Why yes, it IS a bit late for Valentine’s Day. Shut up.
What games can learn from Rurouni Kenshin!
Rurouni Kenshin (also known as Samurai X in some countries) is a romantic story full of bloodshed, decapitations, emotional torments and a main character who’s probably the definition of a depressed soul who stopped putting value in his own life ever since the war.
Naturally, it’s one of my most favourite Manga of all time.
Does that say something about me?
Okay, in fairness, the Manga (as well as all it’s adaptations, be it Anime, OVAs and Live-Action Movies) is a lot more optimistic than that.
It’s a Shonen Manga after all (which means a Manga for teenage boys, in case you’re not a Weaboo like me), but the depth the story goes to show themes like war and depression really is something to be admired, in my opinion.
But that’s not what games should learn about from this Manga. (Because let’s be honest, war and depression is something we’ve seen enough in games lately…)
The thing I want to talk about is how the Manga deals with Love Triangles.
To start, let me sum up the essentials you need to know about this Manga to understand my point, which yet again (like my Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead post) contains spoilers.
As an extra warning here, this is gonna be a HUUUUUUGE summary as I want to do the story justice, but Rurouni Kenshin has a rather unique way of writing a Love Triangle, one that I truly think could help in how it’s done in games.
The story opens up by explaining how there’s been a war in Japan. (I’ll refrain from going too deep in the politics, since it’ll be very friggin confusing to the uninitiated if I do). During the war there fought a highly skilled assassin (or as the Manga likes to call it; “Man Slayer”) called Battousai.
Known for his cross-shaped scar and god-like speed, he murdered people left and right during the war, all in the name of creating a new and more peaceful age in Japan.
As you can imagine, seeing how that’s the START of the story… that didn’t work.
No matter how you put it, a murderer is just that, a murderer.
All the new age really did was turn the place more militant and it added a ban against swords on the streets unless they’re either wielded by an official or the sword isn’t sharp.
So, to repent for his sins of countless murders, he’s been wandering the country, calling himself Himura Kenshin and helping random people he comes across however he can, with the vow that he will never kill again.
To help keep that promise, he now wields a sword that can’t cut, the Reverse Blade Sword, a sword that has the sharp edge face the wielder and the blunt side face the opponent.
Uhhh… yeah… because a thin blunt metal object can’t POSSIBLY kill someone… Meh, it’s a Manga, just go with it.
Many years past and one day he meets a girl named Kaoru Kamiya, the heir to the Kamiya Kasshin Dojo. It’s a Dojo that believes in “The Sword That Revitalizes Life”, meaning that the sword style they teach is meant to defend, not to kill and maim. This is represented by the fact that they fight with Wooden Swords.
These two met when Kaoru accused Kenshin of being the murderer that’s been going around town killing people in her Dojo’s name. You can imagine that kind of puts a stain on the whole “Sword That Revitalizes Life” message. However, the moment she actually talks with him, she realizes he can’t be the murderer because of his Reverse-Blade Sword.
That and he’s seems a bit too ditzy to be a murderer at all.
Together they face the actual murderer, which depends on the adaptation who it really is, but the point is that said murderer claims to be Battousai, Kenshin’s previous alias. Something Kenshin could easily disprove by revealing that he’s… well… Battousai.
Having revealed his true identity before beating the copy-cat, Kenshin decided afterward to leave, as he thinks Kaoru wouldn’t want a Man Slayer to be staying at her Dojo.
She begs to differ.
She argues that the man she met was not the murderer Battousai, she met a wanderer called Himura Kenshin. While she DOES disapprove of Battousai’s actions, she welcomes the helpful ways of Himura Kenshin, which in itself is very comparable to her Dojo’s message.
And so Kenshin started living at her dojo. This man who was once a murderer, who took to wandering around the country with no place to stay, finally had a place he could call home.
So you may have noticed that they stated there’s a difference between Kenshin and Battousai, like they’re two different people sharing a body.
Well… that’s not that far off…
The thing is that every time Kenshin wields his sword, he slowly gives into his bloodlust and turns into Battousai.
When that happens, gone are Kenshin’s vow to never kill, gone are his funny little ditzy expressions, gone are him saying stuff like “Oro?”.
This little mental problem has threatened Kenshin’s vow to never kill many times throughout the duration of the story.
