Sekiro is perhaps one of the most difficult games to discuss when considering narrative—because it doesn’t really try to be narrative-driven.
Yeah, I know it’s a bit counter-intuitive to this series’s focus on video game narrative. But something rare is accomplished in Sekiro—something that’s rarely accomplished in writing, let alone video games: the side-lining of exposition.
Not entirely, of course. Sekiro condenses all its exposition into a 3-minute cutscene at the beginning of the game. It’s gorgeously rendered in CG, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome. I’m not here to watch a movie. I’m here to play a game.
There are some important bits in this cutscene: a brief glance at the bloody conflict of Sengoku Era Japan; and the introduction of Wolf—a shinobi (ninja) and the main character of this story.
That’s all I need. From here, the linear storytelling falls to the wayside. From here, it all flows naturally as I play. No long-winded cutscenes. No expository dialogue. Just the world as it is: a narrative playground just begging to be uncovered. It’s what my British literature professor calls a “sprezzatura,” or what Oxford dictionary calls a “studied carelessness.”
When exposition does rear its head, there’s always a reason—and not because the writers have artificially placed it there.
It surprised me to learn, early on in my playthrough, that one of those reasons is sake. Yes, sake. While Wolf is out in the world, he’ll eventually come across pitchers of sake he can gift to certain characters.
One of these characters is the Sculptor, a one-armed hermit who carves Buddha idols in his free time. The Sculptor’s not a social character. His voice hangs low, he never looks you in the eye, and he spends almost the entire run time of the story hunched over in a small dilapidated temple.
But like any reasonable human being, the Sculptor never passes up an opportunity to share a drink. Actually, he doesn’t even hesitate. He chugs the whole thing in front of you, and he even gets a little social between bouts.
What he says depends on what sake Wolf brings him. Each sake, a different flavor, stirs different memories.
(After giving the Sculptor Monkey Booze)
SCULPTOR: It burns the throat, same as ever. This really brings back memories.
WOLF: Did you drink this often?
SCULPTOR: I trained in the techniques of the shinobi in the valley where the monkeys dwelled…
WOLF: … By yourself?
SCULPTOR: No. There were two of us. We were rogue Shinobi—there was no proper master for the likes of us. That’s why we went to the valley. To run, to jump, to clash swords, where one slip would mean your doom. That was how we trained. We came to move exactly as monkeys did after a time. (Takes a drink) I’d drink this Monkey Booze whenever I tired of training. And I’d listen to the howl of my partner’s whistling finger while I drank. It was from his unique ring. Whistling through that ring—would fill the valley with a somber melody. Strangely enough, I enjoyed that sound. I listened to it so often.
The purpose of the sake then, is not simply to watch a character blabber nonsensically about their life. Sake stimulates nostalgia. It stimulates memory. Not unlike ice cream or a Coca Cola.
Or Proust’s madeleines. For me, that was the real kicker: to find hints of Marcel Proust and his memory-jostling cookies in a video game. Here, of course, it’s alcohol in place of confectionary delight, but the purpose is the same: an involuntary nostalgia trip. A brief adventure back in time.
At some point, Wolf will find himself in a valley where monkeys dwell, and after beheading a giant ape, he’ll find a “Whistling Finger” in its belly. When he comes back to the dilapidated temple, the Sculptor asks about it—only to never speak of it again.
When I’m writing, there’s always a larger story I want to tell. Something grandiose and epic. Something that is simply too ambitious. There’s never enough room.
So instead, I pick a focal point—like madeleines or sake—a lens through which I can weave a story.
I can never say everything, but I don’t need to.