The Way of the Samurai 3 – Arthur Protasio
Narrative Reincarnation in The Way of the Samurai 3
Becoming a Ronin
The metal clash of blades roars in the background as a (stale) narrator explains the setting of the game world you are about to inhabit, which mainly comprises the troubles of the Sengoku “Warring States” period of Japanese History.
You are one of the few survivors of a recent confrontation between rival clans. However, having lost the battle, you have now become a masterless samurai, a ronin, that faintly hangs onto a bit of life and treads the blood stained battlefield. As you limp, soaked by the rain in a Kurosawa-esque fashion, two merchants notice your presence.
The men approach, offer help, and you are prompted for a response. Four options present themselves. The first three are dialogue lines split between a slightly humorous response, a dramatic death-like statement, or an angry bark. However, being a samurai means you also have your sword at your disposal and as your fourth option you may draw it and manifest violence (or the threatening of it) as your reaction.
The previous paragraphs describe the first few minutes of The Way of the Samurai 3. Though the game may always start in the same manner, the decisions made by the player at this point represent the first step in one of many different lives that exist based on a narrative structure filled with varied ramifications and branches. In other words, the concept of narrative reincarnation.
By genre definition, The Way of the Samurai 3 is an action-adventure game with role-playing elements. In technical terms, the player controls a customizable samurai avatar through the eyes of a third person camera and traverses scenarios that are filled with NPCs representing either shopkeepers, “quest-givers” or “save spots”. When not talking to people, players are usually cutting their way through them with one of many weapons (some odd) that are available in the game, and hoping to survive the rigid combat mechanics (especially if one is playing on hard difficulty).
Apart from generic descriptions, the “Way of the Samurai” series, developed by Acquire, has always been known in the west as a niche game mainly composed by a few key characteristics such as drab (english) voice acting, subpar graphics, and lackluster swordplay.
Though it is not untrue to say these elements have plagued the series ever since its first release in 2002, in reality they are eclipsed by the strong storytelling structure present in the games. To simplify the whole in such manner is a disservice to the immersive experience that arises from making divergent decisions, such as aligning yourself with a clan, and treading different paths which may eventually decide the fate of other characters as well, such as allowing the death of the only remaining heir of that specific clan.
It is because of this focus on branching narratives that The Way of the Samurai series stands out. Even if among other murky elements, the storytelling pillar is still strong and the experience, as a whole, reveals itself as a rough, yet well played, gem. It is for this same reason that, to me, Way of the Samurai is a series I eagerly await for future versions, hoping for improvement in the flawed areas, but also desiring to revisit the game narrative cycle and feeling present in the same branching
The Narrative Life Cycle
The Way of the Samurai (series) provides, through its story, an insightful journey into the experience of living many different lives that explore the “what ifs” of an Akira Kurosawa samurai film. Through the mix of a structure that lies somewhere in between an adventure game and a “Choose Your Own Adventure” (CYOA) book, the player is given the freedom to play a versatile role. He may choose to affect the outcome of the game world or take a neutral stand and merely watch events take place without your interference.
Despite of what one chooses to do throughout the journey, the individual stories in The Way of the Samurai series always begins in the same manner. The prologues and initial scenes are always the same, as the premise of the story does not change, unlike the RPG Dragon Age: Origins, in which each character race has its own introduction. Specifically in The Way of the Samurai 3, the player finds himself in the region of Amana, amidst an imminent conflict between two clans, the oppression of a helpless village, and the impending invasion of Nobunaga, an external shogun vying for control of the country. Though he may wander aimlessly through villages and clan headquarters, story advancement is triggered by specific events (including the option to abandon the region at any time).
