Soul Sacrifice is cranky. Soul Sacrifice is surly poetry, like what you’d find in an angsty high-schooler’s Moleskine. Soul Sacrifice doesn’t trust you. Y’know, man, do what you want… but Soul Sacrifice really wishes you cared more.
These are the things that blew through my mind while coming to grips with the new game for the PlayStation Vita. Playing Soul Sacrifice made me wonder what’s rattling inside of the brains of the men who made the recently released title. The vibe that SS gives off is so bleak and nihilistic that it actually makes me concerned for Keiji Inafune and the people who worked with him to make the game.
Inafune, of course, is the guy who helped create Mega Man at Capcom more than 25 years ago. But he split from the company that he'd infused with so much success over the decades and his signature creation has languished in his absence. He’s been talking harsh truths about the Japanese video games industry ever since.
Soul Sacrifice feels like a game that Inafune poured his heart into, probably because he very much had to. There’s a lot churning underneath the game’s surface and it’s possible to interpret it two different yet connected ways.
There are elements of Mega Man lurking inside Soul Sacrifice. It’s easy to imagine Inafune having a complex love/hate relationship with Capcom's mascot. On one hand, it made him famous and beloved. On the other, he’ll never escape the Blue Bomber’s shadow. And, oddly, Soul Sacrifice could be read as a refraction/repurpose of what Inafune’s done in the past.
The sorcerers in Soul Sacrifice give over their right arms for power. Like Mega Man. They also absorb the energy and traits of the enemies they defeat. Like Mega Man. Granted, these sorts of ideas show up in lots of other games but it feels like more than a coincidence in this instance.
The key difference between the two is that Mega Man’s mostly optimistic bright-hued future gets traded in for a burnt-down medieval past in Soul Sacrifice. The latter game looks back and catalogues where things got so messed up, giving you a play mechanic where you have to suck up people’s souls. It feels like the kind of thing that someone who had an acrimonious break with a big game company would come up with.
From a more practical standpoint, you can also read Soul Sacrifice as a reaction/response to Monster Hunter and Demon’s Souls/Dark Souls, popular games that have captured players’ imaginations in both Japan and the West. Both of those series feature giant, daunting opponents and a loot system that encourages players to sift through the world for oodles of specialized gear. While it has similar design, the central premise of Soul Sacrifice is that you’ll have continually end the existence of people you’re adventuring with. Or they'll do it to you.
One of the central plot elements in Soul Sacrifice is an epic, ill-fated bromance between the player character and another powerful mage. There’s so much pathos and repressed emotion there that I got taken by surprise. It’s the kind of thing that Monster Hunter lacks, a narrative hook to spur you to commit to more and more gameplay.
Soul Sacrifice tries to advance the MoHun/Souls formula by adding emotion. If you were looking to try and inject new blood into a pre-existing template, going for players’ collective gut is one important trail to blaze. And if you look at comments that Inafune has made in the past, it’s clear that he puts his own experience into his game ideas:
As a kid, I was the one who tried to stop fights, not start them," said Inafune. Once in school, another student punched him, setting off a fight. "I wanted him to stop punching me," said Inafune. There were in a classroom in front of the other students, and Inafune looked to his friend for help. "He just turned away and didn't do anything," said Inafune. "I thought he was my friend."
It never seemed like he was happy with the end of his tenure at Capcom, either:
"I don't think the greatest motivation for people is money. It's to feel needed—and I didn't feel needed."
Couple that with this new interview about Soul Sacrifice at the PlayStation Blog and you get a picture, I think, of a game designer with an aching heart:
I learned that in life, you must sacrifice something big in order to gain a bigger outcome. If you want to become rich, you need to work hard; when you’re gambling, you may win big only if you bet big and risk losing a lot of money. So the idea of sacrificing and the consequence associated with it came to me first.
The biggest sacrifice, I thought, would be the limbs of your body. Or your own life or even your friends’ lives…
I’ve been in the game industry for a long time and gaming in general seems to be headed towards emotion. I think we’re in the era of incorporating feelings and emotions in video games and it’s about how to design these. Soul Sacrifice, for example, asks you who to sacrifice–be it yourself or your friends. You could make a decision not to sacrifice anything and let it be, too. You can’t make these decisions without being emotionally involved. I think future games need to incorporate emotional elements.
At times, Soul Sacrifice feels like a game that comes from a lot of hurt, hurt that Inafune hasn’t been shy about divulging. I spoke with Inafune last year at GDC and, while he was confident about his future efforts, he was clearly a man in transition. He was doing some soul-searching and asked the Japanese video game powers-that-be to do the same. Clearly, much of that soul-searching went into Soul Sacrifice. It feels oddly fitting that he’s been able to channel it into a fun, unpredictable game on a platform that could use some love itself.