Free Write Week 1: Sekiro and the Soulsborne Series
If you were to follow me on Twitter, you would know, possibly via memes, that I am quite the avid fan of video games. In particular, games from the developer FromSoftware are where my favor typically lies. While they’ve been making games for decades now, e.g. the Armored Core series, the King’s Field series, and a few Tenchu games, what made them popular in the West, being a Japanese developer, was the Sony/Atlus produced game Demon’s Souls in 2009.
I first heard about Demon’s Souls in Edge Magazine sometime in 2008. It sounded exciting and intriguing: a game set in a world of medieval fantasy, with knights, sorcerers, and demons. It had asynchronous multiplayer, complex npc quest lines, item description-based story telling, with minimal cutscenes. Unfortunately, I missed Demon’s Souls when it released in 2009; instead picking up Killzone 2, set in a gritty war-time future, through the lens of an fps. However, my biggest miss of all was in late 2011, with the month apart releases of Skyrim in November, and the month prior seeing the launch of Dark Souls, the spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls
Because of almost every gamer at the time playing and investing hundreds of hours into Skyrim, myself included, I missed the hype surrounding Dark Souls. But I did hear about the tremendous difficulty of gameplay, and the game’s mechanics in general. It wasn’t until a year later that the idea of playing a difficult game like Dark Souls truly crossed my mind. Skyrim was just too easy for me. It wasn’t just the difficulty in gameplay though, it was the entire structure of the game. After hitting the level cap, a player has so many perks unlocked and skills gained, that enemy encounters become trivial, even at the highest level of difficulty. Moreover, it’s almost impossible to not either be good at the game or have the smoothest experience playing. Quest lines tell you exactly where you need to go, what npc to talk to, and where and what item you need to progress through the story. Everything you require or need to know is handed to you, right from the beginning of the game. The story is basically told to you, rather than experiencing it in an immersive way. Now, there may be a lot of gamers out there who enjoy that, being all that they may want. After all, there are so many games now that are basically films, with sparse moment to moment gameplay and movie-like cutscenes. Dark Souls is an entirely different beast.
If you’re not a gamer, or don’t follow the trends found within the Souls community, the first thing that you’ll most likely find is the memefication of the phrase ‘get good,’ stylized as git gud. While it has become a tired meme, it symbolizes the design philosophy that FromSoftware implements into their games. The Souls game largely take inspiration not just from Western medieval fantasy, but from the retro games found within the Nintendo, Super Nintendo, and PlayStation 1 era: few to zero cutscenes with limited dialogue, obscure translations from the Japanese language to English, a lack of mini-maps or guide to how to explore the world, environmental storytelling, and complex level design that often loop back onto themselves. This style can be found in the likes of the myriad Metroidvania style games from the 1990’s all the way up to today, where retro games are arguably more popular now. But Dark Souls changed things. Yes, many people’s first experience into the Souls games was Demon’s Souls, but like myself, I suspect that much more people’s first foray into the Souls experience was through its spiritual successor. While Souls certainly occupies a niche market, Dark Souls has grown in such popularity that it has infected almost every level of the gaming community; both online and from a developer perspective.
While the makings of specific retro design choices have occupied the minds of developers for decades, it wasn’t until Dark Souls that Souls became a new design philosophy. Developers and individual creators alike cite Souls in reference as part of their core design process. The implementation of multiplayer could feature a ‘Souls-style’ asynchronicity to it, a game could feature at least one, but possibly more Dark Souls easter eggs, or it could just feature incredibly difficult gameplay; which of course led to the now tired and tragically ironic meme of “the Dark Souls of insert-hard/difficult-thing-here.” Moreover, one of the essential design philosophies that these Japanese developers bring to their games is the concept of suffering, from the Buddhist tradition. I’d like to explore this idea further in a later essay, so keep an eye out for that. But when looking for the everlasting reach and inspiration the Souls games have on the gaming and development community is the litany of ‘Souls-clones’ found out in the wild.
All one has to do is look to examples like that of Lords of the Fallen, Salt & Sanctuary, Hollow Knight, Shovel Knight, Hyper Light Drifter, The Surge, Nioh, Titan Souls, DarkMaus, and Code Vein; the list grows every year. Most of the games are incredibly popular, rightfully so, as some of them on this list I enjoy quite well. However, none of them quite do justice to the formula that FromSoft has continued to improve upon. Even the much criticized Dark Sous II, feels much more like Souls than does something like Lords of the Fallen. The ending of the trilogy, Dark Souls 3, basically perfects the formula, as it takes the series to its most logical conclusion. The problem here, though, is also where the best things come from in this series, and that is its series creator, Hidetaka Miyazaki.
