The craven crew of criminals cowers before me. With heads hung low, they plead pathetically for me to spare their lives, that this was all just a misunderstanding. Sure, it looks like they're just robbing these innocent merchants of their rice stores, but it's not so simple as that! I sneer at such pitiful excuses, fingers tapping upon the hilt of my blade.
"What's going on?" a voice calls out. A young man with a boyish face and Flock Of Seagulls hair-do steps forward, looking between the previously posturing highway hooligans and myself. The merchants finally pipe up, expressing their intent to take the rice to the local village. The baby-faced warrior looks surprised.
"I see," he says calmly. "We were told this rice was intended for the Fujimori clan." I see his brow knitted in confusion, but it does him no favors. His words have already betrayed him, for I am a servant of Fujimori, and he has revealed himself to be of the rebellious Ouka clan.
I press L1 and unsheathe my blade.
In another playthrough, this very same situation played out amicably. He explained himself and invited me to join the Ouka clan, an invitation I gladly accepted. Yet the situation was different this time. I was Fujimori, and I had ambitions to get as close as I could to the Emperor. Not out of loyalty, but so at the opportune moment I could cut his throat and claim his throne as my own.
Player choice and freedom have been discussed quite frequently for the past generation. Perhaps it is a result of the Western legacy of PC games such as Planescape: Torment or Fallout 2 leaking into the rapid and rushing mainstream of console game design. Or it could be the emphasis on more complex environments, voice acting, and detailed character models, limiting resources for such freedoms in modern games. Players complained that games were being dumbed down and they weren't being given as much freedom and choice, and as a result developers and publishers started grabbing onto the player choice as a buzzword to help promote their games.
The trend in providing "choice" is to present players with a set of dialogue choices, each linked to a grade-school philosophy of good, bad, and neutral. While some games such as Alpha Protocol or the Dragon Age and Witcher series tried to move toward more nuanced, less obvious options, the general pattern is to modify the variables slightly to change how certain characters respond. However, the path is always the same. Even if the road forks, it comes together to lead to the same inevitable endings.
This is where Way of the Samurai 3, developed by Acquire and available for Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, is different. Instead of having some great destiny already planned for the player, the game simply drops the player into a small confrontation between three different factions. Do they want to serve the Fujimori clan, overworking the peasants in some mad dream to overtake Oda Nobunaga and conquer Japan? Do you join the Ouka rebellion and try to reclaim the countryside in the name of the recently defeated Sakurai clan? Or perhaps you prefer to spend your days with the villagers, dreaming of a more simple, peaceful life in spite of interruptions by those who yearn to fight?
Emphasizing this level of freedom, any time a cut-scene begins, the player has a brief moment to bow, apologize, and turn away, completely skipping the interaction. The player can also, at any time in the conversation, choose to draw their sword.
Drawing your sword is not an action I would recommend to someone new to the game, partially because it takes a bit to get a handle on the combat. In addition, you'll probably find yourself taking on foes whose skills and equipment greatly outclass your own. However, knowing you could draw your sword gives a weird sense of freedom and power — to know that at any moment you could interrupt this other character and fight them. I find myself wondering "what if" at every turn.
It's an almost overwhelming sense of freedom, even if the end result may not be quite as drastic as the player expects. Killing a high-profile member (or even a mere grunt) of the Ouka clan simply means the player will be confronted for their actions on any map harboring the rebels. Good luck with the Fujimori soldiers if you start slaughtering them upon sight. If you're going to be a ruthless killer, you'd better be in it for the long haul.
No matter what side you choose, eventually you'll reach a point of no return. You can become a double agent, working with both Ouka and Fujimori for a time, but eventually you'll come upon a mission where you will be notorious. The other clan will hate you and kill you on sight. Some of the peasantry will praise your name, others will curse it. Contrast this to Mass Effect, where the choice to punch out a reporter merely changes the reporter's response and dialogue in future games. No one else in the universe cares or brings it up. I am also only given such options when the game deigns to make them available, rather than being able to pull my gun out at any time. Now I find myself wondering what would happen if I interrupted the Council by drawing my gun!
At the end of the day, my Way Of The Samurai 3 characters feel as if they are mine. Commander Shepard from Mass Effect always felt like I was playing some variant of BioWare's character. Alpha Protocol's Thorton was inconsistent as I tailored his attitude and responses to the personality of whomever he was speaking with. The closest I ever came to owning a character was the Grey Warden in Dragon Age, partially due to the lack of voice.
The ability to unsheathe my sword at any time, that the game provides me that much freedom of choice, gives me a sense of ownership of the character as well as of my actions. While the game certainly provides dialogue choices as well, Way of the Samurai 3 is more about action than words. You choose a side of the conflict to be on, or even dabble with them all. You can play hours of the game ignoring the conflict, instead accomplishing jobs, building relationships with partners, and forging new and powerful blades. The game can be as short or long as you want it to be, even if the story, no matter which path you take, is only a few hours long.
Way of the Samurai 3 did not need a large, open world with a half-dozen customizable character classes and branching skill trees to make me feel ownership of my own character. In the midst of its smaller-scale world with a smaller-scale conflict, the game adds one simple option: that I can kill any character I interact with if I so choose.