Zelda, Okami and The Question of Stamina

February 12th, 2010

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The similarities between Okami and Zelda: Twilight Princess are incredible, to say the least. More so, after you’ve considered the calibre of their developers and the close proximity in which the two games were released. I mean all this from a primarily contextual level, rather than a structural and mechanical level, mind you. The most interesting difference, I’ve found, has been the effect that the 40+ hour journeys leave on their players.

Twilight Princess took me an incredible 62hrs to complete with basically all the side quests completed. Okami took me about 42hrs to complete, with significant portion of the side quests mostly completed too.

Twilight Princess feels appropriately sized. Indeed, it’s a HUGE quest, don’t get me wrong there, but one which can be overcome. Okami‘s story, on the other hand, feels like a burden and leaves the player reeling from its lethargic length. The contention is simple: why does Okami‘s endearing length work against the player and Twilight Princess‘ not?

The answer is also simple: the Zelda games are tacitly understood as a collection of units, whereas Okami is not (it’s continuous). This makes the Zelda games quantifiable and regimented, in turn making it easier to digest over a long play time, instead of feeling like the Never Ending Story.

Let’s unpack that a little, shall we?

In regards to Okami, what I mean by “continuous” is that Amaterasu follows a stream of connected areas linearly (ie. a river crossing->field->town->castle). The story is malleable, although generally keeps itself within this structure, with scenario’s starting and finishing within their selected area. Now, there is a goal in sight, collect the 13 brush strokes and destroy Orochi, however, brush strokes are sporadically dolled out, front-ended at the start of the game and then only very carefully handed out thereafter; in effect weakening the grip which the celestial brush has over the narrative. Furthermore—and yes, there will be spoilers ahead—the player is deceived into thinking that they’ve defeated Orochi (thereby completing the game), not just once, but twice. The implication of this tomfoolery is that it puts a damper on the rest—and by rest, I mean majority—of the experience, leaving the player with no clear indication on their progression. Personally, I felt left out of the lurch, decidedly distanced from the experience that I was keen to immerse myself in.

One could quite rightly argue that Zelda: Twilight Princess (and Ocarina of Time) also tricks the player, right? Well, yes, they do, however the trick does not allude to the game’s completion, Link doesn’t defeat Gannon at the start of the game, he defeats him at the end, the same cannot be said for Okami.

The initial 10hrs of Zelda:TP and Zelda:OOT are treated as prelude chapters. The end game is unclear and there are many absent spots in the player’s inventory, so the player suspects the game to open up at some time, but is uncertain. Zelda’s “gotcha moment” therefore works successfully then because:

More to the original point though, the Zelda games are laid out in units. For example, all of the questing and dungeon lurking required to restore Zora’s Domain can be treated as one unit of gameplay. Usually on completion of a unit, the player is reward with one of X number of collectables required to unlock the endgame. A field in the middle of the map indiscriminately connects the units which are presented in the form of various elemental/ethnic-themed areas. Although the world appears open-ended, the journey is linear (excluding Oracle of Ages) since the tools required to enter the some “units” cannot be gained until other ones are first completed. Dungeons, the highlight of each gameplay unit, provides a new piece of inventory which then become tutorialised and effectively mastered by the time the player downs the boss.

Zelda’s aforementioned structure works the player into a familiar routine which consists of visiting each area one-by-one, mastering the dungeon and gaining new inventory until they make a set of gems/stones/Triforce pieces. This systems, one that has been beaten into our brains, for some since childhood, overtly states progression. Progression is simply the number of gems you have contrasted against the number you don’t, a fact presented to the player every time the game is paused.

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Okami‘s world, due to Zelda’s influential progression system, feels uneven. As a Zelda player, I break Okami‘s world into units, and am therefore trained to be systematically rewarded with new abilities after completing a set unit of gameplay. My problem, and the one which has resulted in so many players not seeing Okami through to its eventual end, is that often doesn’t reward players who are trained to be rewarded after certain intervals of play, only adding to the disdain left after the Orochi disillusion.

Furthermore, because Okami‘s ability set is mostly channelled through the celestial brush, upgrades can feel unsubstantial, further adding to the disappointment. Instead of a hookshot or a bow, you can draw a line which makes water fountain into platforms in select areas. Surprisingly, as the example suggests, the upgrades becomes increasingly one-dimensional as you progress.

The majority side quests too are collectathons which is why I didn’t bother pursuing them to completion, unlike Zelda’s extra curricula activities, most of which involve investigation and use of the various equipment.

Conclusion

Zelda’s rigid progression structure enforces a regimented, predictable rhythm of play which keeps the player’s progression conscious, unlike Okami which follows a continuous structure where progression is uncertain. As a result, Zelda: Twilight Princess, with its massive 60+hrs of play, seems beatable, piece by piece, whereas Okami‘s adventure seems to just continue with no end in sight, causing players to drop off.

This fundamental difference, one of stamina, is what I’d consider to be the strongest point which impacts on the player’s own experience with either game.

  • Aaron

    So… You’re basically praising Zelda for being formulaic and criticising Okami for being original? Sorry, but you don’t make a very good point. I don’t know what you mean by “rewarding” the player, but the rewards in Okami (brush powers etc.) are far more gratifying that the rewards in Zelda. And that thing about Okami tricking the player? I don’t hear anybody else complaining about that. When playing Twilight Princess, I felt no incentive to play, and basically played just to get through, but Okami made everything an interesting experience. Oh, and compared to Okami, Zelda has practically no story! To summarize, Twilight Princess was dull in comparison to Okami. I guess there’s no reasoning with a diehard Zelda fan.

  • Aeowynn

    I think the basic problem in your argument is that though Okami and Zelda: TP seem similar, they are actually very, very different, and therefore appeal to different people.

    Zelda is the traditional series of dungeon crawls, just like every other Zelda game; this, as you said, breaks it up into discrete units, so makes the game regimented to the end.

    Okami, however, is more akin to an epic poem, where the focus is more on the spiritual nature of the journey, instead of on the end (because when you’re focusing on these discrete units, you’re really seeing how far along you are towards the end). This focus on the spiritual journey means that you are, in essence, being rewarded with personal relationships along with items or techniques – when you’re at the later parts of the game, you’re not getting as many techniques, but you are interacting with a larger amount of people. And, as you might remember, it is the people you meet that give you praise, so you can increase your abilities, and at the end, it is the belief of those people in you that allows you to overcome the final boss.

    All of this being said, I think it’s really a difference in personality or culture that causes people to enjoy one of these games more than the other. Please understand that, and stop ranting against Okami. Just say you didn’t like it for X, Y and Z.

  • http://www.danielprimed.com Daniel

    Sure, you could say that giving the player structure creates an impetus for completion and puts the focus on the endgame. But without it the game is directionless, like Okami. The player has no concept that what they’re doing is affecting anything. Without seeing that their actions are contributing to something, the player can lose interest. Of course, the land changes after the player finishes a dungeon in Okami, but the dungeons could go on forever, the player doesn’t really know.

    Otherwise, everything else you say about making relationships or learning techniques is all true of Zelda too. Even an epic poem has structure. If it were just sentences cobbled together that went on for a long time it wouldn’t help readability.