Sekiro: Shadow’s Die Non-F*ckingStop

I’ve been playing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice a lot this week. As a huge FromSoftware fan, it is a game I’ve been looking forward to for months. Recently, I’ve seen a fair amount of discourse around whether or not the game needs an “easy mode.” No bones about it folks, Sekiro needs an easy mode.

Or, at least, options that make the game more accessible to a wider variety of players.

I am saying this as someone who has beaten both Dark Souls 3 and Bloodborne within the past year, so don’t think I don’t appreciate a challenge. The attitude of players who believe that having any sort of help system somehow cheapens the experience is misguided. First I would say, the way somebody else chooses to play a single player game has absolutely no effect on your personal experience. If you want to plunge into the game without utilizing any sort of assist system as the “developers intended,” you should feel free to do so. Secondly, I disagree with the argument that gaining experience through prolonged play is enough for anyone to beat the game. You can learn the best patterns and routes to take out enemies but when you reach bosses there is always a degree of chance and a spike in difficulty that could absolutely bar progression for certain players. If you are able to beat bosses with relative ease, great. Experience the game how you choose and allow other people to experience it in a way that is more accessible to them.

But let’s examine this concept of developer intent. I think we should be very careful about assumptions surrounding the developers’ intent. If we aren’t careful we would assume every aspect of a game and its effect on its players was all part of some grand scheme on the part of the developer. The reality is a game can, and often does, have effects and outcomes that were never a part of the creator’s intent. I have seen FromSoftware’s games have a very negative effect on player emotions beyond simple stress and frustration. Losing to the same boss 30 times can be humiliating. It isn’t fun. And if it is a game that you want to continue progressing in, it can be extremely upsetting. In the case of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, I highly doubt the intent of the developer was to make the game so prohibitively difficult that even people who enjoy challenges pack up their bags feeling discouraged; and yet this is the experience of many people who have played it. Ian Hamilton has been tweeting some really useful information about accessibility and game design. In the tweets below he is disputing the oft repeated notion that the point of Sekiro was for it to be punishingly difficult.

The second tweet is referencing how FromSoftware game director Hidetaka Miyazaki has stated in interviews that his goals with From games is not sheer difficulty but a sense of accomplishment, and how he is saddened by the fact that people turn away from Souls games because they feel they are too difficult. We can safely assume then, that so many people being deterred from Sekiro due to difficulty is an outcome not 100% in accord with its developer’s intent. We can also state beyond reasonable doubt that the developers failed in their intent to have an un-fragmented community. Just look at Twitter. The community is quite passionately split right now over this issue of the game needing an “easy mode.”

So the point of playing a game like Sekiro is to learn the threats of the enemies and the environment and experience the reward of overcoming them. Similar to other From games. I’d like to take the conversation further by stating I think From Software has a potential audience beyond players they initially consider as their consumer base. When I first picked up a Dark Souls game (Dark Souls 2) I had absolutely no desire to prove anything to myself by playing an extremely difficult game. I was warned, but I had seen screen captures of the environments and characters, and finding them both grotesque and extraordinarily beautiful, I wanted to explore these worlds myself. It is the only thing that kept me coming back to the game when I would quit in frustration. I was obsessed with the environments, and that desire to see all the world had to offer was enough to keep me coming back. But wasn’t that extremely rewarding? Didn’t I feel very fulfilled when I made it to the end? Eh.

Dark Souls 3. I mean who could resist FromSoftware’s worlds?

It is because of this personal experience that I feel very sympathetic towards anyone who wants to play a From game but finds them prohibitively difficult. There are any number of reasons that advancing in a game like Sekiro might not be feasible for a player. Perhaps they have a disability that interferes with absolute precision in reaction times. Perhaps they simply have a very busy life and it isn’t worthwhile to sit down to play a game for the two precious hours they have that week and make absolutely no progress. Perhaps neither of those things are true. It seems there are plenty of people who are both good at games and have plenty of time on their hands to play them that are still finding themselves running up against a brick wall with Sekiro. And that is very discouraging. If the majority of the people who purchased a game walk away because they get bored or another game catches their eye, that is one thing. But if you are losing players who very much want to continue progressing and experiencing the world you have created, and they end up walking away because they lost heart? No matter how hard they tried they just weren’t good enough? Then it might be time to consider some changes.

