I love Japanese food. There is something so fulfilling about a full Japanese meal: the flavours, textures, colours, the neatness of the portions, the mixture of strong and subtle. I could eat Japanese food all day and still manage just one more piece of sushi. My only lament is that I am not sufficiently competent with the chopsticks to get through a meal without dropping something into the soy sauce, breaking a nigiri apart, poking myself in the eye with one end of the chopstick, or missing my face altogether with the food at the other.
Playing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is like being given a delicious Japanese meal to eat, but with two catches. Firstly, sometimes, for no discernible reason, the room is plunged into total darkness. Secondly, every time you fumble your chopsticks or drop something, you have to eat a whole chopstick, and if any splinters get into your gums, you have to eat another chopstick, and you keep eating chopsticks until you can eat one without any clumsy gum-stabbing.
I just about managed to complete my first run of the game without choking on splinters or throwing my mouse away. I had to use a guide at one point and, as a result, accidentally spoiled the fact that there are multiple endings. Once I knew, I had no choice but to aim for the “best” one. That led to the From Software Lore Rabbit Hole ™. Deep in the trenches of fan wikis, I found the world-building of Sekiro. Or, at least, what it might be.
The Value of Vagueness
For the sake of simplicity, let us say that there are two kinds of world-building. There is the first type, which aims for completeness: this type gives details of the cosmology, the history, the geography, the demographics, the government, the religion, the cuisine, the local customs, and so on. Usually, only a single continent, the continent on which all the excitement is set, receives this level of treatment. In this category we might find Forgotten Realms, A Song of Ice and Fire, even Warhammer, arguably, and certainly The Lord of the Rings.
The second type consists of world-building which hints and implies and, I would argue, consists of two categories. Sometimes this (the first category) involves a complex cosmology which has been invented completely before the story even starts; sometimes (the second) this is to hide areas where the author has not yet quite decided on an aspect of his world.
Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference. Successful examples of this second type, regardless of category (apparent or otherwise) rely upon atmosphere and a trail of breadcrumbs to lead people to the story. The more complex ones might require detective work or even multiple people working together to assemble the story of the world from cryptic clues. As a result, much of the deeper workings of the world-building can go unnoticed by the majority of readers/players, but sometimes a small, fiercely invested core of fans can spend a great deal of time uncovering and discussing the finer points.
Mysterious realms experienced through a lens of tragedy are basically From Software’s niche, and the various wikis dedicated to their intellectual products are assemblies of back-story for their games, essentially, drawn from game narrative, lore snippets, cryptic NPC dialogue, and speculation.
Sekiro adds a little yuzu twist to all this by drawing heavily upon Japanese legend: most players will not pick up on the allusions, references and pastiches of Japanese myth and history – at least, most players outside Japan will not – but the important references and the integration of the Chinese classic Journey to the West strongly imply that the world of Sekiro is a fantastical re-imagining of our own, and that the story is probably set during the Tokugawa Shogunate.
The mixture of historical and fantastical themes is what allows Sekiro’s world-building to thrive. Much of the work has already been done, after all: the distinctive, albeit romanticized, Japanese aesthetic; samurai; ninja; ashigaru; dragons, and so on. By rooting the story amongst the mundane inhabitants, the gaps are filled by the deductions or, more likely, the imaginations, of the players. The canny reader may now spot a problem: I am struggling to find something to write about the world-building, because although what is there is done well, there is so little of it. At least, so little of it that is apprehensible.
The Problem of Paucity
I am not a fiercely invested fan. I simply do not have the time or the energy to turn over every stone and hunt for every nugget of hidden lore. As a result, the way in which I discovered much about Sekiro’s story and world was not through the organic process of playing or reading, but by checking things on the wiki.
For a medium, such as computer games, for which the specifics of the story and world-building are arguably of secondary importance, this is not necessarily a problem, but when it is, it can be very frustrating, or even a cop-out. Fallen London and Cultist Simulator are two games, both conceived by Alexis Kennedy, which can often feel as though they are hiding from cosmological commitments behind prose so purple it could clothe an emperor. As with Sekiro, I want to believe that there is a fully realized world lurking in the shadows, but because all three demand such a massive investment of time and still require detective work, meta-game analysis of themes and phrases, and checking of historical and literary texts, it can feel sometimes as though the pieces of the world were arranged with only a general direction in mind, and the players have been left to do the rest of the work, like a set of Lego with part of the instructions missing. That is all assuming I do not just check the wiki. Which is a poor assumption.
Now, there is nothing wrong with experimenting with Lego, nor of playing with the medium: last week’s post was all about how much fun that can be. But, from a world-building perspective, an inability or disinclination to be specific about the world can lead to frustration on the part of the reader. It is all very well knowing that the demons in one’s universe are actually the hyper-intelligent spores of black-hole-swelling supra-intelligences, or that the motives of the emperor are obvious to anyone who has read the complete works of Jane Austen, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and at least the first half of the Book of Five Rings in the original Japanese: if one never commits to showing or explaining what is only implied or presented without context in situ, one will just end up stringing the reader along and, if the reader is disinclined to jump down the rabbit hole prepared by the author, eventually the stringing will become too tedious and he will stop.
Writing worlds which hint at, rather than reveal, stories is a risky proposition. Even in the hands of expert writers, such worlds can fail to hold the reader’s attention or fail to live up to expectations. For those with the willingness to take that risk, it can be an immensely rewarding enterprise, not only for the author but also for dedicated and faithful fans of that sort of story: Fallen London is now in its tenth year and has multiple spin-offs. Yet, it is telling that those spin-offs either explain things only implied in the original game, or are much less coy about telling the player what is actually occuring.
When/if Sekiro gets a sequel (Shadows Die Thrice?) it will be interesting to see how it maintains its aura of mystery without collapsing under the weight of its own unresolved enigmas.