Sekiro: Shadows Git Gud, part two

By Bob Case Posted Saturday Apr 13, 2019

Filed under: Video Games 59 comments

In my first entry about Sekiro, I wrote mostly about the game’s difficulty and my belief that the experience would not be harmed by the addition of an optional easy mode. What I didn’t mention is my secret ulterior motive. After all, I play the game on the “normal” (ie, only) difficulty level, which is probably what I would play even if there was another option. But if there was an easy mode, it would be easier to talk about this game without talking about the difficulty, which is what I’ve wanted to do all along.

FromSoft games are good in several different dimensions. Their visual styles are typically consistent and evocative, their storytelling and worldbuilding are effective without intruding on gameplay, they reward exploration, and they have high replayability. They’re also good in areas that we’ve fallen out of the habit of talking about. Their level design, for instance, is excellent. Remember that? “Level design”? Once upon a time, in the days of John Romeros gone by, level designers were the rockstars of game development. In today’s games writing, the phrase is only occasionally seen.

This, for example, is a level. Not just a vista but a level. This is a cool game.
This, for example, is a level. Not just a vista but a level. This is a cool game.

Therein lies part of the difficulty of talking about them. They’re good in an way that eludes the usual language we use to talk about games, which is why their fans so often fall back on terms like “throwback” or “old school.” In some ways, this is surprising. Nostalgia games are their own genre now, frequently featuring pixel art, sprites, 2D platforming, or some mix of the three. FromSoft games are not part of that genre, nor are they in particularly close proximity to it. Sekiro, in fact, has several concessions to simplicity, such as simplified crunchThe voluminous attributes of the Souls series have been condensed down into what are essentially “damage” and “health.” and a tutorial systemAn NPC in the hub area volunteers himself as your training partner and explains various game mechanics to you.. In other games, those on the higher end of the grognard spectrum would be deriding these additions as “streamlining” or “hand-holding,”Predictably, some people are in fact calling them that, but not as many as usual. and yet Sekiro retains its sense of being a throwback to an earlier age. What gives?

My personal way of understanding this is to categorize Sekiro and its SoulsBorne brethren as “unselfconscious” games. To explain what I mean, I’ll take you through a brief and highly contrived history of video games as a medium.

Once upon a time, video games were a new form of entertainment that was bursting with seemingly unlimited possibility combined with a complete absence of direction. In some cases, they could adapt tabletop games to an electronic format, as the early “gold box” Dungeons and Dragons games did. But in others there was no template to follow and they had to build their core gameplay from scratch. In both cases they did so in relative isolation. With the exception of the occasional short-lived panic about violence in gaming, the mainstream world treated it as a curiosity for children and adult wierdos. Even the suits and the money men were too mystified by the whole thing to try and meddle. Entire new genres – the platformer, the top-down adventure game, the metroidvania, the FPS – sprung up every couple of years. It was a blessed time.

No matter how many times they kill me, I can't stay mad at these generals. They're just so stylish.
No matter how many times they kill me, I can't stay mad at these generals. They're just so stylish.

Then Roger Ebert showed up and ruined everything. (I told you this was going to be contrived.) His now-infamous statement that games would never be “art” triggered some of the medium’s first pangs of self-consciousness. Of course, Ebert’s remarks are better understood as an effect than a cause. In 1992, no one would have even bothered saying something like that. By 2006, the generation that grew up with Nintendo had entered adulthood and it was high time to sort this whole thing out.

It remains thoroughly unsorted to this day. The question of whether games count as art or not inevitably ends up as a semantic debate over what exactly the word “art” means, and of all the different kinds of debate, that’s the one I have the least stamina for. “Art” has a dozen different academic definitions, but the one everyone uses is the vernacular one. “Art,” we all understand, is the word for high-falutin’, hoity-toity stuff, the kinds of things enjoyed by the Serious, Important people who read those magazines that don’t hardly have any pictures in’em. The word denotes a threshold of prestige.

Among the relatively few bits of wisdom I’ve gleaned in my life is that abiding by other peoples’ thresholds of prestige is a mug’s game, and best avoided. However, it’s the type of lesson that you have to learn three or four times before it really sticks, and it hasn’t quite stuck with gaming yet. Games started coming up short in all sorts of previously unnoticed ways – maybe they weren’t cinematic enough, or educational enough, or artistic enough, or profitable enough. Having failed to secure sufficient prestige through domestic production, gaming tried to import it from elsewhere.

The sculptor's Buddha all come out wrathful because of his deep karmic debt. My entries all come out grumpy for similar reasons.
The sculptor's Buddha all come out wrathful because of his deep karmic debt. My entries all come out grumpy for similar reasons.

The last few paragraphs make me seem grimmer about the current state of affairs than I actually am. Getting your hackle up about this sort of thing too often is a bad habit, and I try not to overindulge. My point is that the amount of outside expectations foisted upon the medium increased noticably in the 2000s, in some ways for the worse. That was the age of the self-conscious game, the age that FromSoft seems to have deftly avoided. Even mighty Activision, their new publisher, couldn’t manage to muck up more than the title.My understanding is that the subtitle “Shadows Die Twice” was added at Activision’s request. Despite their commercial success, they haven’t been cynically monetized or stuffed into a battle royale format. Despite their critical success, they’ve made no particular attempts to be thinkpiece bait. Despite their cachet, they continue to operate in a state of benign neglect that reminds me of the relatively expectation-free 80s and 90s.

