Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Is a Meditation on Letting Go of Fan Expectations

This is FromSoftware's self-aware commentary about breaking away from the pressures of its fanbase.

You’d be forgiven for thinking we’re in a “meta moment” for games and film right now. The Matrix Resurrections revived Neo and Trinity for an evisceration of the original trilogy, and it’s coming up on two years since Final Fantasy VII Remake’s heroes fought back against audience expectations — literally — to defy their fate and regain control of their destinies.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice precedes both these meta-commentaries, but it’s not nearly as overt in its teachings. It’s FromSoftware’s brutally honest self-reflection, pushing back against the expectations of ambiguous stories and tough-as-nails combat audiences have after games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne, depicted on-screen as Kuro pushing back against expectations of living up to his heritage. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice wants players to let go of the boundaries they’ve set for FromSoftware games, and teaches players that sticking rigidly to traditions and rules will be met with inevitable failure, just like Genichiro Ashina.

FromSoftware’s ferocious action game charts the early life of a child named Kuro, known as the “Divine Heir” due to his blood that grants immortality and supreme power, and it’s this power that lets the protagonist Shinobi rise from any untimely demise. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice’s central premise is Kuro’s journey to break the everlasting violence that surrounds him and leave Ashina, the land in which Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice takes place, to whatever fate befalls it without such power. Kuro bemoans others wishing to use the power in his blood for their own gains, and a multitude of endings see Kuro breaking this cycle and relieving himself of this power, even at the cost of his own life.

One ending has the Shinobi kill Kuro with a unique blade, finally granting him freedom through death. This is generally viewed as a “neutral” ending because it doesn’t require the player to undertake any special tasks, whereas freeing Kuro from his immortality (A.K.A. the “good” ending) involves a whole side activity of collecting special items and doing certain tasks in a specific order. If the Shinobi kills Kuro however, he actually takes the place of the Sculptor, a man who was consumed by rage and literally transformed into a Demon of Hatred.

This is Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice’s stance on cycles of violence. FromSoftware’s game teaches through the Shinobi picking up the Sculptor’s tools that history will repeat itself: There’ll be another Kuro, the game says, and there’ll be another Shinobi once we inevitably give in to our demons and become consumed by hatred. Nothing explicitly changes in the ending where the Shinobi grants Kuro freedom through death: no shackles are broken, no bloodlines are severed, and so the entire thing will repeat itself over because the problem of immortality in this instance was merely averted with Kuro’s death, not entirely stamped out.

It’s important to remember FromSoftware has a history in dealing with cyclical conflicts. Dark Souls 3 lets the player give their life to keep the first flame ablaze, maintaining the world in its current state and relying on other players to follow suit and give their lives to keep the fire burning, for example. Bloodborne’s most common ending has the player surviving the nightmarish hunt, only for it to be heavily implied that nothing has ultimately been learned from the slaughter, and the entire thing will continue once again in the future.

As FromSoftware’s stories have dealt with repetitive cycles, the world around them has been caught up in a similar cycle. People have come to expect a very certain type of game from the developers of Dark Souls: it’s always tough as nails, always with an ambiguous storyline, and always has very rigid checkpoints. Expectations of this were rife when Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was unveiled, no matter that it didn’t have an ambiguously-told story at all and broke from past traditions.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a direct response to cycles of expectation. The big bad of the game is Genichiro Ashina, a General struggling to evade the looming shadow of his grandfather Isshin Ashina, who commandeered the Ashina clan to bloody glory in decades past. Expectations are crushing Genichiro. Upon failing to grasp Kuro’s blood for the second time, he literally kills himself to resurrect the Isshin Ashina from years ago, when he was in the prime of his life and racing towards glory at the top of the Ashina clan.

Subtle, this is not. Genichiro very deliberately summons the Isshin from years past because it’s this iteration of Isshin that he’s struggling to live up to, not the current version of the man who now drinks endless amounts of sake in a tower alone. Genichiro attempting in vain to live up to the expectations that everyone’s laid out for him literally kills him, as he slices upon his neck with a katana, only for the glorious version of Isshin Ashina to emerge from his bloody wound and pick up where he failed.

Crucially, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is also a lesson in letting go. Genichiro Ashina and Kuro are driven to live up to expectations set for them by others but produce very different results. The former ends up giving in to the unachievable expectations set before him through cycles of success and violence, dying as a result. Kuro pushes outwards against expectations others have for him, seeking to break the cycles of power that he’s a pawn in. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a rare self-reflection in the games industry, one that has FromSoftware looking to break through the ceiling of expectations that people around the world set out for their games as soon as they’re announced. It wants you, just like Kuro, to let go of the things you define FromSoftware games as.