There are any number of ways this could be done. Even a mechanic that mirrors the summoning option before boss fights in Dark Souls would make this a better experience for certain players. For me, I intend to keep playing Sekiro until the end. I’ve got the time (not really), and the foolhardiness. But I appreciate that many people don’t and their voices should be heard, and their complaints and perspectives given serious consideration.

The Tobacconist

Genre: Historical Fiction, German Lit
Setting: Vienna, Austria 1937-1938
Pages: 234

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler (originally published in German as Der Trafikant) is a story about a young man named Franz Huchel, who travels from his idyllic homeland in the Salzkammergut in Austria to Vienna to go to work for a tobacconist. It is set shortly before the start of the Second World War and as the story unfolds we witness the increasing furor that accompanies the Nazi’s rise to power, alongside Franz’s coming of age. The latter entails him falling in love with a girl, having long conversations with renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and learning some hard truths about the cruel and often confusing aspects of human nature.

I’ll start by saying I wish I had read this when I was much younger. Although I am only 25, I am sure I would have found this story much more profound and interesting when I was 16 or 17, closer to Franz’s age. The book starts out promising. Its comedic undertones and description of character and setting give it a tonal quality similar to Wes Anderson’s films. Unfortunately, the young Franz is occasionally tiresome to read about. His obsession over his crush Anezka, and his classic male feeling of entitlement to her and her body are beyond irritating. He is a naive character and at times that naivety is endearing, but in this particular aspect, and in our current zeitgeist, its a tiresome trope to be confronted with. Having said that, Anezka seemed like a far more interesting and more real character. I probably would have been more attached to this story had the author taken attempts to develop her character more.

That isn’t to say the story doesn’t have value. There are plenty of novels set during this time period, but this book carves out a special niche for itself by painting the times through the eyes of a young protagonist who hasn’t yet decided where his allegiances lie, or who has even fully developed an understanding of the need to pick a side. As illustrated by the mistreatment and arrest of Franz’s employer, the few people who try to rise against the tide are crushed. By the time Professor Sigmund Freud is forced to leave his homeland as a very old man because he is Jewish and Vienna is no longer safe, Franz has become a man who knows, if not what he stands for, at least what he stands against. It is an interesting portrait of what it means to show bravery, honor, and steadfastness as a tiny force against a seemingly insurmountable one.

What Remains of Edith Finch

Developer: Giant Sparrow
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Platforms: Windows, PS4, Xbox One

What Remains of Edith Finch is the most interesting game I played in 2017. Not the most beautiful, or breath-taking, or mechanically sound–which is not to say it has any glaring flaws on any of these fronts–but it was certainly the most thought-provoking. Overall, I found it to be one of the most profound accomplishments achieved by a game studio in 2017, and that is certainly no small feat.   

Part of my strong attraction to the game was due to me relating to it on a rather personal level. A few years ago my father passed away, my mother moved in with my sister, taking our pets, and I moved into an apartment with my boyfriend. When I come back to my childhood home, no one is there, just the objects that used to be part of my family’s daily lives. Walking around an uninhabited but fully furnished house has the eery effect of making you feel like you’re the ghost. This general aura was so deeply echoed in What Remains of Edith Finch, that it was like a punch in the stomach. In fact, one of the first, and very poignant lines of dialogue uttered by Edith upon entering the house is, “Instead of a family, there were just memories of one.”

This ends up setting the tone for the uncanny and generally quite tragic gameplay experience that follows. The game operates as a first-person, narrative experience à la Gone Home. For me, it was much more effective than Gone Home emotionally, for a variety of reasons. It was much less predictable due to its more surrealist nature, and the variety of ways the player experiences the memories of the deaths of Edith’s family members (whether by dream, comic, or through a camera lens) was highly original. Each flashback experience was captivating enough to make you forget that a death is the inevitable termination of each memory.