In fact, if you’d asked me, back in 1997, after I’d just finished Symphony of the Night, what games would look like in twenty years, I probably would have guessed something like Sekiro.Am I the only one who sees the SoulsBorne games as existing in the Metroidvania tradition? The save system, the interconnected levels, the spare but memorable worldbuilding? This isn’t a complaint about other games. The intervening years have seen all sorts of titles released that 15-year-old me would never have predicted, and the world is richer for it. But I’m glad that that spirit – a portion of which will always be undefinable, despite my attempts to define it here – remains.

So I like the game. As an aside, if you want to see what all the fuss is about, but don’t have a taste for punishing difficulty – or if you have better things to do with your limited leisure time than die to the same boss a bazillion times – then let’s plays are a good alternative. My personal favorite for all things FromSoft is EpicNameBro, who recently started up a series on the game. Be warned, it’s still unfinished.

That’ll be it for Sekiro content from me. Game of Thrones premieres tomorrow and I plan on writing at least partially fulmination-free coverage of it.

 

Footnotes:

[1] The voluminous attributes of the Souls series have been condensed down into what are essentially “damage” and “health.”

[2] An NPC in the hub area volunteers himself as your training partner and explains various game mechanics to you.

[3] Predictably, some people are in fact calling them that, but not as many as usual.

[4] My understanding is that the subtitle “Shadows Die Twice” was added at Activision’s request.

[5] Am I the only one who sees the SoulsBorne games as existing in the Metroidvania tradition? The save system, the interconnected levels, the spare but memorable worldbuilding?



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59 thoughts on “Sekiro: Shadows Git Gud, part two

  1. Grimwear says:

    . More importantly years ago Yahtzee made mention of Souls games being Metroidvania styled when he reviewed Dark Souls many a years ago so it should be somewhat in the public consciousness by now.

    1. Higher Peanut says:

      It’s at least proliferated enough that they’re tagged as Metroidvania on twitch, or tagged by those streaming them. I never bothered looking at how the tags were set since it never mattered to me as a viewer.

  2. Crokus Younghand says:

    I would say that FromSoft games are self-conscious but they hide it behind a rather thick veneer of uncaring attitude.

    To give an example, take the first Deus Ex. You can easily play it as a fun sci-fi romp, shooting critters and Majestic-12 soldiers, flying across the world to save it. Taken on surface level, it seems no different than, say, Daikatana. In fact, the released design documents of Troubleshooter (the original name of the game, more or less) paint it as that kind of fantasy fulfillment shooter.

    Obviously, the game that came out was much, much different- filled to brim with socio-economic and political commentary. But all that is beneath the layer of the “fun sci-fi romp” part. Because that’s what games are supposed to be, innit? Fun?

    To me, FromSoft’s games seem to be similar in this regard. There are philosophical discussions regarding the nature of death, the essence of much of eastern philosophy (Do what needs to be done and don’t worry about the results) and a commentary on human nature. “Art”, in other words.

    But it has to be put beneath a fun, dark fantasy romp of swinging swords, killing monsters and finding secrets because that’s so much fun. And isn’t that what games are about? Or used to be about?

    Obviously, this becomes far more complicated when you consider some thing like Super Meat Boy which is so darn fun and yet, it’s still art, right? I guess Ebert will say no, but he’s dead and we are not so who gives a crap!

    1. Echo Tango says:

      Super Meat Boy which is so darn fun and yet, it’s still art, right?

      Your phrasing seems to indicate that you are conflating a specific game being condidered art, and video-games in general an artistic medium. The latter is much easier to defend, because it only needs a few examples out of the entire ecosytem to meet the expectations (as fuzzy as they may be), but the former requires a specific work to meet those expectations. For the record, I wouldn’t consider Super Meat Boy as Art, nor even art, but games are definitely an artistic medium.

      1. Crokus Younghand says:

        I guess the question is- if making something requires artistic capabilities, is it art?

        Tske the physics system of Super Meat Boy (SMB from now), it’s physics actually is nothing like the real world physics. Tommy Refenes iterated on controls and physics for three months before he could come up with a self consistent physics that was “tight” and fun but he ended up creating something totally disconnected from reality. Isn’t this similar to a impressionistic painter trying out various color schemes to see what looks good (though not necessarily realistic)? Wouldn’t the sating “more of an art than science” fit for SMB’s physics system?

        That’s the problem with games: they have to fulfil two functions – be engaging (usually through being fun) and yet be about something more (even if that’s only a cool alternate flatlandish physics). And those two often clash in strange ways – inside the game and inside the mind of the person playing the game.

