Sunday, July 18, 2010

Why Can't I Play The Seven Samurai?

Thanks to the Kurosawa Centennial going on at UC-Berkeley this summer, I had the exciting opportunity to see Seven Samurai on film, in a crowded theater. It was an excellent experience - the big screen helped bring out the best of the cinematography and sound, the audience was quite inclined to enjoy Toshiro Mifune's antics, and the film is as always eminently rewatchable despite its length.

As I was watching it, however, I kept thinking "this could be an excellent video game!" There is a distinct - and somewhat surprising - lack of Kurosawa-inspired samurai games. There's the oddity of Seven Samurai 20XX and a Diablo-esque PC RPG Throne of Darkness, neither of which I've played. I have played the 20-year-old classic Sword of the Samurai, which allows for a recreation of Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, but not much else.

Kurosawa's focus on ronin and their relationships with society would make fertile ground for a game. In Seven Samurai, it's a group hired by peasants to defend the village against bandits. What makes the peasants better than the bandits, or the samurai different from the those brigands? Yojimbo and Sanjuro utilize the classic plot of a dangerous stranger coming into a town with problems, and he - despite apparently mercenary motivations and disdain for straightforward morality - ends up doing the right thing. This is pure RPG gold! Rashomon's puzzle and ambiguity regarding the truth is a good model for video games, albeit not one which is often followed. Epics like Ran, Throne of Blood, and to some degree The Hidden Fortress do deal with fallen dynasties and pitched battles, but they still focus on the humanity of individual characters.

I could see a Baldur's Gate-style RPG build about Kurosawa's samurai films. A Rashomon-like story could operate as a tutorial, and by the time the player character has skills and strengths, they could move onto villages with problems - like Yojimbo. Gather a party, and defend a village like in Seven Samurai, and more strength and followers leads to epic confrontations like Ran. It could be done, I think, but it would be quite ambitious.

I could see Seven Samurai done as a much less ambitious, fast-playing strategy RPG. Perhaps even as a board game. The player has the ability to customize or randomize the starting position - size of the village to defend, amount of food and money to hire samurai with, size of bandit force, and number of days before the attack. The game starts with the peasants in the town looking for samurai. Once they get one, they have an easier time getting more, but have the tension of time to return and train. Each samurai would be rated for leadership, charisma, sword skill, bow skill, and stealth.

Once back at the village, the player prepares by training the peasants, keeping their morale high, building defenses with fences and floods, and raiding the enemy camp. The tensions of the film could pop up in the game. Maybe the player finds a cache of defeated samurai armor. Use it on the peasants and their combat skills improve, but the samurai morale plummets.

The battle, once it begins, would have difficult-to-control peasant troops fighting the raiders in real time, but with samurai under more direct control. The wonderful graphical representation of the circles with 'x's through them from the film would be easy to transpose to a simple game. I think it could be done in Flash, and playtime would be 20-60 minutes. This is my vision - although it's not one I can make reality anytime soon. I think it could be a lot of fun to play, though.

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