I finished my playthrough of Sekiro a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve had some time to sit and reflect on the experience. If you aren’t familiar with Sekiro, it’s the newest game by From Software, developers of the Dark Souls series, and it’s a continuation of that style of design as well as a spiritual successor of Tenchu, a beloved stealth game which I’ve never played and know very little about. Since I know nothing about Tenchu, I’m going to be talking a lot more about where Sekiro lies as a successor to Dark Souls than as a successor to Tenchu.
The original Dark Souls is still a powerful experience – dark and foreboding and inscrutable, Dark Souls offers many approaches to surmounting its various obstacles but obscures much of its narrative and mechanical breadth behind cryptic clues and interfaces. Sekiro is somewhat different in this regard: While it still maintains several of the mechanics and elements of exploration established by the Souls series, it does not shroud itself in mystery in terms of either its systems or its narrative and it provides relatively few ways to approach any given obstacle. Although I’ve been disappointed by the recent Souls games’ tendency towards simplicity, towards always funneling you into the same approach both in terms of movement through the world and tactics in combat, I enjoyed Sekiro’s even more streamlined approach. Sekiro’s commitment to this style takes simplicity and turns it into refinement.
Combat in Sekiro is usually a duel: Getting up in someone’s face and staying there, answering their every motion, call and response, until the heat gets too much and you need to retreat. While the overall sensation of move in, do damage, move out, is frequently the same as in a Souls, you no longer have the stamina system enforcing that behavior and thus you have much more leeway to keep pressing the attack – and are even encouraged to stay up close and personal for as long as possible before retreating by the game’s posture system, a mechanic of trying to push enemies off-balance through constant pressure so you can deliver a single lethal blow.
However, because there’s no longer nearly as much flexibility in how you approach obstacles – no bows, no bombs, no spells, no shields – the game is rather less forgiving than Dark Souls if you have a hard time engaging with the core mechanic of approach, deflect, counter, and various permutations on same. The game does offer numerous ‘shinobi tools’, such as shuriken, firecrackers, and a flamethrower, to give you these sorts of advantages – but, in the end, they’re all quite limited, and while they will help you they’re not so much an alternate path to victory as a way to gain an initial advantage on the same fight you’d be doing anyway.
Like the Souls games before it, Sekiro is a game about immortality: This thematic element makes a lot of sense as a way to integrate gameplay largely about getting the shit kicked out of you over and over again into a larger narrative. Most games, particularly before the Souls series arrived at prominence, simply narratively discarded any part of your gameplay that didn’t result in success. You reloaded, you rewinded, it never happened, forget about it. What having a game about immortality allows the developers to do is integrate every attempt, every failure, into the player’s story, a story of defeating death itself to right wrongs, of being a ghost or revenant set out to achieve one last vital task. It integrated the video game meta-narrative of undoing failures into an explicit narrative of fighting through them.
(Here’s where I get into the specifics of these games’ narrative. This is what would be considered spoilers for the Dark Souls series and Sekiro, so if you haven’t played these games and want to come to them fresh then you may want to stop here.)
While the immortality of Sekiro and of Dark Souls is treated nearly the same way mechanically, they’re treated quite differently by the narratives of each game. The story of Dark Souls is a story about systems of power and authority, and the existence of immortality within that context is evidence of how those systems have begun to fail – the powers of life and death have started to collapse, and the ancient undifferentiated stasis that held sway before gods and humans has started to take hold. Those who hold the reigns of power try to con those who suffer from this curse – you the player, as well as implicitly a huge number of other undead including all others who may have played the game – into sacrificing themselves in a ‘heroic’ quest to prop up this authoritarian system of divinity… Until it collapses again, presumably, at some point in the future, which the sequels imply happens many many times with each successive iteration becoming more corrupt and exhausted. Alternately, you can choose to subvert the system of divine authority and usher in a new age of dark – which sounds quite foreboding, but is presented more as an age of human self-determination in the absence of the divine than as something eldritch or unholy as standard video game symbolism might have such a name imply. In Dark Souls, ‘Dark’ isn’t so much evil as it is empty, the gaping nothingness we are confronted with when we seek for grand meanings and symbols, terrifying and comforting in equal measure, the pupil at the center of the iris.