        1. Echo Tango says:

          What you’re describing is more akin to a Quentin Tarentino film – amazingly well-polished, and entertaining, but it usually says very little about society, humanity, etc. Mr Tarantino made some amazing films, but they’re fairly light on artistic merit.

          1. Crokus Younghand says:

            But Tarantino’s movies do have artistic quality. Our Mr. Mob Case here himself made a video (which seems to be unwatchable in my region for copyright claims) about Django Unchained and how it explores the post-modern Foucauldian ideas of power.

            But Tarantino is interesting for the same reason – the Art in his movies is buried deep inside the fun violence, action and general badassery. In some ways, his movies are very similar to games: having to put a layer of entertainment so that the audience will stay engaged long enough to get to the Art. Whether this is done in resignation or with excitement would obviously vary on a case by case basis. But it can not be denied that the person making the game/movie is in fact very self-conscious of all the cliches and expectations of the medium they are working in (not to subvert them but to embrace them, to become “approachable”).

            FromSoft’s games would be even less approachable were they some avant-garde interactive ruminations about philosophy of death and patience instead of fun games.

            1. Crokus Younghand says:

              I have put a copy of “Django Uncomplained” on MEGA for those who might be interested in the video and can’t watch it on Youtube either. I hope Bob and Shamus are okay with this.

          2. Nessus says:

            By that definition a huge amount of famous and influential pre-modern art doesn’t qualify as “art”. If it’s famous, and it’s from before the 19th century or so, then it’s mostly contract work (some rando rich person paid to have a portrait made) or personal study works. Only the religious and propaganda stuff would qualify. The Mona Lisa? Not art. Most of, say, Rembrant’s paintings? Not art.

            Some of these can be retroactively wrangled to fit, if you include things like “death of the author” legitimized interpretations, or if you have a sufficiently vague definition for “says something” (“this landscape of grey skied rolling Welsh hills makes me pine to see that beauty in person, while also evoking a strong melancholy feeling”). Both of these would make games potential “art”, basically by decoupling the definition from the work and attaching it to the audience instead. So if the Mona Lisa can be “Art” then so can Super Meat Boy.

            The idea that art CAN say something has been a part of the idea of art for all of human history, but the idea that art must say something in order to be art at all is VERY recent, and derives mostly from the “fine art” collector market.

            …And the fine art collector market is at least 75% a marketing machine for speculation investments and tax shelters. They need people to believe “saying something’ is worth everything and objectively quantifiable (but only by the high shamen of art interpretation), because that makes it easier to influence and manufacture the perceived value those investments and tax shelters are based on.

  3. stratigo says:

    I would like to note that EpicNameBro’s twitch has a few finished sekiro run throughs. Including a no HUD no music immersive one which I watched. It’s pretty cool. ENB seems to have transitioned from youtube to twitch content mostly, though a game as dear to him as sekiro has him putting out youtube videos again.

    1. Christopher says:

      Epicnamebro moving up to the big leagues, getting epicnamedropped in the article first this time rather than the comments.

  4. kunedog says:

    Here’s hoping the industry produces hundreds more unselfconscious games.

  5. Nessus says:

    The SoulsBorne games aren’t technically Metroidvania games, but they’re only one core qualifier short (new areas are usually beef gated rather than special ability gated). In most other respects you’re right though, they play and feel more like legit modern continuation/evolution of the SNES to PS2 Metroidvania style than anything else in the past 15 years.

    1. Fizban says:

      Demon’s Souls had some hard-sequence requirements IIRC (from LPs). DS1 lets you backdoor through beef gates and/or the thief key, but the “intended” path if you don’t do that and follow the clues, is a series of keys, backtracking, and special abilities (the orange ring and some form of light source). DS2 has interchangeable “keys” in the form of the fragrant branches used to de-petrify people and open new paths, and the cat ring (reduces falling damage) can be seen as a special ability gate for jumping down the pit- it’s much more likely for new players to buy the cat ring than find the ladder salesman if they don’t have hints. Bloodborne I know nothing. DS3 is, yeah pretty much just beef. There’s only one real branch in the path and no requirements on either side.

      I think part of the desire for distinction is that in “true” metroidvanias, the special abilities usually have serious combat gameplay effects- double jump in everything forever, ground pounds, grappling of foes in addition to grapple points, gravity defying dashes, etc, while DS uses only keys and environment workarounds.

      1. Crokus Younghand says:

        DS uses only keys and environment workarounds.

        More like the first Zelda, I guess.

      2. Nessus says:

        “I think part of the desire for distinction is that in “true” metroidvanias, the special abilities usually have serious combat gameplay effects- double jump in everything forever, ground pounds, grappling of foes in addition to grapple points, gravity defying dashes, etc, while DS uses only keys and environment workarounds.”

        Bingo. Abilities that only serve to open a given door are really just keys with a different semiotic overlay. That’s why, say, Resident Evil isn’t a metroidvania.

        In the context of a Metroidvania, “special ability” would mean abilities or items that broaden gameplay outside of just opening a given door. Items or abilities with which opening that given door could actually be described as a side-use or even an intentional misuse. Could be something thats primary use is a combat move, like a slam attack that can also break walls, or it could be a movement upgrade that lets you better traverse/explore the gameworld everywhere, like a grapple gun, or the ability breathe underwater.

