Sekiro and Dark Souls’ Defiant Flow

Juicy Rants #25— Exploring the strategic design of challenging modern video games

Many a time game developers have struggled to find the balance between creating a game that is too easily digested and a game too infuriatingly complex to be digested at all.

On the one hand, you want your game to be simple and inviting to the player, but on the other hand, deep and challenging. Too simple and it will fail to keep a player’s interest; too challenging and it will push the player away.

This is where the idea of “flow” comes into play.

If you’ve ever been so enthralled by a video game where hours or even days somehow magically disappear during your play-time, you’ve experienced “flow”! Similarly, if you’ve ever been so frustrated or bored with a game that you decide to stop playing, you’ve experienced the complete opposite.

The term “flow” refers to the psychological state of being completely immersed within (in the case of video games) a virtual world, or “a state of peak enjoyment, energetic focus, and creative concentration experienced by people engaged in adult play” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2000).

“The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
 — Mihály Csikszentmihalyi

So right about now a handful of games are probably coming to mind. 
And I dare say many aren’t exceedingly difficult, and there’s a reason for that:
An easy way to achieve flow is by creating a game that is complex enough only to keep a player’s wandering attention whilst also rewarding the player at an appropriate frequency.

And that brings me to the development team, ‘From Software’, and their extraordinarily unorthodox approach to implementing the sensation of flow in their famously challenging, complex games.

You may know them as the creators of ‘Dark Souls’ and ‘Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice’.

Left: Dark Souls | Right: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Okay, so we’ve established that From Software are a bunch of maniacs who don’t stand by the standard gameplay scaffolding that typically ensures flow, but rather yell: “Screw it!” whilst taking their gameplay design in the seemingly complete opposite direction.

So why does their method work? Why do the most notoriously unforgiving and brutally difficult games in recent history stand out as those of which have amazing projections of flow onto their players?

Let’s quickly go back to that guy with that quote from before: Mihály Csikszentmihalyi.
Csikszentmihalyi is a Positive Psychologist who was the one who actually defined the idea of flow. His expertise did not end with simply defining this state of mind, however, as the psychologist provides a list of the constituent factors that lead to the phenomenon he dubbed “flow”.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, the eight conditions for flow are:

  1. The player has complete concentration on the task.
  2. The player is clearly aware of the goals with the respective reward in mind and immediate feedback.
  3. There is a seeming transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down).
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding.
  5. It is effortless and easy to continue playing the game.
  6. There is a balance between challenge and skills.
  7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination.
  8. There is a feeling of control over the (gameplay).

Sekiro, Dark Souls and the rest of From Software’s gallery of challenging games reach peak “flow” because of these reasons:

Firstly, while other games can achieve “flow” by adhering to some of the items on that list to at least some extent, the intensely brutal battles the ‘Souls’ games offer find the players quite literally fighting for their lives in an incredibly fast, fine-tuned clashing of swords and shields, which forces them into a state of complete concentration that most games can only dream of achieving.

Secondly, while the fights are difficult — they are not impossible. The challenge thrown at the player is met with an equally balanced amount of (potential) skill that the player has in their arsenal. The challenge of the game is not only defeating your foes, but also honing your movements and actions so that you are fully utilising your entire arsenal. And because of just how insanely difficult the opponents are, the game heavily encourages this.

This is where the game begins to truly shine. When the player successfully masters their character control inputs they begin to enter a state where their actions and awareness merge together as if “the action carries the player forward by magic” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). When a player enters flow in Sekiro or Dark Souls the process of reading what’s happening on their screen, choosing the best-suited response and then pressing the buttons that will successfully result in the desired response combines into seemingly just one action. The player’s brain loses the self-conscious rumination of selecting the corresponding buttons that go along with the desired action, leaving the player in a state where they do not think about how to control their character, they control their character as if they were the character.

Because of the copious amount of control the player has over their character, they now also have achieved control over the game itself.

So what can game designers learn from this?

  • We can learn that placing certain obstacles in front of players can encourage them to fully hone the resources they’ve been given by the game (and the engine) to reach a state of “flow”.
  • Perhaps the most effective way to reach “flow” is by making the player feel like they are the character, rather than just controlling the character.
  • We can also take away just how important “flow” is in a gaming experience, and that there is more than one way to create it.

In conclusion, although the method behind implementing “flow” into games such as Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and the Dark Souls series is unorthodox, the effect is the same at the very least.

I think it’s really important to continue pushing the limits on how we design games rather than just copy+pasting a ‘standard template’ that is deemed ‘the best’ means of creating the desired effect.

I believe there is a multitude of ways to immerse a player into a virtual experience, and for that reason, I must emphasise again:

There is more than one way to create “Flow” in video games