I translated the Famitsu interview as well, which you can find here. You can also read this article on Medium.
A new project based on a completely new IP. Today, we ask Mr Miyazaki about the choice of a Japanese setting as well as the game's design.
We've been looking forward to this game since the December teaser video. What's the meaning behind the title "Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice"?
Sekiro means "one-armed wolf", and represents the main character. He lost an arm, yet is as a wolf, that's the feel. As for the subtitle "Shadows Die Twice", it was originally supposed to be a catchphrase for the teaser, but the publishers really liked it, and made it a subtitle. "Shadows" is a metaphor for the essence of the ninja, and "Die Twice" signifies both the unique revival system in this game, as well as a warning to the player that they'll die a lot.
The last new IP From worked on was Bloodborne. When did development for this one start?
We started this project about when we finished Bloodborne's DLC. That was about the end of 2015.
When you wrote the planning document, did you already know this would be a Japanese-style action game?
That's right. When we were discussing ideas for new titles, naturally, one of the ideas that came up was a Japanese-style game. The planning document was based on that idea. From has worked on many Japanese-style games, but it's been a while since then, so for myself and many of the younger staff, this would be our first experience with a Japanese theme, so we expected to be able to create something new.
There seem to be a lot of influence from Tenchu. Was that intentional?
Yes. Tenchu was the original inspiration for this work. When we started the project, we initially thought about putting it under the Tenchu series, but we gave up on that quickly. Tenchu had been developed by a very different set of people, and we felt that we wouldn't be able to make anything but an imitation of it. So while this work was originally sparked by Tenchu, and borrows mechanics like the grappling hook and the ninja kill, it'll ultimately be our own new game.
Did you start working with Activision while this was still in the Tenchu stages?
Activision had held the IP for Tenchu before us, but that's not why we decided to work with them. Although it's a funny coincidence (laugh). The most critical reasons that we decided to work with Activision were that, first, they had great respect for the idea, and second, we thought we'd be able to work together in an interesting partnership.
What kind of work does Activision do on this project?
We follow their lead on ease of play, pleasure of play, and proper onboarding/tutorializing. Embarrassingly, it's something we're not that good at (laugh). The rest of the advice they give us on the game is founded, though, on respect of the game we want to make and the idiosyncracies we want it to have. While preserving the uniqueness of our design, we want to have as many people as possible experience interesting and fun play with this game. That's the perspective from which they give advice, and it's why we thought we'd be able to work together in an interesting partnership.
We want to merge the beauty of decay and the beauty of freshness.
Why did you choose the end of the Warring States period for the setting?
We decided very early on that the main character would be a ninja. That was the basis on which we built our game design. For a setting that could thus contain a ninja, we had Warring States or Edo, and we chose Warring States. There are a few reasons for that decision. First, the Warring States period is conceptualized as more raw and dirty. Then-- and this is something that's less definite-- Edo is more modern, while Warring States has that medieval feel, which still holds mythological significance. On top of that, we chose the end of the Warring States period in order to incorporate the nuance of decay which informs our conception of Japanese beauty.
What kind of imagery are you thinking of for your first Japanese-style game in so long?
With regards to Japanese beauty, we considered its two faces, one of decay and one of vividness. It may seem a contradiction, but we wanted to unite them. In our recent works, we've really been suppressing vivid beauty, so we consciously emphasized it this time. We really enjoyed creating the imagery, and we hope the players will as well.
The portrayal of blood in this game is a lot more vivid and showy than in previous games.
We often compare it to Bloodborne. In Bloodborne, blood is thick and gloopy, but in this work, it's more watery. I think it's a matter of the difference in worlds, or the characteristics of the work. But portraying blood is a difficult task, and we may still make adjustments to it.
I've seen that a certain character appears at certain critical important points in battle.
Yes, the appearance of the kanji! It is a Japanese-style game, so we thought to try that (haha). As a result, we found a unique flair for this game. By the way, the kanji will appear overseas as well, with nearby text describing the meaning for each localization. Initially, we wanted people to think of it as an effect instead of as a letter, but they wouldn't listen (haha).
A character-focused tale of rescue and revenge
This time, in contrast to Bloodborne and the Dark Souls series, the main character has a defined style and look. Will the depiction of the story likewise differ from previous works?
That's right. This work features a fixed main character, who serves as a focal point of the story. Since the story revolves around this fixed point, it'll be significantly different compared to Dark Souls, which lacked anything similar. The themes of this story would also be difficult without the fixed main character, so this will also serve as a fresh aspect of the work. But, in order to prevent any misunderstandings or undue expectation, this isn't a game that will particularly focus on storytelling. With respect to how we tell stories, this will be the same as our previous works.
The prince the main character serves-- will he and the samurai who abducted him serve as a key to the story?
That's right. This story fouses on rescue and revenge, so the prince and the Ashina samurai will be keys to the story.
The one-armed Buddhist statue carver is also interesting. What kind of place does he occupy in the story?
He'll provide hints to the player, and serve as a sort of curt navigator. To compare to Demon Souls, he's kind of like a Crestfallen Maiden in Black, I guess? Of course, he has a backstory too, and it'll become more clear during the game's story.
What kind of enemies will appear?
In addition to runaway soldiers, armored warriors, and bandits, there'll also be many types of enemies from demonlike giants to great white snakes-- as seen in the E3 trailer. The enemies will be quite unique, so look forward to them!
Will the story diverge based on choices made during play?
Most of the story will be the sam, but there will be multiple endings.
Action emphasing "Kill Wisely"
What is the fighting like in this game?
As in Dark Souls, the goal is to provide a challenging experience that feels good to overcome. In this work, we also emphasize the freedom of strategy, and the creativity you can employ to solve challenges. You can face challenges head-on, or alternatively use one of a multitude of create strategies. Unlike a samurai, the ninja's image is one of: any method is good, as long as it produces results!
It sounds like this work will have a different essence from previous ones.
True. First, the image of swordplay is different. This work focuses on the clashing of swords, and searching for a moment's weakness to deliver a final blow as you wear down your enemy. It's a style that fits both the Japanese and ninja aesthetics, and that serves as the foundation of this game.
Will swordplay involve stamina, as the games up till now have?
"Balance" would probably be more accurate. If you strike at your opponent's torso, their posture will crumble, and you'll be given a chance to deliver a finishing Ninja Kill blow. Unlike in previous games, there's a unique emphasis on massive conditional swings. In normal combat, you slowly whittle down your opponent's health, but we focus heavily on the Ninja Kill in our design, which emphasizes creativity as is necessary to bring down your enemy's balance. However, this is only a starting point for our conception of combat, and there'll be more to it. This swordplay focused around single strikes will open up many strategic options, and the prosthetic arm will be a significant part of that.
What is this prosthetic arm like?
It primarily serves as a ninja weapon. There will be many variants, like shuriken, firecrackers, and sparks, that all contribute to the freedom of strategy and the creativity of approaching challenges. For example, if an enemy is wielding a shield, you can use the hidden axe to take down his shield and strike his torso. It'll be critical that you select your tools properly to stand against various enemies and situations. There are a few weird tools as well, like the steel umbrella featured in the E3 video. They'll all serve various creative purposes, as well as give the game a unique feel.
Will you be able to switch your prosthetic tools on the spot?
Yes. You'll be able to select several tools beforehand, and switch between them in combat..
Can you tell us more about how the grappling hook will be used in combat? It looks like it'll be focused on providing movement capabilities.
That's correct. First and foremost, the grappling hook will be a means of movement. As in Dark Souls, the game will feature three-dimensional maps--which I love-- and the grappling hook will give you a unique way to traverse the map vertically. Within the three-dimensional maps that we always created, this time we wanted to emphasize vertical traversal, and this actually became one of the reasons we made the main character a ninja. I hope the players will enjoy vertically exploring the maps. However, the grappling hook will also have combat uses. You can use it to maneuver behind your opponents, or beat a retreat into the trees, or make many other dynamic movements.
Are the maps designed with grappling hook traversal in mind?
Yes. The maps contain laid-out points where the grappling hook can be used to move around. Furthermore, with one minor exception, the map is fully interconnected and will allow freedom of game progression.
The revival system seems like it will have a massive impact on the flow of battle. How did you come to add it in the game?
The revival system reflects the image of the ninja, which consists of always being on the edge of death, and therefore capable of dying easily-- but also serves the gameplay purpose of keeping the game's tempo steady. It will also be a critical mystery in the story.
