It’s no stretch to say that the games produced by From Software – among them Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and Bloodborne – have all contained an obvious gothic influence. From sprawling cathedrals to lonely protagonists who transgress the rules of their worlds, it’s clear that these hallmarks of gothic horror have proved a significant source of inspiration for creator Hidetaka Miyazaki.
It seems fitting, therefore, to ask where this applies to the director’s latest offering. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (2019) hews more closely to an action-adventure rather than a horror format. As a shinobi named Wolf, the player traverses a reimagined Sengoku era Japan in pursuit of their abducted master and discovers the secrets behind the powerful bloodline they serve. The game has been praised for its innovative approach to combat, stealth, and level design – not so much for its take on horror. Yet as the game narrative moves from military forts to abandoned temples, from waves of samurai to monstrous beasts, it seems that the world, and story, are more deeply rooted in the gothic than they first appear. Even though the word ‘Gothic’ originated in European discourse, the motifs it refers to can be found in cultures across the globe. Sekiro’s gothic roots lie in Western and Japanese traditions alike, and its horror in the way these are used to represent the sinister secrets of a past that refuses to die.
‘Angry spirits, with many faces.’
Among the fantastical embellishments given to Sekiro’s vision of Japan, the most striking is the addition of the strange, inhuman creatures the player is called upon to fight. From beasts such as the Guardian Ape and Great Coloured Carp to the ethereal Corrupted Monk and Demon of Hatred, it’s clear that monsters, many of them recalling aspects of Japanese yōkai, populate this world in their droves.
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Although these creatures come in a variety of forms, they share the feature of all seeming to exist on the fringes of the human world. Dropping down a well-hidden gorge brings the player face-to-face with a Great Serpent that makes for one of the game’s most interesting enemies. The Guardian Ape can be found lurking a serene, cloistered pool in a corner of the Sunken Valley. Nearly every creature is found tucked in the wilderness, just beyond the reaches of human civilisation. As such, there’s a sense they have been pushed back into these recesses of nature by the violent squabbles of humans, existing now as reminders of a past that many have forgotten. In this way, many of them recall the monsters that populate the gothic horror genre: repressed reminders of a sinister past that human society has attempted to discard.
Yet these enemies are not the only characters to bear beastly or inhuman aspects. Lady Butterfly, Owl, and Kingfisher are humans who take on the names of animals, hinting at an inhuman side to their nature. The same goes for our protagonist Wolf and the Sculptor of the Dilapidated Temple – once known as Orangutan. These characters are all embroiled in the shinobi way of life, operating in the realms of illusion and shadow and existing only to serve their masters and elders. Much like the beasts lurking throughout the land, they are very much on the margins of society. With Wolf rediscovering his own shinobi past, the player finds themselves in the role of the marginalised, shadowy figure caught between a troubled present and a partially repressed past. Like the monsters of Dracula and Frankenstein, he is cast to the fringes of the human world, and like the ever-evolving class of the yōkai, he cannot quite find a place in either past or present.
‘The village in a shadowy fog…’
Starting Sekiro, we arrive first in the middle of a war-torn Ashina in Japan, where spilled blood mingles with the red maple leaves. As Wolf, we emerge from its underbelly, having literally fallen between the cracks on the surface of this ruined landscape, to navigate our way through the legions of samurai to the monolithic Ashina Castle. As the game progresses, we descend into more hidden areas of the landscape: poisoned pools and subterranean passages, abandoned temples and dark forests. Mibu Village is particularly striking for its Gothicism: here the villagers appear as though raised from the dead, with greyish skin covered in boils, hollow, black eyes, and faces that sometimes look as if they could be smiling. With its crumbling houses, gnarled trees, and dying shrubs, this location feels like the counterpart to Bloodborne’s Fishing Hamlet, the Lovecraftian image of a small village overcome by a power too great to be contained.
By having us withdraw into these secluded locations, Sekiro drives us away from the samurai warzones and more heavily populated areas, from urban conflict to rural horror. Just like Jonathan Harker uncovering untold horrors in provincial Romania or the villages that are often the settings of violent or supernatural happenings in Kyōka Izumi’s fiction, in Sekiro these bucolic locations have become corrupted, the ancient monsters and decrepit villagers implying that these areas remain caught in the web of times past. Thus the past in Sekiro is no longer a true source of comfort for its characters – rather, for Wolf, it is a source of knowledge, where secrets and objects are uncovered that allow the player insight into the story unfolding. As such, Sekiro makes use of global gothic horror traditions by having Wolf come face to face with the ghosts that lurk within these decaying, haunted locations, and uncovering aspects of history that remain unknown to those that exist firmly within the margins of everyday society.
‘The parent is absolute. Their will must be obeyed.’
So says Wolf’s adoptive father, Owl, should the player choose to oppose him – thus encapsulating the monstrous nature of history in Sekiro. Owl’s dynamic with Wolf begins as father and son, teacher and pupil, but devolves into one which old traditions threaten to suffocate the possibility of change. If the gothic is a mode that explores the violent clash of past and present, Sekiro is surely no exception.
The dominance of history is represented in the resurrective power conveyed by consuming the Divine Heir’s Blood. Aside from the obvious gothic connotations of blood consumption, the possibility of resurrection, around which Sekiro’s conflict revolves, comes to represent the dominance of past over present. In the fight between Wolf and Genichiro Ashina, we see the clash of two doppelgangers, war orphans and warriors who have surrendered their minds and bodies to a parental figure who offered them protection), and find themselves corrupted by the blood’s power.
Thus Sekiro offers up not simply a story of revenge or violence, but of the perpetual struggle to escape the tyranny of history. Much as gothic media, across Western and Eastern cultures, has staged confrontations with the past in the form of supernatural creatures, strange places, and mysterious characters, so does Sekiro use these same elements to reflect the horror of glorifying the past without understanding the lessons it can teach us. The game’s Gothicism goes towards depicting the present as being disconnected from its own history despite its conflict being rooted in times past. As Wolf, marginalised and excluded, we are able to move across the boundaries of both worlds, and are ultimately left with the same choice as Owl and Genichiro: whether to – in line with an authoritarian rhetoric that has existed in Western and Japanese culture alike – self-sacrifice for the preservation of outmoded tenets and systems or divert down the path towards an unfamiliar future. In Sekiro the past must die twice: once when it passes into history and once more when it can finally be laid to rest.