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Mortification of the Pixels: Games That Make You Hurt Yourself to Win

January 14, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Muramasa Sengo was a legendary swordsmith, alive during the Sengoku period of Japanese history. Chances are that if you have played video games for long enough, you have come across his name. He and/or his swords have made appearances in numerous video game titles, including mainstays such as Ninja Gaiden, Final Fantasy, and Castlevania.

Unfortunately, most of these titles have evoked the Muramasa name lightly. Sure, Muramasa was a master swordsmith, and games typically recognize him for this, just as Final Fantasy III rewards the Muramasa blade as the ultimate weapon for the ninja class, but that's only half of the legend.

Most geniuses are notorious for their eccentricities, and Muramasa Sengo was notorious for being a violent, delirious, and altogether unpleasant man. This perception, combined with a series of misfortunes involving the Tokugawa clan, contributes to the more sinister side of the legend.

It is said many members of this family were killed by Muramasa blades, either in battle or in ritual suicide. The last straw came when shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu accidentally wounded himself with one. He banned any sword made by the Muramasa school.

Consequently, many superstitions regarding his blades were formed. Facts and rumors were distilled through literature and performing arts into the legend as it stands today. Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka's short film Muramasa (1987) illustrates the legend well.

In it, a samurai discovers a cursed blade, which has great power, but he is unable to control the power, leading to much needless bloodshed and, eventually, his suicide at the hand of the blade. The story exemplifies a precedent on exchanging vitality for strength. But this concept is not exclusive to Japanese folklore. It can be found in many places -- such as in video games.

Side Effects May Include Suicidal Thoughts

It's a longstanding tradition for players to be asked to intentionally harm their on-screen representation in order to win. A recent and relevant example of such virtual mortification is found in Vanillaware's Muramasa: The Demon Blade, which tidily ties together Japanese myth and video game tradition. The game allows the player to equip their avatar with three Muramasas, but each sword will break if too many special attacks are performed.

Muramasa: The Demon Blade

And battles are tough, requiring special attacks to be used frequently. Breaking all three swords is a real possibility, and, without an adequate way to attack and defend, defeat is too. In effect, the game tells the player to kill a bunch of enemies, but be careful how you do it, or you'll kill yourself in the process.

At heart, this resembles the legend of Muramasa blades: how they grant their wielders great power, but can require of them their life in return. But what advantage does this principle offer players? Surely such malice is an ill-seeded trope dreamt up by draconic game designers solely to annoy unsuspecting gamers. Or could this bad medicine be a case of tough love, ultimately leading to a more diverse and interesting experience? The answer is... well, it depends.

Pick Your Poison

A lot of games that employ a suicide button just don't have the player's best interest in mind. They tend to serve some ulterior motive other than enriching the experience.

Final Fight

The traditional knock-everything-down special attacks found in most brawlers, such as Haggar's spinning lariat in Final Fight, will hopefully rot in their arcade graveyard. These moves knock back the throngs of thugs that will surround you, but deduct a fixed amount of health each time. Given the pay-to-play nature of arcade games, this makes the game designers out as the real criminals, enforcing rules that serve only one practical purpose: to make you poorer.

Likewise, the turbo/fatigue dynamic in sports games is an unnecessary relic. Its intent is to make the experience more realistic, but not always more enjoyable. These types of Muramasa devices seem to overlay the structure of the design, rather than being an integral, organic cog of it. They have little relevance.

Another type of Muramasa is the "Participation Is Optional" kind. These allow the player to opt in to benefits, but face penalties for doing so. They somewhat improve the game for experienced players by allowing them to choose a high risk/high reward strategy. For instance, the Masamune is one of the strongest swords in Symphony of the Night, but equipping it greatly reduces defensive statistics.

Similarly, the Thornlet/Bone Mail/Cursed Ring combination is your strongest defensive option in Final Fantasy V, but your health will gradually deplete, you won't be able to resurrect yourself if you die, and you'll only have 60 seconds to win a battle before instantly dying.

Then there are self-destruct commands like Recarmdra in Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, where a player can sacrifice a party member in exchange for restoring the rest of the party's health and magic points. These types of suicide mechanics have some relevance to the design and can increase the value of a game for those who care to use them, but you can take them or leave them (literally).

These examples utilize Muramasa concepts to an extent, but to really understand the advantages of self-injury, it's best to look at systems in which these practices are fully integrated. The types of systems found in games like Muramasa: The Demon Blade require players to pay at the door.