It sounds like you'll be able to make strategies based on dying.
That's right. It's not the main purpose, but sneaking up on enemies who thought you dead and ninja killing them from behind will serve as a unique aspect of this game. There will also be paths this kind of strategy opens up.
Have you decided how many times you'll be able to revive?
There will be a limit, but it's a work in progress. This being said, we don't want people to lose the tension of playing on the edge of death, or to become inured to dying, so we're considering death penalties balanced with revival. I may be repeating myself, but the goal of revival isn't to decrease the difficulty, but rather to maintain the presence of death and the gameplay tempo. Perhaps given the revival system, we can make the death penalty harsher...
Finally, why did you choose to focus on singleplayer and omit multiplayer?
There are many reasons. First, multiplayer places many restrictions on game design. With a fixed character and a fixed class, we've removed most of these restrictions, ad it seems much more optimal to focus uniquely on the singleplayer experience. As a result, this work will carry its own unique feel and charm, so please look forward to it!
With the influence of the Tenchu series still lingering, this is the kind of game they want to make now.
From Software's newest project SEKIRO: SHADOWS DIE TWICE has finally been announced. First, how did you come to develop this project?
Miyazaki: This project started roughly when we finished development of Bloodborne's DLC. That was about the end of 2015. At the time, we were still working on DS3, and we had a few ideas for titles to develop afterwards. From had originally worked on projects like "Ninja Blade" and "Otogi(??)", as well as the Tenchu series from the third game on, so we thought we'd like to make a more Japanese-style game of one of those. Free of the games we had been developing up until then, to myself and many of the younger developers at the studio, this would be our first chance at making a Japanese-style game, so we looked forward to picking up some new ideas and taking a new turn with a new title.
From originally started with Japanese-style action games, didn't it?
Miyazaki: Yes. Within the genre, we especially focused on ninja games. You might be able to tell, but the biggest influence on the early stages of this project was the Tenchu series. We initially considered publishing this under the Tenchu series, but we gave up on that idea quickly. Fundamentally, Tenchu was created by a very different set of developers with idiosyncracies that shone in the work, and if we were to develop under that name, then we feared it would come off as an imitation. So while we received many influences from Tenchu-- including the grappling hook and Ninja Kill-- we created our own foundation for this game.
Were you [Miyazaki] also interested in creating a Japanese-style ninja action game?
Miyazaki: Of course I was interested. I expect I'll be able to expound on this later, but the idea of a three-dimensional map, or the combination of showiness and tension in battle, or the idea of there being a multitude of ways to conquer obstacles-- I feel like all these concepts I love mesh very well with the essence of the ninja.
It's been widely reported that From is working with Activision on this title. What kind of collaboration exists?
Miyazaki: Excluding actual game development and sales within Japan and Asia, we've left sales in the rest of the world to Activision. One of the most significant reasons for choosing Activision as a publisher was that they could give us adivce about the entire length of game development.
We don't often hear of From working with that level of collaboration.
Miyazaki: That's right. But let me say this clearly: all decisions about game development are made by us. Activision respects the game that we are making, and that we desire to make, and offers play impressions as well as advice about what we could do to improve the game. As always, we ask that all decisions after the title screen be left to us, and we've been successful in collaborating under this framework.
I didn't expect that Activision would be involved in the creative aspects of the game.
Miyazaki: "Creative aspects" is quite vague, but what Activision principally focuses on is ease of play, comfort, and appropriate onboarding [tutorial-ish]. It's embarassing to say, but we're not particularly strong in those areas, so it helps greatly.
If I recall correctly, you [Miyazaki] will be serving as the director for this project.
Miyazaki: Yes, that's right. We currently have a large and reliable staff, as well as many well-performing departments. The game's level design, artwork, and general style are as you've seen up until now, and we mostly have the same people working on this project as worked on the Dark Souls series. Our staff often comes up with great ideas in private discussions!
In the picture of "Japanese beauty" we wanted to paint, we needed the nuance of decay.
Proof that you have a great development environment! This may be slightly off-topic, but in the trailer revealed at The Game Awards, there was an emphasis on the symbol "Shadows Die Twice". Can you explain the meaning of that with regards to this project?
Miyazaki: The phrase "Shadows Die Twice" was originally a short catchphrase I designed for the trailer, but the publishing people really liked it and ended up making it the subtitle (lol). But there's definitely significance behind it. "Shadows" is a metaphor for the essence of the ninja, and "Die Twice" is a reference to the idea of revival in the game's systems as well as its philosophy. Also, it's a bit of a blunt message to the players that they're going to die a lot.
"Sekiro" is written in kanji as 隻狼, correct?
Miyazaki: Yes. 隻腕の狼 [one-handed wolf]. It's the main character's nickname or the like. A man who lost an arm, but who carries the ferocity of a wolf, that kind of feel. Since it's a Japanese-style game, we thought about the name starting from the kanji, and ended up using the kanji 隻 which interested us on a design, meaning, and feel level. Unexpectedly, Activision, which doesn't do much in the field of kanji culture, was interested in this decision.
I'd like to ask about some of the game contents. What era is the game set in?
Miyazaki: It's based on the end of the Warring States period.
As with our previous works, the actual setting isn't firmly placed anywhere, but it has an image of a cold and elevated rural area. To explain why we chose the end of the Warring States period: first off, we had to make a choice between Warring States and Edo, given that the game is about ninjas. The reason we chose the Warring States period is because, first, combat in the period is thought of as more raw and dirty, which conforms more closely with my conception of ninjas. Second, with regards to conceit, Warring States is closer to the Middle Ages, which has more of a mythological feel, and Edo is closer to the modern age, with more of a living, breathing feel. Then, we chose the end of the period in order to incorporate the idea of decay. My conception of "Japanese beauty" requires it!
So you're going to create a uniquely From Software vision of the Warring States period?
Miyazaki: That's right. Realism is necessary, but we don't focus on it too much. As we reimagined medieval fantasy in Dark Souls, we're reimagining the period with our own flights of fancy.
Face and conquer difficult obstacles. I want people to experience the pleasure of achievement. The theme for that idea will be "kill wisely".
The main character's motives are retrieving his master, taking revenge against the man who cut off his arm, and understanding the mystery of revival.
Unlike in previous titles, you're going with a fixed character this time.
Miyazaki: Yes. This will be my first project with a fixed main character, but I think it's necessary to mark a fresh turn. The themes of this story are difficult without a fixed character. I think we'll enjoy this style, though. However, to avoid any misunderstandings, let me be clear: this is not a game in which the story takes priority. There are times when the story pushes the characters, but otherwise, in most respects, storytelling is little different from our previous works.
Are you [Miyazaki] creating the plot?
Miyazaki: Yes. I came up with the foundational ideas, and worked with another staff member to refine them. While I'm looking over their work closely, I've left most of the actual writing to that developer. While this is the first time I've directed the plot but not done the writing, I think it'll be a good and fresh perspective for this work, especially given the idiosyncracies of my writing style.
Can you tell us about the main character?
Miyazaki: I can't reveal many spoilers right now, but... The main character is a skilled ninja. He's a lone wolf without any particular affiliation, and is a cool-headed man who rarely shows emotion. But the prince he was bound to serve was kidnapped, his arm cut off, and he killed. After he thus lost everything, a one-armed sculptor of Buddhist imagery found him, "revived" him, and gave him a prosthetic shinobi arm. This is where the story starts. Then, the main character's motives become retrieving his master, taking revenge against the man who cut off his arm, and understanding the mystery of revival. This story begins with the ideas of rescue and revenge.
The prince is a boy... right?
Miyazaki: Yes. He's another key to the narrative, and as another lonely soul, he raises the question of what will happen to this lonely master-servant pair. We haven't worked with this type of character before, so he's one of my favorites.
Sounds like he'll be a popular character.
Miyazaki: I really can't say. His face is shown clearly, and while From has in the past worked on characters that use that clarity as a key character point, it's a first for me. As such, there's a lot of groping around... The prince and the main character are both like that, and I have a lot of memories of worrying about them. Even though exposing your face is something that should be pretty normal (lol).
With regards to the action parts, I've received the impression that, while it retains much of the style of your previous works, it's more three-dimensional, and flows with a pace different from even Bloodborne.
