In the six months in which I played From Software’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice shortly after its release in 2019, I made it as far as Lady Butterfly and The Armored Knight. This, for all those who haven’t played Sekiro (which I strongly implore that you do) is roughly about 20% into the game, which was such abysmal progress that I decided the remainder of the game was not worth pursuing in spite of how much I’ve come to adore From’s previous titles. Though the difficulty curve in Sekiro is not entirely different from their prior efforts there is no leveling RPG system quite like the Soulsborne games in which to rely on here if the player is stuck on a particularly nasty boss, all you can really do is get better or consult the myriad of internet content that fans of the game have created to aid fellow players in seeing this masterpiece through to its conclusion.
Because what a masterpiece this game is. Even a few years removed from its moment in the collective gaming spotlight (it won best game at Geoff Keileghy’s Game Awards in 2019) Sekiro is still an impressive, precise and incomparable piece of stoic game design. Admittedly I have yet to reach the game’s credits, I am currently on the second to last boss, a vicious, fiery monster called the Demon of Hatred, and from what I’ve heard the final boss is even more relentless and unforgiving. It has taken me roughly two and a half weeks to reach this point which, though a surprise to me initially, has forced me to ponder what has changed since my first attempt. Though there is not a doubt in my mind that this time around I will finish this game, this was hardly the case in 2019.
2019 was a rough year for me. 2020 and 2021, even with the collective unrest and dismay have actually been relatively tame as far as personal turbulence and tragedy goes, which I am grateful and lucky for, but frankly if that had continued past the painful and uncertain years of 2018 and 2019, there is a chance that the devastation of the last two years would’ve crippled me emotionally and spiritually. I’m happy to be here. I completed Bloodborne immediately before Sekiro’s release, though completing the former was an arduous, incredible and intoxicating experience, I was certain the foundation had been established for me to tackle a game like Sekiro. I might’ve had the basic From recipe fresh in my muscles but nothing could’ve prepared me for how disheartening Sekiro was going to be, from the brutal, increasingly intense boss encounters to the Dragonrot system which inflicts the residents of the world with a disease that slowly destroys them. Nothing about the game invited me to play it at a time in my life when there were not many places in the world I felt welcome. So for six months I braved the castles, mountains and valleys of Sekiro to no avail, failure after failure propelled me back towards it’s punishing vistas and lethal rooftops until it just didn’t anymore. In disappointment, I put the disc back on my shelf and there it collected dust for a year and a half until I shipped it off to a buddy because I convinced myself that I wasn’t capable of completing this experience and that perhaps he would have better luck than me.
A few months ago Sekiro was on sale for ten dollars or so. I stopped on the cover in the digital storefront and was subsequently floored by how fond my memories of the lush, detailed environments and ferocious combat were. Of 2019, there are not many memories I look back on with affection but shockingly enough Sekiro was one of them. Ever since I purchased the game for a second time I’ve been pondering another shot at a playthrough, even going so far as to start it once and then realizing it wasn’t the time as I was in the middle of a big move. After a month and a half hiatus from video games, Psychonauts 2 dragged me back in (the original is one of my favorites). I spent the subsequent week and a half mainlining both entries in the brief and prolonged series. The enthusiasm that the two Psychonauts games instilled in me for the medium thrust me back towards it and though Sekiro was incongruous with the aforementioned Double Fine franchise, something about the temptation of challenge was intriguing and exciting. This was a fresh start for me. I wasn’t the same person but Sekiro was the same game.
Within twenty-four hours of beginning the game I had already surpassed the point in which Sekiro halted me from further progress, it was uncanny, I was absolutely bewildered with my fearlessness. With every death there was not a sense of defeat but solely a longing for triumph, these were not losses but opportunities for further success and satisfaction later on. Never once has the game felt unfair or impossible, just persistent, always asking that I try a little harder or become better. Between the deluge of losses and epic boss battles meant to test every skill you’ve developed, Sekiro doesn’t ask you to “get good” but rather just to be better than you were previously.
The only way I’ve been able to learn to love myself at this stage in my life is to make strides to improve who I am in some capacity, be it through therapy or engaging with my passions in a productive and healthy manner. I didn’t like who I was and in Sekiro, the game only makes you feel bad about yourself insofar as you are not where you need to be. I wasn’t physically or psychologically where I needed to be, and in 2019 I wasn’t ready to meet Sekiro or myself on each of their respective terms. Sekiro asks that you love yourself enough to continue engaging with it’s gauntlet of terrorizing enemies and bosses, despite what some have suggested (myself included), this is not an exercise in masochism, this game is not played for the sadness and demoralization that comes with defeat but the hope and trust in yourself that you will not only survive but overcome even if that seems preposterous when analyzing your opponent. After a few scrapes with bosses their attacks start to seem less intimidating than upon first glance, their patterns become rhythms and grooves. By the time you’ve defeated a boss and the ecstatic feeling of victory fades, you’re almost sad to see them go, they were a worthy opponent.
Learning to love your problems is not to teach oneself how to love the act of being miserable but rather to recognize your internal dilemmas and struggles as worthy adversaries of yourself. This is what Sekiro promises. From Software believes in you. They didn’t create a game so hard that no one could complete it, they created a game this hard because they know you can finish it. The studio wants to reward you not just with mere confidence but self-worth, gratification at your own capabilities rather than dismay at your inadequacies. So Sekiro is a masterpiece, it may be the best game From has created and it rewarded me with something that not many games do: self-love.