While they are obviously a concentrated and cooperative effort, Miyazaki-san’s design and storytelling choices are often credited as being the bread-and-butter of what make a Souls game tick. Dark Souls is often considered a ‘flawed masterpiece,’ a near perfect, but cracked diamond. The PS4 exclusive Bloodborne, is also considered in a similar vein, at least to my eyes. Directed by Miyazaki-san, now found in a Gothic/Victorian and Lovecraftian horror setting, Bloodborne was a logical extension for the Souls formula. It took everything that you learned from Dark Souls, and virtually scrapped it. The same core mechanics remained: i.e. kill enemies to gain experience (Blood Echoes) and level up your stats, face down horrifying and challenging bosses, upgrade your weapons to the point of being overpowered, get up close and personal with obscure npc’s and quest lines, that often take multiple playthroughs to complete, all the while having beautiful orchestral scores played in the background. What it did differently, was to take away the ability to play defensively, as shields were practically useless in the game, and instead incentivized a more aggressive style of play. With the introduction of the ‘regain’ system, every time you took a hit to your HP, there would be a few second window to attack and regain some of those lost health points. There was also a complete change in dress of the character as well, being in a closer to modern setting, there was no plated armor to be found in the game (with one exception), so the speed at which the player could move was dramatically increased. Instead of strafing around an enemy, dodging toward and around them became much more useful, including the implementation of a quick, side-step dodge. No other game compared to the feeling of Bloodborne. A few games got close, Nier: Automata comes to mind, just as far as actual gameplay goes. But there was nothing quite like the feeling of overcoming the odds like the ones Bloodborne through at the player. Last time I checked, I had clocked in just over 300 hours on one player character. This all changed, however, with the recent release of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
As the latest outing from FromSoft, and helmed by Miyazaki-san, the March 2019 release of Sekiro, changes the formula in such a way that is nearly revolutionary. While I am only about 30 hours in (school, work, and parenthood severely effect my playtime), I am starting to see just how exemplary of a game FromSoft has crafted. Instead of Sekiro, FromSoft fans could have received Bloodborne II. While I am sure it would most likely be a great game, and will probably happen regardless, I just don’t think we need it. Miyazaki directed a great game, with a complete story. Sometimes, great games do not need to become franchises. They can exist as singular IP’s and be something that that players come back to year after year; much like the Return to Yharnam annual event. Miyazaki works best with new IP’s, and Sekiro is nothing different. In fact, he took a more hands-off approach for development this time around, letting the other developers take inspiration from his overall design strategy and writing, crafting a beautiful rendition of Sengoku-era Japan.
The beauty of Japan shines through in Sekiro. It’s level design is a unique take on just a small snippet of landmass, taking place on the outskirts of and within a medieval Japanese castle, belonging to the historical Ashina clan. What is important to note here, however, is the specific design choices FromSoft makes to further subvert our expectations. Because of the nature of the games market, Sekiro is invariably being compared to Nioh and it’s upcoming sequel, and the upcoming Ghost of Tsushima, all three taking place in a feudal Japan. In my opinion, that is where the similarities will end. Sekiro does two things: 1) for new players, they are introduced to a much more accessible game than the others found in the Souls roster, with hints and tips popping up every time a new item or skill is unlocked, the tutorial is much more forgiving, and they’ve added an npc to train in combat with; and 2) for Souls veterans, almost every skill learned must be unlearned, creating a steep difficulty curve to weed out players and their older muscle memory. I must admit, I am having a very difficult time with Sekiro, even though I’ve gone through all of the Souls games except Demon’s. But even I know that the game isn’t necessarily difficult, more so that it is attempting to teach you how to play in a very specific way, while at the same time also attempting to get the player to release how passive other games truly are. In most modern games, there are so many systems underlying the gameplay that you are either unaware of, or that just make the game that much more easy to complete a sequence of events, in order to finish it. Of course, in both Sekiro and the Soulsborne games, there are systems at play that may be unaware to the player, but the point is that FromSoft wants you to figure them out, to both make you more skilled at their game, but a better game in general. Herein lies the problem, FromSoftware has virtually ruined other games for me.
Because of the challenge presented in games like Sekiro, overcoming those challenges is incredibly rewarding; and not just for the game’s sake. I personally feel a sense of accomplishment and vigor after defeating a boss like Ornstein and Smough, Lady Maria of the Astral Clocktower, or Genichiro Ashina. This feeling leads me to search for this in other games. Don’t get me wrong, I love many other games. I recently was having fun playing Metro: Exodus, an fps set in a post-apocalyptic Russia, with an emphasis on survival. It’s a AA game that arguably performs better overall than Fallout 4, and especially Fallout 76. But there are other games as well that I try to sink my teeth into and am just left feeling hungry. The last two Assassin’s Creed games are great examples. Origins totally revamped the formula in to AC that was desperately needed. Making the long requested setting of ancient Egypt a reality was a smart choice and a treat. They focused on heavy Western RPG elements with the ‘looter-shooter’ mentality of how gear and weapons are acquired in games like Destiny and The Division. It was off to a good start, but it began to feel repetitive in the mid- to late-game. Odyssey, the sequel, felt more of the same, unfortunately. After sinking about 30 hours into my save file, I began skipping cutscenes and dialogue, I basically stopped paying attention to the numbers and stats, just what would kill things fastest, and I ultimately gave up on caring about the story. Granted, Ubisoft has added in certain challenge bosses to the game since release, and some of the enemy encounters can be genuinely tough, but overall the game feels empty; vacuous.
This is why having meaningful experiences in gaming is important. I won’t write too much longer for the day, but I’d like to stress just how important it is, especially as games evolve, but as players evolve also. When I was a young buck, with little responsibility, I used to get my hands on every new AAA game. I wanted absolute freedom, and to be able to spend hundreds of hours in a game, pouring over its content with a fine-tooth comb and soaking it all in. But as I get older, I don’t desire the same things anymore. With so many other meaningful things in my life like, parenthood, marriage, education, and writing this very blog, the amount of material things I can consume are very little, so it damn well be meaningful.
See you tomorrow.