Miyazaki: There are three major sides to the action design in this game. First, action uses the grappling hook. Being able to vertically traverse a three-dimensional map, which is unique to this game, will allows players to better enjoy the map. Furthermore, the grappling hook enables movement during combat, and widens the range of combat options. Second, the swordplay. This work has a unique perspective on swordplay, based on the Japanese style of swords furiously clashing together in mixed offense and defense, as fighter seek to wear down and debase their opponent's posture. We have a finishing blow, the "Ninja Kill", based on this idea. The core of the battle structure is seeking a moment of weakness in a battle on the edge of death-- just like a ninja. And third is the idea of "kill wisely". In this work, we've expanded greatly on fighting styles with an emphasis on allowing for creativity in approaching obstacles. We've prepared many means of solving these problems, with many applications across situations and enemies. You can attack head-on, or use the surroundings and your weapons to "kill wisely" in a fashion more apt to ninjas than to samurai. The grappling hook and the swordplay also reinforce this style. Dynamic vertical movement with the grappling hook, or ninja-like swordplay based on exploiting a moment's weakness, or the vast range of ways to approach the game's challenges all contribute to that style.
It sounds like "kill wisely" will be a critical point for this work.
Miyazaki: Yes. It's actually one of the core themes of this work, as a means to allow many players to experience the thrill of overcoming difficult challenges. To speak plainly, if you're not that good at action, there will be other ways to play the game. Of course, you can always attack problems head-on. The swordplay is strenuous, without any tricks-- and may end up being harder than the stuff we've worked on up until now. In fact, the opportunities for ingenuity may end up being more interesting than straight combat (lol).
So the player can enjoy a variety of approaches.
Miyazaki: It reflects in our level design as well. Rather than simply get caught up in combat as you progress through the level, you'll look down on enemies from high above, with a naturally-flowing space allowing you to adjust your battle plans. The flow of battle is different, and you might even say it reflects on this diversity of approaches.
Do you think it'll be more fun to think of battle strategies?
Miyazaki: Yes. It's tied to the fun of exploration. You'll be able to eavesdrop on enemies' conversations before battle and freely use that information to seek out new strategies. We think it'll be fun.
The dynamic movement of the grappling hook will allow a fresh combat feel.
Variations in combat style will come from the combination of katana and prosthetic arm, I expect.
Miyazaki: Fundamentally, it's the katana, prosthetic arm, and also the grappling hook. The prosthetic arm will support the swordplay, as well as allow for greater creativity. There are many variations, including shurikens, firecrackers, and a hidden axe. For example, you can use the firecrachers to surprise animals, and this will allow for a lot of ingenuity. There are also several tools which are mostly style and show. Look forward to them!
Will you be able to carry multiple tools in the prosthetic arm?
Miyazaki: You will be able to equip several tools and use them on the spot.
Is there RPG-like progression for the main character?
Miyazaki: Yes. While this is more action-adventure than RPG, we do have progression mechanisms for the main character. Details will come later!
It sounds like the grappling hook will increase the speed of action.
Miyazaki: Rather than speed, it's more a sense of timing. With regards to combat, and of course movement, the grappling hook should provide a new and dynamic feel. It works well with large enemies, and will allow completely new boss experiences.
I expect that the grappling hook will open up large areas, and I see that the design will focus on the intersection of exploring and developing strategies. How will this be reflected concretely in gameplay? Will it be like playing around within a sandbox?
Miyazaki: Map design will be very similar to Dark Souls 1. With one exception, the three-dimensional map will be fully interconnected, allowing a high degree of freedom in game progression. The grappling hook will allow you to maneuver effectively through that environment. We think the exploration will be fun.
What kind of setups will exist with regards to the map?
Miyazaki: I can't say much currently, but we'll mainly be expressing Japanese-style setups in a three-dimensional map. There's a wide range of situations, including vivid Japanese-style ones. Look forward to it!
Will there be a lot of otherworldly enemies, like the snake-- which was clearly a mythological creature?
Miyazaki: That's right. Fundamentally, most enemies will be people, like fleeing soldiers or samurai generals or bandits, but not all of them will be normal people, and there will be non-people. You'll see a lot of weird and thick guys (lol).
Incidentally, I've heard there's no online play in this title...
Miyazaki: That's right. There are many reasons for the decision. We wanted to remove the restrictions surrounding multiplayer and focus entirely on the single-player experience in this work. Something like that. Then there's also the fixed main character, which is most appropriate to this work and gives it a unique play feel.
We want to both establish strong challenge and make available the pleasure of overcoming it.
You mentioned "revival" with regards to the meaning of "Shadows Die Twice". What is that system like?
Miyazaki: By consuming some resource, you will be able to come back to life on the spot where you died. As we want the tension of death that accompanies a ninja's fighting style, you will occasionally actually die-- but if you have to die and redo the level too often, the gameplay tempo becomes stilted... and so we implemented this system to attenuate that. It's not so much the feeling of one play that we want as the sense that your achievements are recorded even if you die, even while every battle had the tension of death behind it. Revival is also an important part of the narrative, and you can even use it as a battle strategy-- sneak up on enemies who thought you dead, and Ninja Kill them from behind.
Dying also becomes a matter of strategy. I'm not sure whether that's new... or just cruel (lol).
Miyazaki: Well, it won't happen often (lol). But it's part of the game philosophy.
How does the number of revives work?
Miyazaki: Currently, we have a setup where you have one free revive every time you start, and then it consumes resources. However, we're in the process of tuning it. We have to ensure that the system doesn't remove the tension of death. The goal isn't to make the game easier or to remove the fear of death-- it's more about maintaining that tension while also keeping the tempo steady. We may add death penalties or the like. It's not really at a point where I can speak much about it. Maybe the revival system will allow us to make a more pointed death penalty? Who knows.
It seems like this title will incorporate many features to balance its difficulty. In your opinion, how does this game's difficulty compare to your previous works?
Miyazaki: The idea is to make a game that is more difficult than previous entries, but that will allow you to use creativity in addition to action to overcome those challenges. On one hand, we don't want to disappoint the players looking for a hardcore game, but we also want as many people as possible to be able to experience the pleasure of overcoming a challenge. In order to achieve both those goals, we've implemented many systems that we will continue to adjust. At the least, we don't want to make that is excessively difficult or excessively simple.
I'm glad to hear it. Is development going well for that "early 2019" release date?
Miyazaki: Uhh... yes. I'm not sure if I can say that this early on, but look forward to more news about development!
Earlier today, Fate/Grand Order (FGO) announced a new event, located in the capital of Imperial Japan during the twilight months of World War 2.
I’d like to say more about the announcement before criticizing it. But I can’t. There was no other information related to the unusually precise setting chosen. The announcement page is replete with technical details and a promotion video offering nothing other than anime swordfight voiceovers over some anime swordfights.
Everyone here is working with only this much: on South Korea’s Memorial Day, a Japanese company announced a game set in the capital of Imperial Japan during World War 2.
The Crime of Omission
It’s not strictly wrong to focus a literary work on the insides of the machinery of evil. Das Leben der Anderen comes to mind. This, however, is irrelevant: FGO has never held any serious respect for history, instead choosing to ape off it for the convenient backstories it provides. Every era featured is sanitized and molded into a child’s toy, since it would take far too much effort to meaningfully deal with the complexity of history. Given the barebones nature of this announcement, we can expect the same from this event: a pivotal era of history, and absolutely no introspection on it.
What a nuanced perspective on the Warring States period!
I imagine the corporate heads believe that scrubbing away all mention of injustice frees them from the responsibility of speaking about injustice. But to paint over the past is only to deny a discussion of its diseases. When a Japanese company replaces the evil of WW2 Imperial Japan with a pretty portrait of swordsmen fighting on rooftops, they quietly reject the relevance of the torture Japan inflicted upon China, Korea, and the rest of the world. We instead see only a picturesque urban paradise — set in, of course, the picturesque paradise of WW2 Imperial Japan. This depiction will be free of puppet states in China, free of brutality in colonial Korea, free of Unit 731.
At best, this is moral revisionism. Japan holds serious responsibility for the terrors of WW2 — responsibility it has not fully acknowledged. Japan is still stoking resentent over its war crimes, and its right-of-center politicians often engage in the same kind of denial displayed by the National Front in France and AfD in Germany. This occurs on a cultural level too: a ranobe series was cancelled only today due to protests over its author’s anti-China and anti-Korean tweets, and MMO Junkie’s anime director stirred up controversy a few months back with a litany of anti-Semitic tweets. These are wounds yet open, scores yet unsettled. Here FGO’s treatment is the worst possible: without even acknowledging the pain of those affected, they milk the setting for money.
