An Ethical Video Game?

I turned this script into a video essay. You can read it below, or watch it!


Introduction

In recent years we have had a slew of great samurai themed games like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Ghosts of Tsushima, and Nioh. Any way you slice it, the samurai, a mostly quiet warrior who carries out their duties with immense skill and tact, is an enduring cultural character. The samurai has been depicted prominently in Japanese cinema, such as in the works of Akira Kurosawa, and has traveled across the pacific in films like The Last Samurai and Ghost Dog. It is tempting to compare the samurai to the cowboy, as they both use violence to achieve a semblance of law and order. Yet the samurai adheres to a specific code of conduct, whereas our typical conceptualization of a John Wayne-cowboy is more willing to adjust on the fly to changing circumstances. Also, the samurai’s position as a subordinate retainer allows them to be caught up in larger stories, such as the case of Sekiro, where a single samurai determines the fate of an entire kingdom.

Since the inception of digital games, designers have been translating the samurai character into their products. The samurai is a common character in Japanese media, especially that of historical nature, and it therefore makes its way into the country’s cultural exports. But each of these games has to figure out how to interpret the samurai character in a video game. Sekiro tackles this problem by making its titular character a consummate professional who follows the code of the samurai, he will do anything to find and protect his retainer, creating the character’s primary motivation. The game’s combat prominently features “duels” between Sekiro and other combatants, faithfully capturing the audience’s idea of the samurai character as a master of the one on one fight. Any game that features the samurai as a primary character has to balance the “code” aspect of the samurai with the game’s virtual code, creating an experience that has to be fun to play and faithful to the audience’s expectations of what a samurai is.

The PlayStation game Bushido Blade, developed by Light Weight and published by Square/Sony, is an interesting example of what happens when designers commit to designing a game around the principles of the samurai. If we were attempting to categorize Bushido Blade, we would probably say it is a fighting game. In it the player controls a samurai who fights, 1 on 1, against another samurai to death. Like most fighting games there isn’t much here except dueling combat, but Bushido Blade has quite a few unique features for its genre. Players do not have health bars or EX meters and the game does not have combos. Instead, like many films based on samurai characters, combat is quick, ruthless, and unforgiving. A strike to the head or chest is often a death sentence, instantly killing the receiving character. If you were lucky enough to be grazed by an attack rather than outright killed, say goodbye to a limb! Rounds of Bushido Blade are often quick affairs, with one character landing a good hit and ending it all. As a fighting game or narrative game, it is easy to look at the building blocks of Bushido Blade and call it a failure: its story is confusing and lackluster, barely displaying common tropes of the genre, and its gameplay is odd, chaotic, and difficult to understand. Yet, when one actually sits down to play it, Bushido Blade flowers out into a strange, but uniquely fun experience. In this video we will explore two facets of Bushido Blade that separate it from other games of its genre and make it memorable and worth revisiting 20+ years after its release: how it implements the “Code of the Samurai” and just how darn fun it is to play multiplayer.

The Code of the Samurai

You might not think it initially, considering the player-character slices and dices other samurai until they are dead, but Bushido Blade is an ethical game. I borrow this idea of ethical games from Miguel Sicart’s The Ethics of Computer Games, Sicart claims that “computer games are ethical objects, that computer game players are ethical agents, and that the ethics of computer games should be seen as a complex network of responsibilities and moral duties.” By bringing in ethics, I am not interested in moral debates about violence in video games: though Bushido Blade is certainly a “violent” game [cut to smashing of heads in]. Instead, I am interested in how games communicate ethical systems to their players and force them to act in ethical ways. Sicart gives the example from the game XIII where the player-character, an amnesiac assassin, receives a “Game Over” screen if they shoot and kill a police officer. Sicart draws a difference between the systems of games and their worlds, writing: “the fictional element of the game is telling the player that her character is a ruthless skilled killer. On the other hand, the rules are forcing the player to behave in a specific way: police officers and innocents cannot be killed.” Sicart argues that when discussing the ethics of computer games, their visual and narrative elements are secondary to how they enforce behavior through rules. What this means is that, as opposed to those who may see a violent game of Mortal Kombat and conclude that it is too violent and unethical, we should be more concerned with how games force players to act than with whatever their stories or aesthetics communicate.

Like XIII, Bushido Blade communicates an ethical system through its gameplay. Despite these actions being available to the player, if they commit “dishonorable” acts the game punishes them. These acts include (https://gamefaqs.gamespot.com/ps/196844-bushido-blade/faqs/3755)

Striking a grounded opponent

Striking an opponent while they are climbing

Striking an opponent in the back

Striking an opponent before they are ready

Using a sub-weapon

Throwing dirt/snow/gravel at your opponent

In the game’s story mode, if the player does not follow “The Bushido Code of Honor” their punishment is a fate worse than death. If the player-character dies, they can simply press X to continue, but if they break the code, they are admonished by a black screen with a quote about honor and sent back to the main menu. By this logic, it is more important to maintain the code of honor than to win the fight, despite, of course, that fighting games are all about winning the fight! In this way, we can start to see that the rules of Bushido Blade enforce a particular ethical system on its players, as Sicart suggests.

