Welcome the second part of my ‘What makes a Musou?’ series where I am attempting to identify what constitutes the ‘Musou’ formula and why it so divides opinions. You can read the introduction to the series here.
I have chosen ‘Theme’ as the focal point of the second part of the blog. It is theme which binds a Musou game together and underpins then character drama. It is also the abstractions at the core of each Musou theme that invites criticism from some parties.
Source Material vs Theme
The Musou formula is famously adaptable: we have seen games based upon source material such as the legendary semi-fiction of the Three Kingdoms period of China, the Warring States period of Japan and now the Trojan War. Recently new Musou branches have applied the forumla to the fictional anime/manga universes of Gundam and Hokuto no Ken.
It is essential to understand that a Musou game’s theme or universe is not purely a replication of the source material it is based on. The source material provides a jumping-off point for the theme but Koei does not seem to place authenticity at the heart of their Musou game development. Gameplay requirements and the developer’s own design sensibility always seem to trump authenticity to the source material.
I would define the theme of a Musou game as its universe with its associated internal logic, visual style and event schedule.
I would compare the internal logic of a Musou game to something like a wrestling promotion or tv soap-opera. Each one has it’s own internal logic that makes sense ‘in universe’ but is clearly nonsense when viewed through the lens of real-life.
For example, wrestling requires it’s audience to suspend disbelief and accept that a wrestler in his 60s can compete with his peers in their 20s just because said 60 year-old had a glittering career in the past. The internal logic is that pro-wrestling ability is analogous to star-quality rather than fighting ability.
In a similar way, Dynasty Warriors asks it’s audience to suspend disbelief and accept historical strategist characters as able to compete with historical warrior characters by employing magical attacks to boost their potency.
There are many examples of this strange internal logic in Warriors games – even logic that runs in contrast with the source material on which the theme is based. Case in point: Dynasty Warriors: Gundam prioritises melee attacks even though most of the anime/manga it’s based on stresses ranged combat.
This is not be be critical of the internal logic of Musou games as although some of the logic is very abstract it is generally consistent. Once a player accepts the internal logic as part of the game’s theme it quickly feels normal and enables a better game experience for the player. In the examples above there is no doubt that Dynasty Warriors would lack scope if strategists were not playable and Dynasty Warriors: Gundam could not create any tension in the battles if players were able to clear fields of enemies from afar.
I feel that the abstract nature of Musou internal logic (often running in opposition to the source material) is a major hurdle for new gamers to cross when starting out. I also believe that this abstraction causes some of the harsh criticism Musou games receive from the media and gamers.
I will not comment on this in great detail here as I want to cover it properly in a forthcoming blog. Surfice to say that each Musou game theme has a distinct visual style. This is not necessarily an authentic visual style based on the source material but a visual style developed specfically for the game.
For example Dynasty Warriors freely mixes ancient Chinese designs with J-pop, K-pop and other contemporary Asian fashions to give it a distinct style. For Hokuto Musou, Koei’s development team refreshed the original character designs to better fit modern games consoles.
So in a similar way to the internal logic, the visual style of Musou is original to each theme and is not necessarily attempting to be a realistic approximation of the source material. Again, I feel this can be off-putting to newcomers and feeds media criticism.
Event Schedule vs Storyline
While the theme of a Musou game includes a spine of the key events of the source material it does not include a central storyline or plot. This is one of the key differences between Musou games and other action or strategy games (and another area where confusion and criticism arises).
Action games generally tell the stories of their lead characters. Strategy games often tell an over-aching tale that unfolds as the player completes stages. Generally, there is a dovetailing of a game’s theme and it’s storyline. For example God of War’s masculine fantasy themes work well with the epic story-lines of Kratos.
A Musou game’s theme works differently in that it provides the backdrop/set-dressing that the character story-lines develop within.
These character story-lines are consistent across Musou games irrespective of the theme. For example Dynasty Warriors and Dynasty Warriors: Gundam play host to very similar character story-lines of coming-of-age, love, comedy, comradeship, betrayal etc.
Musou games unfold over key events of wars or conflicts. Through completing character story-lines the player is able to experience these events from differing perspectives.
It is often only after completing a number of indvidual character story-lines that the event schedule starts to align and make sense to the player.
As a player’s time with a Musou game progresses further they are able to hang the character story-lines around the spine of the event schedule and at this point an overarching understanding of how the war or conflict played-out occurs.
I believe this is why Musou games are often criticised for incoherent storytelling. People expect games to have singular story-lines based on the theme where as a Musou game holds character storylines that take place around key events identified by theme.
So Dynasty Warriors does not tell the story of the Three Kindgoms war it tells various tales of characters living through that war.
Dynasty Warriors does not take one specific view of the Three Kingdoms conflict and force players to identify with it. Though the images of Zhaou Yun and Lu Bu tend to dominate Dynasty Warriors iconography this is not their tale.
The best Musou games present a rich mesh of goals, personsilities and desires through their cast of characters and allow players to decide which paths they want to follow.
The freedom afforded to the player to play-out events and conflicts from multiple character’s viewpoints is one of the aspects that gives Musou games their hypnotic power over fans.
As videogames are an ineractive medium increased freedom for players to experience events as they choose through different character perspectives is forward thinking, progressive and praise-worthy.
My goal with this article was to place a clear divide between the theme of a Musou game it’s source material. The truth is that there are many layers of abstraction between the two concepts.
Musou games demand players to suspend disbelief and accept the themes as distinct artistic entities with their own logic, style and substance. I think it’s a leap of faith worth taking as once the theme is accepted, a Musou game will unfold its equalled richness of content to the player.
(Did that make any sense to anyone? I think there are many contentious points here – some of which will be shot down but I really hope it starts some debate ^^)