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Analysis: Way of the Samurai 3's Execution of All Things

Writer Quintin Smith looks at Acquire's scrappy vagabond simulator Way of the Samurai 3, the merit of games with less-defined objectives -- and some crucial limitations of gaming he feels this title circumvents.
[Writer Quintin Smith looks at Acquire's scrappy Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 vagabond simulator Way of the Samurai 3, the merit of games with less-defined objectives -- and some crucial limitations of gaming he feels this title circumvents.] 'MISSION FAILED.' Okay, now hang on-- 'YOU LOSE.' But I-- 'GAME OVER.' Is it? 'YES.' Alright. Have you ever played any of the Way of the Samurai games? '...NO.' They're fascinating. I mean, they're also really bad, just unforgivably amateurish, but people should still be paying attention to what they try and do with narrative. You spend these games wandering between various roads, villages, towns and castles, killing anybody, working for anybody, failing, ignoring or abandoning any mission, betraying anyone you like, and the game never stops you or tells you what to do. Not to be confused with other "free-form" games like GTA or Fable which in truth offer aimless freedom on the side like a bar might offer peanuts, Way of the Samurai titles are games about being free. There is no story except how you choose to spend your violent life, and I think that's really interesting. 'MMM-HMM.' I'm serious! Not even the sprawling Morrowinds and Risens of the world shot for the degree of nonlinearity you see in Way of the Samurai. Listen to me! Let's take the latest one, Way of the Samurai 3 for the 360 and PS3. It drops you like a bath bomb into a province of feudal Japan featuring a glut of medieval plot devices- one clan has just overthrown another, villagers are being oppressed by high taxes, a bandit clan is up to no good, the whole bit. As an archetypal wandering samurai, you have no objectives. No quest for revenge, no search for an item, no pressing need to save the world. Rather, the world is simply yours to tinker with, and the 'story' is simply the events you discover and the choices you make. The game definitely doesn't end if you fail a mission or murder an important character. You're genuinely free. 'SO, IT'S AN RPG THAT DOESN'T GIVE PLAYERS OBJECTIVES? BRILLIANT. NOT LIKE OBJECTIVES ARE NECESSARY TO PREVENT GAMERS FROM BECOMING DIRECTIONLESS AND BORED OR ANYTHING.' That's garbage. Look at Animal Crossing. Simply existing in a world can be more than enough to hold anybody's interest if the world is crafted with love and intelligence. Gamers only ever feel bored if the game doesn't present you with the tools you need to make your own fun. Moseying into a town as a badass samurai and cutting open anyone you don't like? That's fun. Arriving on the scene of an argument and using wisdom or bias to dish out justice? That's fun too. But you musn't misunderstand me. These are games about being free, which is different from being aimless. Players are equally free to sell their sword to the ruling clan, bandit clan or villagers in an attempt to somehow give their life meaning, and in return get dealt a traditional series of missions to complete. But your unstoppable freedom will often rear its head again- nothing's stopping you from assasinating a clan leader and replacing them, or becoming seduced by the scheming Lady Macbeth that plots from the province's palace, or showing up for work at the wrong clan and introducing yourself as a double agent. wots1.jpgIt's like this: Most freeform RPGs these days (Mass Effect 2, Fable 2, Fallout 3) create the illusion of freedom by placing a linear plot in a big world full of side quests. You're presented with a lot of decisions, but the consequences are usually minimal because from a design perspective you want those consequences to lock out as little content as possible. The result is that these games play like very expensive editions of those crappy personality-determining multiple choice quizzes. The game will tell you whether you are (A) A good guy, (B) A bad guy, or (C) a jerk, and you're only "free" in so much as you can check the boxes in whatever order you like. Way of the Samurai games are different. Their worlds are so small and interconnected that everything you do affects everyone else. Choices you make lock out whole swaths of side missions, and not only can you kill characters who might otherwise let you in on their schemes, you're often pressed to do so. The entire game branches outward like a tree in a way other RPGs could never, ever could, and on a given runthrough of WoTS 3 you're likely to see perhaps 15 percent of the game. wots3.jpgSo, how is this possible? Let's move on to WoTS's other neat trick. This immense quantity of branches can exist because WoTS games are designed to be replayed. Reaching one of the game's endings takes a maximum of five or six hours, and sequential samurai you make begin with all the combat abilities you unlocked in previous playthroughs (as well as any items or weapons you bundled into storage). You spend one game as the avaricious samurai, another as the tender-hearted lover, one as the people's champion, another as a bandit. You probe the game's freedom, and in doing so get your money's worth from a game that only takes a few hours to complete. 'WHAT'S ANY OF THIS GOT TO DO WITH ANYTHING.' My point is that it's actually possible to design games which don't tell tiny variations on the same story every time. Games don't have to tug you down a set story like some oppressive digital father figure taking you for a walk, and they definitely don't need to reset themselves when you screw up an arbitrary task. I mean, what if you screwed up deliberately? Every single time a game doesn't let you do something, or stops itself because you've 'failed' at something, that's really a failure on the part of our medium. And yet the Way of the Samurai games seem to be the only series that's actively trying to figure out a way around that. Isn't that a shame? 'KINDA.' Really? You think so? 'YOU STILL CAN'T HAVE YOUR GAME BACK.' Okay. Well can you at least not upload my score to the online leaderboards? It's embarrassing. 'SORRY.' Don't do it, man! I have a reputation! I'll pull your plug out! 'DARE YOU, TENDERLOIN. YOU DON'T HAVE THE BAL--' [Quinns is a freelance journalist who has fun working for Eurogamer, contributing to Rock Paper Shotgun and reading Action Button. You can currently find him in the damp Irish city of Galway, as quinns108 on Twitter or at quintinsmithster at gmail dot com.]

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