Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
The recent release of From Software's Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has sparked discussion about difficulty in video games. There's a lot that can be said about the topic -- and I've written about difficulty before -- but the conversation about Sekiro has me thinking about an unrelated and somewhat retro series: Touhou.
Touhou is an indie game series created by Ohta Junya (who goes by the pen name ZUN). It's a type of game called a "bullet hell," which (for the unfamiliar) is essentially an extreme version of old arcade space shooters like Galaga and Gradius. Touhou functions in essentially the same way as its arcade ancestors -- the screen scrolls continuously, and you control one character near the screen's edge as you dodge projectiles and shoot down enemies. Where Touhou differentiates itself from its predecessors is in its pace and resulting difficulty. As is characteristic of the genre, Touhou floods the screen with projectiles to the point where it's not uncommon for more of the screen to be filled with enemies than empty. Galaga's less crowded screens mean the game tends to rely more on snap reflexes, while Touhou play often centers on pattern recognition -- on learning enemy and projectile patterns and finding ways to reliably avoid incoming attacks. This is a useful skill when playing Galaga and the like as well, of course, but it's necessary for Touhou.
Touhou games are hard. I've only personally played the sixth game, Embodiment of the Scarlet Devil, and even playing on "normal" difficulty and using all available continues, I've never been able to beat the game. You might expect this to engender the sort of frustration many have reported experiencing with Sekiro, but for me, at least, it never has. Touhou is a series that can feel nearly impossible, and yet the difficulty rarely, if ever, comes across as annoying or unfair.
Touhou succeeds in this regard largely due to the implicit goals it sets. Touhou games are short, and when you lose, you have to start over from the beginning. These two factors combined mean losing is separated from failure. The goal when playing Touhou is not to win but rather to improve, which means losing is itself a valuable step in the process of learning to play the game. Similarly, beating the game is not an endpoint, as you can always try for a cleaner run or for a higher score.
Touhou's arcade-esque structure gives it a natural advantage in tackling this approach -- it's how the series "gets away with" being so dang hard. I see From Software as striving to apply this same core philosophy to a completely different type of game. The heart of Dark Souls (and presumably Sekiro) is not progression so much as building mastery. The games are good at this, no doubt, but they aren't perfect. Even with the focus on mastery, the games' sense of progression is still present and necessary. This isn't inherently problematic. Where games like these run into issues is when the progression-related and mastery-related goals come into conflict. After several hours of slamming your head against the wall that is a difficult boss fight, odds are you're going to get frustrated, even though you've likely gotten better at the game in that time.
This is especially true when the player just wants to move on with the game. For example, when the player is at the very end of the game, and the final boss is the only thing standing in the way of the satisfaction that comes with completion. Regardless of your stance (if you have one) regarding players cheating through Sekiro's endgame, it shouldn't come as a surprise that this cheating is happening. I understand and mostly agree with the sentiment that cheating in a game like Sekiro undermines the purpose and vision behind the work, but at the same time, the apparent prevalence of this behavior means there's a disconnect between Sekiro's reward systems and its difficulty. Mastery-based motivation works easily in games that are structured like Touhou. It's much more difficult to strike the necessary balance between mastery and progression in a game where overall progression actually matters. It's possible to get it right, and From Software consistently gets really close, but I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all solution. It's something developers need to be cognizant of, and it's likely a case where extensive playtesting is necessary to make sure it works as intended.
...On a tangentially related note, I can't go through a whole post that's (partially) about Touhou without bringing up its music. There's a jazz band I'm quite fond of called Tokyo Active Neets that's done a number of covers of music from the series. It's top-notch stuff, and I've linked one of their renditions of "Shanghai Teahouse" below -- check it out, if you get a chance.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition