As an art critic by trade, I’m partial to the idea that the arts should be a reflection on culture. Art has an educational and informational purpose that is often overlooked in those artistic mediums that become dominated by blockbuster entertainment, but the arts have traditionally been a way of conveying meaning and intent from the artist to the audience (before we called them consumers and customers of products, those that experienced a work of art was the audience, and that created a different dynamic between the artist and those that witnessed the art). It’s painfully uncommon in our little space, but every so often a game developer does do something to remind us that, as an art form, a game can be both entertainment and also the conveying of meaning, and Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is a precious example of that.
At its most basic level, Sakuna is two things: it’s 2D RPG-like platforming, and it’s Harvest Moon-like farming. You delve into dungeons to fight monsters and collect resources, and then use those resources to help you till a plot of land better and grow plenty of rice. Mechanically, the game integrates the two together nicely, and checks all the boxes to ensure that it’s a good game. Action is smooth and dynamic, with Sakuna, the protagonist, being a nimble, agile, and tactical fighter, with a good combo and movement system in place to make just about every battle a delight. Back at the safety of the farm, the rice farming is surprisingly complex, with pages worth of data to monitor and hone as you look to strike the perfect balance between water, sunlight, and fertiliser (which you have to mix up yourself) to deliver delicious rice at the end of the season. Divorce Sakuna from all narrative and thematic context and it’s still excellent. It’s just that the context is what makes it a masterpiece.
Back in the preview stage of playing this game, I did a video where I talked about the near-spiritual reverence that the Japanese have for rice. It’s the staple of their diet, and it hasn’t always been easy to grow. Japan is a mountainous, volcanic nation, with difficult geography for setting up rice fields, and when you see those picturesque photos of the neatly cut rice fields into tiers on a mountain like layers of a cake, just imagine how difficult it is to actually farm those fields and the kind of physical labour involved. The Japanese have a real respect for the process that goes into farming rice, which, when coupled with Shinto spirituality, makes rice something of a divine force within the culture. I’m not going to go over that theme further in the context of this review, but here’s that video from the preview stage that further expands on this theme:
It’s not the only part of Japanese culture that Sakuna beautifully works with. Another core element to the Japanese culture, which has developed over thousands of years, is the concept of Kami – the deities of Shinto, but really more akin to forces of nature or spirits than the almighty divine being of Judeo-Christian faith. The Kami are not perfect. In fact, they’re typically characterised as very human in their ability to lust, love, experience jealousy, rage, irresponsibility and represent other moral failings. You play as a Kami in Sakuna, and she’s a spoiled little brat that enjoys drinking far too much and prancing about her home palace in the divine world like she’s untouchable. Unfortunately, after letting a bunch of mortals into her realm (where they proceed to tear up the place), Sakuna and her new “friends” find themselves banished to a yokai and oni-filled island, tasked with taming the island and learning how to grow rice. It’s a coming of age story for poor Sakuna if ever there was one. The mortals are portrayed as equals in spirit and temperament to Sakuna, but – and this is no spoiler – that simply means that her journey of redemption is also one in which she comes to terms with being a better Kami and understanding her role and responsibility to nurture and those around her.
Shinto is a truly beautiful belief system, largely because it’s not so much a formal religion these days as it is a simple philosophy on life and way of looking at the world. Shinto shrines exist, but attendance isn’t really necessary to consider yourself part of the Shinto faith. Instead of asking for flashy shows of faith and commitment to attend ceremonies and throw tithes at priests, Shinto instead encourages people to respect the world around them, the impact that they have on it, and understand that there is a “soul” to everything, living and inanimate, that is fundamentally deserving. This is why every step of the rice-growing process is worthy (and why Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin turns every step into a laborious minigame), and it’s why excess is frowned on (you’re never allowed to accumulate too much stuff in Sakuna, between things going on and the need to keep a constant eye on the rice field). Sakuna’s beauty as a game is its inherent Shinto quality, and while it’s never preachy about it (Shinto’s not a religion that’s actively pushing for conversions or mindshare anyway), it’s something that I do hope people take away from the game and are inspired to want to learn more about, because it’s a fascinating religion.
Yet another part of Japanese culture that Sakuna works beautifully within is the storytelling tradition, which is another part of Japanese culture that they hold to be precious (and given that the Japanese culture is credited with having produced the first novel and has historically been one of the most literary cultures, that’s not surprising). Sakuna is constantly referencing classical Japanese folk stories, while also indulging a variation on the Hyakki Yagyō (Night Parade of One Hundred Demons) in the “parade” of distinctive, interesting monsters that you get to battle through the game’s combat. It’s anything but dry and dusty about the way it represents and champions Japanese storytelling tradition, too, with a wholesome sense of humour delivered through an eclectic cast, from the irrepressible Sakuna herself, to the hopeless, fearful mortal samurai (who knows more about rice fields than fighting), through to the wannabe blacksmith kid, and the foreigner with some interesting recipe ideas. Sakuna will have you chuckling along with it from start to finish, because it’s just that charming.
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is a genuine cultural artefact. It never forgets the need to be entertaining and engaging, but every facet of the game is invested in communicating the Japanese cultural perspective on the world, from how we see the divine, to the respect that we should hold for the very staples that sustain us. This is a game that transcends the conventional expectations of video games, to deliver something much grander and more inherently valuable than passive entertainment to consume.