What is more confusing than the rules themselves, since the game doesn’t actually tell you which rule you’ve broken when you are lectured, is why they added some of these features to the game in the first place. If throwing dirt at my opponent is dishonorable, why not just, I don’t know, NOT let me do it? Yet, if they did choose to not include such features, the game would actually be less ethical than it is in its current state, because the act of punishment for breaking the rules reinforces their legitimacy. The fact that the player can act out of line forces them to more carefully consider their actions when approaching combat. If I can be punished for hitting an opponent on the ground, then I ought to back up and let them get up. If I am going to get a game over screen for slamming somebody in the back with my sledgehammer, then I need to make sure they are facing me when I strike them. Thus, unlike any other fighting game I’ve played, Bushido Blade forces the player to play in a particular manner consistent with the game’s ethical system if they desire to proceed, it forces the player to be ethical. Yes, the ultimate goal of following such a system is to “win,” but unlike other fighting games where the primary goal is to just defeat your opponent, the primary goal in Bushido Blade is to defeat your opponent honorably.

You may be wondering is how close this system of “honor” reflects the actual code of the Bushido. While the Bushido code does exist, it is not a strict list of rules for combat as Bushido Blade might suggest. It’s more a “way of life.” Instead of demarcating honorable ways of winning a duel, it mostly presents tenets of chivalry and honor for the samurai to follow. While the way of bushido is certainly a complicated part of Japan’s historical past, it’s presence in Bushido Blade as a set of specific rules that the player must follow in order to act honorably is the gamification of such ideals, not a replication of them. Further complicating this is that the game is not set in feudal Japan like we might imagine, but in the “present day.” In fact, the player must fight against a gunman on top of a helicopter pad in order to progress through the story, and trust me, being a samurai in the age of the gun is not fun [cut to me being shot, over and over again]. This juxtaposition is humorous because there isn’t much indication of this in the game’s dialogue or themes and when my opponent is shooting at me is it really dishonorable stab them in the back? When placed in contemporary times, we can imagine the story mode of Bushido Blade to be a critique of these honor codes, which primarily serve to make the journey more difficult. But if we consider the fact that the narrative places the player-character as perhaps the last “honorable” samurai defecting due to the corruption of the dojo they study at, it almost becomes about the death of the way of Bushido. This is why the consequences for breaking the game’s fictional code are so severe: it is not your character’s life that matters for the story, but the fact that they carry the weight of the Bushido code upon their shoulders. Thus, Bushido Blade is an ethical game along the lines of Sicart’s description: a warped version of the Bushido code applied as an ethical system on top of a fighting game. As the player enacts this code in their single player playthrough, they become an ethical agent, rehearsing the moral duties that the game teaches.

A Party Game?

The ethical nature of Bushido Blade’s single player campaign is perhaps betrayed by its much more fun and chaotic multiplayer VS mode. Similar to the game’s campaign fights, two players engage in a gruesome duel to the death. These duels are at times hilarious, at times deadly tense, and most importantly, a ton of fun. While Super Smash Bros is the exception to the rule, most fighting games don’t make great party games. They are typically reliant on skill and have a tendency to drastically reduce any elements of chance, seeking to always crown the better player as the victor. This is why they tend to make exciting esports. There are a few reasons for this which we will get into, but Bushido Blade is a fantastic multiplayer game precisely because it is not like other fighting games. It’s strange mechanics make each fight feel cinematic and unique; forcing players to carefully consider every move, just like how they might imagine a samurai would.

The principle aspect of Bushido Blade that separates it from other fighting games is the inclusion of one hit kills. If a character is struck with a strong blow to the head or chest that’s it: they’re kaput. For a game I’ve just described as “a ton of fun” this certainly seems like an anti-fun mechanic. Imagine if getting hit by Ryu’s shoryuken meant you instantly died, Street Fighter would be a much worse game. But this is not Street Fighter. In Bushido Blade there is no hit points and there are basically no combos. Thus, instead of rounds being a battle to drain the other combatant’s health, they feel more like how one might count “points” in a martial arts competition or fencing tournament. If a player draws blood, they win the round. Each round has an intensity because both players know that it could be over at any moment: any wrong move could spell defeat, any good one, generate a victory. As a result, there can be a pensive spirit in the air when playing Bushido Blade, but because that tension is cut with the swing of a blade, it never lasts long enough to be a drain on the players, who are constantly resetting to neutral ground.

While many Bushido Blade fights will be over quickly, the more they are drawn out the more dramatic they become. It is possible, when striking an opponent in the arm or leg, that they will lose their ability to use that limb for the rest of the round. For instance, swiping at a characters leg may temporarily cripple them, limiting their mobility and forcing them to crawl around. This gives the leg-sweeping player an advantage, but they still need to capitalize on it and finish the injured player off. But wait, you say: this breaks the code of honor we previously talked about, but in the game’s multiplayer all bets are off, there is no code left to maintain. Longer Bushido Blade battles have little honor, instead they resemble the final fight in Kurosawa’s Rashoman where characters are flailing around nervously, scared and unable to land good hits. The variance between rounds, some being short and others being long, helps give Bushido Blade a unique sense of rhythm for a fighting game. Rounds are unpredictable, making them more fun to watch and play.