        There’s a bit of what might seem like an obvious cheat there, in that it’s more up to the level design than the actual item/ability itself whether it counts as an “ability” or just a “key”, but since whe’re talking about this on the level of a genre definition rather than just gameplay elements in isolation, it serves the same master regardless.

      3. Vinsomer says:

        Would you say that MGS (at least 1 and 2) are closer to ‘true’ metroidvanias? A lot of the items required for progress do have uses in gameplay, like the Nikita missile launcher, sniper rifle and thermal goggles.

        Then again, the later games moved away from being set in one single location with backtracking and items opening new paths in old areas, and being set in several different linear-ish levels (4) and an open world (5).

    2. Raven_Sloth says:

      I started playing them because I wanted to play a Metroidvania. Unfortunately only the first half of Dark Souls 1 is metroidvania-y and after you beat Sen’s Fortress it becomes less interconnected, although Lost Izalith and the painted world has a little bit thrown back in. I didn’t really have a lot of fun exploring after that, and eventually I stopped playing the game after fighting Orntein and Smough since that felt more fun to get to that point than to continue forward. I haven’t played DS2 since there was so much of an outcry about it, and DS3 just feels incredibly linear. If I was going to compare it to a Castlevania game it would be Order of Ecclesia, which wasn’t terrible, but wasn’t what I wanted in a Castlevania game. I have also yet to play Bloodborne or Sekiro, but I gave up on wanting From to make a Metroidvania game. Instead I am interested in them because I think the combat looks more fun, the parrying with guns in Bloodborne seems much more interesting than in the Dark Souls combat that I have played, and the more poise based combat in Sekiro looks much more fun as well.

      As a side note though I did realize that most of the Metroidvania games I liked growing up had less to do with the Metroidvania aspects and more to do with feeling like other people are doing something in the world. This is a product of my first Metroidvanias being Aria of Sorrow, Kirby and the Amazing Mirror, and Metroid Fusion, which was admittedly more linear than most of the other Metroids. In both of these people other than you could be found around the place, whether it be the full cast of characters in AoS or the other Kirbies in Amazing Mirror the SA-X in Fusion, it made the world feel less static while you still got to explore it. The souls games did this as well and I think it is the strongest part of DS1 and most of what I remember in the second DLC of DS3, but since I didn’t have as much fun exploring them it didn’t feel like I was stumbling into these people that much, especially when I had to go back to prior levels to trigger them continuing their quest.

      1. Gurgl says:

        If you have yet to play Dark Souls 2, it’s not too late. While the world isn’t interconnected like you probably wish it to be, the individual regions are, and these regions are big.

        I found Dark Souls 1 to be the most striking example of perfect gameplay in terrible coating since Wizardry 8. Like most of the rest of the series, it feels like the in-universe lore is what caused the meta-game design to be mutilated: everything is dry and bland, and I get it, in-universe these places aren’t supposed to be beautiful or welcoming, but there is a point where you as a player will need to give a shit about exploring further and I spent half the game powering though major bland&drab fatigue. The only area that was good beyond discussion was Anor Londo, so good and well-designed in fact that it felt like the real game, with the other areas as clumsy cruft.

        It’s not like you could use the argument that Soulborne isn’t supposed to be a Disney ride to justify a dry world design: the world of Dark Souls 2 is still unmistakenly decrepit and bleak, and yet…

        Dark Souls 2 is so far ahead that DS1 feels like a first draft, I don’t care what the “press” says or what the “critical reception” is. The areas are extremely varied and many of them are stunning, to the point where the grandiose DLCs don’t even stand out since the base game is already so full of superb areas. I honestly cannot name a favourite area in DS2 because a dozen will pop to mind. The Anor Londo reveal, where you see a gorgeous place in the distance and end up walking there and exploring it thorougly, will happen half a dozen times. Even the bland&drab areas aren’t a bore this time, because they feel appropriate and make the game more varied and rounded, instead of exhausting and tedious.

        A lot could be said about enemy variety and design too, but I wouldn’t want to gush too long about it. Suffice to say, if in DS1 you often thought “why would I want to fight such ugly as fuck enemies in such ugly as fuck areas?”, then DS2 fixes that as well.

        If you are on board, the version you want is called “Scholar of the First Sin”: it’s Dark Souls 2 + all updates + all DLCs.

        1. Decius says:

          Really? You thought the setting and theme of Dark Souls detracted from the gameplay?

          I found quite the opposite; the bad controls, atrocious animations, and teleporting mechanics made it much harder for me to appreciate the artistic elements and story.

          1. Gurgl says:

            I do think several basic game mechanics suffer from an insistance that the game itself should be as unwelcoming and unfriendly as the in-universe setting. For example, grouping up in coop should be a UI-only zero-effort afterthought, not a obscure mess of restrictions, conditions and consumable items.

