8-Bit Narrative: Sekiro™ Shadows Die Twice

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.

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Wolf meets the Sculptor, in all his reclusive glory

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.

8-Bit Narrative: Red Dead Redemption 2

I’ve been begging for more of NPR’s excellent series, Reading the Game, which explores the crossover between literary and video game narrative.  I got my wish, a few months ago, when Jason Sheehan wrote on last year’s Game of the Year contender, Red Dead Redemption 2.

The game’s old news now, but even so I can’t help but thinking back to this game, this 50-hour-long glance at the Wild West: a period so warped by American mythology that it’s difficult to think of as a real place.

RDR2’s story opens in the most unforgiving of mountain ranges, where a blizzard whips and batters a poor caravan as it slogs through the snow.  If I had ignored the prior text scrawls, I would have no idea this caravan belongs to the notorious Van der Linde gang.

The gang takes shelter at an abandoned settlement, where Dutch van der Linde, the leader, makes a motivational speech. There’s no music—just the voice of a man talking to his starving, crumbling followers.

It’s here where a little exposition is dropped, but it’s not much to go on.  The gang’s running from a job-gone-wrong in some place called Blackwater.  A few characters, who I never got to know, are already dead.  That’s all I know.

It’s important to note that RDR2is not a chronological sequel to its predecessor. It’s essentially a prequel. Knowledge of the first game, while helpful, barely serves a purpose here.

After Dutch’s speech, the player takes control of Arthur Morgan, the main protagonist and Dutch’s pseudo-right-hand man.  I say “pseudo-right-hand” because the gang hierarchy goes mostly unsaid.  Characters flow in and out of Dutch’s graces.  Arthur starts somewhere near the top.

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Arthur Morgan, RDR2’s troubled protagonist

Immediately, I realize how loyal Arthur is to Dutch and the gang.  He says little.  He rarely hesitates.  He does ask questions though, and it’s here where RDR2’s conflict is set in motion.  All’s not right with the Van der Linde gang, and Dutch’s credibility is already being called into question.

The player’s first task as Arthur is to find food. That’s all.  Not shoot up a saloon.  Not rob a bank.  Just find food.  How quaint for a developer like Rockstar Games, whose pedigree has largely been defined bythe Grand Theft Auto franchise.  This is not a loud and proud opening.  This is cinematic but reserved and self-contained.

Early on, I’ve already discovered what this game is about. This is about people.  This is about struggle, natural and man-made. This is about a man with a vision, Dutch, and his followers as they seek to keep up with him.  This is about one follower in particular, Arthur—loyal to the vision yet a cut above the others.

It’s a slow opening for sure, something that you would sooner see in a book or a 5-season Netflix series.  The freedom of the open world doesn’t really become “open” for the first few hours, and for some, that’s just too long for a video game.  I had one friend who quit the game just an hour in—because he said it was so slow.

And I guess that’s fine.  Games are games for a reason.  They’re meant to be played and interacted with.

But as a writer, I’m inspired by games like RDR2—ones that take their time, develop their characters, and weave an engaging story.