Okami: Great Brushwork

Long time no post. This time I’d like to talk about the critically acclaimed action-adventure „Okami“ and what I like (and dislike) about some of its design aspects.

The most obvious element about Okami is the visual style, which rather successfully resembles the typical look of Japanese Sumi-e. But the visual style itself is not what I want to talk about primarily, but how it interacts with the other prominent feature, the Celestial Brush, and with the story of game.

The Celestial Brush

The Celestial Brush is used to manipulate different objects and phenomena in the game world by simply drawing onto it. I like it for mostly three reasons.

First, it is implemented as a quasi-mode. To draw, you press and hold the R1 button and activate the painting quasi-mode, where the game world is being shown on a paper scroll and your left analog stick becomes the brush tip. Since it’s a quasi-mode, the whole process of going into the drawing mode, doing the brushwork and finishing it by letting go the R1 button feels like one action. This is a significant improvement upon its item-based model, The Legend of Zelda series, because you no longer have to go into a menu (mode), do the item management and go back to the game world and – finally – do what you wanted to do in the first place: use the item.

Secondly, brush techniques are essentially gesture commands, which means that it would still be way faster than item usage if drawing was a mode. With gesture commands, you don’t have to choose any object, you just draw what you need. Of course, this strongly depends on how well the gestures are recognized, and fortunately, the recognition works well almost always.

The third reason I like the Celestial Brush is how the whole mechanism perfectly ties into the other two major aspects of the game: the content and the presentation. The game’s story is basically a „remix“ of several Japanese myth where the player character is the sun God Amaterasu who has the power to manipulate the world. The painting metaphor perfectly translates the feeling of being a God and acting on a meta level.

Chicken or egg?

So we have these three big aspects: gesture commands, visual style, and the content, where every aspect fits to the other two – “in both directions”. I could imagine the developer saying:

“let’s do something innovative with gesture commands – oh! Painting as a god works perfectly!”

But consider this:

“let’s do an epic Japanese action adventure and thus go for the traditional visual style – hey, painting into the world might be fun!”

that also sounds like a possible train of thought. Yet the following would also make sense:

“we did cel-shading on Viewtiful Joe, but let’s take it one step further and apply it in a very special way – like Sumi-e. And Japanese myth would be the perfect theme to be shown in this style.”

Yes, I suck at writing scenarios. But hopefully you still get me saying that I do like it when it is not apparent which particular aspect would be the “consequence” of other design decisions.


While it is only a minor annoyance that certain gestures are not being recognized consistently, sometimes I do wish for mulitple gestures per drawing session (filling the screen with bombs, for instance ;) . Still, using the quasi mode to save a delimiter was a good choice. Introducing an additional input to end a gesture in order to be able to start another would have been an even greater annoyance, I guess.

Unfortunately, the Dual Shock just isn’t the best device to simulate a pen, after all. Making the inking button pressure sensitive is a nice touch, but I find the brush movement with the analog stick to be tedious in certain situations, for example in some puzzles or boss fights where you have to use different multi-stroke techniques frequently.

While this is not a big issue and simply a technical limitation of the platform, I just can’t help but to imagine how well this would work on Wii.


Here is a more serious game design problem. Despite all the praise above, I do find the brush game play to be somewhat lacking depth. Most of the time, the player is only required to “react”, to use the right technique on specific game objects, and this knowledge is imparted when a new technique is discovered – no thinking needed. Only with certain bosses and especially the last, there are chain actions required.

It would have been better if brush effects are more connected, like a network. Not only linear sequences, but branching sequences. Let brush techniques have different effects on its effects. It’s already possible to paint on the ground to plant a tree, how about having the subsequent options to chop it down, burn it or create a vine connection to a corresponding object (these three are all available actions in the game)? How about having different effects if you do all three actions in different orders? How about different trees on different ground, and the ground property can be manipulated with water and fire? How about varying vines depending on the corresponding object and if those objects also have be manipulated accordingly? The point is to require more combining on the player’s part (processing instead of reacting).