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House Through the Trees, What Remains of Edith Finch http://www.giantsparrow.com/games/finch/

If there was a specific message you were supposed to take away at the end, I’m not sure I picked up on it. Or if I did pick up on it, I rapidly discarded it. Unfortunately, the game seemed to have an overarching theme of how you cannot escape your family history. I don’t find this mindset particularly useful, especially if your family history is “cursed” like the Finches. This might not be intentional on the part of the writers, however, that doesn’t make it any less difficult to ignore.

A much more uplifting take away for me, was the idea that each of these family members was so much more than their untimely deaths. They should be remembered for the person they were, rather than the tragedy of their demise. Even if the best part of them lay within their imagination (such was the case with Edith’s brother, Lewis), they were all important. They had ambitions and dreams, passions and hobbies, and beautiful imaginations.

What Remains of Edith Finch is a treasure of a game that has defined new boundaries for narrative gameplay experiences.   

Drums of Autumn

Drums of Autumn is the fourth book in the much loved Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. It continues to follow the story of Jamie and Claire Fraser as they seek to build their life in the New World. The story also follows the choices of their daughter, Brianna, and her boyfriend Roger as they contend with information learned in the present that could effect the lives of those they love in the past. There is a lot to unpack with this novel and I will try to do so with minimal spoilers.

DrumsofAutumncover

Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance
Setting: North Carolina 1760s, present day Scotland and U.S.
Pages: 880

Drums of Autumn is the fourth book in the much loved Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. It continues to follow the story of Jamie and Claire Fraser as they seek to build their life in the New World. The story also follows the choices of their daughter, Brianna, and her boyfriend Roger as they contend with information learned in the present that could effect the lives of those they love in the past. There is a lot to unpack with this novel and I will try to do so with minimal spoilers.

Oh boy. Where to begin?

I will start off immediately by stating this is the worst book in the series to date. I will follow up by saying that I really struggle with the fact that most people read the Outlander series uncritically, which is a huge problem, because they are sometimes very problematic books. This latest installment is the most problematic yet.

I loved the first book for the most part. I found the story engaging and the descriptions very well done. Drums of Autumn is similarly filled with a lot of specific and well-written detail, however the story falls flat on its face numerous times. The biggest problem is that Diana Gabaldon unapologetically relies on rape as a plot device. I have a huge problem with this. The way she is constantly using rape to infuse her stories with more drama is tacky and unimaginative. The other problem with this particular novel is that a large portion of the plot revolves around a big misunderstanding. It is absolutely ludicrous, filled with plot holes, and required some very infantile and out of character behavior from some of the series favorite characters in order to unfold.

In general, Claire and Jamie are thrown out of character numerous times throughout the novel. Some of Gabaldon’s biggest apologists call this “character development.” Spoiler alert: it’s not. Jamie Fraser becomes downright abusive at times and that is a progression that is not logical following his character growth in the previous storylines.

*Spoilers*

There is one point where he goes so far as to get in a VERY physical altercation with his pregnant daughter in order to illustrate a point of his?!

*End of Spoilers*

Should you read this novel? It probably isn’t worth your time. Read it if you want to learn about things not to do as a writer. Definitely don’t read it if you are a feminist as there are numerous displays of casual sexism that are NOT just “because of the time period!” I’m also disturbed by the homophobic behavior of the Claire, who is the novel’s main heroine.

I regret these stories more and more because they increase my reticence to dive into the Romance genre further. Send me a comment or message if you think you have a good argument in favor of the genre, or if you have your own thoughts regarding this novel.

In Cold Blood

Genre: True Crime, Nonfiction
Setting: Kansas, late 1950s-1960s
Pages: 343

In Cold Blood is a true crime novel detailing the murder of four members of the Clutter family at their home in rural Kansas, and the ensuing capture, trial, and ultimate execution of their killers.

