One of the unspoken rules in media, no matter what format, is that sex sells.

Regardless of your stance on the sexualisation of characters in video games or other media, it is hard to deny that such stimuli pull at parts deep inside our brain, drawing our attention like a primal, invisible magnet. Of course, some take advantage of this more than others, with Asian games being somewhat notorious for sexualising their characters regardless of context. Indeed, it doesn’t take long for anyone with an interest in games to think of ample examples of sexualised characters in Japanese games. Given the monetary incentive of doing so, it is easy to see why developers go down this path, but I admit games that exploit this have always left a sour taste in my mouth despite any financial success they may enjoy.

It was therefore with some apprehension and disdain that I approached massive financial Japanese successes such as the mobile games Fate/Grand Order and Kantai Collection. Both games boast millions of players despite their aggressive monetisation strategy, and while I acknowledge the impact these games have had on the collective gamer community, I can’t really understand their appeal. Such games feature attractive characters, with more than a deliberate dash of sexualisation, but unlike more traditional games like the Final Fantasy genre, the appeal is rather blatantly expressed. Female characters in Fate/Grand Order don more revealing clothes as they level up, while female characters in Kantai Collection progressively lose parts of their clothes as they take damage in battle – the implications are clear. Given concerns about image and sexism in the west, it is not hard to see why such games have yet to result in official English versions (note: this is no longer true for Fate/Grand Order at the time of this article’s publication, as Aniplex plans to release a US version in mid-2017), and personally, I wasn’t keen on playing a game in a language I am not fluent in just for the sake of seeing what the hype is about.

I admit to being curious about such games to a small degree, however. Therefore, when Touken Ranbu, the sister (brother?) product of Kantai Collection, received an official Chinese version, I decided to try it with an open mind.

Developed by DMM Games and Nitro+, Touken Ranbu was a browser-based game in its initial incarnation, released in January 2015. Mobile versions (iOS and Android) have since been created, with user accounts being linked between the two platforms. The franchise has drawn a truly staggering amount of customers since its inception two years ago, spawning one of the largest female-oriented multimedia franchises in Japan, having grown beyond gaming to stage plays, musicals, animes, figurines and more. Notably, all 21 Japanese servers are more or less permanently full, with the few which still have capacity sitting at about 95,000 – 98,000 players out of a population cap of 100,000. A rough estimate based on server capacity puts the Japanese user base to be at least 2 million, with the Chinese player base adding an additional 2.5 million (see the ANN interview here). While there may be some players from outside Japan and China, official numbers are hard to come by, as players outside of these areas are, in theory, prohibited from accessing the game. The Chinese version requires a valid PRC citizenship number, while the Japanese version only permits players with Japanese IP addresses to access the game, with any potential users having to go through various hoops and ladders (VPNs, proxies) to even log in, on top of dealing with odd time zones and an interface in an unfamiliar language.

When stripped to the bone, games like Touken Ranbu are more or less digital collectible card games, albeit with a bit of extra flash. What separates them from their predecessors are two things: 1) an attempt at a greater overarching story, and 2) the effort put into making the characters (the “cards”) come to life, with a different voice and personality. In Touken Ranbu, these characters are the spirits (or tsukumogami) of famous Japanese swords, based on the traditional belief that inanimate objects gain a soul (and self-awareness) after existing for more than a hundred years.  The sword spirits are separated into different classes according to the historical classification of the sword on which they are based (tantou – dagger, wakizashi – short sword, ootachi – giant cavalry sword, to name a few), with each class having certain advantages and disadvantages in different in-game scenarios. For example, a tantou, while not being very effective on the open battlefield, is far more useful than an ootachi in a battle inside a building. This reflects how in real life, an ootachi would likely end up getting stuck in a wall, leaving its wielder defenseless.

The Touken Ranbu anime shows what would happen if you bring a large sword indoors…

As in other such games, the characters can be “summoned” through an expenditure of in-game resources, collected as drops after completing certain maps or quests, and can be ranked up though experience (gained primarily from play). However, their stats can also be increased through “Internal Affairs” (aka, making swords do manual labour around your castle – which few of them appreciate), or by merging two swords (with one being sacrificed to empower the other).

Swords in the repair workshop, with the time required for repair dependent on the degree of injury

But being a good player requires more than just having swords with powerful stats, as to succeed in Touken Ranbu, one must be good with both resource management and basic strategy. Resources – steel, charcoal, water, whetstone – are needed to smith (summon) new swords, make troops (equipment) for the swords, or repair battle damage. And strategic team composition is critical as battlefields are quite varied, with battles themselves being completely automated. Each sword attack individually and only according to the whims of the random number generator, which can lead to powerful combos being wasted on weak enemies, or having enemies all concentrating their fire on just one sword out of your team. The random nature of battles tests the player’s ability to assemble teams and troops strategically before leaving for the battlefield, their intuition of when to retreat when traversing a large map with many skirmishes, and whether they had the foresight to save up enough resources to weather the subsequent repair costs following a particularly nasty fight.

