Opinion: Sekiro and the rewards of difficulty

I have a very complicated relationship with From Software. I bought Dark Souls at launch way back in 2011 and was so excited to play this highly-rated RPG game that was supposed to be pretty difficult. I played it for hours and got absolutely destroyed. Wrecked off the planet, bent over the coals and slapped silly. It wasn’t even funny just how brutal the game felt to me and I died too many times to count. Instead of pushing through, I ended up calling it quits at the Gaping Dragon fight which, as any Dark Souls fan would know, isn’t even scratching the surface.

I then wrote off Dark Souls completely and I even distinctly remember writing an article with the very blatant title “I hate Dark Souls“. Fast forward a number of years and From Software releases Bloodborne and to my utter surprise, I adored it. It was still very difficult, but the world was exactly everything I loved rolled into one and the faster combat just clicked with me a lot more than Dark Souls ever did. I finished the game twice and even considered maybe giving Dark Souls another shot, but ultimately didn’t.

Then we get to the release of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice last year which was met with overwhelming praise from critics and fans alike. It was a game I knew I had to have and when it went on sale sometime in September last year, I excitedly snagged it up. When I started playing it, I found myself struggling with the controls. I understood the mechanics and what the game expected of me, but I just could not get it right for some reason.

There started to be a lot of parallels with my first foray with Dark Souls. I was getting obliterated and I found myself so frustrated that I just didn’t engage with the game at all. During a very early part of the game, there was a mini-boss who is supposed to be tutorial for how to use a particular skill called the Mikiri Counter which you end up using a ton in combat and he brutally messed me up.

This bastard, the Shinobi Hunter, He sure lived up to his name.

One after the other, the deaths just piled up from this one stupid mini-boss and I got absolutely enraged each time I failed. Not only that, Sekiro punishes you when you die too much by giving NPCs a disease called Dragonrot whenever you die, so I felt like even more of a failure. But one of the reasons why I was so easily agitated by this is because things in my life weren’t exactly peachy at that time.

Playing a From Software game while you’re going through real-life struggles is asking for trouble. Your mind is not focused on what the game’s expectations of you are and being faced with continuous failure on top of your already existing failures is a recipe for disaster. The ironic thing is that the solution to both is to have patience and fight through that struggle, improving from the lessons you learn in your failures. Sadly, I didn’t see it that way initially. I was just getting extremely mad.

I eventually struggled my way past that mini-boss and went on to fight the game’s first boss, Gyoubu Oniwa, a big screaming samurai on a horse with a big spear and after also dying to him too many times to count, I finally beat him. Directly after that, I ran into a bull that was on fire which now predictably gave me a ton of grief. I wasn’t feeling rewarded for my struggle though, like how many From Software fans proclaim is the best thing about their games, I just felt anxious and inadequate. The frustration got too much and I just shelved the game after the bull fight.

Over the next few months, I occasionally dipped back into the game. Its icon on my PS4’s home screen felt like a shameful reminder of my failure and all the money I seemingly wasted on this game, but each time I played it, I just ended up quitting it again after about 30 minutes. The people I spoke to who are fans implored me to continue, that it’s a hugely rewarding experience and I should just stick with it, but I was stubborn in my decision. It just wasn’t for me, apparently.

Fast forward to March 2020. The world is on fire as we all are stuck in our homes, I just broke my leg and I’m bored with the games I’m playing. I lazily scroll through my PS4 backlog and Sekiro‘s shadow is still looming over me. I glance at it with each pass of the list and it buried itself inside my brain. Let’s give it another good old college try, what’s the harm?

I started fresh since my first playthrough was too shameful to bear. I struggled with the Shinobi Hunter yet again, but this time I didn’t die about 25 times against him, just a handful. A little ember of hope started sparking in my heart and I was starting to get used to these precise controls and mechanics. Then I ran into an early optional boss called Lady Butterfly who was often touted as a boss that was many people’s first wall in Sekiro.

Predictably, this old woman whooped my ass seven shades into Sunday and her two-phase fight was brutally difficult. However, the place where you respawn was right in front of the boss arena and all you had to do was sprint forward to have another shot.

So I threw myself at her again and again and again, getting punished for my slow reflexes and not being good enough to survive. But each time she told me that I’m “still just a puppy”, I cracked my knuckles and went right back in for more. And through all these attempts, I started getting good, or git gud as I’ve been told is the preferred nomenclature. It all started clicking and in a matter of time, she fell to my blade. I threw my controller in the air, gently, and did a fist pump and maybe an obscene gesture at the screen and I felt that drug. That dopamine rush that makes people From Software junkies, and I wanted more.

I made my way to Genichiro Ashina who is possibly the first major boss on your path and, as is tradition, he broke me in half and spit on my corpse. He’s the first major hurdle in the game, even outside of Lady Butterfly, and he was put there to punish you into becoming better. I had that first taste of victory already, so I just threw myself at this man over and over again yet again.

By sheer force of will and many, many attempts, I bested this bastard. Celebrations were had yet again and finally, the bug bit me. Every day I woke up excited because I could play some more Sekiro and despite a few bosses giving me grief, which was expected, I never gave up again. I kept getting better and better, I grew so proficient at the gameplay and I loved the game to pieces once it finally got the chance to open itself up to me.

I finished my first playthrough having defeated all bosses with the final boss being one of my favourite boss fights of all time. As the credits were rolling, I chuckled at the memory of the Shinobi Hunter being the one that made me quit this stellar game all those months ago. But I wasn’t done just yet. I wanted more, I was enjoying myself too much and there are three more endings to do along with trophies that still need to be unlocked. So off I go into playthrough #2.

I battle through the subsequent playthroughs and by playthrough #4, all that was left to do was get to the end. There was nothing else to do or trophies to unlock, it was just one more go and it’s all finished. Then I became an accidental speedrunner of the game. I finished it in a little over two and a half hours. Many of the bosses that caused me to nearly throw my controller through my TV were now trivial and the grand majority of them I beat first try. I knew the locations by heart and could whizz past everything to get to the necessary objectives to advance and I used actual speedrunner techniques to do things faster.

The start of my journey and the end of it had such a beautiful contrast. My first playthrough was a shameful display of incompetence and unchecked rage and my final playthrough was a display of mastery. And, as a reward for my efforts, I’m now a proud owner of this puppy:

Despite Sekiro being an incredible game, it also taught me a valuable lesson for my real life. The many struggles all of us face, the often insurmountable odds and the unjust ways of our world may be too much for us to bear sometimes, but the worst thing you can do is to give up. I gave up on Sekiro initially, but eventually, I got back up, took the beatings, dusted myself off after each defeat and improved myself to the point where what once felt impossible was now trivial.

I’m being very careful to not go into Facebook wine aunt quotes territory here, but the reality is that after I bested Sekiro, I’ve become content with hardship. We decide how much our problems and the obstacles before us affect us and rather than lying down and giving in, we have to fight. I know it’s not always easy and sometimes you get your rear end handed to you on a silver platter by things outside your control, but the strength to overcome it exists within you, even if you don’t think it does at the time.

I know, what I said is a little precious and a bit laughable that a game taught me this, but honestly, sometimes you need these little reminders. And in even more positive news, I returned to the Dark Souls franchise. I’m still waiting for a sale on Dark Souls Remastered, but I’ve already beaten Dark Souls 2 and I’m currently busy with Dark Souls 3. It’s a lot more manageable than I thought. Who knew that all it took was just to git gud.

I am way too tall, played way too many games and I love to write about what we love about games. In the end, I'm just being #Thabolicious

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