If you’re Black in the US right now, you’re likely feeling drained. Everything that has happened from June up until now has been exhausting. From experiencing collective trauma and rage to seeing performative — and often meaningless — societal actions, it’s been a lot. Among all this stress, I noticed something about myself. I was retreating — diving deeper into another world — Koei Tecmo’s Nioh 2.
My avatar in the game (known as Hide) acts like the person I wish I could be. She works for a cause, is seen as an equal, is highly adept, and just happens to be Black. Her skin tone has no effect on the trajectory of her journey. I realized that this is perhaps my greatest opportunity to see a Black person excel with none of the “isms” average Black folks face daily.
Now, before I proceed, it’s important that I acknowledge what inspires this game. It’s an action title based on the Sengoku era of Japan. This was a violent and grueling time period of civil conflict. It’s far more nuanced of course, but it’s crucial that I remember it’s not just “a cool samurai game”. I don’t want to merely glorify a fantasy game shaped by history for the sake of entertainment. Also, the game doesn’t shy away from the subject matter involved.
From a game design standpoint, Nioh 2 is certainly not new. It actually has a lot in common with Demons’ Souls/Dark Souls/Bloodborne. What’s different here is that it isn’t set against an abstract mysterious medieval back drop. It’s a focused, linear fantasy narrative based on the unification of a country.
Hide has a companion, Tokichiro. He, much like Hide, lived life as someone on the margins. But Tokichiro’s assumption is that together, the two players can gain some success and stability during the turbulent times. To get this success, they fight demons and gain access to more spirit stones. Theses stones are more valuable than money but also, more dangerous. Eventually, the stones provide the key to social power and status.
The game is difficult by all accounts. If it wasn’t challenging, I wouldn’t have played it. Games like this aren’t for everyone. Completing each mission requires a great deal of patience. The ensuing level of stress is fun for some. For others, it’s something they avoid altogether.
For game players, access to resources determines level of difficulty. You have to choose your weapons, tools, magic and armor wisely. The game allows you wear and wield whatever you like. Their a lot to consider however because the armor you wear relies on your equipment weight. Heavy armor doesn’t allow to be very fast but you can take a considerable amount of damage. Light armor allows you to dodge to great effect, however the deficiency in defense means you’re easier to kill from attacks.
So, higher defense for lower mobility? Higher mobility for poor defense? Both have their advantages and disadvantages. Typically, I stick to the middle ground — I focus on protecting myself as much as I can and stay prepared to run if necessary. It’s eerily similar to how I move socially and professionally.
Managing these resources can feel intimidating, and it most certainly is. You constantly teeter between safety and space.
The most important resource by far is your stamina (ki). You quite literally will live or die by how you manage it. Do you risk running out of energy in hopes you’ll slay a foe? Maybe you risk breaking your guard while blocking attacks? There is nothing more lethal than running out of stamina. If you’re under attack and out of steam, you’re likely dead.
Sounds a lot like life, huh? We’re constantly asking ourselves if we should put all of our energy into work. If we should risk burning out. If we should overcompensate to get little or nothing. It’s hustle culture — the one many of us are living in. That said, if you aren’t skillful with your energy, you can’t even hope to complete missions in the game.
The other aspect of Nioh 2 that resonates with me is the narrative. Seeing Hide, Tokichiro and their allies work across decades to ignite change is interesting. I can’t help but be a fan watching characters on the come up, regardless of how serious or shallow the plot may be. My guess is that it has something to do with living in a competitive, capitalist society. Maybe that’s why I appreciate seeing folks on the bottom fight to get to the top.
A lengthy, arduous adventure definitely eases my mind. There’s a strange, undeniable comfort in the fact that success is straightforward. I find myself envious of my avatar’s success. With each victory, she gains more reputation, more favor, and she gets stronger. Eventually, Hide faces deadlier threats, one-on-one battles, and scarier demons. But overall, the only hurdles are the ones she can see — the ones right in front of her.
I wish my career worked that way. If only all of my grinding resulted in excepted results. Unfortunately, that’s not reality. You need to have the energy to stay ahead of the competition. You need to actively work on networking. You can never lose steam. Needless to say, working requires a lot more than just the body of your work.
Unfortunately, many of those factors aren’t fair across racial lines. As a Black person, the answer isn’t to simply go out and work hard. Nioh 2 allows me to forget about the lies steeped in meritocracy. In a fair world, we would all get our shot at success. It should be that simple. I often feel cursed by misfortune. The constant trauma I’ve experienced over the past month only exacerbates this feeling.
My envy of Hide’s fictional life reaches its peak at the end of the game. By that point, she’s practically a legend. Again, I’ll caution that the violent time period in the game is not necessarily one to be glorified. Stages are often painted with blood and destruction. Giant piles of corpses often make up the backdrop. Several cutscenes feature characters killing others. In some cases, this is done in the most brutal fashion as a show of force.
The game’s story does acknowledge that the pursuit of power and glory has its downfalls. Characters show respect for those who do not desire conquest. Yet, these characters don’t notice their own hypocrisy. Many fall from grace after their greed gets the best of them. Some even become demons. As a player, you often slay these characters, ultimately being an observer to history and only sometimes an active participant.
It’s too easy to equate this game to my life as a Black American creative.
Staying relevant in your career space is a constant battle. It requires you to be mindful of your energy, the resources you have available, and whom you’re working with. A series of misguided actions can end it all for you. Still, I appreciate the game for what is it. It’s a game that allows you to make something of yourself with a greater goal in mind. You’re moving toward something with each move, weapon choice, stat boost, arrow, gun or hand cannon.
I’ve been projecting a lot on Koei Temco’s Nioh 2. Much like From Software’s work, it’s a game that allows you to lose yourself in its systems, design and brand of action. I lost myself in Nioh 2, but it certainly felt more purposeful than others of its kind.
There’s another reason I’ve played this title for 150 hours so far, the subject of success and failure. Playing has reminded me that success and failure are part of our personal messy adventures. Wins aren’t picturesque and damn it all, I’m still working to unlearn this. Victory really is taking one step on a flight of stairs to only be knocked down repeatedly. But you learn, gain more experience and until eventually you make some progress. It’s not glorious but you get there eventually with time and grit.
I don’t like ascribing the word escapism to media consumption. However, that’s the best way to describe my time with this game. Stress does things to your mind. Sometimes we want to engage with laid back cooking shows. Maybe we want to listen to wholesome podcasts. In my case? I play a challenging action game in which my character dies often. Still, as I type this, I’m waiting for the extra planned content to prove to myself I can complete it all. Why? It’s better than thinking about how unfair real life is.