The swords’ stat screen – this is where much of the strategy happens

While all the above makes up for an interesting experience, I was nevertheless initially disappointed with the game. Gameplay became repetitive, and the setting and plot were threadbare at best. The only explanation provided for the game’s setting is that the player is acting as a saniwa (a type of ancient diviner in Shintoism), who commands the swords to fight against vile forces that seek to change history by going back in time. The battlegrounds of the game consist of locations where important battles took place in the history of Japan, justifying why we are able to get our hands on ancient swords which were known to have been destroyed in antiquity. However, whatever is going on in the world of the game, the players are not privy to it. Unlike some of Touken Ranbu’s contemporaries, there is no narrative that ties any of the maps and battlegrounds together, no central story that progresses as one plays, just one event after another, with little connection between them. Coupled with DMM’s aggressive, almost vicious style of monetisation, I was sorely tempted to uninstall the game after the first few days due to not really seeing what the fuss was about.

Battles are completely automated with no input from the player.

But after spending about two months playing it, I am now a solid Touken Ranbu fan. And it was all because of its outstanding character design.

It certainly wasn’t for the gameplay, given how dull and repetitive it is, with players going through maps over and over to level characters and grind for drops. The selection of maps and battlegrounds is very limited, even at end-game (which can be reached quite quickly), though it is considerably worse for teams of new, low-level swords, meaning one sees the same thing endlessly.

What redeems Touken Ranbu from being just another forgettable mobile game is its cast of colourful characters. Beyond the obvious way in which this is expressed (clothing), each sword spirit retains the memories of their existence prior to achieving sentience, as per Shinto tradition. This is reflected in the numerous (>50) voice lines each character boasts, which play when they are assigned to battle, given troops, taken to the Shop, and so forth. More than just reflecting their personality, these voice lines often refer to past deeds, the history or personalities of their human owners, or their previous acquaintances with other swords.

This is the main screen for the browser version, with your main team’s captain in the middle of the screen

Some of the swords are shy, some daring. Some are pacifists which are conflicted about being used as tools of war, while others live for battle. Some swords are flirtatious, while some are devoted Buddhist monks. At first glance, the characterisation may seem superficial, stereotypical veneers drawn from Japan’s dating sims, but as one levels them up and uses them for various tasks, each character reveals unique glimpses of what life was like in specific periods of Japan’s history. They share with the player memories of Heian era court life, of the turbulent years that led to the rise of the Kamakura Shogunate, of the famous battles of the Sengoku period, of the poor and the merchants and the monks in Great Edo, and of the end of the samurais’ world during the Bakumatsu period.

The characters of Touken Ranbu are not just pretty faces – they are representatives of the era they hail from, carrying with them the traces of all the hands that have wielded them and all the eyes that have gazed upon them. It was after coming to this realisation that the game began to draw me in, because I became interested in knowing the stories behind the sword spirits – what they had seen, what they had experienced, how they had come to be in the form they wore now.

Thus, when grinding for rare sword drops, it isn’t the swords with the best stats I’m after, but those with the most interesting stories and personalities – or those which have some historical relationship to swords already in my collection.

One of the best touches of Touken Ranbu is having the sword spirits talk about each other as people – as brothers or rivals or friends. Characters with a historical relationships have special interactions if they are taken out to battle together, or alternatively, taken to a specific battleground. Head to Meiji-era Kyoto with swords once wielded by Souji Okita, and they will lament about their master’s fate and the inevitable fall of the warrior class. Visit Osaka Castle at 1615 with some of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s swords, and they will speak of the horrors of the Siege of Osaka and the victory that finally made the Tokugawa family the master of Japan. While the game certainly doesn’t provide a comprehensive or systematic approach to Japanese history, it does something more important: it provides a real, human view into history. It brings you to care about these swords, and to spend more time with them not because of their attractive looks, but because of what they have been through and what they have seen.

A Recollection shared by swords once wielded by the Shinsengumi during the Bakumatsu Period

The more innocent swords are the tantou (daggers), little boys who have hardly seen the horrors of war. Historically, they were more likely to have existed as dowries, carried by the merchant class, granted as gifts, or treasured as good luck tokens – and just like how their blades rarely tasted blood, their personalities are equally cheery and curious. Interacting with them is like dealing with good children, with their loyalty and positivity belying their existence as swords.

