header is screenshot from Sekiro
There’s Hard and There’s Hard
Ed Smith

I wrote last month about how various, entrenched videogamisms make feeling and witnessing gracefulness in Anthem impossible. With regards to playing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, I’m inclined now to think the same way about the concept of simplicity. The premise of Sekiro, boiled down to its essentials on the game’s Wikipedia page, which lists “fewer RPG elements” and “no multiplayer” among the mechanical changes that differentiate it from Dark Souls and Bloodborne—my memories of which, particularly the former, are fond owing to its sparse, symbolic narrative and straightforward combat (the scenarios are progressively imaginative, but in order to survive them you only ever have to either block, dodge, or hit)—seems invariably compromised by these assorted kinds of skin defects that it’s inherited from videogames generally, the meters, gauges, customisables and bars that are strewn across it like acne—or rather “Dragonrot,” to keep the references in-house.

As is often the case, especially in relation to videogames, perhaps my expectations for Sekiro prior to its release were inaccurate. When I read that the combat would involve grinding down an enemy’s “poise,” and that the majority of opponents, rather than possessing health bars and damage and health stats, would be conquerable with a single well-placed-and-timed sword blow, I imagined slow, cerebral, and minimalistic encounters, me and my foe pacing around one another, anticipating subtle drops of our guards, and mimes telegraphing our incoming attacks, à la fencing, or something out of a balletic, choreographed wuxia film. Now I think about it, it’s absurd to expect simple-to-learn, difficult-to-master mechanics and taciturn visual elegance from a game with a subtitle as grandiose as Shadows Die Twice. The fact I don’t like this game (and if it were a lot easier, I still wouldn’t) is a result of my misinterpreting its ambitions. I thought it was going to try and do a lot of things very differently. Rather, it’s doing all the same things that many other videogames do, but just doing them all much, much better.

Apart from the combat which I think is authentically tedious. I reckon that I understand the hopes behind how Sekiro‘s fights are supposed to feel: long, difficult, and precipitous, they’re intended as skill and endurance tests, the masochism and ability required to complete them emphasising the devotion that the protagonist Wolf has towards his master, and his personal code of honour. The way each player death worsens the game world around her, increasingly afflicting non-playable characters with the aforementioned terminal malady Dragonrot, can act as a metaphor for how conflict consumes societies. Wheezing, coughing, and dying very slowly, although I might be reaching, it seems fitting the way that Dragonrot manifests as “consumptive.” But this makes Sekiro‘s battles sound dramatic and emotional; it makes them seem charged. And perhaps they are in theory, or on post-game reflection, but in action, they’re bland, videogamic exercises in reflexes and memory.

The game isn’t difficult so much as it only really demands of me one thing, which is my patience over and over again. Save for a few bosses—and even they, now that I’ve played and completed four other From Software titles, don’t seem especially unique—especially in its opening sections, wherein any Sekiro player is likely to suffer the majority of her deaths and resurrections, and thus spend a disproportionate amount of time, the game is visually repetitive, not just in terms of the muted, Bloodborne/The Last of Us/Shadow of the Colossus palette, but also in its minuscule number of execution animations and overbearing on-screen displays, which in combination with the game’s fussy poise system demands that you stare at it more than anything else when you’re fighting. Incurring a wound produces a minor, ineffectual splash, like the sound of water hitting a tile floor, and the swords, especially those belonging to Wolf and the numerous (too numerous to feel threatening) base enemies feel light and safe, their blades colliding off one another with a dull stock sound effect—like those ugly little hit signifying X shapes that are in every shooter now, I swear this is the reason Sekiro’s sword fights contain so many sparks, to compensate for the feeble audio. And the plot’s delivered with the coyness, and reliance on audience curiosity and participation, that once made Demon’s Souls interesting but now, ten years later, reads like a bored and crowd-pleasing adherence to style, same as how, after Modern Warfare, every Call of Duty game would kill off a major playable character, or after Far Cry 3, every Far Cry game would feature a psychedelic pseudo-horror level—personal style ought to prevail, but From’s style of narrative is so uniform across all of its games that it’s beginning to feel like a feature, and a mark of product consistency and quality assurance. Like all of From’s games Sekiro can be as deep or shallow as you want it to be. There is a challenge, arguably, to your imagination and willingness to engage with and narrativise its world, but it’s a challenge you’re free to ignore.

The definition of a difficult book is one that calls on your intellect, your experience and your emotions to understand and appreciate it, as well as your resilience. Likewise difficult films and theatre. Sekiro doesn’t challenge the eyes, the ears, or the soul, or at least, if it does, for you or for anyone else, I’d argue it does this a lot less often and with much lesser effect than when it challenges your skills you’ve developed from playing videogames. Physically, phalangically, it’s very difficult, but it’s not exactly tough on your feelings—if it is, it’s usually tough on only one: your patience. I’d say it’s a difficult game but I wouldn’t say it’s difficult.

Ed Smith contributes to Edge, Rolling Stone, Paste, GamesTM, and PCGamesN.