Hidetaka Miyazaki on changing direction with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

For the last decade, From Software has been known primarily for one thing: demanding action role-playing games set in dark, intricately designed worlds. Starting with seminal Demon’s Souls, then continuing with the Dark Souls trilogy and the gothic masterpiece Bloodborne, From, led by director Hidetaka Miyazaki, established a distinct flavor of action, making the studio a household name and influencing countless developers.

But lately, the studio has started to change course.

It started last year with the short, mournful VR experience Déraciné, which retained many of the studio’s hallmarks — including cryptic, layered storytelling and a gothic fantasy setting — but it fused them with a completely different style of game. Now, Miyazaki and his team are shifting once again, this time toward pure action with the ninja game Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, which launches this Friday on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.

The director says that, given these different styles, it’s “difficult” to explain what exactly ties together the many games From has developed over the years. (From was founded in 1986, though Miyazaki didn’t join until 2004. He eventually became studio president in 2014.) “I think one of the studio’s characteristics is to embrace wholeheartedly what we feel is interesting,” he tells The Verge, “what we perceive to be worthwhile, cool, or beautiful.”

Unlike the Souls games, in which players create their own avatar before venturing out into a treacherous world, in Sekiro, you play as a very specific ninja out on a quest for revenge. You won’t get to upgrade or change the hero like in an RPG, and the game has a number of quirks. Perhaps most notable is the fact that you have one single weapon throughout the game, a katana, that can be augmented with various tools, giving you new options and abilities.

In an email exchange, I had the chance to find out Miyazaki’s thoughts on the beginnings of Sekiro’s concept, what separates the game from the Souls series, and what it’s like to direct two drastically different games at the same time.

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

Where did the concept for Sekiro start?

The genesis for Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice came from two ideas we had for a game. The first was that we wanted to enjoy the multi-layered maps we’ve come to create from another perspective, as well as move through them with greater freedom, both laterally and vertically. The second was that we wanted to create a more ferocious, more dynamic battle system filled with tension and strategy.

The idea of roleplaying a ninja seemed the coolest way to realize these concepts while still retaining a sense of reality, which made that character archetype extremely attractive. In other words, the impetus for Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice’s design initially came from the role of ninja.

With the setting, what does it offer you that’s different from the settings of previous From games, particularly the more fantastical ones?

The closing years of the Sengoku period carry a nuance of something dying out; a sense of the Middle Ages coming to an end amidst a blasted and withered landscape. I also think the idea of vibrant, exotic colors coexisting within this sort of scene has great appeal.

How does the more maneuverable main character impact the way you approach world and level design? Is it a big change?

I think it had a significant impact. Firstly, it relaxed the limitations on situations that are within reach, which meant we could incorporate a variety of ideas. Secondly, by leveraging more dynamic movement, we were able to be bolder with these various situations to good effect.

We were also able to create a natural flow that allows the player to observe enemy groups from above. I feel the range of situations increased, providing more thoughtful and strategic approaches beyond simply charging in recklessly. Even once the battle kicks off, the player has a wealth of positional tools, as well as ways to break off and reset the situation if they wish.

What was appealing about the idea of a single fixed protagonist, as opposed to a player-created character? How does it change the way you approach the narrative?

I believe there are aspects of the narrative that become easier to understand by shifting the focus of the story to the characters. Illustrating growth and change in the protagonist becomes a simpler process, and these changes are in fact one of the themes of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice’s story.

From a gameplay standpoint, it makes it easier to dig deep into any single element. I also found it fascinating how it enables further choreographing of characters using animation, in order to better portray their qualities.

Hidetaka Miyazaki on changing direction with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

With the single katana featured in the game, was it a challenge to keep that one main weapon interesting for the length of the experience? Did you ever waver and consider offering multiple weapons?

Figuring out how we would use a single katana, and what sort of depth we could bring to that was a really interesting task. It offered a challenge that differed from that of increasing the number of weapons. I also think the prosthetic tools firmly shoulder the responsibility of creating that breadth, allowing for a variety of options.

With Déraciné and Sekiro, you directed two very different games simultaneously. What was that experience like? Did the two games inform or influence one another in any ways?

It’s quite common for me to direct multiple projects at once, but it’s true that these two titles had the most drastic change in disposition out of those I’ve been involved with so far. While simultaneous direction does make you very busy, the reason I’m willing to take it on is for the abundance of unique inspiration it can provide. I think this was especially true with these two titles. It was a very motivating experience having this whirlpool of thought in the same headspace for two completely different games.

It’s difficult for me to pinpoint exactly how much tangible influence they had on each other, but I like to think there was some resonance between the two. Perhaps the tranquillity of Déraciné heightens the violence in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, while the intensity of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice makes Déraciné all the more serene.

Given how different these games can be, do you think there is a throughline or a connecting feeling or philosophy that ties together the works of From Software?

That’s a difficult question. I think one of the studio’s characteristics is to embrace wholeheartedly what we feel is interesting; what we perceive to be worthwhile, cool, or beautiful; and to place these ideals at the foundation of the games we make. Part of those things we feel may deviate slightly from what is considered to have mass appeal. This “unorthodox” nature could well be what ties our games and our culture together.