Okami is without a doubt one of the most stylistically impressive games released in the last decade. Its gorgeous paintbrush art style is indicative of classic Japanese artwork, specifically the watercolor artwork evocative of the Ukiyo-e genre. This was a popular form of artwork that came into vogue from the 17th through the 19th centuries in Japan, featuring bold, flat lines and colorful patterns, as well as dynamic and striking poses. This aesthetic gives Okami much of the memorable look it’s sported since its debut, and it’s one of the first things people notice and remember about the game in general.
But it wasn’t always meant to look that way. It’s difficult to imagine, but Okami was originally pitched as a much more realistic-looking game, more in the vein of Shadow of the Colossus than the colorful piece of eye candy we know and love now. Lead designer Hideki Kamiya was tasked with creating a game that would be built around “a lot of nature,” and thus without a real direction in the game’s infancy, decided to create a short demo clip depicting a realistic wolf running through a forest as flowers and greenery blossomed beneath it.
But the problems that would have sprang from usage of the realistic-looking wolf are obvious. Not only would it have been difficult to illustrate some of the more fantastical elements of the game, but it would have made for a title that would have looked dated only a short time after release. The more abstract and painting-like look have ensured that it remains visually impressive, even a decade after its release.
Further, the photorealistic style wasn’t exactly viable when it came to the PlayStation 2’s limited hardware capabilities. While the style was graphically impressive, as is evident by the early prototype, it wasn’t something developer Clover Studio had decided would work out in the long run, opting for the more colorful ukiyo-e and sumi-e style, or “ink wash painting” seen in the final product. Switching over to the new freeform, more cartoony and colorful style also allowed Clover Studio to implement alternative ideas when it came to Okami’s mechanics. The Celestial Brush, the core of Okami’s many systems, was borne after the big switch was made.
The CEO of Clover Studio himself, Atsushi Inaba, was struck with a moment of brilliance after the team had decided to forgo the realistic art style. “Once we fixed ourselves on a graphical style and got down to the brushwork, we thought ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow get the player involved and participate in this artwork instead of just watching it?’ That’s how the idea of the Celestial Brush was born,” he explained in the Okami: Official Complete Works book from Udon. Players utilize the Celestial Brush to “draw” onscreen to complete puzzles, attack enemies, and interact with the environment, such as making trees bloom into gorgeous cherry blossoms.
Okami’s an intriguing case of how changing something seemingly as simple as the art style ended up producing a much more interesting and memorable title with mechanics that may not have been brought to fruition otherwise. With Okami HD coming to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC this December, fans will have a chance to see the art style that did end up making the cut (and making Okami a better game because of it). The HD polish will make the vibrant colors pop and watercolor-like scenes look even better than before, and we’ll once again be reminded how great of an idea it was to skip out on the realistic look. In this case, going for style points really did pay off.