By now, most of mainstream America is familiar with the filmmaking trademarks of Hong Kong-born director, John Woo. The New York Times film critic, Dave Kehr, declared Woo "arguably the most influential director making movies today" and the mention of his name conjures up images of slow-motion, two-fisted, gun-blazing action with white doves fluttering in the background to avid movie-goers. What most Americans arent familiar with are the reoccurring themes that characterized his most critically celebrated work before he made the leap to Hollywood and commercialized his own style into clichés.
What is missing in his most recent films are his deeper signatures of faith, loyalty, honor, sacrifice and redemption. These expressive emotional underpinnings gave his ground-breaking action-choreography motivation and substance. In Woos 1990 masterpiece, Hard-Boiled, Alan (played by actor Tony Leung) in an emotionally charged scene is forced to choose allegiance between his current gang, which he is notably loyal to and their unscrupulous rivals. In order to fulfill his duties as a deep cover police officer, he betrays his brothers and punctuates his defection by coldly executing his former comrades. Afterward, he outwardly hides his reluctance and pain while inside, he has deeply scared his own sense of self and sanity.
I thought about that traumatic scene frequently as I played Way Of The Samurai, the 3D action adventure samurai simulator for the PlayStation 2. Way Of The Samurai is like an interactive Woo film in that forces players to make tough decisions regarding loyalty, morality, and honor much like the one Alan made in Hard-Boiled. And much like a Woo film, the game resolves its conflicts with blood-drenched violence.
It's hard to paint an overall picture of the Way Of The Samurai experience to the avid gamer familiar with all the typical conventions and grammar of videogames. On the surface, one might mistake the overly pristine art direction and the lack of any graphical oomph for another wannabe 3D fighting game in the vein of Soul Calibur or Bushido Blade. Beyond the looks however, the game seems to borrow very little from contemporaries and somehow manages to find its own unique path regards gameplay design, story narrative, and role-playing interactivity.
The majority of the gameplay centers around hand-to-hand sword combat. Using Zen-like Yin and Yang martial arts principles, the developers have cooked up an ingenious battle system that allows players, immediately following a block or attack, to either push or pull opponents into moments of unbalance and vulnerability. The beauty of the system is that either combatant can be attempting such a fainting tactics during a blade exchange and success depends on skill, positioning and instinct. Another dimension of the combat system is that once special moves are blocked with a particular technique, they are disabled and automatically rendered ineffective against the fighter. The more moves a player disables, the more invincible he or she becomes.
Perhaps the most radical thing about Way Of The Samurai is the story structure. Unlike many other games that take a linear non-interactive approach, Way Of The Samurai is immersive and interactive every step of the way. Set in the year 1878, players are thrust into the role of a ronin (masterless) samurai during a pivotal time in Japan when Western influence is changing the fabric of Japanese society and the samurai warrior class find themselves no longer en vogue and their livelihoods facing extinction. The game takes place in a small area called the Rokkotsu Pass where two clans are battling for control of the territory and the player serves as the Clint Eastwood man-with-no-name x-factor who enters into the picture and can sway the tide of the conflict.
The story of Way Of The Samurai isn't told through a structured narrative. Instead, the plot details, the personality of the characters, and the complexity of the relationships are revealed through a series of menu-based conversational interactions between the inhabitants of the town and the player. Players are presented with choices during conversations and situations and those choices determine the direction of the story. Right from the start of the game, a player is presented with options to rescue a girl in distress; turn a blind eye; or even side with the assailant who is harassing the girl. Choices made during those situations set chain of events in motion and puts players on various paths of the story arc. Many decisions may or may not carry rectifiable consequences. A players final samurai rating (how well one followed the ways of the samurai) and story ending is ultimately determined by ones course of actions through out the game.
Taking place over the course of only two game days, Way Of The Samurai may seem deceptively short at first, but thats really part of the games design and charm. The point is to revisit the game repeatedly to acquire new swords (40 different ones) and techniques (200 different ones); to uncover more revelations about each of the characters; and to explore how different behaviors (good or evil) can effect the reactions of characters and the multiple outcomes of the story.
The only non-complaint I have against Way Of The Samurai is that it is extremely unforgiving in the sword collecting aspect. If a player dies, the swords currently in possession are gone. While this also adds a degree of tension in trying to survive, it is also frustrating to lose a cherished sword that one might have spent countless hours improving and polishing. I would have preferred an alternative method that somehow instilled similar fear to the consequence of dying while at the same time allowing me some sense of security in my characters development and growth (which are strangely tied to players ownership of swords).
Back when videogames was virgin territory medium for developers to explore, they were conceptually experimental and thoughtfully interactive. Classic PC games like Law Of West, Balance Of Power and Elite come to mind. Contemporary games are more concerned with replicating the gameplay of the genre leader to turn a quick profit. Way Of The Samurai is a wonderfully reinvigorating experience because it fulfills the potential and continues the legacy of those past experimental open-ended videogames and manages to be as interesting and often though-provoking as a John Woo movie. When most games struggle to artistically register on the radar of even its own field, Way Of The Samurai achieves a higher pedestal worthy of discussion and comparison. Way Of The Samurai is a step in the right direction for videogames.