Sword of the Samurai and its manual: some observations

Today I was reminded – I forget exactly how – that I’ve always wanted to write something about the manual for Sword of the Samurai, an old classic Microprose title that came out in 1989. It is the only PC game that I still own a box for – not the original, which is long lost, but a replacement that I bought for five dollars about fifteen years ago because I wanted a copy of the manual. I have a bootleg copy of the game that runs on DOSbox, which is fortunately as my boxed copy is on two 3 1/2 disks, and I haven’t built a computer with a 3 1/2 drive in years.

Anyway, the manual. Why did I want a copy of the manual? Well, I remember thinking, well before I became the nascent textual critic I am now, that there was something special about it, and that I should have a copy, just in case I wanted to do something with it. What that ‘something’ was, I had no idea – and I still don’t, not completely, though my critical training allows me to articulate that something a little better. But I try to keep things around that spark my interest, and so here are some thoughts.

Manuals for PC games used to be bigger. The industry standard these days is to have the game teach the player how to play it. Arkham City is a great example. There’s no need to read any manual. Even the button assignments are stored on the disc and accessible at anytime. Why wasn’t it that way back in the day? Three reasons, I think. First, hellish size restrictions on game files (the halcyon days of technical feats such as packing Starflight onto a single floppy are long past in this lazy era of gigabytes) prevented in-game demos, so player instruction was consistently pushed to paper, where space was basically unlimited. Second, game design hadn’t moved into the era of simultaneous console development; Microprose, as far as I know, never went into consoles. Their games were by and large complex affairs, with many vehicle simulations that assigned specific functions to nearly every key on the keyboard. It was socially and economically feasible to ship a game with a keyboard overlay; it was mightily appreciated, even. There’s a third reason, also. The /idea/ of a game was different. PC games were not just games, but /software/. And software, no matter how apparently simple it may seem, required a manual.

So the SOTS manual exists in these conditions. But it is different. Most obviously, it doesn’t explain just how to play the game. It is also a primer on 16th century Japanese culture, politics, and warfare. It’s not exactly “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” (which is itself a famously book-researched oversimplification), mind you, but the analogy is surprisingly apt as there is an attempt at cultural translation going on, at the hands of developers who have watched a lot of Kurosawa movies (they list seven in particular as inspiring) that themselves are postwar explorations of Japanese-ness. This is a very interesting position for a game manual to be in.

As such, interposed between explicit instructions on how the game works are sections that have almost nothing to do with the game – there is a 12-page overview of the Warring States Period, for example, that feels neither useless nor out of place. Likewise, those same explicit instructions are pretty explicit, even moralistic. For example: “If your villainous goal in a rival’s house is the treacherous murder of an envoy, find the room where he sleeps, draw your sword, and kill him with one blow (he is but a pawn – there’s no point in making him suffer.)”

I love this example as it blurs the very notion of instructions and cuts to the core of the game. First off, there is no way in the game to NOT kill the envoy with one blow; that’s how the melee phase of the game works. I suppose you could deliberately miss and scare the poor sod to death, but the envoy is merely an unmoving, sleeping sprite on the screen that never moves save to be replaced by a bloody corpse. What the instruction is trying to do, and succeeds in doing to the large part, is enlivening the story. It /is/ villainous and treacherous to kill an envoy in my rival’s house. He’ll lose honor for failing to defend his guest, and I’ll walk away scot free after the cold-blooded murder of an innocent man. That sounds far more dramatic and exciting than the reality of the single keystroke.

In other words, the manual is not showing me how to /play/ the game as much as how to /interpret/ the game. The manual acts as a kind of travel guide to a distant land where customs differ from mine. For another example, the manual explains how marriage in the game works and the many advantages of having a bride, including having someone to run your household and the general honorable state of affairs. Realistically, though, getting married in the game only does two things: it gives a one-time shift to honor, and it allows you to eventually have a male heir (and thus continue the game if you are killed or grow too old and feeble). The player is given enough information to play in a culturally savvy way but not necessarily a practical way – there are serious in-game advantages to marrying when older, and avoiding having to raid a castle for the most desirable brides, but the manual shys away from getting bogged down in all that. Its main mission is always giving cultural context for possible actions.

I am tempted to say the manual is merely the reflection of a great game. And the game is unique, certainly, using many of the same branching story-telling innovations present in Pirates!, the other Microprose game that resembles it the most closely in manner and in its immersion in a cultural space (the Spanish Caribbean). But there is an X-factor present here. I can remember the first time I read the manual and realized that it almost stood by itself as a statement of some sort. The “Designer’s Notes” epilogue by Lawrence Schick is the case in point.

Schick states that a major design consideration was to “make the abstract concepts of honor and responsibility important to the player” – as such, these concepts were deeply embedded in the game. Honor, for example, was made into a quantifiable resource tagged to apparently qualitative adjectives – you could have “great,” “commendable,” “average,” “barely adequate,” “little,” or “no” honor, if I recall correctly. Some actions lowered honor; others raised it. You couldn’t ignore honorable behavior because you needed honor to proceed in the game. Losing too much honor was a lot like dying, although I recall quite a few desperate samurai retainers in the game trying to out-villain each other in a race to the honor gutter (after the third time they’d get caught trying to assassinate or steal, they just came off as creepy losers) and still hanging on without committing seppuku.

In other words, the game’s structure is a bit of a mindfuck. In order to succeed at the game, you have to act like a samurai, or at least the game’s truncated idea of a samurai. This is much like King of Dragon Pass, where the game expects you to respect and follow the often barbaric customs of the game’s artificial culture – laugh them off at your own peril, quite literally. The result is a shift in awareness on the part of the player. They are not just playing a game so much as being forced to change the way they think and react.

Sounds kind of like learning, no? Maybe that’s why I kept this box around for so long. There are other reasons, of course. The manual is very attractively designed – it fits the box like a glove, has good use of white space, and is an entertaining read by itself without the game. It represents something of a lost art.

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