And when you think about it, it makes sense, Kenshin ends up having to fight a LOT of villains throughout the story. Many of them have lost the chance of redemption LOOOOONG ago.
Just to give you an idea:
This mummified guy over here is Makoto Shishio, amongst his resumé are countless murders, teaching a kid to use a sword to murder his family, planning to bomb Kyoto as a diversion to attack Tokyo with a huge ship and massive cannons, killing his prostitute lover just to stab his opponent and declaring to dethrone the ruler of hell (and if a certain page in the Manga is to be believed… succeeded…).
With an opponent like this, it’s easier to just flip that Reverse-Blade Sword and kill the bastard rather than do the moral thing of keeping him alive.
And that’s the core of the story; killing is the easy way out. Dying is easy, living is what takes true courage. It’ll be difficult, sometimes outright impossible to stay on the moral path, but one doesn’t learn when one dies. Only when someone is living can they truly learn to repent for their sins, which in itself is it’s own challenge that may or may not be impossible.
This is why Kaoru ends up becoming so important to Kenshin, she’s the representation of his vow to not kill. No matter how difficult things get, she will always be there to regress the Battousai and bring Himura Kenshin back.
Now, part of Kenshin’s big character flaws revolve around how the guilt of all his killings made him a bit of a martyr.
He has a tendency to put all the troubles in the world on his back, not caring about his own life as much as others. His dedication to save every life he sees comes at the detriment of his own, it’s even represented by his Reverse-Blade Sword. The sharp edge is facing him instead of the opponent, get it?
This ends up being a big lesson that he learns in the story, that his own life is a life too. His life is worth just as much as any other life, he’s got a home, friends and even families now. All of them who would be affected as well if he dies.
Yet again Kaoru is more than just a motivator for Kenshin not to give into his Battousai persona, she’s also his reminder to stay alive.
By now you must’ve asked yourself “okay, that’s sweet and all, but what the heck is the point of that cross-shaped scar?”.
I’m glad you asked, hypothetical curious person.
To answer that, we’ll have to go back in time, during the aforementioned war of Japan, and see how Battousai turned into Kenshin for the first time.
Now, imagine you’re a young Samurai.
You promised a beautiful young lady, who used to be your childhood friend, to ask for her hand in marriage once you’ve proven yourself to be a respectful man in this harsh world of warring Japan.
To do this you’ve taken a job to be a bodyguard for this important looking fellow.
One day, after a night of drinking, you and the aforementioned important looking fellow walk through an alley and meet a strange looking guy charging RIGHT towards you.
Your name is Kiyosato Akira:
Congratulations, you’re Battousai’s first murder victim.
Don’t feel too bad, though, at least you left a mark on him.
No seriously, you caused the first half of his cross-shaped scar.
Battousai has quite a life ahead of him.
As a Man Slayer it’s his job to kill people by order of the higher-ups. He’s encouraged not to have any emotions at all, lest he starts becoming empathetic to his victims. And we can’t have that, can we? (Like I said, he’s got quite a life ahead of him…)
One day, ANOTHER Man Slayer decided to try his hand at killing Battousai.
You can guess how well that ended…
As he literally made blood rain that day, what more of a fitting way it is to meet our next important little character.
Introducing the emotionless girl in white; Tomoe Yukishiro.
Uhm… hi, Tomoe… sorry for getting that guy’s blood on you… this usually doesn’t happen on a first date…
After witnessing Battousai murdering someone by slashing their body in half mid-somersault (ah, the most common way to murder someone in Japan) she promptly faints. (It’s kept vague whether it’s because of the shock, the alcohol she’s been drinking or if it was an act)
This forces Battousai to take the unconcious woman with him to a hotel he’s staying at, because as much of a killer he is, he IS fighting for a more peaceful Japan, as misguided as it is.
The next day he wakes up and finds out Tomoe has been making herself at home at the hotel, doing her job as a worker.
This means that she and Battousai are going to be seeing each other a lot during his missions of killing people.
To make the long story short, a romance blossoms out of this. They even end up getting married and moving to a house outside the city.
Sadly it’s not as romantic as I just made it out to be. See… Japan is still at war after all, and the fact that someone was after Battousai’s life means that his cover as a Man Slayer has been comprimised. Thus the higher-ups arranged for them a cover as a married druggist couple (ah, the most common way of getting married in Japan).