            In a similar manner, regarding the specific example I made above: I totally get that in-universe, the Dark Souls setting is not a place you want to be, but in Dark Souls 1, the world is so bland and ugly that as a player, I spent more than half the game thinking “wait a second… I really don’t care about this level”.

            Of course my opinion won’t magically fix your bad experience, but I can’t fault the controls or animations. There are combat engines I like more in terms of raw feel, but the DS controls are great as they are, and even then, let’s assume I get to pick another engine I like more. A Dark Souls remake in the War in the North engine wouldn’t have made the thing less boring. Easier to stomach on autopilot, sure, but I would still be tediously going through the motions, desperately hoping for an area I can give a shit about.

            And it’s interesting that War in the North is the example that sprang to my mind, because for how much I enjoyed it, it has the exact issue: the game frontloads with the two most boring levels imaginable (dull grey fortress and zombie graveyard) and only after Rivendell do you get the lush pastures, snowy peaks and eerie forests.

            In Dark Souls 2, you will most definitely not be going through the motions: you will always want to keep pushing forward and discover what the next area will be like. That’s the big improvement that it needed, and it delivered tenfold.

        2. Raven_Sloth says:

          That’s true, most of the complaints I heard around the time boil down it was different. From what I hear now it actually has a story rather than just lore thrown together, and it does seem more akin to a universe falling apart when the level placement doesn’t, make any logical sense. I do still have my hesitations though, as a few times in the DS3 dlc I remember these outfits that I really thought looked bad and my sis told me they where outfits from DS2 characters. I assume most of the outfits are better. Also I heard that most of the magical descriptions don’t have female magic users in them anymore which is an odd choice since pyromancy is held up as a witch thing in the other two games. Both of these however I only heard second hand, should probably just check the wiki. The major things stopping me are that scholar of the first sin has been described to me as made for people who already liked the game, different enemy placement, harder levels, ect, and I don’t know how to turn that off, and I don’t really want to send any money valve’s way anymore and it isn’t on gog. I could do humble bundle, but I don’t know where the money goes unless I wait for it to show up in a bundle. Until then I will just be happy with Hollowknight, which is the best experience I have had exploring in a game in a long time, and waiting for that to have a sequel.

  6. Jabberwok says:

    I like this article. Kind of wish it was a video, too…

    I wonder if some of the differences with Souls and Sekiro just have to do with From being a Japanese developer, and so not subject to the same set of expectations. In fact, my understanding is that Activision is only their publisher outside Japan, so maybe that would give them less influence over the development process?

    1. Christopher says:

      The Japanese aspect is probably a big part of it.

      I’ve taken to calling them “gamey games” as opposed to “unselfconscious games”, but I think the essense of those two descriptors seem pretty similar. It’s just about making a game to first and foremost be a game, without being ashamed about what makes the medium what it is. Different devs focus on different elements all over -cinematics, photorealistic graphics, strong art styles, stories, emotions, characters, systems, games as toys, games as experiences, there are different philosophies at every studio, universally. I find it difficult to define exactly what I mean by “gamey” as more than a general feeling.

      But I’d still say there’s a reason why I personally largely prefer Japanese games to American or European ones (and of the western ones I love, they’re often specifically influenced heavily by something Japanese, like Shovel Knight or Undertale), and it has to do with an overall tendency towards being “gamey”. Not letting realism stay in the way of a solid gameplay mechanic, not being embarrassed about decade-old tropes, crafting a system that can properly be played with and building a setting around that gameplay rather than the other way around. Not just aping whatever the current open world or roguelite or microtransaction trend is in the process, preferably, and not mimicking movies so much you just become a playable film.

      Souls isn’t lost in the past or anything, it’s got modern graphics that largely aren’t technically impressive but are still quite beautiful (maybe not dark souls 2, here), orchestras out the ass, various online innovations like the messages, online states of the world and seamless co-operative play. Ico, one of the “artsier” games out there, played a key part in inspiring Miyazaki to get into game development in the first place. But it’s still got a strong gameplay core largely unique to itself, it’s got a story that doesn’t intrude on that gameplay, it has that amazing level design and it’s set up like an old beat ’em up or metroidvania or whatever with different stages separated by a variety of mooks and boss fights. Atmospheric, in some ways modern, innovative, yes. But in many ways it’s a very traditional game, closer to toys than movies, as are most of the games I love.

      I dunno what specifically about the Japanese game dev scene makes it edge in this direction compared to others, but I’m glad it’s had a bit of a revival. I’ve been feeling pretty underservered by the big games getting all the praise, and it’s nice to see games like Sekiro, Resident Evil 2 or Devil May Cry 5 getting that positive reception. Even if I think Capcom’s titles needed super photorealistic face capture just to grab everyone’s attention.

      1. Christopher says:

        I tried looking for an interview I read a year or two ago where a dev who moved to Japan talked about the work differences from there and the US, but I haven’t been able to find it with cursory googling.
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3fmshKEz3E
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_j6ZHkg5BtE
        ^These are on topic, but hardly the same.