And at worst, this will be propaganda — a depiction of a idyllic and innocent Imperial Japan.
The most confounding aspect of this ordeal is that the announcement was on South Korea’s Memorial Day — which means that not a single corporate head involved in this conference even entertained the thought that the setting might be problematic. This kind of utter blindness is not uncommon to Japan. Visit those links once again and note how the first criticism is always international. For every The Wind Rises, there are scores of Japanese media cheaply appropriating imperialism without a thought for the evils associated therewith. I am still amazed that Kantai Collection, a game about using battleships from WW2 Imperial Japan to wage war has escaped criticism for half a decade. But then I remember — the game is Japan-only, so who’s going to criticize it?
The battleship Nagato was the flagship for the attack on Pearl Harbor, and also participated in the Battle of Midway. Good luck finding something in the game that acknowledges that.
Backlash against this event has been fairly small and mostly limited to Twitter. A few reddit threads on the r/grandorder subreddit have waved away all complaints as the mad ravings of Twitter bandwagoners. In other words, there’s been no real bilateral engagement with the problem.
This specific event is actually already written. However, this isn’t really relevant, as we’re analyzing the announcement, not the event itself (which hasn’t even been released yet). The problem here is that such a barebones announcement lends itself to the expectation that this event will be an offensive mess. Perhaps the event will actually be a thoughtful reflection on Imperial crimes during World War 2?
The Imperial Capital Holy Grail Strange Story is a divergent Grail War set during the time of the Third Holy Grail War. The Imperial Japanese Army won the war and created a new bomb that used the Holy Grail as its core.
Or maybe I’ll need to write another post about this a few weeks from now…
Have you ever heard of a philosophical zombie? When discussing physicalism-- the idea that all that exists is purely physical-- the philosophical zombie is conceived as an entity that shows all the physical trappings of a sentient human, but lacks consciousness and the other characteristics of subjective experience.
Besides being an idea insufficiently explored by literary works on seemingly-sentient robots, the p-zombie serves as a bad metaphor for pseudo-works of all kinds, works that simulate depth as long as you limit your analysis to weak and blind methods. Nier Automata is, in this respect, a p-zombie. It wears a confident facade of a deep game about life and love, yet rests on a floundering foundation of disastrous design decisions that become salient when examined on any specific front.
There are three main sections to gameplay, those being hacking sections (bullet hell), flying sections, and 3rd-person hack-and-slash combat. Let's review them in that order.
Nier has no idea how to make a bullet hell game. This is evident in two respects: first, it is graphically atrocious; second, it is mechanically terrible.
There is no style whatsoever to the hacking sections in Nier. The background is always the same, the bullets are always the same, the enemies are always the same, and the structure is always the same. This is a shame, because the hacking sections have more vectors for differentiation than most bullet hell games-- let's name Touhou here. In Touhou, the beauty is in the bullets and the music, and that's really all there is to the game as a whole. The graphical firepower of Touhou is classically unimpressive-- but the complex and emergent beauty of thousands of varied bullets waltzing across the screen nonetheless yields a sight to behold.
The two Touhou screenshots are from the same boss, Kaguya of Imperishable Night (2004). The Nier screenshot could be from any hacking section in the game.
The bullet patterns in Nier, on the other hand, remain uninteresting to the very end. It is always the same colors of spheres, with the occasional homing triangle thrown at you. The patterns never really develop beyond a handful of basic ones, and the near-exclusive usage of spheres as bullets makes them feel incredibly samey.
This is a signficant indictment of the game's design, because the stripped-down look of the hacking section is a fairly obvious design decision. They stripped it down for minimalistic effect, but only made its lack of artistic depth even more obvious. And thus, a 2017 PS4 game billed by Square Enix manages to look far worse than one man's hobby project from 2004.
Mechanically, Nier incapacitates itself by limiting its design tools to spheres with massive hitboxes. Since everything has massive bumpers (including you), there's no way to significantly increase the complexity of a pattern without making it feel like driving a truck through a minefield. The best Nier can offer mechanically is moving a big triangle between the same big circles-- with no development, no variation, and certainly nothing to be impressed with.
I invite you to take a look at the Touhou boss playthrough below (it's the same 2004 game as above). As a bullet hell game, Nier comes closer to a high-school Unity project than it does to Touhou, and I encourage you to play both high-school Unity projects as well as Touhou to confirm that I'm not exaggerating.
These sections are even worse than the bullet hell sections, because they try to incorporate bullet hell mechanics, but end up making a subgame that amounts to "hold attack to win". Even the basic difficulty offered by the hacking sections in the form of waddling around in a pool tube is removed, since you can simply spam attack and browse Reddit while doing so. The explosions look nice, but there's no substance here whatsoever.
I played Bayonetta a few weeks before my second run-through of Nier, and the differences are disappointing. While the combat certainly looks fancier in Nier, it offers significantly less depth, both in terms of the player and in terms of the enemies. You spend the entire game with the same basic moveset you started with, and never develop it. This, of course, is not an issue in games where combat focuses on mechanical expertise, like Dark Souls, but let's not kid ourselves: Nier is, or at least wants to be, a hack-and-slash game, and it has none of the variegated combat styles that keep hack-and-slash fun after a few hours.
To hammer the nail deeper, the enemies don't develop either, both in terms of design and combat. You are fighting little bullet-shaped robots throughout the majority of the game, and some of them have hats. Even towards the end of the last arc, when you are exploring mysterious towers that have burst up from the earth, you still fight the same damn little bullet-shaped robots. They don't even look interesting-- especially compared to the incredibly detailed designs of Bayonetta's angels. Each type has one or two basic attacks, and the lack of substance to their attack patterns means that it is not long before you are simply spamming attack and occasionally dodging to win. Increasing the difficulty does nothing but increase tedium while leaving complexity in the basement. (A lack of enemy combat complexity, incidentally, conclusively relegates Nier to the "not a soulslike" bin.)
And remember: you can easily stack 99x of three different healing items, which have no consume time. Challenging combat? Or tedious combat?
There are a few places where Nier actually does bother to make enemies that aren't incomprehensibly basic: the boss battles. This being said, in terms of combat, the bosses are overall unimpressive. No boss in the main game can't be solved with the same strategy of "blindly spam attack and occasionally dodge", and, in keeping with the little bullet-shaped wind-up robots, they never offer more than basic attack patterns.
In addition, the number of bosses that can be viewed as "interesting" from a design standpoint is appallingly low. There's Beauvoir, certainly, but then you start getting questionable. Is a tank interesting? Is a big robot interesting? What about a submarine? How about a sphere? What if we put a bunch of spheres together? What if you have to fight the sphere ten times? Everyone loves Firesage Demon, right? Some of these fights manage to provide powerful atmospheres, but almost none provide bosses more conceptually interesting than the little bullet-shaped robots outside the fog door.
What if we took two spheres... and made one ellipsoid??????
Nier's narrative meanders around meaninglessly for nearly 70% of the game. It continuously leads you around on pretexts that it tosses away without development. First, the aliens turn out to be irrelevant to the conflict. Then, the new main antagonists Adam and Eve die the second time you meet them. What, in fact, was happening during the first and second arcs? No serious conflict, no serious antagonist, no serious drama. The aliens are fake news, and the arcs end before Adam and Eve can become meaningful.
And then we get to the actual crux of the narrative: watching 9S screw himself over at the hands of continuous diabolus ex machina by the authors.
9S' mental breakdown in the third arc is fairly unjustified, to say the least. He's angry because he arrived at the bridge in the exact fifteen-second timespan that could cause a misunderstanding-- and the bridge collapsed before the misunderstanding could be fixed-- and the two Pods who fully acknowledge the importance of 9S' mental health fail to conceive of correcting the misunderstanding. In other words, it takes continuous arm-wrenching by the author to prevent 9S' temper tantrum from resolving without a murderous rampage.
Thus, the narrative offers no conflict of substance for the first two arcs, and then tops it off with a plot driven entirely on a misunderstanding by an angsty and horny teenager. This is, incidentally, how you write a low-quality harem anime.
I regrettably don't have the space to examine the philosophical implications of the narrative-- something which is nearly impossible to do when you're criticizing negatively-- but let me say this much: Namedropping doesn't constitute philosophy. Assigning various names of historical or romanticized figures to characters is boring and lazy, and is a pitiful excuse for actually discussing philosophy. There are two named bosses in the main game that aren't namedrops, those being A2 and 21O. And the utter levity with which the game discusses the few philosophers that get more than a name indicates clearly that this is an infantile attempt to create meaning where it doesn't exist.
