Git Gud

Image result for git gud meme

Since I’m riding the strugglebus with the latest chapter of Sevenfold Gyre, you get a shitpost today.  This toes the line regarding how political I’d like my writing to be, but the subject matter is highly relevant to this blog.

“Git Gud”, for me, is as much life advice as it is meme.  It’s a simple message, profound in its applications if not in its essence, but not everyone is a Dark Souls diehard.  For the game, it’s a response to an often punishing difficulty (for the non-gamers in my audience, Dark Souls is a hard game).  For life, it’s an assurance: Your situation is under your control. Life is difficult. Work sucks. Writing is a bitch. The solution is panacea: You gotta git gud.

For me this is extremely empowering.  Is it true? Probably not. 50% at best, and sometimes it’s more comforting to hear the opposite, that it isn’t all your fault–keep that in mind before you sling this at someone struggling with their mental health.  I open with this because it’s personal to me, and perhaps you might be able to make use of this dubious proverb.  But it’s not why I’m writing this piece. I’m writing it because every asshole on the internet seems to have piped up on this exact subject, and, near as I can tell, they’re all wrong.

I.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has been a massive success in every way possible.  That’s an absolute, I know the phrasing is uncomfortable, I’ll clarify: That isn’t hyperbole.  It meets/exceeds expectations as a successor to the Dark Souls series, its critical reception has been stellar, and it’s on track to be From Software’s best selling game of all time.  But, as I’ve said before, it’s essentially a Dark Souls game, with all of the fuzzy narrative depth I alluded to in that post and all of the aforementioned punishing difficulty, and now that it’s not just in the mainstream but dominating the mainstream, you have a chunk of folks paying attention that might never have played this game by choice five years ago.

Enter Asshole Number 1, a games journalist who patches his game in order to beat the final boss then crows about it in his review.  Asshole Number 2, and a legion of fans blast him for it–probably deserved, if only for the profound misreading of his audience–and then every other asshole takes to their preferred outlet to yell about whether the game should have an Easy mode, and then a vocal faction starts saying that it’s not about an Easy mode, it’s about handicapped accessibility, so it’s a social justice issue.

There isn’t enough alcohol in the world for this.

II.

“Who’s in the right?”  No one, they’re assholes, and all of the noise is the rough equivalent of going out at night and screaming at the moon.  Yeah, I’m doing it too, but I told you right off the bat that this was a shitpost. But actually, the basis for my venom is that there are multiple dynamics at play here, and everyone seems to be getting tripped up thinking that they are all one thing.  Since it’s the most charged, let’s start with the accessibility side and work backwards.

Sekiro is a hard game, probably harder than Dark Souls, definitely faster, more reflex-oriented.  There exist people that, due to a variety of maladies, are physically not capable of playing this game.  “Should From Software make the game accessible to those people?” is a giant, angry vortex, so let’s start with something easier: Is it imperative that every game is accessible to everyone?  I hope we can agree that the obvious answer is “No”, if only because it is literally impossible with today’s technology (e.g. you can’t make Sekiro playable for blind people).  That’s a straw man, but its blazing corpse at least confirms that we are swimming in the middle of a blurry, grey line.  

Next rung up, is it imperative that every game is accessible to everyone where possible?  That depends on how you look at it.  If you want to check legal precedent, a certain standard of handicapped accessibility is mandated for buildings open to the public (in the US, at least), but you wouldn’t be wrong to suggest that games and public spaces are not precise equivalents.  This is also where you run into questions of responsibility. I’ll tell you right now: If Sekiro’s difficulty is preventing you from playing it, you are totally able to install the same damn mod that Asshole Number 1 used for free.  And if the issue is that you have no arms, people have rigged up Darks Souls on DDR pads.  You’re welcome to as well.