Describing the game in this manner triggers memories of the Groundhog Day film. In it, Bill Murray’s character is found hostage to a mysterious time loop. After living through February second, instead of going to bed and waking up on the third, he finds himself continuously reliving that same specific day. Both scenarios from The Way of the Samurai 3 and Groundhog Day share many evident similarities. Characters relive the same scenario, but each time create alternative events by taking different actions. Therefore, at each subsequent scenario they relive, they are aware of information they previously did not know and may use that knowledge to alter the course of other events.
However, while Murray’s character explores many different strategies, such as learning peoples’ secrets, seducing women, and even kidnapping the memorial groundhog, he does so in order to end the time loop. The character feels trapped and wants out, unlike the player in The Way of the Samurai 3. In the game, the player character exercises freedom and pursues different avenues mainly because of a narrative curiosity. Exploration emerges as an enticing feature, rather than a punishing condition. The possibility of living different lives and each time discovering new things, while simultaneously accumulating a wealth of intelligence, motivates the player to actually put together these jigsaw pieces from a world mosaic and learn more about characters, scenarios, and history.
The player is never told what to do in The Way of the Samurai 3. The closest there is to a tutorial is a woman who is being harassed by two bandits. After (and if) one decides to save her she will give the player a few pointers as to how to play, but interestingly enough, if he chooses to say he already knows her, she then acknowledges that it isn’t the player’s first time in that world. This line of dialog not only breaks the fourth wall, but also establishes how natural the narrative cycles are to the game world. Each cycle (or playthrough) lasts an average of 2 hours and means that instead of living a novel, the player is actually taking part in various different short stories. All of them start the same way, but change according to the decisions made. The player might want to drop the controller after pursuing a couple of narrative paths and will still have “finished” the game, but won’t have completed the whole “short story collection”. What essentially drives the player to do so is the liberty to choose any path and see the results in a relatively short time span, when compared to other games.
Regarding this topic, the major difference identified between The Way of the Samurai 3 and other video games is the amount of time it takes to complete the game. Instead of spending between 6 and 30 hours living one specific story, as is the case for most first person shooter (FPS) games or role playing (RPG) games, the player may spend 20 hours witnessing many different endings. For example, in my personal adventures, after having played 35 hours exploring the world and playing with its possibilities, I still have not attained all 21 endings. However, this isn’t Grand Theft Samurai. There is no gigantic sandbox structure at the player’s disposal, but the game welcomes anyone to experiment with whatever is available and check out the narrative results.
In fact, The Way of the Samurai 3 is so resolute on the idea that the player is living one of many different stories, that direct elements from the game, such as save spots, illustrate this aspect. The player saves game progress by talking to specific NPCs scattered throughout the world. The surprise is that these “Save Spot NPCs” are actually biwa minstrels spread throughout Amana. The biwa is a short-necked fretted Japanese lute very important to the Japanese history and culture. Japan’s indigenous spirituality, the Shinto, portrays the biwa as the instrument of choice of Benzaiten, the goddess of music, eloquence, poetry, and education; and during the Sengoku “Warring States” Period, samurai from the Satsuma Domain used the biwa for moral and mental training. Apart from these specific references, the biwa has always been a typical tool of Japanese narrative storytelling (similarly to the lute used by western bards), and this becomes evident when each of the minstrels seem to save progress by actually “learning about the player’s story”. It is not clear how they learn it or why, but the game implies they will later compose a song about the player’s wondrous tales. This feature works marvelously because regardless of how the audience is addressed, the suspension of disbelief maintains itself by reinforcing the idea that this current story is but one of many others the player has yet to live.
This structure clearly identifies the mechanics of the game in which players are encouraged to enact freedom by playing (and replaying) several times and pursuing a different narrative trajectory on each occasion. A certain character in the game even has a line that addresses this aspect (and indirectly refers to the audience). Setsuen says the player character has an interesting future ahead of him and “It’s almost as if you could become everything and nothing all at once. If I were to use a metaphor, I might say your future is like that of a cloud.” In other words, Setsuen is making both the character and the player aware of their narrative freedom.