An easy way to deal with modern philosophy is to strawman it, and to then handwave it away. The feminists were born too late to be treated seriously by video games, it seems.
I should mention that there is a case where it is perfectly acceptable to namedrop philosophers-- that is, in Socratic dialogues, when you follow the namedrop by a representation and discussion of a related philosophical position. But it takes a massive lack of respect for Socratic dialogues to think Nier's character names and zesty one-liners about Nietzsche worthy of that category.
I believe this covers many of my objections to Nier as a game. In terms of gameplay, it falls drastically short of its genre in every field it challenges. Its narrative is weakly structured, and its odd insistence on naming characters as would a high-schooler taking his first philosophy course should put off anyone who's read an actual literary discussion of philosophy. (If you want a grand narrative that encompasses a full range of philosophical and political opinion, War and Peace is an obvious place to start. You may notice a stark lack of random namedropping.)
On the other hand, the soundtrack is one of the best I've ever heard in a video game. It's a shame, really, since the soundtrack could have served much greater ends over enticing gameplay.
I rate this game Z for [Z]ombie. Not a philosophical zombie, because its veneer of profundity isn't too deep.
Before playing Fire Emblem Heroes, I always looked upon it with a doubtful eye: Nintendo, in the low-quality gacha business? Unbelievable. What happened to their prudish attention to image?
Now, I can say with confidence that FEH is every bit the low-quality gacha game I feared. In fact, it's worse: it fails at even being a low-quality gacha game, because it's not enticing.
FEH is the first game I've ever played where I never really figured out the point of playing the game. I love narrative experiences and mechanical challenges, and I've certainly done my time grinding Maplestory mobs. I can spend hours on Cookie Clicker, but the moment I try to open FEH, I'm immediately met with the doubt of "why bother?"
Gameplay in FEH is, to put it bluntly, fairly shallow. The narrative is unimpressive, the strategy is a p2w bastardization of Advance Wars, and the experience of immersion we so cherish is nonexistent. There's no significant skill-based challenge, multiplayer is stripped down so far as to be meaningless, and the aesthetic is "good" at best. (Standard fare for mobile games.)
Thus FEH lacks any grounding in most tenets of game purpose. It's difficult to provide a good answer to the question "Why play this game?" But let me offer the answer that should be given: Play it for the progression.
A Retrospective on Maplestory
I bring up Maplestory here because I think it much like gacha games in terms of its lack of serious value. But-- and this is widespread across MMOs in general-- it always hangs the next carrot in front of your face, showing you interesting skills that you can't yet use, or interesting bosses that you can't yet fight. In the old days, Zakum and Horntail were half myth, but dreams of amazing boss fights incomprehensible to us level 50 newbs. In the post-BB era, they push out new boss fights regularly, and by the time you have the stats to beat it, the next one is out. Either way, there's always that carrot: the next boss, the next level, the next set of equipment.
Some of the newer bosses in Maplestory. Meanwhile, bosses in FEH...
It's a common pattern across all games, but what's unique in low-quality gacha games (and Maplestory) is that the progression is the only thing the game offers. Rather than focus on a narrative experience or some complex mechanics, you are fundamentally playing a somewhat complex clicker game that is constantly releasing pretty GIFs for you to buy with your cookie points.
The Importance of Progression
FEH fundamentally requires this kind of cookie clicker progression system (CCPS for brevity's sake), since it by design lacks any other purpose. Generally speaking, any game with no serious narrative and no serious gameplay requires a CCPS to actually make people want to play the game.
Let's, then, take a look at the game's progression systems:
Getting SSRs to fill out your party. You only really need 4, since that's the max party size. You get to choose one when you start (Lyn, one of the strongest heroes in the game, is a choice), you get one during an early story mission, and you can reroll for one easily. So you only need to worry about getting one more SSR after starting.
Levelling up your party. This doesn't take too long; I maxed out my main party within a day.
Miscellaneous minmaxing, including skill inheritance, merging allies, forging seals, upgrading weapons, and getting stat boosts from the Blessing and Support systems.
Now, you'll notice that I seemingly arbitrarily grouped a lot of progression methods under one point. Here's why: I consider filling out a team with SSRs and maxing their levels an "obvious" thing to do. It's something that comes as an instinctive goal when you pick up the game. But the rest? Not really. I see no reason that I should bother with minmaxing my team's stats.
Here's the problem: There's no real reason to engage with progression in FEH past the fairly short task of getting a fully levelled SSR team. There's no carrot. There are neither fancy bosses nor fancy skills, no GIFs to ogle at beyond the basic attack animations, no absurdly high damage numbers pouring out of your enemies as if someone accidentally unsigned a Siberian thermometer. The best opponent you can get is a statted-up version of some run-of-the-mill enemies, without even a nice OST to spice it up. All the arena modes that would necessitate minmaxing ultimately fall to this: there’s nothing outside the same spectacle, sometimes on a bigger screen.
My first thought upon levelling my party to 40 was, "Alright, now what?" Even in Cookie Clicker, there's always the urge to get the next item type, or to break the next boundary of cookies per second, or to simply watch that cookie counter go up until it overflows into infinity (this is possible). But there's nothing to aim for in FEH. I gladly grinded for months at Maplestory to take down boss after boss, but I can’t find that pull in the barebones sameness of all the game modes.
What Could've Been Done
It's not difficult to conceive of ways that FEH could have made the progression system more interesting. (Of course, I would prefer if they just made a game worth playing on its own merits, but we all know that's not happening.)
Bosses, or other combat interactions more interesting than copies of sprites you've probably already obtained. I think this is the easiest route, as all it takes is fancy art to make boss encounters interesting as a carrot.
A proper reason to invest in more than one or two teams. This would probably necessitate actually involved combat, which is difficult.
More incentives to seek out SSRs. As it currently stands, player "interaction" with heroes is fairly undeveloped, and hero development is the only progression in the game.
Let's not also neglect how the game has intentionally hamstrung its own progression systems. It's too easy to max out levels, and the game pretty much hands you a complete team at the start.
I don't want to convey the impression that I think FEH would be a "good" game if it fixed its CCPS. Games based on CCPS are almost invariably terrible, and gacha games are almost invariably evil. That being said, I can't understand why Nintendo so neglected to develop FEH's CCPS, even though there's nothing else the game can offer. It's like Cookie Clicker without Grandma: just spend your time clicking, without even an "upgrade" dangled before your face.
I realize now that I didn't even touch upon the topic of gacha. Perhaps this is because I never really had to bang my head against the summoning RNG. This again is a marker that the game couldn't keep me hooked long enough, even though I'm a compulsive gamer who just spent several hours playing Cookie Clicker for "research". You're losing your grip, Nintendo!
Have you ever wondered who it is that tells you what the names of bosses and items are?
Normally, we assume it to be some omniscient narrator, who straddles the frame between the fiction and our reality, and speaks to us of that which occurs in the other world so inaccessible to us. In video games, the narrator is especially important, because all the detail of the world is provided only with the guidance of the narrator. We spend much of our time in the world seeing events through the protagonist's eyes, with the same perceptual restrictions as them, but even this is ultimately facilitated by the narrator, without whom we cannot connect with the protagonist.
While you're mulling that over, let's move onto the real problem: What does "orphan" mean?
In English, "orphan" may refer to children who (a) have lost their parents to death, or (b) are simply without parents, even if their parents are alive somewhere. Things are slightly different in Japanese, though. While the common word for orphan (孤児, koji) may likewise carry either of these meanings, this is not the word used to describe the Orphan of Kos. Instead, the word used (遺子, ishi) is an archaism which refers exclusively to meaning (a). This is especially notable since the Orphanage Key is titled, as expected, 孤児院の鍵 (kojiin no kagi). Yet given the circumstances, this usage is somewhat... incorrect. Kos isn't really dead, just dead on this plane of existence, or something like that. So the Orphan is not one who has lost his parents to death in the truest sense... right?
Blame the Narrator
Given that the narrator must convey information about the fictional world to us, the readers, it stands to reason that this communication may fail at some points. We may identify three critical points of failure:
The speaker may not understand the information. We'll leave this aside since we don't want to assume much about the narrator currently.
The communication protocol may be incapable of representing the information. Language-based communication is necessarily incomplete, and mathematical results like Godel incompleteness may provide a basis to assert even more fundamental inabilities to make certain statements.
