Op-Ed: “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice,” and Self-Conflict Within the Games Industry

As of my writing this, the much-anticipated, rave-reviewed “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice,” the first new IP from lauded game studio “FromSoftware” since “Bloodborne” in 2014, has been out for three days. FromSoftware is known for their “Dark Souls” trilogy of games, as well as its more aggressive and visceral Lovecraftian-horror sibling, the PS4 exclusive “Bloodborne.” With Sekiro, FromSoftware is taking some of its biggest liberties, and making some of its biggest changes, to its established “unforgiving action-RPG” formula thus far.

Always known for their difficulty, FromSoft games have always been intentionally made to punish overzealous play, and force players to make their every deliberate move count, with sword and weapon swings having pixel-perfect arcs and hitboxes: one hair off your target, one misjudgement of your swing, and your slash whiffs through thin air.

Every game’s dodge has previously been given a lot of flexibility/fluidity of movement, but the dodge itself has a very specific portion of it that totally evades damage (dubbed “iframes,” with “i” standing for “invincibility), and the rest is as unsafe as standing still; the game asks that you learn where and exactly when to dodge to avoid taking the hit: it’s a learning curve. All of this riding upon a stamina meter that will encumber you and likely get you hurt or killed for running the meter down by spamming too many dodges or heavy hits.

You add design choices like this together and end up with what can be a brutal action game experience, rife with constant deaths and trial-and-error. My first time playing Bloodborne, I spent something like four hours walking the same bloody London-esque streets of the first area of the game, dying time and time again. However, with each next venture out into what seemed like certain death, I was learning from every mistake, but typically made another mistake to learn from. The key here is that the unforgiving nature of the game to me as a player forced me to become better at the game; to this day I’ll likely never forget the muscle memory necessary to succeed in a fight in Bloodborne. Dark Souls is very much similar, but with even more deliberation involved, whereas Bloodborne promotes aggressive play and counterplay.

So all this considered, what does “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” do to deviate from its predecessors? How does it still retain what made the previous games great? It does something that could only be done by the studio who created the SoulsBorne genre itself; it keeps the deliberate combat and movement intact without a stamina meter, and remains difficult and demanding of players, while giving them more freedom than ever. Jumping is a part of the game, as is scaling and climbing; grappling onto ledges, into foes, and between buildings adds movement variety and verticality; boss and strong enemy health bars are inflated more than ever, offsetting how rapidly you can unload and receive attacks, forcing battles into hypertensive struggles between your unrelenting offense, and your foe’s. Furthermore, the hallmark gorgeous scenery and impressive graphical/animation fidelity of FromSoft games is at its peak in this new game.

Its praises sung, however, Sekiro lacks one staple that every prior FromSoft game has possessed: online multiplayer. Whether it be teaming up for co-op with a friend or two against the fantasy horrors of Dark Souls or Bloodborne, or invading/being invaded, engaging in intense player vs. player (PvP) combat, multiplayer was a core feature of SoulsBorne titles. So why eschew it here, and what does this mean in a greater “games industry” context?

Well, it plays right into Sekiro’s surprisingly-satisfying theme of deviating from conventional FromSoft games’ design languages. In order to give players the fast and liberating gameplay on offer in Sekiro, the game had to be designed without PvP in mind when designing the open-world, and without balancing abilities for PvP in mind. To get the fresh, well-received new take on FromSoft’s variety of action-RPG, it took sacrificing the multiplayer, the online functionality, and the player-vs-player combat. This is not only a departure from the rest of the archetype of game FromSoft pioneered, but the games industry at large.

In 2019, it would appear as though so much of the games industry has its eggs firmly placed in the basket of “multiplayer live-service games,” hoping to ride the coattails of success stories like “Fortnite,” and even “Destiny.” Even if a game isn’t full-on online-centric, it can be rare to find developers outside of Nintendo and Sony (and their close affiliates) willing to invest in single-player, high-production-value experiences, which also aptly describes the SoulsBorne game. (Ironically, Bloodborne itself was in fact a cooperation between Sony Japan’s in-house software team and FromSoft.) More and more it seems as though developers are more inclined or pressured to create online-only games, with constant or near-constant multiplayer, and a plethora of added monetization and purchases available for players to make.

Seeing a game like Sekiro rising to the level of “the biggest launch on ‘Steam’ (PC gaming’s premiere games storefront) so far in 2019,” according to several news outlets, marks a deviation from an perceived norm within the industry. While single-player games are by no means unsuccessful or without praise, an industry paranoia seems associated around releasing a game with little-to-no multiplayer or online. It’s as though many developers/studios/execs don’t expect games like this to succeed these days, and in fact many such people have expressed just this in interviews and columns since as far back as before the 2010’s.

So if there’s any takeaway from Sekiro’s early, ongoing success for those interested in the games industry, it’s that this game serves as the antidote to an otherwise-rampant case of industry excess. Excessive emphasis on online games and multiplayer even where it isn’t necessary or adds little substance; excessive investment into money-making schemes in online “live service” games which so often backfire or drag a studio/publisher’s name through the mud; excessive fear-mongering around the “financial unviability” and “unsatisfactory” nature of single-player only games.

As such, while industry excess shows no sign of stopping until the bubble bursts on such practices, Sekiro stands as a pillar early into 2019 that the language of excess among big game publishers is not the only means of making a successful high-quality game in 2019. CEOs and higher-ups of these publishers issue statements addressing concerns about these practices which regularly lack substance, not unlike many of the paper-thin games they push devs. to release; yet somehow, in spite of the reception of those games and practices, they act as though the bottom will never fall out on their dubious business practices. In all honesty, it’s truly baffling to watch as an avid fan of the games industry and the work it produces.

Gaming is going strong still in 2019 in spite of any aforementioned chicanery, but Sekiro is just one more of many recent shining examples of resisting an unsavory industry trend, and I think we can all appreciate that.