      2. ccesarano says:

        I was largely coming down to post similar thoughts, though with a caveat. Around 2006, those “gamey-game” Japanese titles weren’t selling as well as desired/predicted, and so next thing you know the Japanese industry is trying to create games in the Western style or outsource games to Western studios – particularly Capcom. What you have is the entirety of the Xbox 360 and PS3 generation a low-point for the Japanese games industry, where the higher budget titles were usually failing and the lower budget titles were specifically aimed towards an Otaku audience. Certainly you had some successes or cross-over, and Nintendo always gonna Nintendo, but I can see why a lot of people wouldn’t really think much of Japanese games during that time frame.

        I mean, some of the biggest Japanese games in the 90’s that got mainstream attention were Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid, both of which were heavily inspired by US media, took place in America, and were… “realistic”, as far as that term could go in the graphics department of the time. Final Fantasy VII was huge, but for as many people I knew that were drawn into the series by that title, I knew just as many that were like “What the heck is a Coo-coo-boo?” and didn’t even finish the game.

        Nevertheless, just reading old interviews with Sakaguchi, Yoshinori Kitase, and other 90’s Final Fantasy developers, you can see that they were always interested in portraying drama and other such things. I recently did a video on my YouTube channel where I remarked on the Opera in FF6, and how no one else in the industry was doing that in the mid-90’s. But that’s because there was no one stopping Square from trying out such ideas.

        The self-conscious angle of videogames is, to me, a purely Western thing, and I think that’s also why we have so many people impressed with games that imitate Hollywood cinematography. They have enough superficial understanding to understand it feels mature and grown-up, and therefore it is labeled as art. However, as someone that has played a variety of action games from Japan and experienced plenty of excellent stories within and without the games medium, I can say that God of War – which is what’s on my mind and yet I realize I never brought the title up – is a decent game, I enjoyed it, but it’s not great. The best content is all optional, and if you stick to the story…. well, the best way I can put it is if you stick to the story the gameplay is a lesser Darksiders while the story is obviously truncated in parts where they had to cut content and revise narrative to rush character development. I enjoyed the game and wish to replay it, but it is definitely over-rated.

        However, I also knew plenty of people that had a great time once they played it on Easy, and just like my feelings with Sekiro, that doesn’t actually fix the problems the game has.

        Anyway, same goes with my feelings on Last of Us. Okay game with good direction, but if it weren’t for the game’s ending completely recontextualizing the character dynamic between Joel and Ellie, the story would be bog standard post-apocalypse affair. And yet it’s viewed as this amazing piece representative of the quality of video games.

        Meanwhile, I played Devil May Cry 3 for the first time this January and February, and I was surprised to see this PS2 game from a series not quite known for its story filled with imagery and thematic motifs built around two brothers at war with each other. From sculptures in the environment to some of the enemies in the game, there’s a running theme and a generally surprisingly good story regarding selling your humanity for power. DMC5 wasn’t as good of a story, but it certainly built off of those ideas in a way that pay off for long-term fans.

        But that was a PS2 game, before anyone went to College and learned the term “mise-en-scene” from their Intro to Film class (like me!). Japan’s always been ahead of Western games in this department, but I think where things get muddled is that all the good stories in American video games were largely based around novels and D&D, not cinema and anime. That’s going to create a very different approach, and the audiences will thus develop different interpretations of good story-telling in video games.

        1. Cubic says:

          Anyway, same goes with my feelings on Last of Us. Okay game with good direction, but if it weren’t for the game’s ending completely recontextualizing the character dynamic between Joel and Ellie, the story would be bog standard post-apocalypse affair. And yet it’s viewed as this amazing piece representative of the quality of video games.

          Was it wrong of me to do the finale like?

          And that … was the Last of Them. (puts on sunglasses)

          OHHHHH YYYEEEAAAAHH

  7. JDMM says:

    My understanding of games being art is that a game will be art when there exists a game such that if a total outsider came in and asked ‘why, why, why’ they could be answered with things that tied back to thematic intent. Half-Life would likely fail when the question of ‘why aliens and black ops’ would be answered with ‘because they’re cool enemies I ‘spose’, Planescape Torment or KotOR II would likely fail when the question of ‘why kill enemies’ was answered with ‘because that’s what’s done in the mechanics of D&D’s’ as why should that matter to our hypothetical outsider. My understanding is the closest any game has gotten has been Shadows of the Colossus

    Lots of games that grapple with being art or that people write about art instead fall into either esoteric questions that only interest those already invested into the medium or personal experience games that more slot more involving narratives into genres we already know, subversion of expectations. Like if I don’t care about the endless questions of constrained and unconstrained freedom that game engines can offer me what does Stanley Parable actually give me? And if I go and play (for sake of example) Firewatch without preconceived notions of what sort of game it is do I get anything out of that? As is most walking simulators remind me of 80’s era Chris Claremont, they rely on good writing and characterization to overcome the initial suspension of disbelief but if my hypothetical outsider came along and asked ‘but why superheroes/an exploratory world to tell this particular story’ you’d sort of not be able to answer that regardless of the quality of the product

    With that all said From Software games do not strike me as attempts to be ‘true art’, going to film I’d liken them more to the John Wick series than a Kubrick of PTA production. Having a laser focus an outsider would get answers but they’d be along the lines of ‘because Ninja Gaiden (NES) was the greatest game ever when I was 7 and I wanted to remake that vibe’ than say ‘it’s my own personal grappling with the philosophy of the absurd by Albert Camus’

    1. tmtvl says:

      Trying to define art is a rabbit hole that leads to the furthest depths of the Earth. Think of Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Tomato Juice Box,” for instance. If that’s art, why can’t SMB be art?