The chaotic nature of Bushido Blade is enhanced by its one hit kills, which mean that an experienced player can still fall prey to a novice swinging their blade around. This makes the game more fun to play because the worse player never feels fully down and out, like they have no chance of winning, it also protects the better player’s ego because they can chalk up a loss to the opponent getting a lucky blow. This falls in line with the philosophies of many “competitive party games” like Mario Kart, Super Smash Bros, or Mario Party. The “Blue shell” in Mario Kart, makes it so that if one loses they don’t have to confront that they may be a worse go-karter, but just that the wrong series of items slammed into them. Similarly, a random cast of the die in Mario Party can be the difference between victory and defeat. This means that a more skilled player can blame the game, not the other player or themselves for losses. Bushido Blade accomplishes this not with random mechanics, but by replicating the sheer chaotic nature of violence where neither combatant can be truly sure of their footing in any given moment. While button mashing won’t get a player far in Bushido Blade, it only takes a minute to teach a new player its controls and they are off to the metaphorical races.

All these unique functions of Bushido Blade help make it an incredibly enjoyable fighting game for veterans and beginners alike. Like many famous games it is easy to pick up, but difficult to master. It’s a fun game to watch others play because there is a sense that anything can happen and it is a fun game to play because its unique mechanics force the player to approach the game much differently than any other fighting game. I highly recommend, that the next time you have friends over (perhaps once a deadly disease isn’t floating around), you pop this game up on the ‘ol PlayStation or emulator and watch everyone’s delightful laughs as they try to figure out how to main each other.

Conclusion

Bushido Blade is ultimately an outdated and archaic game. At times it feels more like a tech demo than a fully realized AAA product and it certainly shows its age in its graphics and sound effects. Yet, its clear that a lot of effort and thought went into making Bushido Blade a unique experience, unlike anything else (except, perhaps Bushido Blade 2, we don’t talk about BB2). Whether it is in its unique applications of ethics or its wonky, but fun multiplayer, Bushido Blade challenges our conception of what a fighting game can be and suggests completely new horizons of competition where what is “fair,” whether it be a “fair fight” or “fair rules,” are thrown into suspicion in order to build a more engaging and interesting fighting simulator.

Sicart, Miguel. The Ethics of Computer Games. MIT P, 2011.

Erik Kersting

4 Comments

  1. Great post, Erik! I really liked your consideration of the moves available to the player in the code of the game versus which moves are “allowed” by the unspoken code of the Samurai. What a great game to use an example of Sicart! It made me think of Mia Consalvo’s work, too. Her _Atari to Zelda_ centers on cross-cultural meaning making through the act of playing videogames. I thought of this when you mention that players aren’t explicitly told what moves are off limits. Rather, it seems the game expresses that through its semiotic domain (the representation of Samurai), but one wouldn’t get that if one weren’t saturated in Japanese culture, perhaps. Certainly an argument for the important role of the semiotic domain in the processes of meaning-making!

    • Thanks Ryan. I actually read Atari to Zelda a couple weeks ago and I hadn’t thought about the cross-cultural possibilities but now that you bring it up that makes a ton of sense to me! I’ve always found the samura/cowboy comparison interesting because the many Samurai movies were “redone” to be Westerns (like the Magnificent Seven), which is a weird kind of cross cultural move. I wonder how much of the ethics of the game are communicated in the game’s manual (an important part of many older games that I don’t see talked about enough).

  2. This is a great post, Erik! The video was really fun to watch–some of those death clips were brutal and brought me back to when we played Bushido Blade on the Arena. I loved your reading of Bushido Blade’s multiplayer as a party game. You’re absolutely right that a player more traditionally skilled in fighting games won’t necessarily hold the upper hand. As a player with zero qualms about losing every single fighting game I play, Bushido Blade lends itself to a feeling of almost always being on the cusp of winning. The one-hit nature of the game’s stakes makes every move (including running in circles) feel like it could lead to a winning blow. It’s interesting to consider the choice of removing the constraints of the Bushido code for the party mode. It makes me wonder in what ways ethical conditions of solo play here function similarly to the social conditions of versus play.

    • Thanks Janelle! I feel like the relationships between ethical and social conditions in Bushido Blade and other games warrant further discussion (perhaps an actual academic paper). I can’t think of any competitive game (off the top of my head) that enforces a moral system. Then again, along Sicart’s lines, every competitive game enforces one. Among Us, for instance, has a moral system (the aliens are bad, investigate your friends to find the imposter) that is enacted through its gameplay, but most games don’t have the disconnect between what is possible to do and what is ethically disallowed like Bushido Blade does.

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