Critical Play and Art Forms in Games

Video games are known to be forms of interactive entertainment that are played for all types of experiences. Some games, however, inspire thought and consideration of mechanics, narrative, and style. These games are often “art” games, and focus on eliciting reactions from players that are unconventional in the gaming scene. One such game would be Okami, developed by Clover Works, which is a game that heavily incorporates Japanese mythological tales and artistic expression. You play as the sun goddess, Amaterasu, and are tasked with restoring the land to its original state after the serpent beast, Orochi is released, cursing the world. The game derives its story from that of Shinto folklore, and works to communicate these tales to outside audiences as well.

Okami is a great example of an art game that promotes critical play due to its strong adherence to its source material and culture. Core mechanics of the game were developed due to the decision by the developers to adopt the visual style of “ink wash painting,” which consists of strong brush strokes of black ink. This style prompted the creation of the “Celestial Brush” which the player uses to to solve puzzles and conjure attacks that reflect the look of the brush strokes. There are also puzzles that depend on knowledge of writing Kanji, cultural references, and so on. Flanagan mentions that games that employ critical play “[focus] on the reworking of contemporary, popular game practices to propose an alternative, or ‘radical,’ game design,” and Okami demonstrates this by not caving in to westernizing its overseas releases for the sake of other audiences, and therefore erasing many aspects of culture represented in game. It instead explains these aspects to the player so that they can gain an understanding of the references, and be prompted to research the topics more on their own so that they can appreciate the game in a new scope. Conventionally, games might omit features that would be foreign to other audiences, and focus strictly on the gameplay aspect at the cost of narrative cohesion. However, Okami is an example of a game that has benefitted from remaining close to its roots and inspiring thinking and cultural understanding.

Flanagan, Mary. “Critical Play: Radical Game Design.” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2009.

Gameplay of Okami HD