The Samurai of a Thousand Lives
In The Way of the Samurai 3, the reliance of this branching narrative structure on the player’s exploration of varied paths through many different playthroughs is evident. Without the player’s participation in at least two different narrative branches, the game’s experience becomes identical to one of a game with a single linear story. Nevertheless, once the player beings participating, the gradual discovery of narrative elements transforms into both temptation and reward.
Each of these playthroughs can be interpreted as the creation of parallel universes in which each of the characters live their unique lives. However, one may disagree since these stories do not take place simultaneously, but rather in succession depending on the player’s choices. Based on this piece of information, one can conclude that the relationship between the player and the game is one of experience and learning (derived from these experiences). The condition is that the knowledge gained from one narrative cycle, be it combat or relationship wise, can only be applied in the next playthrough. Therefore emerges the concept of narrative reincarnation.
It is worth noting in this regard The Way of the Samurai acts as mixture between Shinto and Buddhist ideals. The Shinto does not embrace reincarnation per se in the same way Buddhism does. However, because of its syncretism with Buddhism, explanations became necessary to settle the apparent differences between native Japanese beliefs and Buddhist teachings. One of these versions is that the Shinto Kami (like Okami’s Amaterasu for example) are actually supernatural beings caught in the cycle of birth and rebirth. For this reason, they are born, live, die, and are reborn, therefore taking part in the karmic cycle.
The analogy between reincarnation and the game’s narrative journeys does not surface by accident. An immediate first reference is in the book Trigger Happy in which author Steven Poole compares the general game experience to an ethically inverted form of Buddhism. He states that while Buddhism’s final aim is to end the continuous process of living anew through committing good deeds, life in a video game is always a good thing, and killing is the morally praiseworthy action required to resurrect it.
Though that may be the case in many games, it is not in The Way of the Samurai 3. You may kill, but it is not the act of killing per se that will trigger narrative advancement. In fact, the game penalizes (through a point system) villainous acts, such as attacking and killing innocent people, and deducts points after a playthrough. The consequence is that in order to regain those points, the player needs to play again and, in a way, witnesses the manifestation of a growing karmic debt. Hopefully, during the next playthrough, the player will have learnt from past experiences and use the acquired knowledge to follow narrative (and perhaps non-lethal) paths which were before left untouched. If the player refuses to explore different strategies much of the game’s content will never be discovered, especially the endings, and the karmic debt concept will be reinforced by the condition of “not progressing as a consequence of not becoming better”.
Another issue that arises from this connection to Poole’s idea in which killing is revered as a positive action, is that players in The Way of the Samurai 3 have the option of wielding the blunt side of any of their weapons. This means the player can act in the same manner as Samurai X’s atonement seeking Himura Kenshin and not kill anyone throughout the whole game. By beating foes, instead of slashing them, defeated characters may return later on and other narrative branches may be unlocked, but most importantly, the player can minimize the amount of bad deeds committed. Once again, the idea of an ethically inverted form of Buddhism is opposed because killing is not necessarily encouraged.
The second reason to compare the game’s journey with the reincarnation trajectory is grounded on the fact that Buddhism and reincarnation are elements directly referenced in the game’s context. Buddhist monks are occasionally seen in the game, as well as items such as Buddhist beads, and an old lady goes as far as to say that the player character must be her late husband’s reincarnation. The slight oddity here is that the old lady only makes this comment if the player does a good job hitting a huge temple bell. However, in order to perform well and accurately hit the bell (via a mini game), the player needs some practice. Practice that could have been obtained in another playthrough, or in other words, another life.
