Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Encourages Betrayal
Sekiro, the protagonist of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, often seems like a throwback to earlier game heroes. He has little personality. A significant portion of his dialogue consists of wordless grunts. For most of the game, he could be a silent protagonist without any effect. To an extent, this display of his character is intentional. Nearly from the opening cinema scene, he’s introduced as an afterthought, refuse found on the battlefield and taken on a whim. Sekiro subsumes his personality in identifying wholly with a role; he is a shinobi of the Iron Code and nothing more. He and multiple other characters speak stoically about doing one’s duty.
There will be spoilers for "Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice."
The subversion found in Sekiro—as there is a subversive element in many FromSoftware games—comes in when the player realizes the best possible ending is achieved by forsaking or sabotaging those loyalties. The Dragon Rot is ended and the divine bloodline removed when Sekiro betrays his foster father, Owl, and subverts the wishes of immortal severance from his sworn lord, Kuro, the Divine Heir.
Owl presents the player with a choice of two different betrayals: Sekiro’s father or his lord. No matter the choice, no man can serve two masters. Players see that turning from Kuro is the wrong choice as the results are an unmitigated disaster for everyone involved, evidenced by the Shura ending. Players wanting a more satisfying conclusion are therefore encouraged to betray the man that raised Sekiro and instilled the Iron Code in him to help Kuro end the curse and temptation of his immortal blood.
Kuro, the Divine Heir
Loyalty to Kuro, however, also carries unpleasant consequences. As Sekiro gathers the ingredients to sever immortality, it becomes clear doing so will prove fatal for one or both of them. Faithfully serving Lord Kuro and keeping him alive become mutually exclusive goals, and both entail a kind of failure. Following the wishes of the Divine Heir may bring an end to the complications brought on by the Dragon’s Heritage, but the Immortal Severance end suggests a cyclical state of affairs with Sekiro carving Buddha sculptures, and the shinobi prosthetic awaiting the next one in need of its strength. Kuro’s wishes may have been served, but no one is happy about it, and the world might not be a better place.
Emma, the Gentle Blade
Emma, however, can persuade Sekiro to not follow Kuro’s wishes. She indicates there is a way to fulfill his vision without actually doing what he asks. This may be using the spirit of the law to violate the letter of the law, as Emma’s wishes at a basic level do go against Kuro’s command. If Sekiro agrees with her, there is an undercurrent of serving Kuro less and his own wishes for a less fatal future more. With Emma’s aid in recovering the Everblossom, Sekiro can instead make the choice to forego his own immortality, allowing Kuro a chance at a normal, human life. While it is bittersweet, this allows the good and innocent to live on while the covetous and violent perish. Purification is only possible, though, if Sekiro and Emma conspire for an impossible goal that honors Kuro’s wishes without following his orders to the letter.
Divine Child of Rejuvenation
Going beyond even Emma’s advice, though, Sekiro can to some degree ignore the wishes of his lord and follow the advice of the Divine Child of Rejuvenation at Senpou Temple. She also wishes for an end to the trouble caused by the Dragon’s Blood, but rather than severing immortality, she wants to return the Dragon’s essence to its homeland, which is a much more complicated procedure than using the Mortal Blade to put an end to someone’s immortality. Acquiring the Holy Chapters and Serpent Viscera for her can help the child become a “cradle” to carry Kuro’s immortal essence back to the west, where the Dragon came from originally. Doing this carries a tinge of treachery, much like helping Emma. Sekiro serves the will of the Divine Child of Rejuvenation to affect this end, which is the best possible end. Not only is the stagnation of the Dragon Blood ended, but there is a promise that the whole world might be restored by returning the Divine Heritage of the Dragon to its home. While the wishes of the Divine Child of Rejuvenation, like Emma’s, are positive, following them undercuts loyalty to Kuro. In fact, the less strictly Sekiro obeys Kuro without deserting him entirely, the more positive the ending becomes.
Sekiro’s identity in the end may be not entirely steadfast, but through his disloyalty the player and Sekiro dispel the corrosive illusion of unreflective loyalty. When admonished by Owl for not following the Shinobi Code, Sekiro replies, “A code must be determined by the individual.” This is the first step on Sekiro’s path of making his own choices, and the more players decide to deviate from codes and unthinking loyalty, the more positive the outcomes are for Sekiro and everyone else. In this way, the journey forecast in Dragon’s Homecoming becomes a pilgrimage into a more authentic life where both Sekiro and the world are liberated from the corruption and stagnation brought about by the Dragon’s Heritage.
© 2019 Seth Tomko