While reading this novel, I was wrought by many conflicting feelings. As such, I won’t be breaking this review up into my normal sections of “The Good” and “The Bad.”

First of all, this is a true crime novel so the events described occurred, for the most part, even if not always exactly as they are recorded in the book. There is no wondering who committed the crime or if they ended up being apprehended because the events reached their conclusion before the book was written. Personally, I had to contend with the urge to just go on the internet and look up the whole case before finishing the book.  What was the point, then, of turning this story about the brutal murder of a family into a novel, rather than simply a true account? Poetic embellishment of course.

This is where a lot of my issues with this book come from. Truman Capote paints a fairly ordinary portrait of a family who was highly regarded by their community. This can be reasonably believed as an accurate view of the Clutters because Capote interviewed many people from the town who knew them, either intimately or just as a passing acquaintance.

We get a far greater wealth of detail on the two murderers, particularly Perry Smith.

mild spoilers ahead

The reader is given a privileged view into Perry’s innermost thoughts all throughout the novel. Before he commits the crime, later while he is on the run, and then finally when he has been captured and imprisoned on death row. I am very troubled by Capote’s obvious bias towards Perry. He clearly found Perry Smith to be more sympathetic than his companion, and throughout the entire novel the reader is shown thought processes that make him out to be quite a sensitive soul compared to his brutish companion Dick Hickock.

The reality, however, is that Capote could only have made these judgments from his interviews with Perry. He had to take Perry’s word for himself. Between the two criminals, Perry is the one without any friends or family. The harsh reality is, Perry is the one who actually committed all 4 murders. He is the one who shot each member of the Clutter family to death. Given his unpopularity among everyone, including his own family, and the fact that he carried out the murders, I think it is possible that Capote was being emotionally manipulated by Perry Smith. The novel is clearly written to evoke sympathy for Perry, but I truly do not feel he deserves it, and I feel that this cheapens the lives of the innocent people who were murdered by him.

Any story dealing with such grim subject matter is bound to evoke strong negative emotions, however, there are some very worthy aspects of this novel. Truman Capote’s writing style is very good, even if I hesitate to use the word “enjoyable,” in this particular case. I also think he does an admirable job of situating such a horrible event in the greater scheme of life. Despite the senselessness of the crime (it truly was a murder in cold blood), I didn’t finish the novel with the sense of confusion and despair that I felt while reading most of it. His insertion of the opinions of psychoanalysts and his observations on the lives of the people in the town after the capture of the murderers helped me come to peace with the fact that sometimes there simply isn’t a motive or reason for terrible things. Psychological accidents occur, and they are as much a part of the pattern of life as anything else.

I would recommend this book to any curious and bold-hearted readers. 

In a Dark, Dark Wood

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Genre: Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller
Setting: Present day northern England
Pages: 352

In a Dark, Dark Wood is the debut novel of Ruth Ware. The story follows narrator Leonora Shaw (or Nora or Lee) as she is invited to her high school friend, Clare Cavendish’s, Bachelorette party. The Hen party is hosted by Clare’s neurotic friend Flo, in a glass house couched in a remote forest location in northern England. Nora hasn’t spoken to Clare in 10 years, and throughout the weekend she is forced to come to terms with traumatic events from her past all while navigating the bizarre and potentially dangerous scenario the Hen party has created in the present.

The Good: The structure that Ruth Ware creates for the first three quarters of the novel, alternating between scenes of the present moment in the hospital and flashbacks to the weekend spent at the glass house, does an excellent job of propelling the narrative forward and creating a high level of suspense. I didn’t find the novel to be scary as some people did, but there are definitely moments of high tension giving In a Dark, Dark Wood a well earned place among the thriller genre. The book is very fast paced and I found myself flying through it in a day. This should make it particularly attractive to those who don’t have much time, or have trouble motivating themselves to buckle down and finish a novel.