The Neverending Story (yeah, this article seems that way, too)

The last complaint concerns the story arc. While the narrative shouldn’t normally affect the game play, the confusing story segmentation in Okami actually hurt the player motivation over the entire course of the game. First, the story starts with the legend of defeating the nine-headed snake Orochi, which is to be relived by the player. All the narrative suggest this snake as the ultimate villain and facing it seems to be the big confrontation, which also took place after about 12 hours in my case. Judging from other action adventures (Ninja Gaiden, MGS2, MGS3), this also seems to be a plausible length. Although only about half of the brush techniques was found, they could have been as well optional secrets and I supposed the main plot would conclude with the Orochi fight.

But after the climatic fight, the player is told of more evil spirits and the adventure continues. After some more lengthy quests and defeating the next major monster – which was a lot less spectacular than the nine headed snake – the same kind of cut scene which was used to conclude the Orochi episode was displayed – it was merely another chapter. Without knowing how many more villains remain, the tension was mostly gone by now. Instead of being able to estimate the amount of challenges to come and eagerly expecting the actual ending, I was thinking: let’s see how many of those chapters there are.

After yet another batch of quests and before entering the next major stronghold, the player is asked to be sure because there’s no turning back. “So maybe this is it”, I thought. Of course this was not it. Thus when eventually the player is asked a similar question again (“this is the point of no return”) after the conclusion of chapter 4, I thought it to be just another big dungeon. And of course this is actually the final showdown, complete with rehashing all previous bosses, followed by a refreshing final villain. The problem is, the player indeed is now unable to go back and complete any unfinished bonus quests. Although the player was warned, he was trained not to take it seriously because the previous warnings turned out to be only temporary and not definite, only to last till the chapter ends. And the chapters seems to come one after another without building up the tension to a specific point.

So while I enjoyed the last boss fight, the narrative completely lost me. Also it didn’t help that one annoying non-player character suddenly turned out to be the best friend of ours with only a few lines of recollection on his side. What set out to be an epic adventure in the great world of Japanese myth eventually ended with a kitschy and religious message (I knew playing a god would come back at me sometime…).


This game resembles Zelda in many ways and might be the best competing game to use its formula. I especially like how well the innovative gesture control, unique visual presentation and the coherent theme play together. However, I’d like to see more depth in the brush mechanism and the whole adventure could have been shorter or at least the dramaturgy
should have be more tightly focused.

I’m eager to read your comments.

Yu-Chung Chen

Yu-Chung Chen is a designer working primarily on video games. He studied at Köln International School of Design and has contributed to a number of published games. Currently he works as a freelance UI designer at Keen Games.

One response to “Okami: Great Brushwork”

  1. Krystian Majewski

    Great having you here again! I didn’t play the game yet but from what I saw it I totally agree with you.

    Just recently, I played A Link To The Past. You frequenty have to use certain items only once like lighting a candle with the lamp or open up a cracked wall with a bomb. You always press the menu button, select the item, confirm, use the item, go back to the menu, select the item you had before and confirm again. The game is a classic but that sucks and it’s great to see an improvement there.

    Also another game where I’ve ran into mode problem was the Killerspiel Final Fantasy: Chrystal Chronicles. There, you selct the action with R and L and perform that action with A. I guess the deigners thought you could easily change from fighting to casting magic or using items in the middle of the fight. They even added a “Defend” action to block incoming attacks. Sound ok but doesn’t work at all in reality. You need to realize which mode you are in, switch the to the right mode and then perform the action. That is something which simply will not happen in a split of a second. Players will run somewhere where they are safe to switch modes because it is so distracting. The sequence in which the actions appear when you cylcle through them is even variable so there is no way you can habitualize it. In fact you end up frustrated when suddenly your character doesn’t attack anymore and you realized that you accidently switched from “attack” mode to “defend” mode.

    The game lenght seems to be a new and serious problem. Remember MC Chris’ stand up about Kingdom Hearts II?


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