If you are actually handicapped, you probably think I’m being a complete jerk right now.  You are correct. I am being a jerk, but as a side note, that’s the type of reaction any system is going to give when you vocalize a complaint that doesn’t line up with what exactly is wrong.  The issue isn’t that Sekiro is truly gated, the issue is that as a society, we have decided that not being dicks to handicapped people is a good thing to do, and games like this are made, more or less, in ignorance of that cultural consensus.

III.

“So From Software should add accessibility options to their games?”  Honestly, I don’t think so, but I’ll admit to some conflict of conscience.  Isn’t it great that mod developers protect us from having to make difficult moral decisions like this?  “But wait, what’s the argument against adding them?”  Uh, orthogonal. “What?”

Whereas the Dark Noon series is devoted to Dark Souls’ literary elements, it should still be mentioned that From Software’s games are masterclasses of mechanical design.  In particular, they have perfected the “hard game”, and I know that up until now, I have been building up how hard these games are. That was not totally honest of me. Dark Souls and Sekiro are not easy, to be sure.  I find them difficult, but I’m also not that good at games.  I’ve had to make double-digit attempts to kill many of the bosses throughout the series.  Meanwhile, a close friend of mine beat Dark Souls 2 without stopping at a bonfire.  If you’ve played the game, you know how absurd that is, but for those who haven’t, that means (with some nuance) that he never once refilled his health bar.  And I don’t mean to belittle his accomplishment, but it’s not like he was the only person to ever do that either.

So yeah, Dark Souls/Sekiro is hard, but there are tons of harder games.  What really sets the series apart is how rude it is to the player.  The game world is inherently dangerous, the easiest enemies can still kill you if you’re sleepwalking, and should you screw up, you get sent back far, with heavy potential penalties to your accumulated experience.  It’s frustrating, and that is crafted 100% intentionally.  At some point, usually very early, you will make a mistake, you will fail, and you will encounter a wall of adversity–rather than difficulty–that you will need to overcome.  And when the intended audience encounters that wall, they lean in.

I want to be abundantly clear: Almost everyone is physically capable of beating these games.  Most will not, and there isn’t any particular shame in that. My wife is totally good enough at games to beat Dark Souls, but she likely never will.  She doesn’t want to, crashing into a wall of pain over and over again isn’t her idea of a good time.  So is there anything wrong with accessibility options? No not inherently. Using them to remove physical barriers is completely reasonable.  It’s just that using them to remove the wall of adversity means you’re playing a different game, and From Software didn’t want to develop that different game.  I won’t make strong claims about the value of one or the other, but I don’t think that’s a moral failing on their part.

Notes on Dying Twice

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I’m now composing the ongoing Dark Souls series while playing through Sekiro (slowly), and being able to note the similarities and differences, immersed as I am, is a pretty interesting experience.  It’s also pretty plain at this point that getting at the juicy, literary meat of the game is going to be way harder for me this time around. Dark Souls and Bloodborne were riffing on philosophical frameworks (Christianity, Lovecraft, Nietzsche) that I am coincidentally familiar with.  Sekiro has structurally similar roots in Buddhism and sort-of obscure 1960’s ninja-historical-fantasy, about which I know approximately fuck all. Accordingly, the following are working notes, a surface reading of a game I still haven’t finished, an attempt to get the ideas on paper where perhaps a pith might become more visible.

Literary References

Miyazaki himself cites the manga Basilisk and the works of Futaro Yamada as an inspiration for elements of Sekiro’s world.  For those unfamiliar (myself included), these began with a novel published in 1958 called Kōga Ninpōchō, a historical fantasy about rival clans of superhuman mutant ninjas who get caught up in a Romeo-and-Juliet-style love triangle.  I was totally unaware that this style of storytelling had roots that old (contemporary with Tolkien, even though the first English translation seems to have been published in 2006).  More research is needed–discoveries like this keep me humble as to how little I really know.

