Will we look back on this year as the start of a new and more diverse era of storytelling in games?
Every year, trends come and go in the world of video games. Sometimes the dominant trend has to do with mechanics. In 2016, we saw a lot of grappling hooks in games, for example. Sometimes a trend isn’t visible right away and only becomes apparent with distance of time. Other times, though, a trend kicks down the door and announces its presence early on.
This year, 2017, the use of Samurai in games follows the latter formula. It is now just April and both For Honor and Nioh prominently featured Samurai, and an announcement for the coming Stormblood expansion for Final Fantasy XIV revealed that a fantasy version of the Japanese warriors will be added to that game as well. Each of these games focuses on a different aspect of Samurai lore in its own unique way.
Strangely, the most grounded take on Samurai, so far this year, is For Honor; the game with the premise of a massive catastrophe reshaping the globe so that Knights of Europe, Scandinavian Vikings, and Samurai fight over the same natural resources. The Samurai in For Honor are shrewd strategists, adept engineers, and above all skilled swordsmen and swordswomen. At the start of For Honor, the Samurai of the ‘Dawn Empire’, as the game calls them, are focused on their own internal matters. Of the three factions in the game, the Dawn Empire is the least aggressive. They only defend themselves when attacked, and when they do invade a neighboring culture, it is, initially at least, with the specific goal of bringing a war criminal to justice. Of course, the game also implies that the Dawn Empire’s version of focusing on internal matters includes civil war and political imprisonment of dissenters, so they are not exactly lionized in the narrative. For Honor’s cultural view of Samurai seems to be a population that will seek to isolate itself at all costs and spend decades fighting each other to the death for the right to sit next to their emperor. On the other hand, they are a really cool aspect of a really cool game this year.
Nioh explores more of the supernatural side of Samurai lore. Players fight demons of the Buddhist and Shinto vintage using the skills and tools of the Samurai along with their innate ki while under the protection of a benevolent spirit. In a lot of way, Nioh’s vision of Samurai is similar to that of the Onimusha series. In all these games, Samurai fight against human and demonic enemies alike, but it is human failures and desires that are the root cause of all the conflict. In Nioh, demons walking the earth is the result of decades of conflict. As common people are forced to fight wars started by daimyo in Japan and kings and queens in Europe,n they live lives of suffering and die filled with regret. According to Nioh, this negative energy coalesces around vengeful spirits and brings demons into the world. Also According to Nioh, you can destroy these mystical creatures with ordinary swords and other weapons so long as you’re pure of heart and have the blessing of a spirit embodying human compassion and belief. Nioh is also a game of the Dark Souls ilk with a bend toward rewarding focused aggression over the more cautious play style of similar games.
Final Fantasy XIV is, fittingly, the most fantastical take on Samurai. The Stormblood expansion is, of course, still unreleased, but given the events of the expansion’s trailer and the fact that Final Fantasy XIV draws on the Ivalice universe, introduced in Final Fantasy Tactics, some educated guesses can be made about the nature of Samurai in the game. In Final Fantasy Tactics, Samurai are a late game heavy warrior class who have the unique Iaido skill that allows them to release the soul of a Katana with various magical effects. The trailer does show the Samurai fighting a bit without drawing his sword and when he does unsheathe his weapon, a magical wind slices out in a ring around him. The effect is not dissimilar to the effect of using the Iaido skill with the Koetsu sword in Final Fantasy Tactics. So it seems the new Samurai job in Final Fantasy XIV will be a melee damage dealer with some spell casting abilities much like the original class in Final Fantasy Tactics.
In the past, games merely dabbled with Samurai stories – at least in the American market where most games featuring Samurai didn’t see a release. Bushido Blade is an important exception to remember, and the Dynasty Warriors’ spinoff series Samurai Warriors saw over six releases. Total War: Shogun is another notable exception, and, of course, there is Onimusha. For the last several years, though, the Samurai as a character and feudal Japan as a setting experienced a drought of content in the triple-A space, at least.
Samurai often get short shrift in Western Pop Culture. They are typically either translated into Asian analogs for European knights, which is reductive, or their superficial trappings are simply appropriated by white characters. The latter still being an issue with Nioh this year, where the main character of the game is a blonde white guy who just randomly shows up in Japan and masters, to some extent, their fighting arts, spycraft, and magic over the course of a few months. Samurai also end up playing second fiddle to Ninja in the west, where differences in the way class is viewed make the sneakier Ninja more acceptable as heroes: It isn’t Teenage Mutant Samurai Turtles after all.
Hopefully, this trend will lead to more diverse settings and variety of characters in games. It’s no secret that games are iterative, risk averse, and prone to serialization; Call of Duty, anyone? But in spite of that inertia, games have a quality of empathy, of encouraging players to take a point of view not of their own that is reassuring whenever a trend like this one takes hold for a while. There’s a chance, no matter how small, that when more diverse points of view are shown in games, some people may begin to accept those points of view in real life.