In the Gamasutra article “Mortification of the Pixels”, Jason Johnson detailed “Muramasa systems” and “Muramasa devices”, game elements that grant the player great power in exchange for self-harm of some sort. The most obvious example is, of course, Muramasa: The Demon Blade. As Johnson tells it:
Say a player is ambushed by an Oni, overreacts by spamming away all his attack power, then dies because he is left defenseless. The player is sent a few screens back and wanders from left to right again, only to stumble into the exact same battle.
Aware of his previous folly, he attempts to slay the demon while preserving his attack power, but he overcompensates and fails again, this time out of reluctance to weaken himself. Only on his third attempt does the player balance his offensive and defensive strategy in such a way to defeat the Oni.
Games that share their names with the phenomenon Johnson is describing notwithstanding, it’s hard to imagine a game that better exemplifies the Muramasa system than Swarm, a feat it somehow pulls off by making a joke out of genocide.
In this way, Swarm also offers a lesson in the avoidance of empathy. Hothead Games actually managed to create a character type so faceless, unrealistic, and utterly “other” that even as we watch thousands of them die—and they don’t die like bugs, they visibly suffer on the way to their final destinations—we are more prone to laugh, or even celebrate, than feel for them. There’s a clue in the title: The game is called Swarm, not Little Blue Men. Their reason for being is to serve the greater good, that is, their “momma”, who needs her little Swarmites to collect strands of DNA to save their race.
The twist is that rather than controlling a single Swarmite, you’re controlling a whole mess of them, as many as 50. Yet they control as if you’re moving a single avatar. Move them left, and they all move left. Jump, and they all jump. You give them a command via the controller—form a tower, huddle together, spread out—they all comply. They do so individually, some quicker than others, but they all follow directions, unquestioning, perfectly reliable.
The Muramasa effect here is based on an odd sort of efficiency—for reasons not clearly explained, the Swarmites must be in a state of constant action in order to progress through the game. Collect enough DNA, and a multiplier goes up one level. The multiplier is important, because there is a score threshold that needs to be passed in order to get through a level. If a few seconds pass without picking up any DNA, however, the multiplier resets. Big multipliers are the only way to get through the level, which contributes to a unique sort of recklessness of approach that must be employed in order to successfully traverse a level. Crates must be broken, towers must be built, and a lot of ground has to be covered in a very short time in order to maintain that multiplier.
Of course, there’s one more way to maintain the multiplier: kill off a Swarmite.
If you lose all your Swarmites, you’ll start with a 1X multiplier at a recent checkpoint, which in some cases is just as bad as having to start the entire level over again. When you have 50 of them running around, though, killing off one or two or ten of the little buggers doesn’t seem like too much of a sacrifice. Just in case this isn’t enough incentive to ditch whatever affection you had for the little blue bug-eyed things, the player is granted medals for killing off the Swarmites in a variety of ways, and the game’s most valuable achievement/trophy is tied to collecting all of the “death medals”. Losing a piece of the player’s “self” in the form of one of the tiny Swarmites is not only forgiven, but encouraged in a variety of ways. We are compelled to laugh as they scream while burning to a crisp, crawl along the ground after being cut in half, or fall down an apparently bottomless pit only to be impaled by the sudden presence of a spear. This is desensitization, a forced immediate understanding of the individual’s needs usurped by those of the greater good.
If there’s a message to be found here, though, it’s hidden in too many layers of slapstick and absurdity to be taken as such. Swarm is not begging us to take it seriously; it is begging us to play hard and win by any means necessary. It’s also begging us to laugh a little bit along the way.
Johnson concluded in his article that the most desirable effect of the Muramasa device is that of balance. Whether one finds the means hilarious or disturbing, the result is the same: the player of Swarm must find that balance between recklessness and care, sacrifice and preservation, the high score and the bottomless pit. Run through too quickly and you’re bound to force your Swarmites into electrocution, dismemberment, or a similarly gruesome fate. Tread too carefully and you’ll never manage to build that multiplier high enough to advance.
Find a balance, and you’ll make “momma” very happy.