Hidetaka Miyazaki Sees Death as a Feature, Not a Bug

Hidetaka Miyazaki Sees Death as a Feature, Not a Bug

A novel’s achievements can elude a careless reader. A film’s themes, or its plot, can be misconstrued by a lazy viewer. Only a video game, however, can punish an audience’s faults. If a player mistimes a jump, falls to an adversary, or fails to reach the end of a level, a game can deny them access to the rest of the work, halting progress until they pass the test or resign in defeat.

The video-game director Hidetaka Miyazaki, who’s in his late forties, has punished more players than perhaps anyone else. In Dark Souls, the 2011 fantasy game that made him famous, you play as a loin-clothed wretch, racing through sewers and cowering in forests. You’re attacked by a giant wolf, pugilist mushrooms, mephitic swamps, and a sword-wielding spider. If you fail to parry an aggressor’s lunge, or tumble off a rampart, you’re greeted by a superfluous message: “You Died.” After it fades, you’re reincarnated beside a bonfire, one of a series of checkpoints scattered throughout this mysterious, vaguely medieval world. Every one of your enemies has re-spawned, too.

The average player will return to the firelight hundreds of times. Games often flatter their players with childish power fantasies, but Miyazaki’s work relies on the virtues of failure, patience, and hard-earned precision. You cannot mash the buttons and force your way to triumph. Each foe has heft and intelligence; their attack patterns must be carefully observed and countered, your stamina managed. A duel with a knight must be approached differently from a brawl with a pack of wolves, or a skirmish on horseback with a soaring dragon. A moment’s lapse in concentration, in even the simplest encounter, can prove fatal. As in life, struggle is infused with truth and consequence.

Dark Souls and its sequels have become notorious for their ego-skewering difficulty. Their reputation transcends video games: “The Dark Souls of ‘X’ ’’ is a meme used to describe any particularly onerous task. (A teetering pile of dirty plates? “The Dark Souls of washing up.”) “I’ve never been a very skilled player,” Miyazaki told me recently, via Zoom. He was sitting in his office, a book-lined room in the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo. “I die a lot. So, in my work, I want to answer the question: If death is to be more than a mark of failure, how do I give it meaning? How do I make death enjoyable?”

Miyazaki is a private man; he rarely gives interviews, and he rescheduled our meeting three times. But his approach has proved wildly popular. Last year, at the Golden Joysticks, the longest-running video-game awards show, members of the public voted Dark Souls the greatest game of all time, over classics such as Tetris, Doom, and Super Mario 64. Miyazaki’s games have sold close to thirty million copies, and his latest, Elden Ring, which will be released Friday, is one of the most awaited titles of the year.

Still, for every vanquisher of Miyazaki’s monsters, there’s another who glumly sets down the controller. “I do feel apologetic toward anyone who feels there’s just too much to overcome in my games,” Miyazaki told me. He held his head in his hands, then smiled. “I just want as many players as possible to experience the joy that comes from overcoming hardship.”

Miyazaki grew up poor in Shizuoka, a hundred miles southwest of Tokyo. As a child, he couldn’t afford books of his own; at the library, he borrowed English fantasy and science fiction that he didn’t understand, imagining stories that might accompany the pictures. He went on to study at Keio University, idly pursuing a degree in social science, then joined Oracle, the American I.T. company. He took the job, he told me, only so that he could pay for his younger sister to go to college.

Miyazaki had played games in his youth, but the moment of discovery arrived around 2001, when, at the urging of friends, he tried Fumito Ueda’s Ico, an exquisitely minimalist fairy tale about a boy, a girl, and their escape from a castle. For Miyazaki, the game reproduced the childhood joy of piecing together a story from snippets of text and mysterious illustrations. He decided to switch careers. At twenty-nine, and with no relevant experience, he took a significant pay cut to join FromSoftware, an obscure studio based in Tokyo. He started as a coder, then took over development of a struggling project—a fantasy set in a shadow world of looming castles and eldritch monsters. He rewrote the game from the cobblestones up, creating a mechanism by which, if a player died, they returned to the level’s beginning, with their health weakened, their resources lost, and their enemies just as strong. “If my ideas failed, nobody would care,” he told me. “It was already a failure.”