      Artists in other media are constantly trying to test the boundaries of their fields, so there’s no need for us to be so concerned about what is and isn’t art in gamess.

      1. Cubic says:

        Better to shrug and say whatever, it’s not art.

    2. Syal says:

      That definition seems too restrictive; “Why is Mona Lisa smiling” is an unanswered question, so that definition would rule out the Mona Lisa.

    3. Decius says:

      Games will have to reach a threshold that movies did not? That’s a bold prediction.

  8. Carlos García says:

    Art is mass entertainment after it’s aged enough so snobs can point at its old publishing date. – Myself.

    I can’t find the gag from Les Luthiers in which Daniel Rabinovich speaks about a poems book and he finishes «this is my favourite. Ooooh, this poem is the best, it sends me to heaven. It is a sonet, oh so excellent, I love it. “Finished printing in Main Avenue, Buenos Aires, 1874″»

    1. Gurgl says:

      That’s an old pet peeve of mine too. Many old media (songs, TV shows, movies, video games, books, anything) that are fetishized by the general public turn out to be pretty terrible when you see them without knowing beforehand that what you are seeing is supposed to be a holy cow. Discussions around their respective fields are often harmstrung by a very common phenomenon: “careful, someone namedropped an untouchable classic, I better make sure I don’t accidentally trashtalk it or I will lose the debate by default”.

      A game isn’t magically good just because you played it when you had a full head of hair.

      1. Sleeping Dragon says:

        Back when I was studying English Lit my professor, who specialised in the middle ages, said she’d often get students who were very into Arthurian legends and she’d often see three stages of that interest:
        -OMG I love everything about king Arthur, I’ve named my cat Lancelot, I’ve watched every episode of Merlin twice;
        -I no longer like all that stuff, I’ve read THE REAL stories about king Arthur now, I’m going to inform everyone I’ve talked about this before how wrong all those modern, pop culture stuff is;
        -I’ve come to realise that pretty much all the “real” Arthurian literature we have is either political/religious propaganda or ye olde fanfiction…

        1. Cubic says:

          It was because your professor systematically killed everything the students liked about Arthur.

  9. BlueHorus says:

    Game of Thrones premieres tomorrow and I plan on writing at least partially fulmination-free coverage of it.

    YEEEAAAAAHHHH!

    Now I get to know what happens without a) paying HBO or b) watching the damned show myself.

    Looking forward to it.

    1. Karma The Alligator says:

      Same, I was hoping we’d get something like that for the final season ever since I learnt it would air soon. Really looking forward to it.

      1. Sleeping Dragon says:

        Ditto. I honestly think I find Bob’s description of the episodes more interesting than I would have found the episodes themselves.

  10. Moss says:

    I love your writing Bob. Thank you for making this.

    1. Christopher says:

      Yeah, same here. This post won’t get as many comments as that last one ’cause we aren’t arguing over difficulty, but that doesn’t mean we appreciate it any less.

  11. Zaxares says:

    I have a very broad definition of art. “Art is any man-made object or media that induces a profound emotional reaction in the viewer or user.” It is therefore also entirely possible to have art that was never intended to be “art” by its creator at all.

    1. Geebs says:

      I think I would say “communicates” rather than “induces”. By your current definition, the Ford EcoSport and Starbucks’ coffee qualify as art, because my feelings about them are definitely profound.

  12. Abnaxis says:

    Kinda just putting this out there, but how often have difficulty sliders actually been useful? For my own experience, the games I absolutely love the most (not necessarily hard, this would include things like Zelda) don’t have optional difficulty settings, and any time I’ve tried customization settings that exist in a game I always switch back because it either ruined the game in unforseen ways (e.g. Nier: Automata) or it had no real effect on what I was having trouble with (e.g. Divinity: Original Sin 2).

    Note that I’m not saying games should all be HARD (though I don’t personally mind it) but that it seems like designers do a better job if they have one set of stats to tune their game around. As soon as you mess with that balance everything goes to shit, so why bother dumping Dev resources into making it an option?

    1. Echo Tango says:

      The slowdown mechanic in Celest requires minimal effort, but works very well as a general-purpose difficulty setting. Carefully-balanced named difficulty modes are by contrast, high-effort and of limited effectiveness. The answer to putting too many resources into adding different difficulty settings isn’t to throw out all efforts, but to find more effective ways of putting those difficulty settings into games, that have higher impact.

    2. Syal says:

      I generally wish more JRPGs had higher difficulties (although Trails in the Sky did and it was unfun). Tales of Berseria is better for having higher difficulties, even though they’re mostly the lazy “raise everything’s levels and stats”. I liked it in the Banner Saga, where apart from its bosses Hard Mode seemed like the intended experience but then Normal Mode makes a nice break when you want to just win every fight.

