Out of Nothing: The Trouble with Playing as Creator
The word “okami” translates as “great god” in Japanese. The title refers to the player character “Amaterasu,” in Hideki Kamiya’s Okami. According to the other gods in the game she is a white wolf, the Shinto sun goddess, and the “mother of us all”. She shows up in Nippon (Japan) to heal the broken world and restore things to their created order–the order she created. Perhaps this is because creative director Kamiya felt that the tale of a creator god is best told as a redeemer.
The world is in sad shape when Amaterasu arrives. Curses plague the land. The trees are dying. And the 8-headed dragon (who is one head worse than Satan) has returned. The Great White Wolf’s solution? Casting out demons, healing the sick, raising the dead (trees) and send the dragon back to hell.
It’s not all that different from Narnia. Whenever Aslan shows up in Narnia, it’s typically when things have gotten really bad. And he’s there to set things right and bring every created thing back to life. He’s the one who created the place, but it always seems to get infested with darkness. In Okami, it’s pretty much the same story. Even though Amaterasu is The Creator, she doesn’t seem to get much respect. Her primary companion, a flea named Issun, calls her “furball.” When he’s respectful, she’s “Ammy.” It almost seems inconsequential that Ammy is the creator of the universe. She’s further inconvenienced by the fact that she has to regain all of her abilities.
As she gets her powers back, she can create miracles with the celestial brush by turning the world into a parchment and drawing things into place. If a bridge is destroyed, fill in the gap with one long stroke of the brush! Draw a line through demons to strike them from existence. Is a tree withered? Draw a circle on it to make it bloom!
Every time that Ammy exorcises a major demonic stronghold or makes one of the cherry blossom saplings bloom, flowers spill through the surrounding countryside. Lush greens return to the fields and trees. Many waters flow unhindered. And creatures big and small come back to their natural habitats.
I lead Ameratsu in shaping and restoring what has already been made, but I am not actually producing anything that didn’t already exist. This posed a question in my mind: is it possible to tell the story of a god who creates from nothing?
Now let’s reverse all of that. Imagine that instead of restoring a barren cherry blossom sapling, you had to design the sapling itself. Instead of the flowers returning to the desolate fields, you had to map out the shape and identity of each one of the plants and their flowers. Imagine creating all of the creatures, big and small. And instead of just purging the waterfall of contamination, you had to shape the mountains, the flow of the water, plus the water itself. And you had to create the people who live there. And if that wasn’t enough to think about, now imagine what would happen when you had to convey all that creativity with a controller. It sounds impossible. And maybe it is.
One could take just one look at the god-game genre to find some attempts at another answer: Black & White and From Dust cast you as a god who can be either a benevolent, negligent, or tyrannical. But those games never cast you as the creator of the universe. And while they might have a sandbox quality, you’re just another god. You’re not really tasked with creating anything.
Okami’s director, Hideki Kamiya, asserts that even if you’re playing as a creator god, it’s more interesting to start without your power. You’re given time with villagers, animals, and spirits to build a relationships with over time. You complete multiple quests with them, empowering them to become key players in your story. And you get your powers back along the way. You grow together.
Many have said that the most unique quality of interactive storytelling is “emergent gameplay”–that is, players craft their own personal stories based on how they play. As Amaterasu gains new powers, helps new people, and receives praise (EXP), she is shaped by your actions. But she’s no less the “Great Amaterasu, mother of us all.”
Today we have Minecraft and Terraria and the upcoming Starforge. These games are all built around the premise of creation, but we’re still just the builders. We’re working with the materials we’re given. We can create just about anything in our imagination, but we can only create with the tools we’re given. We can modify the tools and create mods. But what of full and unlimited creativity? Maybe we can only go so far?
The author of Ecclesiastes asserts that, “History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new.” This used to bum me out. People who play Okami often say that feels a lot like Zelda. That might be a crude comparison but despite all the originality of Okami, I can see that everything comes from what already is. Maybe the most ‘creative’ thing we can do is to unearth the created intent? To become like Amaterasu, drawing life back to its created order.