How often have you rage quit? Has a game ever been so frustratingly difficult that you gave up on it? Veteran Souls players, and those new to the series, have been asking this question upon starting FromSoftware’s newest title Sekiro : Shadows Die Twice. Sekiro has become synonymous in the industry with being so hard to get through, that the game is no longer fun. This has led to ambitious gamers creating “easy mode” mods for the game, has sparked a meme about cheating, and significant discussion among gamers about the nature of difficulty in gaming. In today’s post I’ll be exploring the idea of Challenge vs Difficulty and my experiences thus far in Sekiro.
Sekiro is an action adventure title that takes place in a re-imagined late 16th century Sengoku period Japan. The game centers around a Shenobi referred to as Wolf, who is seeking revenge on a Samurai who attacked him and kidnapped his lord. From there launches an epic adventure exploring not only ancient Japan, but also super natural myth and lore of the era. As a veteran player of Fromsoftware games, I had a lot of expectations going into Sekiro. Having played the Dark Souls Trilogy and Bloodborne, I think many of us had assumptions on how Sekiro might play as a reskin of the souls series with maybe some introductions to minor additional mechanics, akin to Bloodborne. What we all found was a game that felt familiar, yet plays very differently. From the beginning, Sekiro is a mystery for us to uncover. New rules, items, mechanics, and enemies for us to uncover and master. In this way it’s extremely similar to other games in the FromSoftware library, yet why are veteran gamers frustrated? To answer this, I’ve tried to think on my initial experience with Dark Souls 1. Upon first being exposed to the franchise, i remember it feeling so mysteriously unrelenting. The fear of not knowing what’s around the corner, what to expect from enemies, and how to make sense of this new world. There’s only a few games that stress me out so much, that I have to put the controller down and walk off the adrenaline causing my body to shake. It gets your heart pumping, brings you into the lowest of lows, and shoots you back into euphoria once you’re able to master the challenge ahead of you. It’s a real mental leap, but once you find your rhythm… I find it’s incredibly rewarding. Thinking on Dark Souls 1, I remember there was a specific area that once I had mastered, I felt like I was mentally on the other side of the mountain. Hamish Black best explains this in his video on “Why Blighttown really matters.”
I don’t think I’ll be able to make that sort of judgement until I’ve actually completed the game, but what I can say is that I feel as though I’ve started to realize the rhythm of Sekiro. While I remain humbled by a lot of the enemies, I’ve definitely grown more confident in traversing the world and knowing what I’m capable of. I take pride in the little victories in Sekiro, knowing that each is something that I’ve earned. Yet that was always the lesson from Dark Souls, and with the controversy surrounding Sekiro’s difficulty I have to wonder… have players forgotten this message? Have veterans become so proficient with Dark Souls that they became comfortable, and are frustrated with the feeling of being a newbie again? With popularity of the “Git Gud” meme among the Dark Souls community, the irony is nearly palpable as players are forced to “git gud” once more.
It’s always been difficult for me to describe my appreciation for Dark Souls, in a way that acknowledges and separates me from gamers who feel elitist by playing “extremely difficult games.” I’ve never been one to sit down at a game and crank the difficulty up to “insane” without good reason, and yet by appreciating games like Sekiro and Dark Souls, it’s hard to shake that stereotype. The best way I can think to articulate the differences for me, are to define challenge versus difficulty. For me a challenge is more like a puzzle. It’s about approaching a problem, attempting to understand the rules and factors of the problem, and finding ways to solve it. It’s much less about a grind or a test of endurance, which is where I feel difficulty fits in. Difficulty, for me, is more about scalable values like player health, enemy damage, etc that can be modified to make the game more arbitrarily harder. In games that have item levels, and your stats can begin to scale wildly, I feel as though the concept of difficulty make much more sense. Diablo is a game I wouldn’t define as challenging, but uses difficulty to oppose the player. In this regard, it’s hard to determine just how difficult a particular challenge might be in Sekiro. I believe a large portion of it, is based purely on the player’s perception of the problem ahead of them.
Preconceived notions about the enemy in front of them, previous experience inside and outside the game, all have an impact. Have you ever had problems with an ingame enemy, then went on youtube to see someone defeat that same enemy, and afterwards found the enemy more manageable? It’s almost as though something triggers in our brain that tells us, “Oh! It’s defeatable and I can do it” and suddenly you’re able to. Have you ever turned down the music when fighting a boss, and found that you’re more easily able to find your rhythm? I believe a lot of the animations and audio designs of Sekiro is what makes it feel particularly challenging and scary. In Sekiro I’ve noticed that even when I block appropriately, the sound and the animation rattles me and makes me feel like I’ve taken damage… yet if I pay attention to my health bar… I’m fine. It’s those intense moments that, if you let it, get into your head while playing and makes the game feel more stressful and hard to manage. I hypothesize that blocking in Sekiro is more forgiving that parrying ever was in Dark Souls, yet it feels more harsh and jarring overall. Leaving players reactionary and then perform poorly in the game. I really wonder if we took the same mechanics, completely replaced the enemies with something unthreatening, and made the audio feedback more playful… if the game would feel as unrelenting as Sekiro does today. In any case, I believe a lot of the hurdles to cover in Sekiro are more mental and personal to the player. Which in a way is more rewarding for me, as I progress in the game. There’s something about facing your fears, and sort of leveling yourself up… and not just your character… that I find deeply rewarding.
What about Cheese?!
Another meme that is very popular among the Dark Souls community is the term “Cheese,” and it’s no different for Sekiro. Cheesing is the practice of purposefully exploiting a glitch or other elements of gameplay mechanics to the player's advantage. So after all this high and mighty discussion about getting over your own mental hurdles and just getting better at Sekiro, why am I okay with the concept of “cheesing” my opponents? For me, I think it’s all part of how you approach whatever puzzle you’re engaged in… if I can find a way to maneuver an enemy to where they are off balance, their animations don’t quite work properly, etc… That’s creative problem solving, and should be rewarded. I don’t really consider it cheating, unless you’re really doing something to break the game or modify it’s code. In this way, it feels the most relatable to real life. That’s a core ethos of Fromsoftware’s games, if you can find an unconventional way of doing something more efficiently, you should go right ahead. That could mean speeding past and avoiding enemies, maneuvering bosses so they have a harder time hitting you, or just approaching the level in a unexpected way. This is an interesting silver lining within these harsh games, that we as gamers should embrace as part of the experience. You’ve done so much to achieve what you have in the game, you’ve earned a bit of cheese if you can pull it off.
Sekiro is hard, and yet so much about mastering Sekiro is about mastering emotions within yourself. Knowing certain bosses you can only really hit twice, before they counter, and keeping yourself from whaling on them as much as possible. The sort of mental fortitude that it takes to traverse the world of Sekiro, is what I find interesting. Yet that’s not to say there’s any shame in cheesing an enemy wherever possible.
I make games, I play games... and sometimes I have some thoughts about that.