Video Games and the Arts: Tenchu
By Wesley Rossenrode
Video games have come a long way since Pong and electric tic-tac-toe. Now gamers, from the comfort of their homes, nestled in their Dorito-stained sofas, can spastically dart around beautifully detailed worlds that span from an icy planet in the vast recesses of space to the depraved frozen depths of hell. The competitive among us can now safely stalk down stunningly detailed alleys of actual war-torn countries and hunt down noobs solely for the glory of perks and admiration from their peers. Players can now spend hours immersed in war with a reckless disregard, because they know full well that they’ll come home to their loved ones alive and intact, if not weary-eyed and stiff from inactivity.
It’s an exciting time for video games. Just the thought of where designers will take us next makes me crack my knuckles in anticipation. Though I find myself with less time as I get older I still yearn to destroy something beautiful. However, with all the big-budget destruction titles out there consuming our minds, I find myself reminiscing of a title from the days of Playstation. It was a title that punished a bullish approach to gameplay. It was a game that forced me to pause and reflect and it did it with something simple. Natural. It did it with music.
Tenchu: Stealth Assassins (1998) - Sony/PSone
Tenchu is set in feudal Japan. We play as ninja Rikimaru and Ayame, who carry out tasks given to them by their lord, Ghoda. Corruption has infected Ghoda’s province and it’s up to the ninja (and the player) to sever the spread and root out the source. The levels vary from villages, to armed outposts, to caves inhabited by bears, but there’s one goal: kill the guy that lord Ghoda feels is a bad dude. We accomplish this goal with the usual ninja arsenal— throwing stars, grenades, poisoned rice, good old-fashioned sharpened steel, and most importantly, stealth. Sure, one can try to beat the game by not lurking in the shadows like a sneaky murderous badass, but they will soon find the task harder than a camp counselor fighting off Jason in the NES version of Friday the 13th.
My “feels” moment in this game came when I was playing a level titled, “Execute the Corrupt Minister.” The title gives you the gist, but I’ll give you some more details. The level is set in a small village where the minister is hiding out. It’s snowing. We start off at the village’s outer limits and must make our way past several patrolling guards and search for clues about the minister’s whereabouts. I cannot confirm if it is true, but I felt that the guard’s AI was more sensitive to my presence in this level. Maybe I want to believe that. While we sift for clues and avoid being detected, a beautiful orchestral score plays.
As I sat there years ago, in the game and on the couch in the real world, waiting for the right moment to take out a patrolman, I became mesmerized. I think it may have been the haunting music and the falling snow. I started to deeply ponder what I was doing. I was seriously considering why I was following through on a murderous task a video game had given me. That realization was startling enough, but it was the other thoughts that ran through my mind that shook me still. In that unmeasurable moment in my thought, I imagined my future through my short past, but I also had a sharp focus on my present. I was approaching my senior year in high school and I wondered why I hadn’t done better. I thought about blaming my family for my lethargy. I thought about the reasons for why I felt that way. I feared having to become a success in adulthood. I feared dying. When I came to, I finished the level and microwaved myself a frozen burrito.
Stealth gaming was the bubbling rage back in the late 90’s. Metal Gear Solid, the Hollywood-inspired polygon opera meticulously crafted by the Japanese John Carpenter of video games, was still months away. But Tenchu was here, now. We gave it a try while waiting for Solid Snake to rock our world, expecting a foreshadowing of what was to come, but we were surprised. Tenchu didn’t tweak the then current play style very much at all; it just made the player think before destroying. And it helped that process with a fantastic score. This was a stealth game we never knew we wanted. We got a game befitting the mystique of the ninja. And some, a bit more.