When The Only Way To Grow Is To Ask More Of Yourself
There’s a reason the last games I wrote about in 2019 were ones I actually finished playing back in March of last year, when I completed Firewatch and Return of the Obra Dinn. And I owe 100% of that to Sekiro, for giving me a deadline to finish playing these by. (Sekiro released end of March 2019)
Note: contains minor spoilers for Sekiro, spoiler-free for Fallen Order
I knew once Sekiro came out, my life would take a pause. I needed to disappear for a bit, a retreat of sorts, to hone myself. This is just how things are for me when From Software releases work.
I don’t mean to fetishize the difficulty of From Software’s games and I can’t ignore the concerns about accessibility around this title in particular. From Software have a tendency to obfuscate the ways of modifying difficulty within the very mechanics and systems present in the game and the limited scope specific to Sekiro (there are no multiplayer components at all). That the player has limited ability to control these things only magnifies the pain of this obfuscation. Despite the elegant nature of designing difficulty in this way, I think there could‘ve been more done in regards to providing options in a more readable way; better matching the challenge / skill / flow curve of each particular player upfront.
Dishonored: Death of the Outsider does this much better but in a less elegant fashion from a design perspective. Here, there are a huge array of modifiers that you can tweak before you even begin the game: how aware guards are of verticality; how noisy footsteps are; how your energy and health regenerate; the pure wealth of options available make questions of accessibility, at least purely from a difficulty standpoint, easily addressable from the start.
But challenge itself is a fundamental ingredient to growth, to learning. And thankfully I’m able enough to embrace the challenge Sekiro provided.
But coinciding the release and delaying my play-through, I had Longpoint 2019, the largest tournament I’ve attended ever, where I had one of my favorite fights this year:
Fighting my teacher.
It was a culmination of almost a year and a half of training under him, from complete noob to our Saturday morning sparring sessions, training not only the expression of our personalities through movement, but on the immersion into the mindset of the fight.
Here, a familiarity rung through our match, but was stripped down for a moment to just the bare essentials: none of the pauses for a brief lesson; none of the awkward devolutions into laughter when experimenting with something stupid or reckless; none of the comfort of just practicing;
this was real, even if it wasn’t.
By the time I came back, all I wanted was to re-immerse myself in the feeling of those moments, and Sekiro was there with open arms.
And yet when I finished the game, I was at a loss for words.
Sekiro’s widespread acclaim isn’t exactly a secret. It was quickly well recognized and at the time, I felt I had nothing to say that hadn’t already been said.
I’m supremely happy The Game Awards gave From Software it’s Game of the Year. Stealing a turn of phrase from Winnie Song; at her Games for the Gut talk at NYU Game Center this year; I’m unapologetically un-chill about games; I care about these nerdy details, about the games I love getting the recognition they deserve.
Sekiro was my favorite game I played this year (2019), if you have somehow not heard anything about it, just go give it a look or even a shot, I’ll wait.
And so, I thought I could sneak through 2019 without saying anything about Sekiro at all.
And then Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order came out.
And suddenly I couldn’t stop wishing that every swing of a lightsaber; every wound up slash; every spin attack; every superfluous movement; was the bite; the glint; the ring; of a katana instead.
Because for every forgettable fight in Fallen Order, there are moments and duels aplenty in Sekiro that echo in the thrum of my nervous system: patterns and shapes of movement that trigger quivers in my soul, etched with trial and error and a relentlessness that forced me to fail until I could see them. Lady Butterfly, Genichiro, Owl, and countless others, all worthy adversaries and teachers alike.
These exchanges, with their quirks and expressions of personality through movement, echo what I love about HEMA, about what I loved about that fight at Longpoint. Those flurries of frantic exchange, fractions of time dance-teetering on that line between death and life. Except if dance is symmetry; coordination; symbiosis communicated through movement, these moments are another side of the same coin. Finding those tempos, that rhythm, in search of the interrupt; the rest; the space; the interjection between; until the only thing left is the point of your blade between their eyes, and stillness.
Again and again you feel those rhythms, that flow of movement, over and over. Until every twitch, every step, every sweeping motion is anticipated; an extension of the person, in opposition.
It takes more than a lifetime to learn literacy in these things; to read and feel and intuit them as they press upon you. But these characters in Sekiro, like any good teacher, and like mine, ask that you must master it to some extent, or at the very least, practice.
While Fallen Order takes leanings from such a wide variety of games: the convoluted backtracking and often arbitrary gating of Metroid-vanias; the crew-building, planet-hopping space romp of a Mass Effect; and indeed, a combat system that seems abreast with From Software’s recent work at face value; when it came time to look at what the game, and even deeper, what the adversaries I experienced there asked of me; even enriched with this broad array of inspiration; I’m not sure I know or can answer.
Perhaps something so transfixed in the visual, designed to be read and watched, but not felt, bursts at its constraints the moment you take the lightsaber into your own hand.
Maybe its unfair to judge it in this way, to even make this comparison. I’ve loved every game Respawn Entertainment has put out, and Fallen Order was no exception. But even still, I don’t know if it challenged me in the way I was seeking to grow, and I don’t know if I’m better version of myself for having played it.
In August, months after Sekiro, I began teaching classes of my own, feeling an aspect of my own student-hood wane.
As a coach, as a mentor, as a student, as a friend; in this year, more than ever; I wonder if that is what I missed the most. That if, somewhere along the way, even outside of HEMA, I stopped asking the people who’s opinions mattered to me to push me in the ways I wanted to grow. To set expectations for what they thought I was capable of, so that I could rise to it.
Or perhaps, this is a labor that can no longer be left as a responsibility for anyone else but myself.
That my own expression of motion may not be something that can be taught, but only experienced in the mirror of teachers and students alike, as I go.
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It only took almost a year to gestate, but I like to think I somewhat understand now, in a way, why this game had such an impact on me.
That I needed this tireless practice of play.