You know, I’m not entirely sure that Way of the Samurai 4 [official site] is the most authentic historical game. Not sure what makes me think that. Possibly the British ambassador to Japan being a tiny girl in a Lolita dress. Maybe the stock dialogue option “I’m allowed to kill you if I want to.” At a pinch, maybe the fact that the British Royal Marine Commander’s name is “Melinda Megamelons”. No, no, it’s probably nothing. I’m sure you could use it for homework and walk off with an A.
But as well as being educational, it’s the ideal candidate for an RPG cultural exchange – a pot of great ideas and potential cool things just sitting there for Western games to both play with and pilfer, and a refreshing change from the sprawling norm. If you don’t mind your eyes sometimes rolling so hard that you get a quick peek inside your own skull. Ouch, that gets painful after a bit.
Specifically, I’m thinking of choice and scope. The basic gist of Way of the Samurai is that you show up as one of the aforementioned roving badasses, and pretty much everything after that is up to you. The world is small, a run through the main story doesn’t take too long, but the point is that you’re meant to keep going back to explore different options and try different things. That’s not unique to the series of course. Japanese adventure-style games have a long history of that kind of design, from visual novels where your fate can change drastically based on whether you decided to do the washing up or the laundry (often with little real causal connection), to the likes of Princess Maker, where your decisions and variably pervy tutelage can lead to your adopted daughter becoming anything from a street magician to the King’s concubine to ruling Hell as the Princess of Darkness. Which probably puts your school’s stern warnings about your permanent record into perspective.
For Way of the Samurai 4, a glance at GameFAQs shows 10 different endings, as the result of lots of individual events over a three day period, plus a big stack of minigames and optional bits and pieces that the player may or may not get around to in a particular game, such as running a dojo and learning how to talk to foreigners. There’s also a few things that carry over from game to game, like (and I’m quoting on this one, because I’ve not played it enough to see it in action) responding to a particularly murderous playthrough by adding more guards on the next cycle through.
It’s a style I’d love to see tried by by more RPGs, which are always promising big choices but so rarely manage to make them more than a bullet-point. It’s hard enough to get people to finish some 50 hour epic even once, with the classic response being to finish with usually the good ending and then head to YouTube to see the alternatives. Their scale usually precludes choices having real and lasting differences in the actual game, with the result that what we generally get is responsiveness rather than reactivity – by which I mean things like a character greeting you differently if you’ve already met or possibly refusing to help if you previously worked against them. So too does the fact that people don’t on the whole like major content getting locked off and branching often has unfortunate knock-on effects. The Witcher 2 for instance was interesting in having a split second act, but in practice it meant that those who followed the Roche path missed a lot and it’s kinda notable that The Witcher 3 didn’t offer anything remotely as divergent.
By restricting the action to a small location and a small timeframe however, things get more interesting. There’s much more scope for both a branching story and a more general experience – something along the lines of Baldur’s Gate 2’s second chapter writ large, as Shadowrun: Dragonfall tried. We’ve seen this in other games, such as The Yawhg, as well as in storylet driven stuff like Sunless Sea (disclosure: I write for that one, so I’m not saying anything else about it), but never really as the core of a Western RPG. By design, they’re always sprawling affairs – horizontally, in that you travel around a huge amount of space, or vertically, descending into a particularly fiendish dungeon. Like much of the genre, that leaves a lot of interesting space left to explore, and in this case, some interesting options that wouldn’t work in a larger game.
Time limits for instance don’t work over a long experience where you’re at risk of all your hard work simply going up in flames. In something short, as in Way of the Samurai 4, they can act more as a focusing crystal – the decision that on this run, you’re going to try and do X, be it go for a specific achievement or try and reach a particular ending. This also allows for designers to be more organic about the nature of challenges on offer, from having a tournament that will kick your arse concave the first time you attempt to enter it (unlike literally every other RPG tournament around, where usually the only way to lose is to fall asleep at your computer and walk off mid-fight to have your dinner.)