However, Sekiro is almost aggressively unconcerned with the systems of power and what immortality might mean within these systems. Sekiro’s story is about what immortality might mean to individuals – old men faced with the decline of their bodies, young men who feel compelled to tackle tasks that are beyond the capacity of any single person, and the children whose youth and boundless potential these men covet and seek to exploit. It’s a game about dropping the ultimate gift of undeath into a world like our own and the strife and desire and bloodlust that would inevitably bubble up around it – in short, a game about greed.
In the story of Sekiro, your first priority is to ensure the safety of your master, the young lord Kuro, a child who has the power to give immortality. Others also want this power, most notably Genichiro who wants it to save the kingdom of Ashina where the game takes place. Along the way other objectives emerge, since Kuro himself decides that this power of immortality is going to keep causing trouble as long as it exists he dedicates himself, and therefore you, to the task of ending immortality, of letting humanity be merely human. Yet, though you are set this grand task, the top priority of the story is generally on protecting Kuro, and you are in the end mostly on this quest because he asks it of you.
Put succinctly, Dark Souls is a game about systems and Sekiro is a game about people, and this affects every aspect of both games. Combat in Dark Souls is largely against huge monsters, creatures who if they ever were human have long since lost contact with that humanity. It is a matter of distance and timing, dashing between gigantic legs or away from gigantic claws to deliver a strike or two and eventually putting the poor thing out of its misery. Sekiro is mostly about fighting people, opponents who move and act very much like you do, who one could easily imagine playing as with only minor tweaks to the control scheme. It’s about pushing up against them, engaging with their every move, answering each motion with a motion of your own, almost collaborative, almost a dance. There’s an intimacy to it, very different in tone to the cold calculation of Dark Souls combat.
The priorities of Sekiro’s story, as well, lie with individuals, not systems: It is a journey to save Kuro and to help him in the gargantuan task he has set for himself. You don’t set out to change the world, only to help Kuro, but circumstances demand that in order for that to happen the world must first be changed. Structures mean nothing without the people that inhabit them.
Genichiro fights to save Ashina, and is willing to sacrifice his people, himself, and his humanity to achieve that – so what is he actually fighting to preserve? An empty name? A ghost kingdom? The battle to save Ashina has gone on so long that the land is deeply scarred, its animals have picked up weapons and learned to fight. The best thing for it would be to let it go. To give up, and see what comes next. The biggest difference between Dark Souls and Sekiro is how they portray giving up. In Dark Souls, to give up is to lose yourself, to become hollow, a shell. In Sekiro, giving up is presented as sometimes the only reasonable option: Lord Isshin, who saved Ashina from a bloodthirsty despot, sits alone in his besieged fortress (aside from occasional outings), content to die while his grandson Genichiro goes to extraordinary measures to save Ashina because he knows there’s nothing there left to fight for. As the player dies over and over, refusing to give up, unleashes a sickness called dragonrot on the world, poisoning all of the people you meet along the way, it raises the question: Is what I’m doing for the best? Or am I just doing my duty, even if it does harm?
Perhaps one of the reasons From Software’s games have done so well is because there’s a certain thematic resonance between their stories and the daily tolls of our lives. Being conned into propping up deeply cruel and unjust systems, feeling hollow but persevering, being caught between an old prosperous generation and a young one full of potential but being pushed into a deeply fucked up world, it’s all a very millennial experience. It doesn’t offer any answers, but there’s something reassuring about believing that at least, somewhere on the other side, there’s something else – an escape, a change of state, or merely progression, perhaps no better than the world we have now, but at least it’s one step away from where we stand.
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