But what’s important is that they decided it doesn’t have to be ALL fake.
In paper it’s a fake marriage, but emotionally it was as real as it can get.
Which makes it pretty difficult for Tomoe as she was originally, in fact, secretly working as a mole to find Battousai’s weakness.
You see, that first murder victim I made you empathize with, Kiyosato Akira? Remember when I said he promised to ask for a beautiful young lady’s hand in marriage?
Well, that hand is now holding a knife for a reason…
She’s actually working for a group that tries to kill Battousai. She joined out of vengeance for the killer of her Fiancé.
See, the reason Kiyosato wanted to prove himself as a respectful person was because he thought Tomoe was unimpressed with his status as a lowly ranked Samurai, which (in case you haven’t been paying attention here) caused his death by the hands of Battousai.
In reality Tomoe was happy to be with Kiyosato, but as an emotionless girl, she has trouble expressing herself.
It’s a tragedy of miscommunication as Tomoe and Kiyosato’s different interpretation of their life situation proved fatal for one of them. It’s not anyone’s fault exactly, but Tomoe does curse her inability to express herself as the reason she lost the love of her life.
This is how she mirrors Battousai as a character, he has no trouble showing emotion, but in reality is dead inside, while she has lots of emotions boiling up inside her, but has no way of expressing it.
What’s important is that her love for Kiyosato Akira isn’t any less valid as her newfound love for Battousai, her new husband.
So yes, this is indeed a Love Triangle WITHIN a Love Triangle!
Despite her justified reasons to wanting Battousai dead, she ended up deciding not to go along with the mission she’s taken anymore and decides to meet with the group leader on a very snowy day to spare Battousai’s life. (Ah, the most common way of realizing you’ve fallen in love with your target in Japan… what?)
Sadly, this is all going according to the group’s plan.
That’s right, her mission to find a weakness was just a ploy to CREATE a weakness for them to exploit, namely Battousai’s love for Tomoe.
And thus Battousai comes to Tomoe’s rescue, fighting through the group of Man Slayers to get to the big boss. Even as they blow up several bombs that make Battousai deaf and blind as well as the cold snow numbing all his other senses, he presses on to save his beloved Tomoe.
But the sad reality is that, in his deafened and blinded state, he is no match for the muscular leader who’s in top shape.
That is… unless someone were to distract the leader by getting in the way, sacrificing themselves by blocking their attacks and giving Battousai the chance to get a killing blow on them both…
And now it finally daunts on you why she’s not in the sequel…
As you can imagine… not the happiest of victories…
Tomoe’s knife ended up flying in the air and slashes Battousai’s cheek, completing his cross-shaped scar.
But some good came out of this…
Tomoe’s last action before she dies is a loving gesture towards her husband, telling him it’s all right. She says it with a smile, something she had trouble showing to her previous love.
In one fell swoop, Tomoe learned to express emotions as well as pass on her knowledge to Battousai, teaching him to HAVE emotions in her last moments.
Suddenly, all the people he’s killed got a face.
Whenever he’s in a position to kill someone, he sees her, and he sheathes his weapon.
She officially became the sheath for his sword.
And thus, no longer was he the Man Slayer Battousai, he’s taken his first steps to becoming the pacifist wanderer, Himura Kenshin.
Phew, that was a loooooooooooooooooong summary, wasn’t it?
But I swear, that truly was the bare essentials I needed to cover to talk about this.
Rurouni Kenshin is a very complicated story with lots of twists and turns and this is just a very small part of the actual story.
But let’s get to the point, what can games learn from Rurouni Kenshin?
Obviously, how it deals with Love Triangles. Something very few games have ever done right.
Most of the time the love triangle is just a plot thing, something that just happens and doesn’t have any effect on the gameplay.
And when it IS in the gameplay… yeah… most of the time that just means you’re playing a Dating Sim-Lite within a bigger game.
But, as you can see from my previous post about Mentor Characters I like to think deeper about how to incorporate something in a game.
And to do that, we’ll have to look at what made Love Triangles such a popular choice in stories to begin with.
Say what you want about how Love Triangles are cliché and how they’re just there to please the people who want to live this escapist fantasy of being wanted by multiple love interests.
In the end, what made Love Triangles work, is that it shows two love interests as a metaphor for the two sides of the protagonist’s personality.
