Every time I see an essay like Eskelinen’s decrying the purported narrativization of game studies, I feel compelled to defend the storytelling potential of video games. On the other hand, every time I play a game like Way of the Samurai, my opinion flips right around and I wish all these developers would skip all this irritating plot and dialog crap and let me get on with playing.

Way of the Samurai is a straightforward 3-D action-adventure game, following the typical pattern of alternating “talking-head” cutscenes and action sequences. The game’s hook is its branching storyline: the player is “free” to move about the environment as he pleases, triggering various cutscenes when he enters a particular area or encounters a particular character. The order in which he triggers these scenes and the responses he chooses in conversation with NPCs determines the path the story will take.

All this would be fine, except that the game’s stories are completely uninteresting, being a set of variations on the generic samurai tale. If you’ve ever seen a samurai movie, you already know everything that’s going on here, and if you haven’t, you can probably guess; there are precious few plot twists to impede the tragic fall of the samurai in the Meiji era or whatever. The various branches in the storyline eventually re-merge to lead the player to one of six different endings, which really only differ in terms of whose cause you fight bunches of government soldiers in.

Again, this shouldn’t be such a big deal: I’ve played games with lame storylines before and loved them to bits, poorly-translated dialogue and all. But these games took more than two hours to finish, which is how long it takes to get through WotS. The replay is supposed to come from the branching storylines, but since the storylines are repetitive and the cutscenes unskipppable, sitting through them again is more of a chore than a revelation. It’s always a bad sign when I have to find something else to do to kill time while playing a video game. To add insult to injury, you cannot save your progress during the game, and have to start all over again if killed.

The worst thing about all this is that the game itself is pretty decent. The basic swordfighting mechanic is well-executed, with a thoughtful blocking scheme and a variety of well-animated slashes and stabs that are entertaining without being outlandish. The player can also acquire an array of swords that grant him different abilities and fighting styles. It’s no Soul Calibur II, but it’s enjoyable enough on its own terms. Maybe if the developers had followed Eskelinen’s and Aarseth’s advice and stuck to building out the way the game plays (its configurative aspects) rather than focusing on the flimsy multicursal story (its interprative and explorative aspects), it would have turned out better.