The listener may not understand the information. Within the world of Bloodborne, we see this repeatedly with the problem of "not having enough Insight".
With regards to the 遺子 of Kos, we seem to have the second problem. The Eldritch conception of death was arcane enough to obliterate the minds of Mensis-- how is the narrator to put this into English or a few colored pixels? Kos is dead, but not dead; not there, but yet there. We know that Great Ones cannot simply be killed off, and we observe her curse yet linger, but it nonetheless remains true that she is definitely no longer here. Our representational systems can't hold that kind of information without absurdity and self-contradiction. So the narrator must settle for some degree of inaccuracy in telling us the story, thus choosing to use the word 遺子 instead of... well, there is no proper alternative in our languages. (Of course, if the narrator had a better representational system, then we would have the third problem.)
This is, incidentally, not the first place where the game draws attention to the inherent unrepresentability of certain ideas. The Rune system is based off the idea that the language of the Great Ones simply cannot be represented in human language, and thus must be represented by some arcane pictorial form which is no more comprehensible to us. The name Orphan (遺子) of Kos takes this idea to the level of even our comprehension of the work, declaring it impossible for us to truly understand the family dynamics of the Orphan, even as readers consuming media.
While it may seem that I’m making a fuss over nothing, the difference in word choice is quite significant. The replacement of a catch-all word for an archaism is not to be taken lightly, and I hold enough respect towards Bloodborne to treat its word choice as more significant than a third-grader using a thesaurus.
I think it worthwhile to keep an eye on Bloodborne's choice of words. In fact, you'll be hearing again from me soon about the difference between Holy Blade Ludwig, Father Gascoigne, Cleric Beast, and Vicar Amelia/Laurence, and how these terms place people on the divine ladder.
I came across this quirk while looking up some information to make an argument about the Orphan’s father. That’s right, the Orphan has a father, and I’m going to unmask him. Probably tomorrow. Look forward to it!
(Also, here’s something that’ll make good headcanon for someone. 遺子 is pronounced the same as 意志, which means “will” (the philosophical question of intent and volition). It is also pronounced the same as 遺志, which means “dying wish”. Both of these words are quite common for their meanings.)
Before we start, I'd like to say that my use of Freudian analysis is exclusively literary, and I have no intention of making any claims about its psychological veracity.
My goal in this piece is to show how we might use an intertextual analysis to analyze Gehrman and the Orphan. The Oedipal framework is something that has cropped up quite often in literature, and there is no need to assume anything about the actual parentage or actual mental state of the characters, since we are more accurately trying to fit their actions into an intertextual framework-- a framework existing between all works of literature-- and using that intertextual framework to guide us towards conclusions in this work.
I would first like to propose that we frame Gehrman as a child within the Oedipal complex, with the Moon Presence serving the role of father and Maria serving the role of mother. Gehrman the hunter was metaphorically born in response to the Scourge, and Maria's suicide, which made her "unattainable", was directly precipitated by the guilt she felt over the steps she took in response to the appearance of a Great One in the Hamlet. We'll also justify it further.
The first step of the childhood Oedipal complex is sexual desire for the mother (Maria), which arises from the id, the unconscious fountain of human desire. However, the existence of the father (Moon Presence/Great Ones) prevents the realization of this desire, and the ego, the mechanism of perception, acknowledges that it is impossible to defeat the father in contest for the mother. The ego now has two ways to resolve the conflict between id and reality:
Identify with the father, and thus assume the moral code of the father. This is the normal pathway with regards to the Oedipal complex specifically, as it leads to the development of the superego, an interalized system of moral rules.
Identify with the mother, and create in the ego a substitute for the unattainable mother. This pathway is more common for non-Oedipal desires, but may also occur in the Oedipal complex, even in tandem with the first option.
Freud described the simultaneous development of both these pathways as the "complete" form of the Oedipal complex, which corresponds very strongly with Gehrman's actual actions. In order to cope with Maria's suicide, he on one hand created a substitute in the ego by crafting the doll, and possibly seeking animacy. (Refer to Redgrave's work for discussion of her suicide and Gehrman's coping.) On the other hand, he contracted with the Moon Presence, and yielded himself to its dictates.
Gehrman and the Orphan
Obviously, this is a fairly liberal application of the Oedipal complex. But here's the kicker: we might expect exactly this kind of response in an actual Great One. For example, a Great One who has lost its mother figure may cope by yielding to a fatherlike Great One, or it may seek a substitute and set up an idol. We even know that Great Ones seek substitutes through humans-- most notably women like Yharnam and Arianna, both of whom are linked to Cainhurst as is Maria-- so creating a doll and giving it life is an apt way to execute this pattern. If the Orphan had survived, would it have done something similar?
In fact, we may observe that the denouement of Gehrman's Oedipal situation is roughly half human and half Great One. He yields to the father that created him as a hunter, but that father is the Moon Presence; he creates a doll to substitute for his lost mother, and it is given life through a superhuman process. It is almost as if we've superposed a normal human's response with the unrealized response of the Orphan. This is especially interesting given the two (to my knowledge) major explicit links between Gehrman and the Orphan: the usage of the same sound files and Gehrman's tranquility upon the death of the Orphan, and I believe it fully justifies the Oedipal framework for Gehrman.
You may occasionally find Gehrman suffering severely while asleep, but upon killing the Orphan in the Hunter's Nightmare, he attains some degree of tranquility. Where does this suffering come from? It is certainly not internal, since Gehrman cannot know of your actions in the Nightmare. It is very likely not an external curse, since there is negative evidence that Great Ones can influence dreams controlled by different Great Ones, and the dream is controlled by the MP. (For example, the MP does not interfere with the Nightmare of Mensis, even though it supposedly desires something within that nightmare.) However, one of the functions of the superego is to force feelings of guilt and pain upon the ego for knowingly or unknowingly breaking moral rules-- and at the same time, it would seem difficult for any Great One besides MP to be behind Gehrman's grief. On the basis of this Freudian analysis, it seems reasonable to suppose that MP, in the position of father and acting superego, is the one crippling Gehrman for his sins.
The question of why the MP would take issue with the Hamlet massacre is difficult, but recalling that the Orphan is involved in Gehrman's Oedipal response, we arrive at an incredibly interesting theory: The Moon Presence is the Orphan's father*. This explains much. First, it provides an explanation for both Gehrman's Orphan-like cries and his peaceful rest upon the death of the Orphan, through his "brotherly" relationship to the Orphan. It then also provides an explanation for the reason Gehrman's Oedipal complex seems to be superposed with that of a Great One, as we know the Orphan never had the chance to develop. Furthermore, it explains the origin of the hunter's dream. If we hold that Gehrman signed the contract to establish the dream after Maria's death-- that is, after they attacked the Hamlet where the Orphan either lay dead or was killed (again, see Redgrave's work for more background on this), then this act of yielding to the father matches up perfectly with the MP's search for a surrogate for the child he just lost.
*To be fully clear here: the non-Iosefka cords states "Every Great One loses its child, and then yearns for a surrogate". I am asserting that the Orphan is accordingly the child of the Moon Presence, whatever the cosmic equivalent of parentage be. However, in an Oedipal analysis, we must treat MP as a father.
(Workshop) THIRD UMBILICAL CORD
Every Great One loses its child, and then yearns for a surrogate. The Third Umbilical Cord precipitated the encounter with the pale moon, which beckoned the hunters and conceived the hunter's dream.
We do have a little problem here: it's commonly held that the Iosefka Cord, not the Workshop Cord, is the one linked to the Orphan. However, this problem mainly arises because there are four cords but only three known sources (Mergo, Arianna's child, and Orphan). I think it worth supposing that the Workshop Cord corresponds to the Orphan, and the Iosefka Cord to the yet-unknown source, which I speculate may be Rom or environs. I'll be writing about this at greater length later. However, if we hold that the Workshop cord originates from the Orphan, the Gehrman-Orphan and Gehrman-MP links can be condensed into a single triangle.
This is not yet a complete theory. We'll expound on it further in later pieces, but this is some of the power that a literary analysis framework can provide to lorehunting.
I will clarify some of the ways I used familial terms above. MP is the father of Gehrman in that Gehrman the hunter was created in direct response to the MP, and Gehrman also serves as the MP's surrogate child. Maria is his mother because of the Oedipal framework of necessary but unattainable desire-- the hunter system-- that was likewise created due to the MP. MP is the father of the Orphan in the sense that the non-Iosefka cords declare "Every Great One loses its child, and then yearns for a surrogate", and Kos is his mother in the same sense.