This is why such stories like the Phantom of the Opera work so well. There’s more to the story than just two men having a sing-off for the affection of an Opera Singer (ah, the most common way of wooing someone in France).
The main character of the story, Christine Dae, HAS two sides to her personality to compare herself to the two men in her life, the Phantom of the Opera and the Vicou de-… Vicome ze Za-… Vicomte De Champai-… Raoul. The two men fighting against each other pretty much represent the inner struggle of Christine Dae being torn between two identities.
Because of that, writers love to have the two love interests fight and bicker against each other in order to win the affection of the protagonist.
That in turn is usually what makes people hate Love Triangles, the amount of bickering.
Oh no, two attractive men are fighting for my affection, truly I am the definition of a tormented soul.
What’s interesting with Rurouni Kenshin is that for all the differences the two love interests have, they never met each other face to face, never giving them a chance to have those childish bouts.
Instead, they play out Kenshin’s past relationship with Tomoe as a part of life, as it should be. She’s an important phase of his life that’s passed but never truly forgotten, while Kaoru is the person he finally decided to live in peace with for the rest of his life.
In fact, I’d argue that Tomoe is the real person who survived on that snowy night. Battousai/Kenshin’s body may have survived, but the soul that survived was Tomoe, who lives forth in Kenshin.
During the time when Tomoe was alive, she was the ditz while he was the annoyed one having to deal with her personality.
But after she died and Kenshin eventually settled in with Kaoru many years later, HE’s the ditz while SHE is the annoyed one having to deal with his personality.
Which means that for every time Kaoru talks to Kenshin, it’s actually Kaoru talking to Tomoe, in a spiritual sense.
This makes sure that Kaoru isn’t just a replacement for Tomoe, if anything Tomoe’s lasting impression on Kenshin pretty much turned him into a fully developed version of herself, one who was able to express herself, something she finally learned in her final moments before death. In short, Tomoe gave life to Himura Kenshin by suppressing the murderous Battousai.
Meanwhile, Kaoru is the woman that keeps Himura Kenshin alive. She’s Himura Kenshin’s next phase in life and the representation of his true redemption. It’s thanks to Tomoe that Himura Kenshin exists, and it is thanks to Kaoru that Himura Kenshin keeps existing.
And that’s something games should think about, a character’s phase in life.
When it comes to romance in games, usually they only revolve around one part of romance, namely “getting the girl”.
Yes! I finished all the side-quests! Now I have the status of being “in a relationship” without ever having to do the responsible stuff that define relationships!
In games you don’t usually go through the other phases of love, like being IN a relationship or having a relationship fall apart.
Because of that, the only Love Triangles that usually occur in games are when the player has to choose between two love interests as the player character is still single.
The thing is that. as shown in Rurouni Kenshin, there are many ways one can deal with a Love Triangle, and it all has to do with which phase of life/love this is about.
How many games are actively involved in showing a relationship in progress?
How about games about a character dealing with a serious break up?
How about games where a character is cheating and has to deal with the consequences?
Not many, is there?
And yet all of those are subjects that have had their place in books and movies for as long as games even existed.
We should do better than that, because games as an interactive medium should actually be able to turn the character’s emotions into mechanics of the games, something that may even surpass the same feelings you get in films or books.
Yeah… kinda like that, but with gameplay mechanics.
Have a game that starts out with the main character ALREADY in a relationship. Give that main character a skill or ability or game mechanic that is very obviously based on that love interest.
Then introduce the second love interest who has their own sets of skills. One that can be represented by having those skills/abilities/game mechanics be ones that the player character learns throughout the story of the game.
This would represent how the main character realizes they’re being influenced by their second love interest, who at times can be the more fitting choice than the main character’s true significant other.
It would then be up to the player whether the main character chooses the first or second love interest, and in turn, one set of skills or the other, which are represented by said love interests.
Or be completely like Rurouni Kenshin and have it be something outside the player’s control. Have a moment when the first love interest dies mid-way in the story, ala Final Fantasy VII.
Let this be a very important plot event that actually changes the main character.
Have them lose all the skills they unlocked in the meantime that relates to that love interest. Show how the main character is truly broken by this loss by showing them becoming as weak as how they started in the game.
Then, after a time skip, have the second love interest help the main character snap out of it. That love interest will teach the main character new skills throughout the next half of the game.