      For lower difficulties I’ve appreciated, I mainly think of Crimzon Clover, with both level difficulty options and letting players set the lives counter between 1 and 5. And I played System Shock 1 when I was young and bad at games and the “enemies won’t attack” option meant I made it past the first room.

      Then Torchlight 2 has higher difficulty settings that I’ve become addicted to but can’t really make any progress on, so… maybe a wash.

    3. shoeboxjeddy says:

      I think difficulty sliders are great. Legendary or Insanity difficulty modes in Halo or Gears are obnoxious for a first playthrough. They’d ruin the game if you started them on that setting, imo. However, as an addition to add replay value or to make co-op actually put up a fight, they’re great and valuable. Same thing with New Game + for an RPG. A normal playthrough where your character gains power the whole game is fun. Also great fun is a followup playthrough with your max power character with the game fighting back at full strength. I cleared all the Mass Effect games on the setting above Normal on the first playthrough and then the max setting on New Game +. The toughest setting makes you approach fights and your powers differently, which makes it interesting.

  13. John says:

    I think that there are some very important, non-retro, non-nostalgia reasons for a game to have pixel- or otherwise non-realistic art. The foremost of these is that it reminds the player that he is playing a game. In games with realistic-ish graphics, I have often been dissatisfied with my avatar’s inability to, say, climb over waist-high fences. In pixel-graphics games I have never questioned it. It generally doesn’t even occur to me to question it because I’m playing a game and that’s just how the game works. Realism is a trap for game developers.

    1. Geebs says:

      I’ve always wondered whether that frustration is a cultural one; Japanese games never seemed to get the message that invisible walls and being unable to just walk around bits of scenery might be frustrating, which makes me wonder if it’s just that nobody ever complained to the devs about it. Dark Souls 2 is famous for a particularly egregious example.

      It used to annoy the hell out of me, I often couldn’t tell where I was supposed to go because the logical route was blocked by literally nothing. These days I just think “what would a Japanese level designer do” and am less irked.

      1. Christopher says:

        With Dark Souls 2 in specific, I think the reason for all shortcomings is always gonna be dev hell. “We didn’t want to put some rubble here and call it a day. But we were dying and wanted to go home.”

        Nier Automata sure rubs me up the invisible wall tho. All those open routes through buildings that aren’t actually open.

    2. Echo Tango says:

      Dude, you forgot the obligatory link when you’re talking about photorealism being a fool’s goal.

      1. RFS-81 says:

        Hey, I have an excuse to link one of my favorite blog posts about video games again: Graphical fidelity is ruining video games

  14. Rack says:

    One of the things that angers me most about the difficulty “debate” is the insistence that From games have nothing going for them but their difficulty. Where is that even coming from?

    1. shoeboxjeddy says:

      It’s the logical end point of “if you change the difficulty, the value of playing the game is entirely lost.”

    2. Vinsomer says:

      I mean, I’ve made the argument that the difficulty is an inalienable part of the game’s themes, but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing else in the games. Just that the difficulty is what ties everything together. It’s the cornerstone of the game, not the only stone.

      I think the Souls games are best compared to horror games. Sure, there’s more to horror games like Silent Hill than just being scary. If they were just about being scary and nothing else, then they’d probably just be one of those exploitative jump-scare flash games we tricked our younger siblings into playing, just as Souls games would be those troll difficulty games like Unfair Mario.

      But being scary is so important to a game like Silent Hill that if you were to make a version of the game that wasn’t scary, it’d be so difficult to enjoy the other parts of the game without that unifying factor,

  15. PPX14 says:

    Ah level design. It does seem such a shame that it seems to have been often succeeded by “cinematic storytelling” rather than supplemented.

  16. PPX14 says:

    That navigable vista in the first image makes me think of Star Wars Bounty Hunter – it did a good job of making the environments feel quite big.

  17. Alberek says:

    You are not alone Shamus, I have been calling “soulsborne” games as 3D metroidvanias from the days of Dark Souls I.
    It’s just that it took a while to make good 3D maps to explore in such fashion. Of course you had older games that might fill the bill… Soul Reaver had some interesting levels (although it was more like a Zelda game, with different “power ups”).
    Does anyone have some better examples pre-DemonSouls??

  18. EwgB says:

    What got me onto the Souls games was the channel PlayFrame (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-7oMv6E4Uz2tF51w5Sj49w), formerly ExtraPlay. It was a spin-off of the Extra Credits channel, but I believe Dan Floyd went separate ways with Extra Credits after the recently uncovered unfortunate events. He did a series on Dark Souls 1, 2 and 3, and another one on Dark Souls 1 Remastered, but in co-op mode with his buddy Dan Jones. Currently he is doing one on Demon Souls (with Dan Jones playing, and Dan Floyd commenting), and one on Sekiro. Since they both work in the gaming industry (I believe they are animators), the comments are often quite thoughtful, when they are not silly. :-)

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