Warning: Spoilers for Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.
Hanbei stands alone, in the warm glow of a single torchlight. He cannot die—god knows how many times he’s died—so he waits. Hanbei waits by a shrine. A shrine for forgotten things, things left behind, things that didn’t know they should be missed. Hanbei waits by a shrine that might as well be for him.
Hanbei is apart from society, waiting for someone, anyone, who never knew he existed, to be of use. So he waits alone, because he is possessed by a demon. A terrible centipede, a metaphorization of trauma, that keeps him locked in this eternal state of static decrepitude. It keeps him alive, unable to depart.
From Software is known for it’s lonely, isolating games. Sekiro: Shadow’s Die Twice is no different. Why then do we seek them out? Twist them and probe them exhaustively?
Why do I constantly return to them, over and over. It’s not for answers about the game. It’s for answers about myself.
As players, we look to find ourselves in narrative and characters in these games. Searching for resonance, that someone or something understands psychic spaces we often have difficulty expressing without avatar, surrogate, metaphor. To assuage our anxieties over the complexity of a progressively accelerating and dividing modernity, we vainly attempt to problem solve the fractured, redacted From Software worlds. We make videos, discuss themes and share theories on forums, twitter, and even sometimes in person.
We hunt for psycho-spiritual ligature in these hollowed out digital people. Pulling meat from our own bodies to fit into the gaps in their bones.
Hanbei’s feet are dirty, his skin grey and weathered. Most of his armor has been stripped and lost. Only his menpo remains, obscuring his mouth.
I see the deep gouges on Hanbei’s forearms. Angry valleys of self-injury by proxy. They tell the story of a life in service to others, his traumas and persistence. A continual retraumatization he has consensually invited, a repetition of his earlier life in service, the trauma of his original death, and maybe that of others. He has skills, capabilities, an understanding. But it is his traumas that lock him in this state of compulsive service to others. And maybe, just maybe, one day he’ll achieve some degree of mastery over these events, because, for all their darkness, From Software games give us glimmers of a kind of hope—weak rays of filtered sunlight peeking through cloud cover.
Hanbei, swallowed on all sides by bamboo and rock, is physically near, but to truly reach him is to cross oceans. To know him is to bind ourselves to his geography. This is how From Software characters exist, why even the most seemingly repellent inure themselves to us, why they persist in our memories. They are symbols for self-divination. We spool out our tragedies and hopes and our needs, and bind these characters up into our own narratives. Packages of clipped dialogue, redacted plot beats, and psychic mess. In doing so, we create an amalgamation of others’ designs and our personal experience.
From Software gives us sketches of narrative arcs, a wan but comforting face when everything is lost, spaces in which we can find and embellish with our own stories—symbolic palimpsests. Their majesty is in how they then remind us of our own grief, tragedy, and desperate trajectories that must be contended with.
When we land on their shoals and drive our fingers into their soft earth, we orient them into our lives. From there we drift to the nearby atolls of other characters, pulling them into an island chain, like a creation myth. We explore each one as fully as we can and return, altered, with more understanding of them as a whole, each journey to and fro offering more insight into these characters and ourselves. We leave markers of our existence on them, and dictate the course of their lives. Our psychic cartographies extend out from within one space, to that of other games.
From Lucatiel, I mapped my inability to turn back the progression of Alzheimer’s. For my grandmother to see my face the way she had once. In Siegmeyer, I found a much-loved father figure, long dead, who couldn’t escape the gravity of his failings and needed others to champion his heroic goals.
But in Hanbei I see years of trauma worn thick and gaping on my body, the exhaustion of desperate need to justify my continued existence through being of use to others. In Hanbei, I find my own compulsive need to achieve mastery of events half-buried in my own psychic territories. As I did the others, I pour myself into his landscape like lava.
We make meaning of the symbolic to understand the past, our world, and ourselves. We divine ourselves in these fragmented digital symbols, we connect our landmasses. Perhaps, through that, we can find our way toward soothing our blistered psyches.
I know at some point, I will have to kill Hanbei. I know it will be given to me as my choice, but how could it end any other way? As steadfast Lucatiel is fated to forget, despite her every desperate wish to remember her purpose, her loved ones. And the warm Knight of Catarina must inevitably have heroism stolen out from under him, or sweet Solaire lost and mad in the dark, never finding his true sun. These are islands I was party to creating, that From Software left me with no choice but to plunge back into the seas. These games are tragedies. And that means for them, the only hope I can offer is the respite that perhaps comes with death. It may be a kindness, the conclusion of a torturous loop, but I wish there was more. And maybe that’s why I continue to restart the cycles, hoping each time for an outcome I know can’t happen, for more than just faint glimmers under an unmovable sky.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer, photographer, and founding editor of CapsuleCrit.com, a monthly journal dedicated to microgenre work about games. She tweets too much at @dialacina.