By now it should be clear that the game offers a variety of narrative paths to be chosen. Some befriending certain characters, others befriending none of them, and some defeating many of them. As an example, by choosing to align yourself with the recently empowered Fujimori clan (among many other decisions), instead of trying to rebuild the betrayed Sakurai clan, the game encourages the player to ponder about their lives and the way in which they make decisions. In The Way of the Samurai 3, the chance to relive “small lives” and analyze how each decision leads to a different path helps people understand how the inverse logic applies to real life. Very rarely do people get the chance to calmly reflect and analyze the divergent paths that present themselves in real life. Not only does the game make you think about the topic, but it also helps you realize that, in life, once you choose a certain path, you are inherently choosing to not live many others. Thankfully, in The Way of the Samurai 3 you can live all of them through the entertaining process of
A Samurai’s Soul
If the player is able to live many lives through this process, it is also because the game keeps track of all those lives. Aside from usual game stats identifying which items have been unlocked and what endings have been attained, the player’s weapons acquire experience every time they are used. The only thing the player character’s profile accumulates are samurai points, but what essentially goes into play and is carried from one life to the other are the weapons and items.
The sword is the player character’s soul because only weapons get better with use and accumulate experience points to go up levels. Though the player might apply the knowledge from a previous story in the next one, when it comes to combat, only the weapons retain a record of specific combat techniques. It is as if the experiences lived in previous playthroughs were channelled into the weapons, therefore functioning as a memento of past battles. The more a sword is used, the better it becomes and the easier the player’s next lives will be. Thus, in turn, reinforcing the bond between a samurai and his weapon. Intriguingly, this directly affected my self-esteem, as a player, when I brandished my fifteen-life-old sword to fearful villagers and overconfident samurai. Because the player draws attention and causes scares when drawing a weapon, unlike in other games in which the avatar can walk around with a machine gun in hand unnoticed, The Way of the Samurai 3 made me think before doing so. Since then, I’ve initiated the healthy habit of holstering my guns in other games when they aren’t needed.
In the first game of the “Way of the Samurai” series, the save system would automatically delete the game file once it was loaded. Then, once the story reached an ending, the game would save a new file with the updated information. The problems with this system were that firstly, if for any reason the game console were turned off (perhaps due to a power shortage) all progress would be lost. Secondly, if the player died during the game, all items and weapons being carried by the avatar at the moment of death would be lost as well, therefore resulting in a very similar sensation to a permanent death. Without doubt, the result was a reminiscent sensation of roaming the perilous dungeons of the action role-playing game, Demon’s Souls.
The glaring issue with this approach (aside from the obvious technical problems) is that it did not incorporate the idea of reincarnation in which the life experience (regardless of how it ended) was embedded with enough meaning and context to affect the next life. Demon’s Souls had the objective of making players think and act carefully because every step could represent a fatal risk. In fact, in Demon’s Souls second chances are a rarity and the probability of losing a significant amount of progress in the case of death is extremely high. The Way of the Samurai series is not bent on creating thoughtless and careless players, but the permanent death structure is one that directly contradicts the idea of reincarnation which is possibly the series greatest strength.
It was an expected relief to see this feature modified later on. Dying in The Way of the Samurai 3 does not result in the loss of weapons and progress. Death merely represents the end of one of many stories. One that might have met a tragic end, but nonetheless contains worthwhile experiences that should be applied in
A Samurai’s Context
It is no mystery that director Akira Kurosawa is a huge influence to the series. The plot is fictional, yet based on a historical setting, and accordingly illustrates various peculiar scenarios inspired by many of Kurosawa’s samurai films.
The starting point is the Segoku Warring States historical period, also presented in films like Kagemusha and Seven Samurai. A ripe situation to depict the warlords’ dispute for power and the helplessness of villagers found in the thick of bloody confrontations between loyal samurai. Naturally, villagers tend to either admire or hate samurai and mostly end up being treated as oppressed pawns by the current ruler. The opinions of villagers from Takatane clearly displays this issue, while the speeches from either Ouka or Fujimori clan are all about taking back, taking over or garnering more power.
