Welcome to the maiden voyage of a new series: Defining Moments in games. In this series, I’m going to be taking a look at some of the best moments from my favorite games. Individual scenes or set pieces that left a lasting impact on not only the game, but on me as a player.
The intention here is to approach the scene from an artistic standpoint and look at the various elements that made it work. Examine how, through the use of various methods of presentation, the scene in question expanded on the game as a whole. How it effects the characters, story, or gamer experience on a deeper level.
If I’m being honest, this first one is just an excuse for me to write an entire article on Okami. For anyone that knows me well enough, it’s no surprise I’d start with my favorite game of all time. I could write an entire book on Okami, but there is one scene in particular I want to talk about. Most everyone that’s played the game knows what scene this is just from the title. So, let’s get Defining Moments started with a look at how a single flower completely destroyed all of my feels.
Warning: This is going to be completely spoiler-filled. If you haven’t played Okami, I’d really urge you to turn back now. Close this article. Go over to Playstation Network, and download the HD remake. You’ll thank me later.
Okami is what many gamers refer to as a “cult classic”. It was well received by critics, often being brought up in conversations about some of the greatest games of all time. However, it just didn’t sell too well, which eventually led to Capcom having to disassemble the incredible team behind it: Clover Studios. But what is it about the game that made it stick out? Well, everything. It’s unique and profound visual style, drawing inspiration from classic Japanese sumi-e ink wash brush painting. The sprawling soundtrack. A beautiful, vibrant world filled with vast landscapes for you to explore. And a story presented with a large quantity of reinterpreted versions of many stories from Japanese mythology. The game also had one of the most well-rounded cast of characters ever presented in a world, with every NPC you meet having their own distinct personalities and styles.
In a cast of characters so large and well-developed, it came as a surprise that THIS is one of the finest examples of characterization in the entire game, and one of the NPCs that left a real lasting impression on players.
This is Tobi, a random demon you meet within the final dungeon of the game’s second story arc, Oni Island. His main purpose is to challenge you to various “races”, which play out like small obstacle courses. Racing Tobi through traps and dangers proves to be a solid way of utilizing all of your gathered skills thus far, and presents a solid challenge that ultimately prepares you for the final showdown with Ninetails, the big-bad of the second arc.
But throughout these trials, Tobi’s silly dialogue seems off. It doesn’t fit an evil demon as much as it develops him into being somewhat of a rival of Issun and Amaterasu. The back-and-forths between him and Issun are less that of enemies, but more of two friends having a sparing match of wits and physical strength.
Throughout the dungeon, Tobi becomes more and more impressed by your skills at beating him. He slowly starts developing a respect and admiration for your competitive spirit and willingness to overcome any odds to accomplish your goal. And then we reach the final challenge, with Tobi presenting it as more of a swan song for his legacy than of an actual means of keeping you from reaching your destination. The scene in question in this article is the moment that follows upon beating him in his final race.
With Tobi’s defeat, he says his final goodbye to Issun, in a rather fatalistic sounding way.
“I feel so very fortunate to have such a great man as yourself witness my final moment…”
What follows is an explanation that now that Tobi is defeated, he serves no more purpose as a guardian of Oni Island. Tobi reveals that he had walked away from his responsibilities as your enemy, pursuing instead the thrill of competition. That he had found a reinvigorated purpose in life, instead of serving as a mindless demon. But that he had done it of his own free will, and had found a sense of peace and happiness in the races.
“I have violated the precepts and shall thusly be erased. So it is I who must bid you farewell. I shall now accept my fate for abandoning my duty as a gatekeeper.”
Issun expresses surprise, and a sense of sadness, as he comes to realize what is about to unfold. Tobi attempts to reassure his once-enemy-now-friends by explaining himself.
“Oh, don’t be sorry for me, good sir! This was the life of my own choosing. I treasured it, and no one can ever take that away from me. Though I may have been born a mere servant of spirits, I should at least be allowed to do what I please at my passing, for otherwise, my life would have been in vain! I fear I shall not be able to guide you the rest of the way. I wish I had a bouquet of flowers to present you at this farewell. But, alas, I must part with you empty handed. Please forgive me. Farewell, good sir. And good luck…!”