Full-length battle swords, the uchigatana and tachi, were however as much victims of war as perpetrators of violence. Most of the more famous swords have been abandoned by their masters, damaged through carelessness ignorance, ripped from dead hands as spoils of war, or shortened and re-forged due to human greed. It is hard to find a single battle sword who does not harbour some kind of sorrow. These grown men may laugh, but their words are either bitter or resigned, concealing some hidden hurt. What would it be like if we could interview someone who lived and fought in the Sengoku era? These swords may be the closest approximation we have.

Even if they are usually amicable and gentle, the sword spirits will not hold back when they start to get wounded.

The characters may be passive, cold observers of time, but they are also men who were touched deeply by the human tragedies of history. Not all of them are bloodthirsty – there are swords who have never killed, as well as swords owned by pacifist monks. Not all of them are still sane – there are swords who giggle with glee when they bleed, and swords whose sexual advances are borderline disturbing. Some obviously still have PTSD over the traumatic experiences they have been through over the centuries, and some have found effective ways to cope against their ancient scars.

But none of them feel like mere tools – they feel like people.

They felt real.

When viewed in this light, the attractive character designs DMM Games commissioned for the swords are certainly complementary to the depth of characterisation Nitro+ invested into the game. Many young women only started to play the game after seeing one of the characters in the large amount of fanworks about them floating around the internet, and becoming curious about who those characters were. Unlike its sister work, Kantai Collection, which relied on some prior knowledge of World War II (and indeed saw many male players approach the game due to their existing interest in ships and military history), there were very few female Touken Ranbu players who came into the game already well versed in Japanese history. A pretty face still serves to gather initial attention, successfully expanding the game into bigger and bigger female audiences. It is also worthy of noting that despite the sugar coating, the sword remains one of humanity’s oldest and most powerful phallic symbols. These characters are thus the perfect blend of danger, beauty, and tragedy.

Even the most tough-looking swords can bleed and weep.

Lastly, one of the biggest oddities of Touken Ranbu was the effect it had on society. Ever since the game’s release, there have been media reports of a rise in interest towards Japanese swords amongst young women. This social phenomenon led to a specific term (touken joushi), coined to describe women ranging from those who merely pose with plastic replicas of Japanese swords, to those who actually devote their careers to studying sword preservation and ancient Japanese metallurgy. Personally, I learnt a great amount about Japanese history myself over my two months of playing the game. Curious about the vague allusions and references to the past the swords made in their in-game lines, I went and looked up the names they mentioned, the battles they were sent on, and the rise and fall of the thousands of Japanese clans that had wielded them. This is a great example of tangential learning in action, where the game did not explicitly teach much, instead rousing an intense curiosity within the players to seek out more knowledge for themselves.

It would perhaps be stretching the definition to call Touken Ranbu a serious game, as educating players about history was certainly not the primary intention of the developers. What it is, however, is a game that is cleverly designed to encourage a sense of attachment to its characters, leveraging practical psychology to help DMM in monetise their game.  The need for meticulous resource management and strategic planning provides a sense of challenge outside of battle, and means it is particularly satisfactory to see your team tearing through a powerful enemy team due to you having included the right type of swords. The bare-bones nature of the combat system means players can decide which swords will be in their main team without worrying about having to learn how to control the characters, simply considering what each is good at. And when one is already contemplating on which swords to use, the effects of their rich characterisation helps nudge how they are perceived, changing them from mere tools which may be of use to companions – people with old wounds and broken souls, friends with personalities of their own, with all the pro and cons one would expect from real acquaintances.

As such, Touken Ranbu cleverly taps into their players’ sense of intrinsic motivation, with a design that supports player autonomy, a sense of competence, and encourages players to create emotional relationships with characters, thus retaining players who might have been drawn in merely by the visual design. These, incidentally, are the three psychological needs spoken of in the Player Experience of Need Satisfaction (PENS) model so popular in modern game design, which itself is based on the self-determination theory of intrinsic motivation, which deals with how and why we engage with gaming or any other activity.

In the end, Touken Ranbu, like its contemporaries, remains an acquired taste. After all, no game will please everyone, least of all a mobile game with aggressive monetisation strategies. Nonetheless, I appreciate how the game achieved success without the blatant sexualisation seen in its peers, using the human connection between players and the iconic sword spirits they called forth to educate modern players about its obscure subject matter and in a small way, change society.

When I started playing this game, I had no idea of the impact it would have on me. I certainly did not expect to still be playing, nor that looking at my ‘Sword List’ would be like sitting outside of time, gazing upon a thousand years of Japanese history, and feeling all the pains and glories of those countless days.