Daily Reaction: Sekiro and Developers Stepping Out of Their Established Comfort Zones

If you ask someone what their hypothetical video game wishlist is, you’ll hear a lot of sequels and old franchises come up. In fact, it happened when we asked the PSLS staff what games they wanted to see lead the PS5 launch lineup. That list included comments like “a new Killzone,” “Destiny 3,” and “Bloodborne 2.” In fact, speaking of Bloodborne 2, that’s what most people expected and wanted Sekiro to be before it was revealed as Sekiro. But it’s quite impossible to know exactly what’s possible from a studio with a brand new IP. Nobody could have predicted Sekiro. We had no idea that Guerrilla was capable of Horizon. The Last of Us isn’t an obvious direction for Naughty Dog after games like Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter.

Let’s talk about Sekiro for a second. Despite the demands from players to return to the soulsborne games in some way, be it a direct Demon’s Souls sequel, another Dark Souls, or a followup to Bloodborne, FromSoftware revealed a partnership with Activision for a title called Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. We know now that Sekiro is a damn good game, but fans can’t say they weren’t nervous about a new IP. It’s unfamiliar territory, for the developers and players alike. Without the comfort of an established franchise, players have no idea what to expect. Developers now have to satisfy their players without that nice franchise name to help prop them up.

But in my experience, what we’ve gotten when developers are given the opportunity to soar usually ends up being something great. Free from those expectations that would come with a game called Bloodborne 2 or Dark Souls 4, FromSoftware was able to make Sekiro, a game that has the distinct style of the studio without all of the baggage of an established franchise. They were allowed to try new things—to great effect—in story, world exploration, and combat. We’d have never gotten a game like Sekiro had the studio been put in the corner of following up an existing IP.

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There are inherent limitations that come from following established series, but sometimes, devs want to do the opposite. They want to break the chains of expectations that hold some franchises back. Look at God of War. For years, the series was the same. The gameplay barely changed. The storylines largely revolved around the same tale of vengeance and blood. That’s not to say they were bad in any way at all, but there was a certain comfort zone that created boundaries, and those boundaries were rarely crossed… until God of War 2018. Cory Barlog wanted to see what was possible, not only with the beloved character, but with the series as a whole. Could you take the God of War name and pull it outside of its comfort zone? Could you get fans to buy into that idea? Obviously, that turned out pretty well too. The game is still earning awards and accolades.

A World Without Innovation is No Kind of World

Imagine for a moment if things would have gone a little bit differently. What if Guerrilla had simply stuck to Killzone games instead of releasing Horizon? What would God of War 2018 have been like if they hadn’t reinvented the formula and it was just… more God of War, only set in the Norse pantheon? What if Sekiro had instead been Dark Souls 4 or Bloodborne 2? Sure, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those things, except that we don’t get the innovation that filled their void.

Seeing what Guerrilla was capable of when they changed their entire genre was a thrill that still delights people to this day. God of War was and is an incredible reinvention of a classic, meaningfully moving the character, narrative, and gameplay all forward in ways that wouldn’t have been possible by “thinking inside the box.” FromSoftware showed that they can maintain their signature while absolutely destroying preexisting expectations that players may have in Sekiro.

The point is, we can’t imagine what’s possible when we’re asked what we want to see, except to want to see something completely new. When asked what we want next from a studio like Naughty Dog, most people will say Uncharted 5, The Last of Us 3, or Jak 4. Because people can’t even begin to imagine what a brand new IP would look like, we can’t form into words what we’d like to see next from a studio. Before Horizon, nobody would have said that’s what they wanted from Guerrilla, because they didn’t even know that was possible.

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There are plenty of studios that I would like to see let their hair down a little bit more than they are able. Activision currently has three studios tied up in Call of Duty, but what kind of game would Treyarch make if they were let off the leash and allowed to create whatever they wanted? Would it be as drastic a jump as going from Killzone to Horizon, or Crash to Uncharted?

We need to be far more open to letting studios explore beyond their usual boundaries. I’d love a great sequel to a good game as much as the next guy, but even more so, I love to see what these developers are really capable of. We’re often shown that creative energy when they have the full creative freedom to break beyond those established limitations. Even allowing for sequels like God of War to completely flip the script is the kind of creative energy this industry really needs to blast forward.

Sekiro proved that even untethered from the expectations of the studio’ previous pedigree, FromSoftware can still make an incredible game. But they weren’t the first developer to accomplish that. If more studios were afforded the opportunity to take risks and try out new things, I think we’d see more creativity and innovation than we even know is possible.

Daily Reaction reacts daily to news from the video game industry. Have suggestions for the column or subjects you’d like us to react to? Let me know in the comments below and be sure to check out previous Daily Reactions for more dives beyond the headlines.