But the main character realizes that they can never truly let go of their previous love interest, and loses motivation to learn those new skills.
Then, something really bad happens, maybe the second love interest ended up in a very similar situation to the first love interest’s death (like how in the Spider-Man comics another woman in his life ends up being thrown off the bridge for the gajillionth time), or a very important memento of the first love interest is being threatened, I don’t know, come up with something.
But that’s when the Main Character finally realizes how important that second love interest is in trying to help them. They’re not a replacement for their first love interest after all! They’re only there to ADD to the main character’s life experiences!
And with that, BOOM, all the first love interest’s skills come back, now with the added bonus of being able to mix and match with the skills of the second love interest.
And thus the main character finally became a fully developed character, both in writing as well as in gameplay. All helped by the influences of their two love interests, one from the past, and one in the present.
I’d like to point out that this way of writing love triangles is nothing new.
Heck in the comics, that’s pretty much how the romance of Spider-Man played out.
Peter Parker is in a Love Triangle with the Irresponsible Party Girl Mary Jane Watson and the Science Major Gwen Stacy.
It’s made clear that out of the two, Peter loves Gwen Stacy more than he loves Mary Jane Watson, considering her to be shallow and self-absorbed. But what’s interesting is that Mary Jane became just as much friends with Gwen Stacy as well as friends with Peter Parker.
Then the infamous chapter happens where Gwen Stacy died.
But her death didn’t just affect Peter Parker, it also affected Mary Jane Watson. Gwen’s death changed Mary Jane’s outlook on life and in turn changed her from a self-absorbed Party Girl into a responsible young lady, but not without losing her strong personality that made people love her in the first place.
When you think about it, that new Mary Jane became a fusion of the previous Mary Jane and the Gwen Stacy who passed away, turning her into a fully developed character.
These two deserve one another, having both of them be affected by Gwen Stacy’s death means that fate brought them together. Both of them experienced that with great power, there must also come great responsibility.
Their eventual marriage is not out of some victory for Mary Jane who “got the guy”, but out of true love that organically grew the further their shared grief goes.
Gwen Stacy’s death was just as much a loss for Mary Jane as it was for Peter Parker.
And then some idiot editor called Joe Quesada ruined it by having them make a deal with the devil, oh I’m sorry, Mephisto, to undo their marriage because he can’t handle having Peter Parker being in a relationship unless it’s with some kind of self-insert fanfiction character of his own daughter for some reason, and it’s just so stupid stupidstupidstupid Stupidstupid STUPIDSTUPID RAHSAHEASHFFAHSDFAHSDAFGHWRH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Sorry, just had a psychotic episode there.
Anyway, I’d like to stress the fact that it is not mandatory, but definitely recommended that the two love interests differ enough both in ideology as well as personality and motives.
Like I said, the reason why Love Triangles work is because the two love interests represent the two sides of the Protagonist’s personality, and that won’t work if both of those sides are practically the same. It only shows how one-dimensional the character really is otherwise.
With Rurouni Kenshin, it’s not just the personalities of Kaoru and Tomoe that made them different, their ideologies and motives are perfectly represented by the weapons they wield.
Tomoe has a knife:
Which represents her desire for vengeance, yet it also has a sheath to contain her madness, something that she ends up becoming for Battousai.
Kaoru has a wooden sword:
Which represents her innocence, unlike Tomoe she is a girl who lived her life free of bloodshed and she’s dedicated in her Dojo’s “Sword That Revitalizes Life” concept, something that constantly reminds Kenshin of why he needs to continue living.
– Look for more ways one can do in a game with a Love Triangle than the typical “choose your romantic partner” option.
-Have the two love interest mean something rather than just be two hot potential partners for the main character to be with.
– Remember what made Love Triangles work to begin with, don’t just do it because it’s the popular choice.
– Games are an interactive medium, based around mechanics. Make use of those mechanics to tell the story.
Now, mind you, I am not saying that this means ALL games should have Love Triangles, that would be silly.
What I AM saying is that when a story features a Love Triangle, there better be a good reason for it in the game, because when such a thing is annoying in a TV Series or Movie, it’s ten times as annoying when it’s in a game without any purpose.
While games are entertainment, they entertain via interactions. What one can forgive in a movie can be a lot less forgiving to the same thing in a game.