On Games: Sekiro and A Plague Tale
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, FromSoftware, 2019
A Plague Tale: Innocence, Asobo Studio, 2019
I’m getting old, so I should probably go to bed at a reasonable hour, but I know I will be up late tonight (and tomorrow night, and the night after that, most likely) trying to kill an enormous poo-flinging ape that guards a cave in a beautiful mountain pool overshadowed by a hundred-foot-long reclining Bodhisattva. Eventually, I promise myself, I will kill the ape. But even then, I will not sleep. Other and worse things await me beyond this lovely pool. I may never get to bed on time again.
The source of my sleeplessness, this seemingly endless series of almost unbeatable beings, is the game Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Sekiro’s designers, FromSoftware, have already robbed me of thousands of hours of sleep by way of their previous famously difficult games, Demons Souls, Dark Souls (One through Three), and Bloodborne. The major difference between Sekiro and the earlier titles is that in this one I am (much to my dismay) alone. FromSoftware’s previous games all made grudging acknowledgment of their difficulty and allowed strangers to assist one another, anonymously, through online play. But Sekiro’s lead character is named Wolf…and he is a lone Wolf. A stealthy shinobi, an assassin caught up in a blur of shifting allegiances, divine heirs, baffling bloodlines…none of which even remotely matter.
The story cannot matter as stories are meant to because it is delivered only as the game allows. Consider my crucial battle with the Great Ape. This is not an optional fight, tucked in a cul de sac to be found only by gamers intent on discovering every cranny. No, the Great Ape guards an object that must be acquired for the story itself to proceed. And to acquire that object, well…this is the reason I spend an hour or more each night, for the last couple weeks, trying to beat this fricking ape.
Imagine reading a novel, a thrilling adventure of great atmosphere, intricately plotted, full of remarkable characters—and yet at the height of every chapter, just when events seem most exciting and significant, you are faced with a paragraph you cannot read. Nor can you skip it. Imagine this paragraph contains ten sentences. The first time through, you read two of them, and then you must start over. You read only one this time, and then it’s back to the first word. You read that first sentence over and over again until you barely remember how you once read the first two sentences. And then a breakthrough: You make it all the way to the third sentence, and partway through a fourth. Weeks later, you have made it to the eighth sentence. It can take you an hour each night just to get to that sentence once, since most times you are still stuck on the second or third or even ignominiously the first sentence. Grimly you keep on. Do you remember the story at this point? Does the sense or meaning of the paragraph have any relevance here, or is your whole entire goal now to just get to the end of the final sentence?
Story cannot possibly survive this process. Nothing matters except to conquer that final word. You come to hate the paragraph and simply want to be done with it. If there were nothing here but story, you would never persist. No story can be worth all this…certainly not the less-than-epic story of a one-armed ninja who persists in dying in a dung-scented poison cloud.
In FromSoftware games, the stories, such as they are, exist mostly to confabulate a context for a series of escalating torments. The various Souls installments drew on a kind of dark medieval or European palette, a fallen world of knights and dragons and animated skeletons, all filtered through a Japanese sensibility that renders western cliches fresh to a jaded western eye. Bloodborne, one of the few games ever to spur me to read fannish explications on the internet, admits a more Gothic tinge that eventually broadens to include cosmic horrors for which the word “Lovecraftian” seems inadequate. What they truly design are worlds in which certain stories of historical significance may be glimpsed, while the players struggle through their own ongoing role in whatever dark realm From’s designers have trapped them. The difficulty of the game is at perfect odds with the desire of every story to tell itself. What kind of story is this, that holds itself back and may only be unlocked by a player with a certain honed set of reflexes? At times it seems like a story that does not care to be read.
It’s no wonder then that a month or so into Sekiro, I found myself turning to a game whose entire appeal was narrative—A Plague Tale: Innocence. I knew from the previews that it had a compelling setting, appealing characters, and some sort of story to tell. There it was, right in the title: A Tale! I hoped that it wouldn’t require me to suffer too much to enjoy it, and for the most part it did not. For the most part.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is set in medieval France, and after a night of playing with tolerable voice actors speaking English, I discovered that I could switch to French with English subtitles. My immersion in plague-ridden medieval France was complete!
This is in many ways a YA story, a tale of young rebels on the run and then in direct conflict with the requisite powerful authority figure—in this case the Inquisition, its brutal officers, and its particular loathsome megalomaniacal pontiff. Our hero is a plucky teenaged girl, highly skilled with a sling, and determined to protect her little brother from capture by the ominous forces who want the boy…for some power in his blood.
While rat-borne plague sweeps the countryside, we come to realize it is not the plague itself that is the game’s chief concern—but the rats. A sea of rats overwhelms the villages and battlefields through which the siblings make their way. Early on, we discover that the rats fear flame—and so there are puzzles requiring clever use of existing torches, brands, and burning carts to navigate pestilential landscapes. The game introduces a grammar of simple concepts to overcome each obstacle, and then begins to use them in more complicated ways. There is little repetition; the player is always learning and applying some new trick. It is wonderful.
It is also gruesome, grim, nightmarish. Those who fear rats might find it unplayable. Against this bleak background, the characters stand out brightly—the sister, her brother, a series of friends and allies.
And yet, in the end, after a completely satisfying story expertly woven with a game that rarely bogs down so far in difficulty that the story grinds to a halt…we see again the difficult balance of gameplay and narrative. How hard it is to get this right. At the story’s and the game’s absolute climax, the designers are still introducing absolutely new concepts and techniques to be mastered. Mastery requires repetitive practice and failure. Each failure again returns us to the first sentence of that paragraph. Again and again, one sentence, then two. When we attain the third sentence, we’re free and clear—we need never go back to the first again. But we will be hung up on the third and fourth for so long that the first is finally forgotten. It’s so frustrating. Lines of dialog, voiced by the villain, sound wonderfully evil at first. But by the sixteenth repetition, there’s nothing left but to get mad at them for reasons that would make no sense in the story.
Still…I spent two or three nights on the final sequence of A Plague Tale, where Sekiro would have held me in a similar scenario for a month. Just over a week after starting the game, I reached its conclusion, wonderfully satisfied with all but the last few hours; and it is the nature of such things that my frustrations were soon forgotten (had I not sworn to make note of them), while the charm of the characters and the thrill of playing such an exciting and gruesome—such an original!—adventure remain strong as ever.
I would therefore recommend A Plague Tale to anyone who turns to games for storytelling, as a fine example of how to craft a narratively compelling game without sacrificing either discipline.
And I would recommend Sekiro for people like myself, who have given up on sleep.
First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May-June, 2020