There's no way around it. Either vitality is to be sacrificed for attack power, or vice versa. This at first may seem like a detriment, but can, in fact, improve the gaming experience by offering multiple ways any given scenario can play out, instead of the same, de facto situation every time.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Nora Rich
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This is a well thought out article. I like to find out the backgrounds of items in the games I play and how alot of gamemakers choose to use the names of "old" real weapons instead of making names up sometimes. It adds to the whole game experience,because those that show real interest can look up things beyond playing the games themselves. I am constantly surprised by how much actual fact is hidden in games

Sean Parton
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Nice article. I didn't know of the connection (or at least inspiration) of the Murasama mechanics to Buddhism.

Mark Kilborn
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Fantastic article. While I've never analyzed it in this way, your article has made it clear that the Muramasa mechanics in Eastern games are a fundamental part of what I perceive as the Eastern Philosophy of game design. I grew up playing eastern games and still play them to this day.

Often I find my experiences playing western games to be much shallower by comparison. While they often offer bigger worlds to explore and more choices, I feel that the choices are superficial and don't matter that much. I know I'm not alone in this, as I often hear western devs lamenting how difficult it is to provide meaningful choice in a game. They're often averse to penalizing the player with death as well, all in the name of being "accessible." You've touched on the problem here, or at least part of it.

Being an eastern games fan working for western devs, I've often seen confused looks when I say I enjoy eastern RPGs more than western ones, and I feel I have more choice in them. While I may not have narrative options, the gameplay options are much more meaningful. It's about play style, and in a lot of JRPGs (though not all) I feel that the choices I make have more meaning in combat, sometimes the meaning of life or death.

They're about finding the right balance of tactics, items and spells, and being patient, in order to overcome enemies. It's about outsmarting your opponent, exploiting their weaknesses. Western RPGs are generally about leveling up, getting the most powerful gear you can and steamrolling over your opponents.

I know there are exceptions out there, but these are things I see in the eastern and (admittedly fewer) western RPGs I've played.

Thanks for writing this article. It was insightful and very interesting. Leigh, if you're reading this, I'd like more articles like this please :)

Quinton Klabon
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High-level references, fantastic video game choices and explanations of those choices, an intriguing take on an old mechanic, and quality writing: the perfect Gamasutra article?

Artur Jakubiec
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This article is really great! I think this mechanism is really fundamental in our world; in a broader sense it's all about balancing two opposed forces.

you can find it everywhere in nature (magnetism, electricity, day/night, seasons, prey/predator, male/female, life/death...).

When you think about it balancing makes the world go round and life worth living (too much of something gets boring and wears out, too less makes you suffer).

...and every game/sport need balancing to be enjoyable! football: squad balance, surfing/snowboarding/skiing/gymnastics/... : body balance, computer games: balance player/enemies, cheating: no balance -> fun dramatically vanishes).

But you forgot to mention taoism! the ying/yang symbol represents the quintessence of this mechanism.

I feel the taosistic worldview describes this phenomenon closer than the buddhistic one (no offense to buddhists here ;) as it is doesn't focus too much on the center ("the middle path") but more on the two extremes circling around a center. Many buddhist traditions try to negate the extremes and arrive/stay at the center, the taoists don't care too much because a center is idealistic (the center is formed from moment to moment out of the extremes)...when you arrive at your center you loose it instantly ;) for them it's all about balance.

Though i have to admit that some taoist/buddhist schools are quite similar and their concepts exchangeable.

Also worth mentioning is the game GO: it's the most minimalistic implementation of balanced game mechanics which are unmatched in their simplicity and beauty!

Jamie Mann
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It's an interesting article, and it's nice to read a bit more information on Muramasa. But unless I'm missing something, isn't this just describing a standard risk/reward structure? Driving faster gets you to your goal faster, but also increases the risk of a mishap. Holding down fire increases the chance of a successful hit, but also burns through your ammunition and overheats your gun. A double-handed sword offers a much stronger attack, but leaves you with weakened defences. Throwing all your money on a single toss of the dice offers major rewards if you win, but nothing if you lose. Building a high tower of blocks in Tetris leaves you open to a run of unsuitable pieces, but also gives you the chance to get a full Tetris 4-liner. And so on: any game which doesn't have a "one hit = death" design has a risk-reward structure, whether it's based around energy bars, time or in-game achievements.

I don't doubt that a lot of eastern-produced games utilise elements of the local culture and religion, and there's a case to be made around how the risk/reward stucture is presented as a result of these influences. However, any risk/reward structure will have a "middle ground" - though generally, the exact shape of that ground will depend on the experience and skills of the player - and players can have a lot of fun from pushing the boundaries of this safe area and thereby introducing a controlled level of risk into the equation.

robert toone
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This is one of the best articles i have read on Gamasutra, as @Quinton said, and i agree completely. You got everything down nice and tight.