I've conceived of a few more routes of analysis that utilize the Freudian framework. We may use the formation of the superego to argue about how necessary the eldritch liason is to humanity, or we may use the three-layer structure of the mind to argue about the origin of certain attitudes in the minds of key characters. For example, what does the doll's approval of your ascension say about Gehrman's mind before his contract, and about the world that created him?
I'll next be working on providing evidence for the "owners" of the Iosefka and Workshop cords. Once that is done, you can expect an at-length justification of the MP-Orphan theory, which finds its strongest foot in this Freudian analysis.
If you look out from Lumenwood Garden on the way to the Fishing Hamlet, on the right you'll see floating islands with "cities" on them. On the left, you'll see a few cities on islands within what seems to be an ocean, overlooked by a shining sun. You can still see the light of the sun as you prepare to exit into the Fishing Hamlet, and as you cross the threshold, it momentarily blinds you, but then... you see only water. The radiant sun is replaced by rainy skies. The cities to your right and left are still there-- only now underwater.
Looking out from Lumenwood Garden
The change of perspective between Lumenwood Garden and the Fishing Hamlet raises the question: how can a city be in open air and underwater at the same time? The snail that mysteriously falls from the sky near the Whirligig Saw in the Hunter's Nightmare suggests that the place is under the Fishing Hamlet, ie, that it's underwater. But that snail was falling, not sinking, and you certainly don't seem to need scuba gear. Perhaps our understanding of water needs some refining...
What is Water?
Great volumes of water serve as a bulwark guarding sleep, and an augur of the eldritch Truth. -Lake/Sea runes
It seems to me that the traditional interpretation of this phrase has been that it refers to oceans or lakes. But this interpretation is insufficient, because it explains too little. For the most-repeated phrase in all item descriptions, are we really to interact with it only once and weakly at that, when fighting a braindead spider? I think we can do better. Let's attack the problem from another angle.
"The Sky and the Cosmos are One"
For the majority of us who grew up in the Western cultural and literary tradition, the above line seems somewhat redundant. We've generally considered that the gods live on some really big mountain, in the clouds, or just somewhere up there, so it means very little to affirm that the sky and the heavens (or cosmos) are the same.
But there's one thing somewhat unique about the sky in Bloodborne: it's always cloudy (except in Forbidden Woods, where it's foggy instead), and the clouds are generally quite dense. Even if you take the naive ending and wake to the morning sun, there are still clouds. This unnatural universality allows us to better understand the role of clouds: physically, clouds in Bloodborne are always there to separate us from the sky-- or, to the Choir, they are always there to push us away from the cosmos and all the secrets held within. This corresponds to the role that the Lake runes assign to bodies of water. And scientifically speaking, clouds are quite literally "great volumes of water".
Remember the floating islands to the right of Lumenwood Garden, and the waterbound islands to the left? It's a weird asymmetry. But as soon as you consider that clouds are just water, right and left are basically the same, and the otherwise inexplicable asymmetry is resolved. Moonside Lake's "sky" also seems to contain cloudlike structures, notably towards the horizon. If we consider that clouds are the "same thing" as oceans, the contradiction of an underwater sky no longer exists.
Now the Lake runes become much more applicable, and the paucity of relevant oceans in the game is no longer an issue to the supposed importance of water, since we have plenty of bulwarky clouds. (Otherwise, Moonside Lake is the only example of an ocean that blocks access to something eldritch.) In the most pertinent example, The Hunter's Nightmare, Fishing Hamlet, Nightmare Frontier, and Nightmare of Mensis are stacked on top of each other, the eldritch truths of the next layer up bulwarked away only by clouds.
If you look out at the moon from the Wet Nurse's Lunarium, you'll notice that it's below the clouds, but also above a different layer of clouds. This is absurd on a scientific level. But with our metaphorical reading, it makes sense to consider that this place is some kind of cosmic eldritch truth beyond which other truths exist, blocked off by great volumes of water in the form of clouds. Thus, the scientific absurdity can be read to reinforce the thematic nature of the level.
You can see clouds moving... above the moon
We look down from Hamlet and see a city underwater, whereas we look up from the Nightmare and see billowing clouds. This initially confounded us, but now we've established that the game's distinction between clouds and oceans is only a facade, that they're the same thing from different perspectives. It's not clear what rules govern this difference in perspective, but it may be related to one of the core themes of the game: the incomprehensibility of the truth.
A special weapon used by the Choir, high-ranking members of the Healing Church. Sprays a cloud of sacred mist, created by using blood-imbued Quicksilver Bullets as a special medium.
Arias are heard whenever sacred mist is seen, proving that the mist is a heavenly blessing. "Oh, fair maiden, why is it that you weep?"
Why would mist, of all things, be "sacred" or "a heavenly blessing"? The only other things described as sacred in item descriptions are the Yharnam Stone (for obvious reasons) and Healing Church rituals (in the Loch Shield description, again for obvious reasons), and the only other blessing described is "making contact with eldritch wisdom" (Madman's Knowledge). Why are Quicksilver Bullets and Blood Vials mundane, but heavenly when turned into mist?
Now we know: it's because mist, with its construction so similar to clouds, is too a marker of the divide between us and the eldtrich.
The impact of this perspective is, as just demonstrated, that we can now meaningfully analyze the usage of the other forms of water in Bloodborne. The game has many different skies and many different types of clouds, and I hope that I've been able to lay some groundwork for further investigation of their implications on lore and literary meaning. If I knew anything about cloud types, I would try, but I think I'll leave the nephology to those who are capable :P
Normally, when one embarks on a hero’s journey, it is done to some societal end. Little surprise, since our perceptions of what is heroic are entirely dependent on our societies and cultures. Become a king. Succeed in the job market. Defeat the Empire. So what happens when there is no society to set the ideals to which budding heroes can aspire, no society to recognize who the heroes are?
This is the situation proposed in Journey, a small game I had the pleasure of playing this week. Your “destiny”, to climb a mountain, is dictated to you by possibly imaginary messengers of a lost civilization, who have left behind nothing but ruins, cryptic glyphs, and industrial machinery.
In another game, you might have the option of walking away from this destiny. You, after all, bear no responsibility to the dead. But Journey forces you to accept this destiny of voyaging to an obsolete holy ground, and then celebrates it.
So why do we accept and celebrate a quest from a lost civilization?
Nature and Industry
To have discussion on how Journey justifies the imperativity of the player’s destiny, we must first begin with an analysis of how it conceives of man and society. Normally, in the hero’s journey, the duality of man is one of good and evil (see my post on the last Star Wars movie for more on this). However, in Journey, we focus more on the duality of nature and industry.
The world of Journey is filled with red cloth, which stands clearly as a metaphor for life (and is coincidentally colored like coursing blood). All the living things you meet in Journey (except the Ancestor) are made of red cloth, and vaguely resemble real-life animals in their sounds and mannerisms.
On one hand, the game shows us that man is, at some level, in touch with this natural state. In the calm temple area, unlocking the glyphs– records of man’s history– raises the water level and revives cloth creatures. As the player, you free and befriend cloth creatures during your quest, while simultaneously serving the wishes of the civilization. To top it off, the mountaintop– the height of your destiny as dictated by the civilization– is the most pure concentration of natural glory in the game.
But man’s societies, as recorded on the great murals and in the ruins of their civilization, ultimately rely on trapping this red cloth and driving powerful machinery, as we first see at the end of the desert level. The robot whales are, as shown towards the end of the game, cloth whales encased in steel– lifeless industry– for the purpose of man’s civilization. The endless search for technological advancement leads to the destruction of nature and the eventual downfall of civilization.
Every Industry is Industrial in its Own Way
Now, here’s the claim we’re going to make: All people commune with nature in the same way, but they deviate from it in different ways. Alternatively, while our societies and cultures will inevitably depend randomly on our artificial technology, they must arise from the same natural origin.
The largest tipoff to this idea is the final mural scene, where two people holding a cloth rip it between them, before the camera scrolls to a depiction of the robot whales and the ruin of civilization. With nature, they are one, but with industry, they are at war.
The “oneness” of natural man is further backed in the game by the depiction of the travellers. You, and whatever collaborators you may find along the way, all don red cloth, in the fashion of the cloth creatures. You all rely on the cloth to recharge your scarf. With the questions of political allegiance and wealth removed, the travellers are really all the same.