With his final words, this floating slip of paper slowly floats to the ground in front of Ammy and Issun, and vanishes. Leaving behind a singular flower planted in the ground where he landed. And somehow, this scene has hit many players very hard. It’s a surprisingly emotional sequence that utilizes every aspect of Okami to near-perfect results. I’ll openly admit I teared up. Over a scrap of paper.
WHY IT WORKS
Okami is, at it’s very core, a game about contrasts. It presents itself in a very basic duality of good vs. evil. Dark vs. Light. Throughout the game, we’re presented with an easy to understand use of color to showcase this. When something is corrupted or evil, it is presented with shades of dark purple, crimson reds. Colors classically associated with demons and negative emotions. As you walk through corrupted zones in the game, the use of drab, oppressive colors makes it very apparent that this is not a friendly atmosphere. And when you finally break the curses, you’re treated with one of the game’s many explosive, colorful sequences. Showing flowers and trees blooming in vibrant glory, pushing out the dark colors and replacing them with showers of eye-catching brightness.
This is the basis of Okami’s art style. Nature and color overtaking the dreariness of darkness. This moment in Oni Island very much showcases that, on a much smaller, more personal level. Oni Island is a demon stronghold, and as such, it is full of purples, reds, and oranges. It’s physical appearance is that of ruination and death. There are no plants or beauty anywhere. The blandness of the architecture also presents itself against the usual brilliance of the places you visit. Even Tobi himself is originally presented with an aura of darkness that is associated with demons and fear.
But when Tobi leaves behind this singular flower, it acts as a stunning use of contrast. A small twinkle of hope in this otherwise hopeless environment. This also represents the theme of transformation that plays throughout the game. Tobi has, more or less, found absolution from his trappings as an “Evil Being”. He is no longer a demon, and his final moments are that of release from the darkness. Instead of fading out in a splash of reds and purples like most demons you defeat, he instead turns into a white flower. A color that is never associated with demons or the enemy.
This use of color in transformation and contrast is able to let us know that Tobi was changed internally. Breaking free of his purpose as a demon, he was able to find a more positive meaning in his existence, and has died at peace with himself. Tobi himself uses his respectful speech patterns to thank you for helping him find his way, another contrast compared to the usual dialogue spoken by just-defeated enemies.
IT’S IMPACT ON THE GAME
Tobi only appears in Oni Island, a very small chunk of a rather large game. But this moment, his death, leaves a surprising impact on the rest of the game. It’s a subtle shift, but it’s one that resonates throughout the rest of the story. And that shift comes in the development of Issun’s character for the rest of the game.
Up until this point in the game, we don’t see too much character development for Amaterasu’s reluctant partner. Issun’s lax attitude, disinterest in saving the world, and general rudeness define him as a silly tag-along that serves as the voice for a voiceless lead. He’s brash, apathetic, and mostly pointless to the actual story of the game. He isn’t much of a character besides comic relief and a means to explain the world to the player. But his reaction to Tobi’s goodbye shows a surprisingly different tone and sets in motion the development that turns him into a great character in the closing chapter of the game.
“Tobi… It was more than a petty little race. Perhaps I wouldn’t even have gotten this far without you. With that true spirit of competition you showed me, I can now face the biggest challenge of my life so far!”
Issun is not inclined to complement other characters (unless, of course, he’s talking about a female’s… “assets”), and he’s even less likely to speak of his own personal struggles. Watching his usual arrogant attitude stripped away in these scene is the first time we’re presented with a real sense of the character’s true nature. He’s someone who’s lost his purpose in life, and is slowly finding it on his journey with Amaterasu.
He finds inspiration in his rivalry with Tobi, and seeing Tobi find a purpose beyond settling with what he’s gotten, pushes Issun to begin seeing himself as necessary. It gives him the strength to combat his own insecurity and step up as a hero. This crack in Issun’s shell is presented with only a handful of words, but it’s just a seed that grows with Issun for the rest of the game.
All that’s left now is the final confrontation with Ninetails. The final battle is now just ahead of us, and Issun and the player are both ready. Our skills have been tested, prepping us for what is one of the hardest fights in the game so far. Our desire to avenge the death of friends pushes us to want to end this particular enemy once and for all. This was that final strike of the match that ignites a fire that burns for the rest of the dungeon.
And it all came from the death of a floating piece of paper with a spirit to compete. That’s pretty impressive.