I have alsways been a believer in this type of system, but have never heard it referenced as Muramasa before. And i have most assuredly used the balance approach in some games i have designed and written. It is very exciting to use, but can be a bit of a pain to balance at times.

Great article, i hope you write more.

Jason Johnson
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Thank you all for your kind words. I am very humbled by them.

@ Nora. This is the main reason I want to write about games. There is a lot of history in them. They pull from history and myth and literature and social ideals and science, and I feel looking at these origins can sometimes help reveal aspects to games that aren't apparent on the surface.

@ Mark. "Western RPGs are generally about leveling up, getting the most powerful gear you can and steamrolling over your opponents." This sounds so um American. :) and kind of like Little King's Story, which I'm finding to be a curious Eastern take on a bunch of Occidental things.

@ Artur. I totally agree with you about Taoism but I know less about it. Plus, I'm afraid to linger on religious aspects for too long for fear of sounding like a propagandist. As, for the game of Go, I've tried it on several occasions but I've never been able to wrap my head around it.

@ juice. In my original notes, I had considered the risk/reward approach, but ending up scrapping it because I felt it really wasn't what I was trying to say. It's perfectly valid to look at it like that, but I feel it's overly broad, as almost any game could be analyzed in terms of risk/reward.

@ robert. Glad to get this feedback. Nice to know that designers do think about these things, and I'm not just shooting in the dark.

Carlo Delallana
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There are many ways to deliver thoughtful analysis of games and by far this one is the most "human" of those that I've read. The flow between analysis and storytelling makes for a very compelling read.

Ed Alexander
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Great article!

Just adding another example for what it's worth. ;) Demon's Souls does this in a few forms.

The ultimate example of which is the Stamina bar. You have 4 things which deplete Stamina: offense (attack), defense (shield block), evasion (roll) and running. You are free to act as you please, but can only do so much based upon how much Stamina you have. Going purely on the offense might be a good idea or a bad idea; it depends on whether you can kill the demon before you run out of stamina. If you can't, you're now in striking range with no stamina to block, roll or run out of the way.

Whereas being light on your toes will keep you avoiding peril, you also sacrifice the ability to deliver many strikes at your target when you can afford to take a few swings. Or blocking with your shield will guarantee you are close enough in striking distance to retaliate, but depending on how hard you were going to be hit, it chews through your Stamina really fast, depleting your ability to do damage afterwards.

Brilliant system and fits perfectly in the naturally tense and scary style of gameplay the game offers. On a more micro level, there are varying versions of the philosophy.

There are 3 weapon enchant spells that make you do more damage with each hit. The top end, Curse Weapon, hurts you for 8hp a second for 60 seconds in exchange for an additional 50% bonus to your weapon's Physical and Magical Damage attributes. Light Weapon and Enchant Weapon take a significant amount of Magic stat to compare to the raw, sheer power gained through Curse Weapon.

There is a katana named Magic Sword Makoto that steadily drains your HP, but not to Curse Weapon's degree. I think it is 3hp/s? But it is constant and always running and doesn't require Mana to cast. Katanas are innately fast swinging weapons (weapon speed means SO MUCH in the balancing of combat), so this detrimental effect allows Makoto to be stronger than your comparable fast swinging alternatives.

Another katana is called Gripless that does damage to you every time you hit an enemy. It doesn't matter if you hit the enemy or their shield, if you connect, you take 3% of your max HP in damage. For its detrimental effect, Gripless is also strong damage for it's attack speed.

And one last realization I just had while typing this. While reading about the Taoism philosophy, the first game that jumped to my mind as an example would be the Mega Man X series.

Mega Man represents the evasive or defensive character. As Mega Man, your goal is to dodge incoming fire and plug away with shots from your X Buster when you can line up a shot. As Zero, you have to get into melee range to strike with your Z Saber, which does a significant amount of damage more than the X Buster, but always has you in the enemy's face and in harm's way.

One game, two vastly different (extreme) styles of play. I guess Axl could be considered the medium in between the two, but I never really liked anything past X6, so I don't have too much exposure to his play style. I know he's fundamentally weaker than X at his ranged playstyle, but has abilities that let him transform into enemies, which also makes him weaker than Zero at his melee playstyle, so he falls more in the middle of the two.

Anyhow, thanks for the food for thought. Really enjoyed this one. =)

David Carrigg
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I should mention a game called Verge ( It's freely available for download.

The games biggest mechanic is that the player needs to kill themselves to advance. This article reminded me of it.

Ava Avane Dawn
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Love the article, kudos on referencing Torus Trooper. Much could be said about parsec 47 too! I do believe there is a function for the "smart bomb" in final fight though since the player has to take a chance and perhaps lose much hp, or simply strike at the right time and lose only so little.