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.

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.

house_through_trees
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.