The ‘Sekiro’ Effect: How It Gets In Your Head
Most gamers are familiar with the Tetris Effect. You focus on the same activity for a long period and when you stop, part of your brain keeps visualising and performing the operations. With Tetris itself, you see a cascade of shapes whenever you close your eyes, and start automatically sorting them into lines. But it happens with other games too, even more complex ones like From Software’s ninja adventure Sekiro. After playing for hours, with the intense concentration it demands, the clangs and flashes of combat are burned into your thoughts.
This isn’t the only way that Sekiro stuck in my mind, though. Something else about it occupied my attention even when I wasn’t playing, and for me it’s a thing that only really happens with From’s games. The last time I felt it this strongly was when playing Dark Souls for the first time in 2011, but it was also present with that game’s sequels and Bloodborne. This “effect” is harder to define, but most of all I think it comes from a feeling of not knowing. No matter how much I play these games, they always seem to be hiding something. It creates a kind of thirst for knowledge that stays with me after the game is switched off.
One reason I really noticed it with Sekiro is that it contrasted with another game I’d only recently finished: Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Now, I thought Breath of the Wild was amazing, and I particularly appreciated the inspiration that Nintendo seemed to have taken from the Souls games, in terms of dropping players in a large, open world without much direction. But Sekiro made me realise that Zelda had never really grabbed me like one of From’s games. As much as I enjoyed exploring Hyrule and had countless memorable experiences, it didn’t have that “effect”. I could stop playing and not think about it at all until the next time I resumed my journey. It was pleasurable, engaging and imaginative, but it never got under my skin.
The thing is, Zelda has plenty of mysteries and surprises, so From’s secret ingredient isn’t just that. Actually, it’s more a kind of murkiness or lack of clarity. With Sekiro, even though there are tutorials, a practice area and plenty of useful loading screen tips, you only start to understand it by slowly peeling back its layers through repetition and experimentation, always with a sense that there’s more underneath.
One reason for this is the way the world is designed. Locations in Sekiro are tight and winding, often looping back on themselves, and riddled with pathways that seem as likely to open out into a new area as reach a dead end. Even when you’ve fully explored a place, you feel you’ve missed something, and you often have. And without a proper map you move forward blindly, uncertain about how it all fits together, or which direction is correct. In Zelda, even the outline of a map you start with grounds your position within the world, and you get a sense of methodical progress as you uncover each part. As you go, the environment spreads out in front of you, with mountains and towers offering height from which to plan routes and mark points of interest.
Then, when you discover treasures, again Zelda is clear about what everything does. It also makes items disposable: you find a new weapon and use it until it breaks, pick some apples and either eat them or throw them in the cooking pot. Nothing is sacred, and it’s liberating. But From makes everything more beguiling. Its consumables feel rare and precious, as if they shouldn’t be touched until you’re sure you’ll make the best use of them. And their descriptions ask more questions than they answer – Will this have the effect I want? How long does it last? Will I find more of these later?
But perhaps more than anything, the “effect” is about the kinds of challenges you face. From’s games are notoriously difficult, of course, but that’s only a part of it. Breath of the Wild can also be hard, after all, as some enemies can destroy you in a single hit. But at least you know, when enemies are especially strong, to equip a certain kind of gear or return when you’ve become more powerful. In Sekiro it’s harder to tell. Some tough enemies can be avoided, some can’t. Some block critical paths, some are optional. Sometimes staying back is more dangerous than getting in close to try and finish a fight quickly.
When you’re stuck, sequences play out in your mind.
Even against minor enemies, the game doesn’t really tell you how to handle situations. In Zelda, you come across encampments of Moblins and Bokoblins, and you’re free to tackle them as you wish, but there are also direct hints at the best way forward. Lookouts on sentry towers are obvious primary targets, while explosive barrels are positioned next to the stronger foes. In Sekiro, you’re not immediately sure which enemies can you sneak attack without alerting the others, whether there’s an easy escape route if you jump down from the roofs to attack, or how long each individual fight will take.
As for Sekiro’s bosses, when you inevitably fail to beat them time and again you can’t always tell if it’s your skills or your tactics that are at fault. The main bosses have so many attacks and phases to learn, they almost need to be studied. Even when you think you’ve got them, they throw off your timing or mix up combos in unexpected ways. Working out exactly when to parry, block, jump, dodge or attack, as well as when and how to use your prosthetic tools or combat arts, is a long process.
If anything, these fights push your lack of knowledge too far. There’s too much to get to grips with and execute in one go, especially when you’re having to repeat earlier phases in order to learn later ones. But it all adds to the ‘effect’. When you’re stuck, sequences play out in your mind where you time your parries better, or try a different technique against a certain attack, and wonder if it’ll work in live play.
Whatever you’re doing in Sekiro, and even after you’ve been doing it for hours, the uncertainty never fully goes. Items and side stories are missed, you forget to use certain equipment or moves, and there’s always a more efficient way to beat that boss. Sekiro pays lip service to clarity and a smooth experience in a way that Dark Souls never did, but in the end, there are still so many layers to uncover.
In Zelda, and most modern games, even with a wide-open world, you don’t have that same need for knowledge. That’s why there’s a “Sekiro Effect” or, more accurately, a “From Effect”. It’s a nagging sense that interrupts your thoughts as you’re doing something else, formed from a combination of mystery, complexity and challenge.
Even when other games are more enjoyable, they’re never as fascinating.
Jon Bailes is a social theorist and games journalist from the UK. He is author of Ideology and the Virtual City: Videogames, Power Fantasies and Neoliberalism (Zero, 2019).