Well tonstant weader, we did eventually beat “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice,” and we stand by our earlier assessment. To be fair, I have yet to play “Devotion.” Also, “Slay the Spire” would now likely beat “Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night” for second place… but I digress.
“Sekiro” was a good game, and more than that, a truly fascinating one. I cannot think of a title released in recent years that was as engaging in terms of both gameplay and story, which is a key combination. One can argue whether other contemporary games had more compelling or complete narratives; on its surface, “Sekiro” is just about an undying shinobi trying to recover his young master in war-torn feudal Japan, decapitating all manner of human and inhuman foes to do so. But underneath that, “Sekiro” has a host of philosophically intricate and psychologically profound themes at play.
One of those themes concerns processing poisonous emotions like hatred, regret and anger. In “Sekiro,” those emotions are natural outgrowths of war, violence, maybe even human existence itself. We give them credence by clinging to them, and it is perhaps only by releasing them that we, as individuals, are able to move beyond the negativity that chain us to the past. Not only does this theme tie together a number of “Sekiro’s” narrative and gameplay quirks, it also ties into the game’s notorious difficulty.
This theme of emotional processing is most directly stated after the battle with the mounted samurai Gyoubu Oniwa. Once that boss has been felled, once horse and rider have seemingly dissolved into ash, once Sekiro has apologized, Sekiro can turn to a nearby building. Inside he will find an elderly woman with a lamp who is given no name but refers to herself as an “old hag.” She notes that Gyoubu is a corpse, but that “changes nothing.” War and violence don’t stop, and that’s not the only thing that can’t be quelled by battle. “Where’s all that hatred go?” she asks. “Haven’t you ever wondered?”
On the same grounds where you fought Gyoubu, an endgame boss called the Demon of Hatred will eventually spawn. This is the final unfortunate form of the Sculptor, an old man who was haunted by his own violent past. He attempted to find release through religious devotion, specifically by devoting his life to carving and (presumably) establishing statues of the Buddha throughout the area. However, his efforts disappointed him. “No matter what I do, any Buddha I carve is an incarnation of wrath,” he tells Sekiro. “Thus is the fate of those who owe a deep karmic debt. You’ll understanding when you try carving one for yourself one day.”
Interestingly, what has been noted by the fandom is that the sculptures resemble less any particular image of the Buddha and more the multi-armed ashuras (conceptual descendants of Hindu asuras), supernatural entities that, depending on the tradition and on their own stage of spiritual development, are troublesome anti-gods or the wrathful aspect of the transcendent Buddha.
As the Demon of Hatred, the Sculptor succumbs completely to a kind of ashura self. If karma is understood as destiny, then his has been achieved: wrath, hatred, however that negative emotion is understood, it has erased his identity this life cycle. Fittingly, “Sekiro” is a game that encourages replays, and so encourages similar trips through a narrative cycle of being, each playthrough subtly influenced by the last.
The concept of negative emotions and karma as something that can be inherited is present in the game mechanic of Spirit Emblems, paper dolls that can be collected from the dead and power Sekiro’s prosthetic arm. In some flavor text, the Emblems are referred to as manifestations of regret, which is held and utilized by Sekiro as a shinobi: “Those regretful of their vile actions are haunted by many Spirit Emblems. Shinboi who have killed many must bear the physical toll of those sins.” Elsewhere: “Shinobi who have killed many must carry the burdern of their sins in their heart.” Elsewhere again: “Inheriting the karma of those they’ve killed is also part of being shinobi.” Regret is not simply feeling bad about something. It is karma, cosmic destiny given individual weight, and it can be passed on to others.
The emotion that is most frequently passed on to the player is anger (for confirmation, check out some “Sekiro” rage compilations). The difficulty of the game was questioned, even criticized, by some who felt the difficulty was a form of elitism or gatekeeping, or else it excluded disabled players. Conversely, the difficulty had its defenders, those who saw victory after intense challenge as subsequently more rewarding. They also cited the difficulty as part of the game producers’ artistic vision, although this seldom seemed to go deeper than tying into FromSoftware’s overall narrative philosophy of gloomy, brooding decadence. Perhaps there was a greater lesson about patience or humility, but the goal of such personal virtues were always connected to the first point: achieving victory following a difficult game felt more earned, and therefore, more rewarding.
However, recognizing those exact virtues through repeatedly playing – and dying and playing again, itself a game element through “Sekiro’s” resurrection mechanic – is connected directly to the game’s themes of inherited emotion through lifetimes. What emotion does a player inherit while playing through the cycles of Sekiro’s lives, deaths and rebirths? If it is gamer rage, then they have failed to heed the lessons of the old woman and the Sculptor, and their karma both drags the down and is dragged down with them. Ultimately, “Sekiro” is a Buddhist parable in both narrative and gameplay, a reflection on achieving emotional equilibrium – not merely gamer victory – in order to pass through this life cycle free from burdens.
Bosses are the only enemies that won’t repeatedly respawn after death, but some do leave behind key items called memories – battle memories of “extraordinary foes,” as the flavor text puts it. Memories can be processed at sculptor’s idols, where they become remnants – still battle memories, but now recalled in such a way to enhance Sekiro’s attack power. Apparently one answer to the old woman’s question is that the hatred experienced in battle lives on after the death of the body in the form of memory. Whether that hatred keeps us locked in a moment where we cannot release negativity or a moment were can pause, reflect upon and release, and resume the cycle enlightened, is up to our own powers of patience and perspective.