Demon’s Souls was released in 2009, without fanfare. The game’s ponderous, precise combat was poorly suited to demos; Miyazaki recalls players shrugging and walking away. The cover showed an Arthurian knight slumped against a wall—an image that suggested struggle and defeat, not heroism—and the game’s narrative was built from wispy clues: descriptions of found objects, a dying foe’s soliloquy. In time, though, the game’s ambiguity, Gothic design, and intense stakes earned it a word-of-mouth following. In 2011, its spiritual sequel, Dark Souls, became a sensation, selling nearly two and a half million copies in eighteen months. It also launched FromSoftware into the top tier of Japanese studios. Three years later, Miyazaki was appointed the company’s president.

A theory suggests itself: the challenging circumstances of Miyazaki’s early life, followed by a string of hard-won achievements, provided the template for the emotional trajectory that many players experience in his games. Miyazaki—whose face, behind his glasses and wispy goatee, is youthful and jocular—resists the idea. “I wouldn’t say that my life story, to put it in grandiose terms, has affected the way I make games,” he said. “A more accurate way to look at it is problem solving. We all face problems in our daily lives. Finding answers is always a satisfying thing. But in life, you know, there’s not a lot that gives us those feelings readily.”

The question of how hard games should be is closely tied to the question of whom games are for. Some argue that they should be accessible: gently guided experiences that adapt to different skills, interests, and physical capabilities. Others say that they should operate on their own terms. In this model, difficulty is the creator’s prerogative; not every game has to be for everyone.

Miyazaki’s work is often invoked by the latter camp, as it suggests that challenge, not escapism or uplift, is the medium’s crucial quality. “It’s an interesting question,” Miyazaki told me. “We are always looking to improve, but, in our games specifically, hardship is what gives meaning to the experience. So it’s not something we’re willing to abandon at the moment. It’s our identity.”

And yet Elden Ring, Miyazaki’s new game, offers something of a compromise, a way “for people to feel like victory is an attainable feat,” he said. All of his hallmarks remain—the dramatic encounters with giant foes, the demanding combat, the insistence that the player improve their own abilities, rather than merely power up their onscreen avatar—but there are concessions that make the game more approachable. Now you can summon spectral animals to your side, or ride your horse to flee a losing fight. In Miyazaki’s previous games, a player was consigned to a handful of given paths, each one blocked by a powerful boss. In Elden Ring, the world is truly open. If one path proves too challenging, you can simply pick another.

Still, you die a lot: in the white heat of a dragon’s snort, under the cold weight of a giant’s hammer, whipped by the leg of a beached octopus. For Miyazaki, video-game death is an opportunity to create a memory, or a punch line. “When I’m playing these games, I think, This is the way I’d want to die—in a way that is amusing or interesting, or that creates a story I can share,” he said. “Death and rebirth, trying and overcoming—we want that cycle to be enjoyable. In life, death is a horrible thing. In play, it can be something else.”

For Elden Ring, Miyazaki collaborated with one of his heroes, George R. R. Martin—whose work, he told me, he enjoyed long before fantasy novels such as “Game of Thrones,” when Martin was best known as a science-fiction writer. Miyazaki approached Martin at the urging of one of FromSoftware’s board members, and was surprised to learn that Martin was a fan of his games. At first, Miyazaki feared that the language barrier and age gap—Martin is seventy-three—would make connection difficult. But as their conversations progressed, in hotel suites or in Martin’s home town, a friendship bloomed.

Miyazaki placed some key restraints on Martin’s contributions. Namely, Martin was to write the game’s backstory, not its actual script. Elden Ring takes place in a world known as the Lands Between. Martin provided snatches of text about its setting, its characters, and its mythology, which includes the destruction of the titular ring and the dispersal of its shards, known as the Great Runes. Miyazaki could then explore the repercussions of that history in the story that the player experiences directly. “In our games, the story must always serve the player experience,” he said. “If [Martin] had written the game’s story, I would have worried that we might have to drift from that. I wanted him to be able to write freely and not to feel restrained by some obscure mechanic that might have to change in development.”

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β€œSimplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.”
― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

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