Nature saturates and enriches Okami on a variety of levels. Most immediately, this influence is seen in the narrative. The player controls the wolf avatar for the Japanese Shinto Sun Goddess Amaterasu, whose task is to regenerate Nippon's springs and forests, lifting a demonic curse and returning the land to its full beauty.
Progress in the game is very similar to the Legend of Zelda series of games in that the player travels over a large world map between dungeons, story events and side quests. In terms of topography and geography, Nippon is like Zelda's Hyrule in its mixture of forests, rivers and small rural villages. However, through certain distinct choices made by Clover Studios in the creation of the Nippon overworld, the environment and the gameplay are much more firmly intertwined.
One of the many quests of the game involves the player traversing ravaged or stagnant land, before finding a central focal point - a tree or waterfall or windmill - which holds sway over the immediate environment. The player then, using the divine properties of the celestial brush, proceeds to blossom the area; circling a sapling with ink, for example, causes the withered roots to burst with vibrant colour and foliage. A cut-scene follows depicting the transformation of the area from dull and dreary to bright and teeming with life. These sequences are, for me, some of the most joyful in the game, and don't get old; it is lovely watching the change in explosive real-time.
This basic idea, of a shift in the environment, is shared with Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, where the player would first visit an area shrouded in darkness, before restoring the local Light Spirit. However, Twilight Princess operates on a mostly binary state of Twilight/Light, and once the Light Spirit is revived, the area is fully restored. Okami , on the other hand, presents the player with stages in the restoration of the land. After the general area has been resurrected, there are still pockets of putridity, such as small swamps, spidery, leafless trees and 'devil gates', little strongholds of baddies that give its immediate area a shroud of mist. The player has to tackle these individually, with a deft stroke of the brush for the first two, or by facing enemies for the latter one.
Now, these aspects aren't strictly necessary - the narrative and main quest mostly move onto the next objective after the main sapling is restored. Outside of some early tutorial errands, these side bits are pursuable according to the whims of the player. Nevertheless, what differentiates these tasks from their counterparts in Zelda (such as collecting poes and golden bugs) is that they are logical extensions of the overall mission. Amaterasu sets out to restore Nippon, one bit at a time.
Furthermore, the encouragement to restore and replenish ferments a relationship between the player and the game's environment, which develops and improves after a series of actions. This depth afforded to the overworld areas is extended to other side-quests, such as feeding the animals that live and graze throughout Nippon. These exploration-based optional objectives have become an integral part of Zelda's formula, with the hero being awarded money, hearts or special items for ferreting out each bug, killing each poe or trading each trinket. However, the arbitrary nature of these errands which often take place outside of the narrative, involving characters who solely exist for that purpose, sometimes makes them feel superfluous, unnecessary, like an addition designed for the meticulous, die-hard completist. This isn't helped by the relative inutility of the rewards in question (which won't directly affect the game) in relation to the required investment of time and patience.
While Okami's approach to side quests is similarly completist-baiting, the rewards for feeding animals, discovering hidden clovers and regenerating trees take the form of 'Praise Points', which can be saved up and spent in an RPG-style levelling-up system allowing the player improve their health, ink and wallet space.
However, all of these tasks are not simply desirable in terms of profit, but are integral to the themes of the game. As Amaterasu feeds, nourishes and nurtures, the basic natural pantheistic paradigm of the Sun as mother is stressed and illustrated. Central tenets of the Shinto religion are communicated, and the player, encouraged or manipulated into these objectives for completion's sake or otherwise, actively participates in the worship of nature. This tight intertwining of gameplay and sensibility hammers home the pastoral values of Okami, where animals and forces of nature truly inhabit the landscape, and become gods.
These pastoral values and focus on the natural landscape are also reflected in the game's art style, which I will attempt to cover in the next mini-essay.
Okami fan art from artofokami.com, by Sabine Zabel