Hidetaka Miyazaki sees death as a feature, not a bug
The accomplishments of a novel may escape a careless reader. A film’s themes, or its plot, can be misinterpreted by a lazy viewer. Only a video game, however, can punish the faults of an audience. If a player misses a jump, falls on an opponent, or fails to reach the end of a level, a game may deny them access to the rest of the work, halting progress until they pass the test or resign in case of defeat.
Video game director Hidetaka Miyazaki, who is nearing 40, has punished more gamers than anyone else. In Dark Souls, the 2011 fantasy game that made him famous, you play as a wretch clad in loincloths, running through sewers and cowering in forests. You are attacked by a giant wolf, pugilistic mushrooms, mephitic swamps and a spider wielding a sword. If you fail to parry an attacker’s lunge or fall from a rampart, you are greeted with a superfluous message: “You are dead”. After he disappears, you are reincarnated next to a bonfire, one of a series of checkpoints scattered throughout this mysterious and vaguely medieval world. Each of your enemies has also respawned.
The average player will return to the firelight hundreds of times. Games often pander to their players with childish fantasies of power, but Miyazaki’s work is built on the virtues of failure, patience, and hard-earned precision. You cannot mash buttons and force your way to triumph. Each enemy has weight and intelligence; their attack patterns must be carefully observed and countered, your stamina must be managed. A duel with a knight should be approached differently than a fight with a pack of wolves or a skirmish on horseback with a hovering dragon. A moment of lack of concentration, even in the simplest encounter, can prove fatal. As in life, the struggle is steeped in truth and consequence.
Dark Souls and its sequels have become notorious for their difficulty in confusing the ego. Their reputation transcends video games: “The Dark Souls of ‘X’ is a meme used to describe any particularly onerous task. (A tottering pile of dirty plates? “The dark souls of the dishes.”) “I’ve never been a very good player,” Miyazaki told me recently, via Zoom. He was sitting in his office, a room lined with books in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. “I die a lot. So in my work, I want to answer the question: if death should be more than a mark of failure, how can it be given meaning? How can death be made pleasant?
Miyazaki is a private man; he rarely gives interviews and he rescheduled our meeting three times. But his approach proved extremely popular. Last year, at the Golden Joysticks, the oldest video game awards ceremony, the public voted Dark Souls the greatest game of all time, compared to 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 on Friday, is one of the most anticipated titles of the year.
Yet for every winner of Miyazaki’s monsters, there’s another who sullenly puts the controller down. “I apologize to anyone who thinks there’s too much to overcome in my games,” Miyazaki told me. He put 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 kilometers southwest of Tokyo. As a child, he could not afford his own books; from the library, he borrows English fantasy and science fiction he doesn’t understand, imagining stories that might accompany the images. He continued his studies at Keio University, lazily pursuing a degree in social sciences, and then joined Oracle, the American computer company. He took the job, he told me, just so he could pay for his younger sister’s education.
Miyazaki had played games in his youth, but the moment of discovery came around 2001 when, at the request of friends, he tried Fumito Ueda’s Ico, a delightfully minimalist fairy tale about a boy, girl and their escape from a castle. For Miyazaki, the game replicated the joy of childhood in piecing together a story from text snippets and mysterious illustrations. He decided to change careers. At twenty-nine, and with no relevant experience, he took a big pay cut to join FromSoftware, an obscure Tokyo-based studio. He started as a coder, then took over the development of a difficult project – a fantasy game in a shadowy world of looming castles and eldritch monsters. He rewrote the game from the cobblestones, creating a mechanic whereby if a player died, they returned to the start of the level, with their health depleted, resources lost, and enemies just as strong. “If my ideas failed, no one would care,” he told me. “It was already a failure.
Demon’s Souls was released in 2009, without fanfare. The game’s heavy and precise combat was ill-suited to the demos; Miyazaki remembers players shrugging their shoulders 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 constructed from hazy clues: descriptions of found objects, the soliloquy of a dying enemy. Over time, however, the game’s ambiguity, gothic design, and intense stakes earned it word of mouth. In 2011, its spiritual sequel, Dark Souls, caused a stir, 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 named company president.
One theory suggests itself: the difficult circumstances of Miyazaki’s early life, followed by a series of hard-earned accomplishments, provided the model for the emotional trajectory that many gamers experience in his games. Miyazaki—whose face, behind his glasses and wispy goatee, is youthful and jovial—resists the idea. “I wouldn’t say that my life story, to put it in grand terms, has affected the way I make games,” he said. “A more accurate way of looking at things is problem solving. We all face problems in our daily lives. Finding answers is always satisfying. But in life, you know, there’s not much that easily gives us those feelings.
The question of how difficult the games should be is closely related to the question of who the games are intended for. Some argue that they should be accessible: smoothly guided experiences that accommodate different skills, interests and physical abilities. Others say they should operate on their own terms. In this model, the difficulty is the prerogative of the creator; not all games have to be for everyone.
Miyazaki’s work is often invoked by the latter camp, as it suggests that challenge, not evasion or elevation, is the crucial quality of the medium. “That’s an interesting question,” Miyazaki told me. “We are always looking to improve, but, in our games in particular, the difficulties are what give meaning to the experience. So it’s not something we’re willing to give up just yet. It is our identity.
And yet Elden Ring, Miyazaki’s new game, offers some kind of compromise, a way “to make people feel like winning is an achievable feat,” he said. All of its hallmarks remain – the dramatic encounters with giant enemies, the demanding combat, the insistence that the player upgrade their own abilities, rather than just power up their on-screen avatar – but there are trade-offs that make the game more accessible. You can now summon spectral animals to your side or ride a horse to flee from a lost fight. In previous Miyazaki games, a player was relegated to a handful of given paths, each blocked by a powerful boss. In Elden Ring, the world is truly open. If a path proves too difficult, you can simply choose another one.
Yet we often die: in the white heat of a dragon’s hum, under the cold weight of a giant hammer, whipped by the leg of a stranded octopus. For Miyazaki, death in a video game is an opportunity to create a memory, or a punchline. “When I play these games, I think, that’s how it is ID want to die – in a fun or interesting way, or that creates a story that I can share,” he said. “Death and rebirth, trying and winning – we want this cycle to be enjoyable. In life, death is a horrible thing. In gaming, it can be something else.
For Elden Ring, Miyazaki collaborated with one of his heroes, George RR Martin, whose work, he told me, appealed to him long before fantasy novels such as “Game of Thrones”, when Martin was best known as a science fiction writer. Miyazaki approached Martin at the request of one of FromSoftware’s board members and was surprised to learn that Martin was a fan of his games. At first, Miyazaki worried that the language barrier and age gap—Martin is seventy-three—would make it difficult to connect. But as they talked, in hotel suites or in Martin’s hometown, a friendship was forged.
Miyazaki placed key restrictions 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 Lands Between. Martin provided snippets of text about its setting, characters, and mythology, which includes the destruction of the titular ring and the scattering of its shards, known as the Great Runes. Miyazaki could then explore the repercussions of this story in the story the player is experiencing directly. “In our games, the story should always serve the player experience,” he said. “Yes [Martin] had written the history of the game, I would have feared that we would have to deviate from it. I wanted him to be able to write freely and not feel restricted by some obscure mechanic that might have to change during development.