Also present in the game’s narrative is the convoluted relationship between two brothers and a father. Though the film Ran features a ruling father and three sons, the similarities make reference to brothers who each represent different clans and fight for power. In The Way of the Samurai 3 these conflicted family values also involve betrayal, but they vary according to the player’s choice. Munechika, the father, was chief vassal of the recently defeated Sakurai clan and has since then become head of the Takatane village. While he has opted to leave The Way of the Samurai behind him, his two sons, Shinnosuke and Yuma have each opted to defend rival clans and Yuma hates his brother for it. Because all of this information is only acquired by living, talking and inhabiting the game world, the player may end up triggering events that result in the confrontation and death of all three characters or none of them. In fact, the player only starts to understand the family relationship once he becomes aware of its existence by putting together pieces of information acquired through various “lives”. One might finish the game without ever knowing the three characters were connected or the real reason behind Shinnosuke’s betrayal, who once was a loyal member of the Sakurai clan.
The main storyline concept from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo also plays out in the game, though it relies entirely on player action. The film featured a ronin who convinced rival clans to confront each other and consequently destroy one another. In the game, the player can choose to do that. Though he might also choose to eventually pick sides, both the Ouka and Fujimori clans will offer jobs to the player’s samurai character up until the final events. Freedom is an option and that also includes the player’s choice to leave Amana after deciding none of these factions are worthwhile.
Equally important to the narrative structure of the game are the moral decisions present in it. Instead of relying on traditional meters that quantify how “good” or “evil” a determined character is, the decisions in The Way of the Samurai 3 derive directly from the themes of its storyline. In this sense there is no “morality bar” (thankfully) because many of the decisions are tied to specific factions. By favoring one side, the player works against another. However, since every faction is constituted of characters with different personalities it is impossible to pinpoint if any of them represents an ideal that is good or evil. Traitors silently lurk through high ranks and at one time the player might think he is helping a faction, but rather accidentally favoring individual schemes. Alternatively, the player may also choose to take all matters into his own hands.
During a specific life, I chose to eliminate the Ouka clan. I did not agree with their ideals and thought they were a nuisance to regional stability. However, after killing all high ranked samurai and Genjuro himself, the leader of Ouka clan, the remaining low ranked soldiers declared me as the new leader. As time went by, having seized control of the Ouka clan, I realized I could try taking on Shuzen, leader of the Fujimori clan and Amana ruler. Even more unexpected to me, than becoming leader of the Ouka clan, was killing Shuzen and later learning, through the game’s epilogue, that my character was not an apt strategist warlord and succumbed to the external invasion of shogun Nobunaga.
Sadly, the game’s cover art directly contradicts the possibilities and freedom portrayed in the game itself. By exhibiting a dichotomic black and white image with words like loyalty, honor, greed, and deceit the player is led to believe that decisions are divided between these two categories. On the contrary, The Way of the Samurai 3 allows the player to tread many branching paths that stray far com the simple black and white categories of morality. The consequences of certain actions are not necessarily motivated by such primal and distinguishable feelings.
Experience through Existence
The Way of the Samurai 3 is an excellent experience that intelligently combines both emergent and embedded narratives. It is only through the emergent narrative (or player action and decision) that each of the embedded narrative branches are discovered and lived. The result never feels too open or too linear.
Unknown to many western players, The Way of the Samurai 3 is a Japanese action-adventure game that demands patience and understanding. As the players becomes more and more engaged with the narrative, it becomes easier to fit pieces together and complete the “world mosaic”. Exploring one path allows better understanding of characters and their motivations, which in turn enables the player to apply that information in order to explore other branches.
Not only does the game present an elaborate narrative structure, it also delivers it drenched in cultural influence, ranging from cinema, history, and religion. This defines the game as a work of expression capable of conveying powerful and meaningful messages, especially ones referring to the freedom of living many different stories. Choice and consequence serve as the structure of narrative and ethical testing grounds. In essence, it is an experience that allows the player to examine his own values by taking part in the process of narrative reincarnation.
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