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.
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.
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 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.
 The voluminous attributes of the Souls series have been condensed down into what are essentially “damage” and “health.”
 An NPC in the hub area volunteers himself as your training partner and explains various game mechanics to you.
 Predictably, some people are in fact calling them that, but not as many as usual.
 My understanding is that the subtitle “Shadows Die Twice” was added at Activision’s request.
 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?
I'm a very casual fan of the series, but I gave Civilization VI a look to see what was up with this nuclear war simulator.
Deus Ex and The Treachery of Labels
Deus Ex Mankind Divided was a clumsy, tone-deaf allegory that thought it was clever, and it managed to annoy people of all political stripes.
The Biggest Game Ever
How did this niche racing game make a gameworld so massive, and why is that a big deal?
In Defense of Crunch
Crunch-mode game development isn't good, but sometimes it happens for good reasons.
Batman: Arkham City
A look back at one of my favorite games. The gameplay was stellar, but the underlying story was clumsy and oddly constructed.