The progression of time can also be interesting in other ways that often go unexplored. Lords of Midnight 3 for instance made a big deal out of the seasons changing along with your system clock, that being a much better sell than “Play my terrible sequel”. Over in heathen consoleville, Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask featured characters aware and reacting to their soon approaching death. Back in the land of the righteous, I’ve always been fond of occasional events, from World of Warcraft’s Darkmoon Fair cropping up in your neighbourhood to Quest For Glory 2 having visitors crop up to the inn where you’re staying on specific days. One of the best examples, albeit not in an RPG, is still Rockstar’s Bully, or Canis Canem Edit as it ended up being renamed in the UK for reasons that were stupid before it came out and now seem positively impossible. The seasons changed as the terms ticked by, with Halloween getting a special whole celebration full of pranks and costumes.
I’m also still very fond of the original Dead Rising games, the zombie-bashing series with terrible bosses and a weird ignorance of how awesome it would be for them to be set in a Disneyworld type setting, and how time played into both the survival and the opportunities that you had – to mess around, to make cool things, to mark off specific achievements, be they assembling the best gear or joining the other survivors to while away some time playing Strip Poker in the safehouse. Dead State manages to get some of the same feel with its more sandbox approach to RPG, even if the original version (I’ve not played the update) did tend to trip over its ambition a bit too often.
Perhaps the most important thing that a restricted setting can offer though is consequence. Generally games have to handle this with a velvet glove for everyone’s benefit – it’s considered most impolite these days to allow the player to screw themselves over, and not without cause. The kind of hardcore RPG player that genuinely wants the chance of throwing away 30 hours of game on a mistake is tough enough to have their own entry on the Mohs scale. Even so, the chance of locking out content, the chance of screwing up, the chance of missing out on something big is usually sufficient prior restraint to have everyone choose the safest, most boring option at every possible point. Yes, of course I will return your cat. No, you don’t need to pay me. Yes, I am the same guy who broke into your house and stole all your shit. Don’t pretend you’re programmed to notice.
Playing through Way of the Samurai though, I’m reminded of how much fun it is to be able to go crazy and do the options you secretly want to, knowing that it’s not going to matter. Admittedly, sometimes it matters a little less than I’d like, from the way that nobody commented on my newly created hero walking through town with nothing but sweaty underwear on, or seemed to mind him murdering everyone at the British consulate. But still, I appreciate the chance. And I do like it when a game gives me that sense of being able to break the rules and simply try things. Playing Fallout: New Vegas for instance, I was thrilled to find that yes, you absolutely can go and murder Caesar early on like you probably want to. No immortality flag, no instant death response, just a corpse at my feet and a lot of people out in the wasteland going “Holy shit, you just totally did that!” It actually felt transgressive, like killing Lord British back in the day, despite both things openly being by design.
The RPG genre has largely flourished in recent years due to being willing to borrow so much from other genres. I’m certainly not saying they should all borrow this stuff, but it’d be interesting to see more try – for the worlds to be more than wallpaper for monster bashing and linear quests, and instead become playgrounds where content can ebb and flow and decisions ripple out in interesting ways and sometimes attract passing sharks. Or where murdering literally everyone can be an achievement worth hunting, or where it’s no longer possible to become every important official in the entire world yet still have to take shit from random town guards. Elder Scrolls, I’m looking at you. No, not you Elder Scrolls Online. You go back to the naughty corner. Bad game. Bad!
The Way of the Samurai method certainly isn’t the only way to explore this kind of thing, but it’s once again an interesting example of how a different development culture can attempt to solve a problem and in the process come up with ideas worth borrowing – and perhaps worth merging with more common Western design concepts like roguelikes, storylets and D&D. For now though, I’m enjoying my trip to Japan for the sense of discovery that only jumping into an unfamiliar game can provide, and for the experience of wandering around stabbing people with a sword, of looking for fun options rather than simply right ones, and secretly hoping – just a little – that this is a more accurate game than it seemed and there really was a Royal Marine Commander called Melinda Megamelons.
History is such a spoilsport.