FTM blog header photo
FTM's c-blog
Posts 0Blogs 3Following 0Followers 0



Existential Game Design in Muramasa


I didn’t realize that Muramasa is an exercise of pointlessness until I reached the end of the game’s second story. A game split between two characters, each with their own narrative adventure, with Muramasa the immediate appeal of the title is the incredible art design typical of developer Vanillaware. It's incredibly colorful, the environments are vibrant and rolling scrolls of a near celestial-stylized Japan, and the characters are sharply front and center with their fluid motion being strangely satisfying itself. The narrative method is likewise engaging, albeit of an opposing minimalist fascination. The game begins, for either character, without any narrative or scene-setting, having you simply appear and begin streaking across the scene toward some unknown destination and reason, and this clues toward something subdued and pertinent, the silence of your role in eerie contrast to this explosively colorful world.

It's incredible in these ways, and yet Muramasa is perhaps the definitive example of Sarterian existentialism in game design, and it's a nightmare--- literally in my case, because I'm writing this after having a headache-inducing, smarmy dream of this games scenery endlessly looping and abruptly pausing, because apparently this bothered me so much I'm now dreaming about it.

via Gematsu

It's bizarre to see how well beloved Muramasa is. Because none of the systems within the game matter in any shape, the entire experience eventually (if not inevitably) transforms into an exceptionally bored, rote practice. Stylized as an Action-RPG, with there being numbers floating up everywhere, from attack damage to personal stats to weapon strength, the reality of Muramasa is that this is strictly an Action game, where those numbers truly have no purpose, and all accumulation of those numbers play zero role in terms of the gameplay itself. It's baffling when this becomes realized, because once the player loses the standard rationale of any Action-RPG (acquire higher numbers to make yourself stronger to better overcome challenges), what Muramasa is exposed as is an outlandishly simplistic and highly repetitive button-masher of the worst kind. The game is dead in terms of its genre, and absent in terms of its systems: Muramasa is an exercise of phantom limbs, where nothing is actually happening and yet there's an increasing frustration because of this absence.

It's important to detail this in clear language though, because the reason the game is so upsetting is strictly because of the eventual understanding that nothing you've been doing matters. Let's detail those actions and their subsequent negation:

  • Level System: A level system in an ARPG is simple: you kill enemies, which gives you more Experience Points, where eventually your character "levels up," which means they're bestowed with more strength/health/abilities/etc,. A Level System has two purposes in an RPG of any style: prior difficulties become easier, and more challenging difficulties become more achievable. Muramasa's level system is simple, with your strength and health increasing with every level.
    Negation: When you level up, every enemy in the game equally levels up. You have more strength and health, but so does every single enemy in parity. What this means is nothing changes, from the very beginning to the very end: for example, a common enemy that requires ten standard hits to kill at level 1 will require ten standard hits to kill at level 50. This is also true of "Boss" enemies, where they will provide the same degree of challenge in terms of their health size and damage-output dependent on your character's level. Nothing ever changes in terms of growing your level, so this makes every enemy encounter an exercise of pointless delay. You can fight them to grow your meaningless numbers, or if you have an escape item simply vanish and avoid wasting time growing those meaningless numbers.
  • Equipment: Standard to any style of RPG, Muramasa likewise has an equipment system. There are only two components to it here though, being limited to your sword and one accessory item. The swords have two details, which is their strength/damage output, and the unique ability that each sword has. Accessories are either stat-growing (strength/health) or prevent status conditions (poison, burn).
    The focus of Muramasa, and indeed the only way to see the game's multiple endings, is to eventually make and acquire all 108 of the game's swords. This is what you're driven by after your first playthrough, and the swords become wildly stronger the more you acquire of them.
  • Negation: Again, bafflingly, Muramasa employs parity here. It doesn't matter if your sword deals 300 or 700 damage, or if your accessory is +2 strength: if you get a benefit, then all enemies benefit in parity. In the case of your damage output, the game simply universally gives all enemies an equivalent raise in health. Like with leveling, it doesn't matter if your sword does more damage because it will still take the standard 10 hits to kill the enemy. And in terms of the unique ability of swords, it's essentially a non-argument: they're minimally different from each other, and there's no ability that actually augments the standard gameplay in any meaningful way, which is what will compose the overwhelming majority of your attention.

via Gematsu

RPGS, and especially ARPGs and standard turn-based RPGS, are interesting in that, despite whatever their overall game design, what you're really playing is computation. The player is essentially an X number, and your job is to compute whether X number is sufficient for Y challenge. If it's not, then you enlarge X number until it is sufficient, and then you move forward and repeat this over and over. It's a simple but rewarding game design; you increase your number, and so every Y number essentially goes down as you progress, bestowing accomplishment.

If you remove those numbers though, then what you're left with is this oddly hollow rotation of abject action. If X and Y never change, or change in parity, then the systems of these genres mutate into grossly pointless exercises that hinder outside incentives, such as storytelling or even a personal sense of completion. If your action, if what you do, is meaningless, and that in fact it would be better to avoid doing entirely as its a waste of time, then a person has no interest in chasing whatever incentive that is. You can find an equivalent elsewhere, but one that also makes your actions to achieve such purposeful.

With Muramasa, I'm so bothered by this because, once recognizing that all of the game design, which I had just spent twelve hours of my life doing, was meaningless, I sincerely felt upset about this, angry first at this game I so lately realized was an incredibly stupid waste of time and then, with my nightmare that sent me to writing this in the middle of night, angry at myself for having so obviously wasted my time and failing to realize so.

via CDRomance

As a closing aside, I truly cannot think of an equivalent example of such grossly existential game design. One that comes close is Crimson Gem Saga for the PSP, which is a turn-based RPG. This was a slightly big deal back when it released, similar to Muramasa in a way because the appeal of the game was its gorgeous visuals and big and colorful sprites. With Crimson though, the game was poorly designed in terms of the constantly excessive Y number. As a generic turn-based RPG, the game is essentially you moving from town to town, between each there being an equipment store and new enemies to overcome. The problem though was that those Y numbers were gratutiously inflated, both in terms of the leveling required of your characters and, more importantly, the gold required to buy better equipment (which was absolutely essential). Unlike Muramasa though the incentive remains in tact in terms of game design because your X number is indeed important, but the problem was the several hours required between each and every town to be able to move on. CGS wasn't an exercise in pointlessness, but instead an exercise of such elongation that eventually the incentive behind such becomes questioned and forgotten. But it's not the same as Muramasa, it wasn't entirely meaningless, but rather a game that simply became dull.

Muramasa is special in terms of how horrible it will make you feel. I haven't been woken up because of thoughts of a videogame for over a decade, so its impressive in that way--- I just wish it wasn't because of how utterly embarrassed and annoyed I am at myself because of those mortal hours I dumped in the trash.

Login to vote this up!





Please login (or) make a quick account (free)
to view and post comments.

 Login with Twitter

 Login with Dtoid

Three day old threads are only visible to verified humans - this helps our small community management team stay on top of spam

Sorry for the extra step!


About FTMone of us since 10:01 AM on 03.21.2022

FreeTheMechs.com is an East-Asian centric blog focused on highlighting the best of "Nerd" media. Here on Destructoid all game articles will appear, but for those interested in which light novels have the best mech fights, how literature is tackling Kaiju, finding the newest ghost horror films, and anything else that is awesome and (probably) East-Asian, then come visit us!