Historical References

The setup of the game is that near the end of the Sengoku period, Isshin Ashina stages a coup and takes over one of Japan’s warring regions.  Twenty years later, the story begins. Neither Isshin, nor his grandson Genichiro appear to have been real people, but the Ashina clan was. Translating some historical details: The region, known also as Ashina in-game, was likely the Aizu region historically, and the aforementioned “end” of the Sengoku period is probably the first of such points recognized by historians–the conquest of Kyoto by Nobunaga Oda.  Twenty years after this point, the Ashina clan was defeated decisively by Masamune Date who then seized control of the Aizu region. Timing checks out.

It’s also likely that the family personas are based on real people.  Based on the timing and details of their life stories, it seems likely that Isshin and Genichiro are meant to parallel Moriuji and Moritaka Ashina respectively.  Moriuji’s reign was considered to be a golden age for the clan, whereas Moritaka (not Moriuji’s grandson, but not his son either) succeeded him and, proving unpopular among his retainers, was assassinated.  Spoiler: This is more than vaguely similar to Genichiro’s fate in the game.

Buddhism/Literary Motifs

I know embarrassingly little about Buddhism, and I hope to do more reading before formalizing any of this, but the narrative is clearly moist with its secretions.  The repeated theme of death and rebirth seems to be a clear expression, but it almost certainly goes deeper. The Sculptor’s obsessive drive to carve the Buddha (and its relationship to his previous life as a shinobi), the relationship between Kuro and other sources of immortality, even the significance of Sekiro using a prosthetic for a left arm–they scream meaning, and I bet much of it is tied up in philosophical traditions very different from the earlier games.

Aside, Miyazaki apparently took a backseat on writing for this game, so it probably will not have the same tone anyway.

Sources for my information include the linked interview, Wikipedia, and Samurai Wiki.

Next Steps and First Impressions

At this point, I am pretty much done with my backlog of material to post here.  That means that my lead time per long post is probably going to be a little longer than the 2-3 day intervals I’ve been following to this point.  Sevenfold Gyre part three is about a third done, but fuck, it’s update day, so while I continue grinding that out, today you get a shitpost of a game review.

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Those who have been following my Dark Souls series are probably aware that today, From Software released Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s first game since Dark Souls 3 in a vaguely similar space (technically he also directed Déraciné, but that’s radically different enough that I’m going to ignore it for the purposes of this timeline).  As the name might imply: This is not Dark Souls. You’re playing a named character, it’s a stealth game, you don’t do damage–you just need to break the enemy’s poise–the game has a non-historical story (which I’m disappointed about, but only because Dark Souls invented the genre, and I’ve never seen anyone do it as well), the reviews go on and on.  Oh yeah, most of that isn’t true, I’m just parroting the takeaways I’ve read online, and it’s actually a double fake, because the big idea is wrong, too: This game is totally Dark Souls.

I can quantify that.  Here are the actual differences between Sekiro and Dark Souls (taken broadly, in the “Soulsborne” sense):

  1. The main character has backstory.
  2. There is a jump button.
  3. Enemies block attacks in a way that makes fighting crowds is noticeably more dangerous.
  4. The advancement systems (equipment, stats) have been replaced with the type of thing you see in Devil May Cry (or equivalent action game).

Fits on one hand.  I, for one, am thrilled.  That said, it’s very polished, combat is intricate in spite of its very fast pace, and moving around is a joy.  By far the most significant of those, though, is the first, and it’s a deceptively small change.  At a very surface level, the setting is historical. The Ashina clan was a real clan during the Sengoku period, the named characters don’t appear to have been, but whatever.  Below that surface, we’re back to–you guessed it–more Dark Souls, with all of the desolation, bleakness, and lovely, fuzzy vagueness that From Software does so well, which is why it’s so cool that simply adding a pre-existing drive to the player character alters the experience so radically.  In a lot of ways, the Souls games were framed, defined by that void, and filling it changes the basis for analysis.

Mind, I have no idea at this point what that analysis is going to look like (I’m only 15 hours in), but man, am I stoked to find out.

Top Image: Gameplay/cutscene footage from Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. I do not own it.