideshow and some harrowing data predicting an environmental cataclysm. Gore lamented in the movie his inability, after years of such efforts, to convince everyone just how much concern they should have for the environment.
Maybe his bag of props would have benefited from the new PlayStation 2 game “Okami.”
“Okami” is a game for the environment, and one not easily skipped. Seldom has a game so thoroughly promoted concern for trees and unpolluted rivers, charged players with the primary goal of making the world greener — and “Okami” is doing so with chops that have people comparing it to one of gaming’s most-praised series, “Zelda.”
Released last month, “Okami” is an adventure game from Capcom that pits white wolf Ameratsu in a quest to cleanse ancient Japan from a spoiling plague — and help comical characters along the way. Players control the wolf, an animal god whose steps cause grass to sprout and leaps make autumn leaves magically cascade. Ameratsu’s Japan is rendered as if by a paint brush, its cartoonish characters outlined in thick blacks, its mountain peaks sketched with what looks like a few dashes of thick ink. A special effect makes TV screens playing “Okami” appear to be made with parchment rather than glass.
“Okami” has earned comparisons to “Zelda” for a number of reasons. Like “Zelda” hero Link, Ameratsu starts her affairs small and splits game time between visiting villages and gaining new abilities from her prowls through dungeons. Like “Okami,” the last “Zelda” — 2003’s “The Wind Waker” — ignored the trend toward graphical realism for a hand-animated look. And like “Okami,” the next “Zelda” features a wolf, with Link transformed in much of the game to a creature on all fours.
But “Okami” boasts a number of things that it does without compare. It’s more than a magnificent “Zelda” clone. Otherwise it wouldn’t be worth Al Gore’s time.
“Okami” is all about planting trees and making flowers bloom where once demons roamed, pushing back a poisonous shore so sparrows may flutter to land and feed from a wolf’s bag of seeds. After a few successful missions, Ameratsu’s world is a more picturesque place.
The emphasis on beautification suggests a cultural cousin far removed from “Zelda”: talk-show makeover episodes that derive audience enjoyment from watching the ugly become alluring. Often games go in the opposite direction, bent toward the transformation of structures and someones to wreckage and corpses. “Okami” serves as the rare video game that can respond to the criticism leveled in “Half-Life 2″ by that game’s villain, who chastises hero Gordon Freeman and, by proxy, any gamer who has played anything based on shooting, crashing, crushing and conquering: “Tell me, Dr. Freeman, if you can: You have destroyed so much. What is it exactly that you have created? Can you name even one thing? I thought not.” If Freeman were a wolf in “Okami,” he’d have plenty of answers.
Despite its sometime snarling wolf, this is a game with a gentler spirit. There’s no prompt to “talk,” just one to “listen” in this help-a-thon, featuring a series of adventures to aid gladly suffered fools like Mr. Orange, who dances his “super-secret” Konohana shuffle to restore withered foliage. Little does Mr. Orange realize that it is Ameratsu’s magic power, triggered by the player, that really does the job.
A game with a sweet nature and a love of the environment is close to being good for Gore, but those qualities are not quite what makes it ideal for “An Inconvenient Truth 2.” That comes from the game’s least “Zelda”-like gimmick: its magic paintbrush. The instrument is triggered into action when a player freezes the world around Ameratsu with a button press and starts painting with swivels of the PS2 controller’s right analog stick. With the brush, players can paint the sun into a grey sky, draw lily pads into the sea and dab holes in the ground from which trees sharply sprout. These are the actions of the divine or of any player in so-called “god games” such as “SimCity” and “Civilization,” in which a pointer from beyond shapes the world at the surface. Unlike those other games, however, changes in “Okami” aren’t enacted from far away, but down on the ground level. The cherry blossom trees made to bloom with a brush stroke are right over Ameratsu’s head. She walks — the player with her — among the world she improves.
And so “Okami” presents the ultimate fantasy an Al Gore beleaguered by anyone’s environmental apathy might have: It lets people get a shot at improving the environment, and allows players to immerse themselves in immediate results. It’s unclear if this was the intent of the designers at Capcom’s Clover Studios. The back of the game box invites players to “restore order and beauty to a world laid barren by evil,” but it doesn’t sport a sticker from Greenpeace or an exhortation to conserve electricity.
That lack of explicit advocacy, however, might be one of the game’s strengths. Games designed to push explicitly for a cause — “serious games” — were discussed at June’s Games for Change conference in New York. Developers, academics and even business people from MTV — backer of the genocide-awareness game “Darfur Is Dying” — espoused games’ potential for rallying people to a cause. But the conference closed with esteemed game designer Raph Koster — who mainly works outside of serious gaming — clearly stating a common whisper about many serious titles: “To be blunt, there’s an awful lot of academic work and social-change work where the user is not entertained enough to launch it in the first place.” So many games are trying to hard that they forget the fun, he explained, noting that fun is what’s needed to hook people in the first place.
So there’s “Okami,” not prescribing a specific environmental remedy or even declaring itself a serious game. The game is designed to satisfy players by making them bring beauty to nature. Consider its aftershocks: It’s likely to leave players with a sensation the next time they witness nature’s woes, to feel as if they know the possibility of improvement, that they have seen real change occur — even if they’ve only seen it simulated. That may provide energy. It may sap apathy. “Okami” may plant hope.
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