So let’s return to the original question: why do we carry out the wishes of a dead civilization? The answer is…
While the voyage is framed by the ancient civilization, it does not actually concern human society. The quest you carry out is one of communing with nature. When you burst through the clouds to the mountaintop, the two robot whales following you shed their industrial skin and emerge as natural cloth. There is no industry here– only nature. In man’s greatest holy ground we find something primordial, something natural; we find a synthesis of sun and moon, water and ice, life and death, but nothing human.
It does not matter what civilization “designated” this holy ground or this quest. The hero’s journey here exists beyond any conceptions of society or culture; it exists in nature. We do not need the civilization to tell us of the greatness of the mountaintop– it is self-apparent in its natural glory.
Journey here claims that our civilization, our culture, our technology are irrelevant to the glory of the hero’s journey. They may guide or empower us as the white-hoods do in-game, but the mountaintop’s splendor is in no way dependent on them. It only requires the unperturbed beauty of nature, and our willingness to participate in and honor it.
Our celebration at the top of the mountain is utterly devoid of anything human: it is a pure celebration of the world that gave birth to us. This is what makes Journey unique, and what makes it great.
For something to be regarded as heroic, there must naturally be a culture that reveres it. But this doesn’t really exist in Journey, since civilization is dead. That’s where the title of this piece comes from: a glorious journey to the peak of what it means to live in this world, but with only a small and unacknowledged traveler.
It took me two playthroughs and a long time to put the beauty of Journey into words, and I hope that I’ve done so well enough. Much like when I played Ori, I felt a work that struck at the very heart of its archetypal story.
I’m still planning a piece on Bloodborne, but it’s difficult to think of a topic that hasn’t been covered. I’ll also be doing a piece on Ori, which I plan to replay this week; it’ll likely look much like this writeup (except not about the hero’s journey!).
Once I’d finished Dark Souls 3, I wandered around on a few Discords, talking about some of the lore and, in particular, the endings. One common disagreement I had with others was the designation of “good” or “bad” endings, as I often found myself alone in claiming that the Usurpation of Fire ending was the “good” ending. I’ll try here to explain here some of the philosophy that justifies this notion, and also why it rejects the standard ending and the End of Fire ending as “bad”. (I’ll stay away from the secret ending… for now.)
Something is Rotten in the Chaos of Lothric
What is it that makes us human? You may say that it’s the capability for language, and you would be mostly correct. But it’s a bit bigger than that– it’s the use of language to create culture. Without our mythology, our holidays, our history, and all the arbitrary customs and practices founded on them, humans even now are little more than animalistic husks in a world of steel. Now, here is the critical bit that we will borrow from Hobbes’ Leviathan: this culture, these stories, this meaning only exists in the framework of society– that is, where “natural” order has been overthrown.
NATURE hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that… the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest…
Where an invader hath no more to fear than another man’s single power… others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united to dispossess and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life or liberty. And the invader again is in the like danger of another.
In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain… no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Whether or not you believe that this “natural” order ever existed historically, it’s clear that it exists in DS3: it’s the present. As you wander around Lothric, you come across many humans who are now but mindless husks ready to kill you. Even of those who do retain their senses, several of them will eventually kill you if you do not kill them, including Anri and Horace. Outside of the last remnants of Gwyn’s society, there are no humans with whom you can create culture and knowledge, as you do with the pyromancy teachers once bringing them to Firelink (*DLC discussion in another post).
Fundamentally, the problem is that a lack of security– or alternatively a lack of certainty– prevents both lasting peace between and around people, as well as the cultural products that necessitate peace. We speak often of the Lost Generation– those who, growing up during the ravages of World War 1, lost sight of what it meant to live in society. Thus, whatever our solution may be, it must be one where we offer security, peace, and a serious basis upon which we may create arts, letters, culture.
The King is Dead…
It’s debatable whether or not Gwyn’s government was a “good” one for humans during its prime, but regardless, it definitely is no longer. The Age of Fire, insofar as it represented a society protected and ruled by Gwyn, once could offer security to man against whatever terror lay beyond the gates. But in DS3, the gods are long gone and long forgotten, and the Age of Fire is a society in name only, not effect. By extending the Age of Fire, you are effectively doing nothing with regards to the Hobbesian question: man’s life is uncertain both before and after your useless deed, and man will continue to suffer, without culture and without meaning.
No Man's Land
It’s easy to see what the political parallels are that make the End of Fire ending “good”: a yoke of historical repression, then a gentle overthrow and a possibility for a new future. But is this really what’s happening?
In DS3, unlike in most literature, there is only one minor “city” (as in, a society of nonhostile people), both in gameplay and in story, and the rest of the world is out to kill you. What this ending does, then, is destroy the very last city, Firelink Shrine, which only exists as a fragment of Gwyn’s society. There is no promise for a rebuilt society, no promise of security, no promise of certainty. The life of any human is still in severe danger from war against other humans and the lingering terrors of the Dark Souls world. Nobody in the DS3 world has created a bastion of lasting security for humans (DS2 takes a very different perspective on this).
Framed against the final ending, you can read this ending a bit more poignantly: You had the chance to use the remnants of the old orders to establish a new one. But instead, you chose to remove the last crutch of human safety in the world.
The Lord of Hollows
Nobody has created a bastion of lasting security except, of course, the Sable Church of Londor. It may not be the most savory or democratic organization, but it nonetheless offers “salvation for Hollows” (Black Dress). And while it is small and limited, it has already begun to spin its own culture: “tales that portray the suffering and conflict of Hollows” (Dark Blade). The Sable Church is the only group of humans in this world which can be said to have created a meaningful society (*DLC discussion in another post).
Why, then, must you wrest the flame from its mantle? Why can you not just let it die, as Kaathe wished in DS1? What is the Sable Church looking for in the flame and in you?
In order to create a great society, you need power. Regardless of whether your enemies are other societies,the Dark Souls world, or civil unrest, you need authority to establish society and guarantee peace. For the Sable Church to become the society of all Hollows and truly free them from Gwyn’s legacy, it follows that they should expropriate the flame which is simultaneously the power necessary to do so and the last remnant of the gods.
Is this not what the anonymous Hollow is referencing when he pleads for you to “make Londor whole” (or in the Japanese, “guide Londor”)? You have taken responsibility for the full establishment of a new order. You are the sovereign. Through your authority and guidance, rule of law can and will be established across the world, and the nascent culture of the Sable Church may expand and flourish. You are Prometheus. By bringing to man the flame of the gods, you have enabled human civilization and human progress. By unifying man with the power of the gods, you have made man divine, even in a post-religious world.
Furthermore, this ending is the only one which solves the existential problem of the end of society. Trivially, if we are to feel secure in a society, we must be confident that it will not end any time soon. But if we think on cultural terms, we must nevertheless fear the ultimate end of society– not a transition from Fourth Republic to Fifth Republic, but a reversion to that primordial state of nature where our cultural products will be little more than firewood. This problem is stamped all over Endings 1 and 2: the flame will soon fade regardless of whether you kindle it, as will the legacies of the gods, and whatever is made in the Age of Dark will be destroyed by the return of fire. But when light and dark are unified under the empire on which the sun never sets, we have only to fear the end of the world itself.
Long live the King.
You may notice that I switch freely between the designation “hollow” and “human” in this writeup. Lorewise, Hollows are derived from humans, and Yuria refers to them as the true form of man. With regards to real-world comparisons, the game makes it clear that language and will, which are all that is fundamentally required to create a real-world human society and culture, are characteristics that Hollows share. Being hollowed doesn’t necessitate mindlessly wandering around and attacking people (just look at Yuria!), so we must recognize that a Hollow society is fully valid as a literary expression of real-world human society.
I think we must generally be careful not to project our own politics onto the politics of fictional worlds. I feel that people generally read the second ending with a parallel to something like a province declaring independence from a decrepit empire, but fail to recognize that the societal structures that validate the province do not exist in the Souls world. Society is so fundamental to how we think that we may find it hard to imagine its absence– but once you do, the world of Souls becomes that much more terrifying.
I’ve had these thoughts scribbled around for a while, and I enjoyed compiling them and structuring them like this. I wanted to discuss the way the two DLCs also play into this dynamic, but that would make this piece too long, so I’ll save it for another one.
I plan to write a piece about Bloodborne soon, since I recently finished that game. I’m a bit late to do lore analysis, but I’d like to look at real-world moral implications, just like in this post. It’ll be interesting, given how exquisitely they mutilate the hero’s journey.