The Bad: At the risk of seeming ungenerous, this section is going to be a bit bulkier than “The Good.” My first problem comes from the narrator. Other reviewers have mentioned that she is a very unreliable narrator, however, I do not have a problem with this as such. I think the situation with her having various nicknames (Leonora, Nora, Lee, Leo) was a bit over the top. The constant fixation on her name was superfluous and while it did have relevance to the plot, I think Ware was beginning to beat a dead horse. Then, there is the matter of the Hen party guests. Every single one of these characters was a caricature. They were shallow, with nothing much to them beyond surface level. This made some of the dialogue painful to read, not because Ruth Ware has a poor writing style, but because she needs to take more time fleshing out her characters. As a result, the plot was relatively predictable for me. The whole premise, motive, and action that unfolded the drama was, as others have noted, a bit dubious, but it was original, so I am willing to forgive the slightly fantastic nature of the narrative’s events.

Overall, I would say Ruth Ware does an excellent job of creating a suspenseful atmosphere, but she needs to add more substance to her plot and her characters.

The House of the Dead

Vasily_Perov_-_Портрет_Ф.М.Достоевского_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Genre: Realism, Semi-Autobiographical Fiction, Classic Literature
Setting: Siberia, Russian Federation, 1850s
Pages: 368

The House of the Dead or Notes from the House of the Dead is a semi-autobigraphical work by Fyodor Dostoyevsky about life in prison in Siberian Russia. Dostoyevsky tells his story through the eyes of the convict Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, a Russian nobleman who is sentenced to penal labor in Siberia for murdering his wife. The author’s trademarks of deep philosophical musings and his speculations on the psychology of human beings are deeply rooted in this novel and lay the groundwork for future authors, philosophers, and psychologists (the formal study of this last discipline only developed some 20 years after this novel was published!)

The Good: Dostoyevsky was in a situation nearly identical to his narrator’s: a nobleman serving a sentence of hard labor in a Siberian prison camp. However, our narrator Aleksandr Petrovich was sentenced for murdering his wife, while Dostoyevsky was imprisoned for political crimes. The authenticity of the novel is its greatest asset as it makes all the different stories and accounts within the narrative all the more gripping. I find Dostoyevsky second to none when it comes to inserting meaningful psychological and philosophical musings within a fictional framework (keeping in mind, of course, that this particular story is very much nonfiction). There is something refreshing and quite rare about an author speaking their own truth in a way that bares their soul. While The House of the Dead isn’t as polished as his later works, it is easy to see how he became an inspiration to so many future authors and philosophers.

One glistening gem in this novel that I found very endearing, was the chapter describing the convicts’ theatrical production during the holidays. I’ve always been a fan of theatre and I have a great affinity for Russian theatre and ballet in particular. Dostoyevsky describes the amateur production in extensive detail, and I admit I was thrilled. In those moments of performance and spectating, the prisoners’ joy was my own.

The Bad: As I mentioned before, the novel is a bit unpolished. The House of the Dead was originally pieced together from a series of different notes and letters Dostoyevsky had wrote about his time in prison, and as such theme drives the narrative rather than a specific storyline. There are an exceeding number of repetitious moments or thoughts. The narrator also offers a few contradictory points of view on certain subjects, but this I attribute to the emotional nature of documenting such an experience, and the varying states of mind the author must have inhabited as he wrote the novel.

*A Special Note on the Text*: This story was written quite a long time ago. Knowledge on various topics has evolved since then, including our attitudes and opinions on these topics. It is important not to reject the worth of an entire novel over a few problematic elements. In order to understand this novel, the reader most endeavor to understand the time and place it was written and strive to their fullest extent to place themselves in the position of the narrator. Most obvious and frequent among the outdated ideas is Dostoyevsky’s apparent subscription to Physiognomy. Although it is never named or explicitly described in the novel, it is obvious that he judges people’s characters largely and immediately based on their physical appearance. Approach this novel with empathy and patience and you will not be disappointed.