The first thing I did after completing Bloodborne was to restart it from scratch. Why, after completing a game I'd struggled with for well over a year, was I so keen to start it all over again? Ruling out sadomasochism, I'm not entirely sure, beyond thinking "hey, that was amazing," and going to bang my head against Father Gascoigne about ten more times.
The ending of Happy Souls, a cult favorite animated video among the Souls community, demonstrated this perfectly. After a harrowing venture through Lordran, you almost feel like you've dedicated yourself too much to Dark Souls or Bloodborne to simply put it down and walk away after you've finally overcome it. You feel like you've just reached the summit of the mountain, so you might as well stay here and enjoy the view for a while longer. As Happy Souls depicts below, when the two players have finally overcome brutal trials and tribulations in Dark Souls, slaying Gwyn to cap off the adventure, they turn to each other and wonder what to do next. One of them shrugs. "Wanna do it again?"
FromSoftware's games are designed to be replayed over and over again. Maybe there's a few little secrets you've missed out on the first time round, like Father Gascoigne's daughter in Bloodborne. Or maybe you want to experience a different ending entirely at the end of your adventure, like Dark Souls 3's Usurpation of Fire ending, where the First Flame isn't kindled and the whole world goes dark.
In Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, this is no different. But this time, rather than standing by idly as you scream and run forth into yet another playthrough of its game, FromSoftware has actually provided a bit of insight into why history repeats itself so often both within its games, and the meta surrounding said games—especially when it comes to violence.
Spoiler Warning: In the rest of the piece below, there are spoilers for the climactic events of Sekiro, in particular the Immortal Severance ending. If you haven't beaten the game yet, come back later, it'll make a lot more sense!
Still with us? Excellent. First, let's have a brief recap of the Immortal Severance ending of Sekiro. Our titular Sekiro finally makes it back to Ashina Castle after a night of hell, fighting men and beast alike, to find his adoptive father figure Owl waiting for him. Owl asks Sekiro to "remember the Iron Code" that rules the life of the Shinobi. The Iron Code roughly translates to "protect the Divine Heir or those with the dragon's blood in their veins, above all else."
This is where Sekiro's four endings diverge. For the Immortal Severance ending, Sekiro must reject Owl's orders, and side with Kuro in pursuit of severing his cursed bloodline and the immortal power that it grants. This is absolutely the morally correct thing to do here, mainly because if you reject Kuro and side with Owl, you're in for the Shura ending of Sekiro, A.K.A. the terrible ending where 90% of the main characters die in various brutal ways, and the ending where Owl reveals his mastermind plot of controlling Japan through Kuro as their puppet.
Siding with Kuro and forsaking Owl, Sekiro kills his adoptive father figure. Again, this is the "right" thing to do here because Owl, as we know, has been a bit of a dick. He's cold, manipulative, and calculating, and it's hinted that he was a pretty brutal father figure towards Wolf. After fending off Owl, Sekiro needs to keep the Divine Heir out of the clutches of the Ashina Clan. Genichiro Ashina is the vindictive leader of the powerful Ashina Clan, and Genichiro needs the blood of the Divine Heir to keep his grandfather alive.
Kuro, on the other hand, takes on the opposite sort of role with Sekiro. Even just a nine-year-old, he's incredibly thoughtful and intelligent, and not once does he ever fall into the child character stereotype of shrill yelling in confusion about what to do next, or bemoaning his fate at all. Kuro thinks and acts like an adult in Sekiro, and he's a special character that you'll find yourself wanting to genuinely protect.
Which is why it's all the more painful to end his life. Kuro has never been shy about the power of the blood running through his veins, and how it has the ability to save the lives of those who are inches from death. He chastises Owl for letting the power of the blood corrupt his way of thinking, and in the Immortal Severance ending of Sekiro, Kuro meets his fate with his head held high, knowing that he must die to put an end to the bloodlust of madmen like Owl and Genichiro Ashina.
In the aftermath of Kuro's death, our Shinobi takes up the mantra of the Sculptor, he who helped us by upgrading Sekiro's prosthetic arm throughout the game. In the final scenes, as a one-armed Sekiro carves statues of Buddha, Lady Emma approaches the Shinobi. She lays down his now-defunct prosthetic arm, saying that he should keep it, lest another warrior be in need of it one day, just like we once were.
But where's the Sculptor in all this? Near the end of Sekiro, the Sculptor suddenly vanishes from his small hut in the Dilapidated Temple, where we visited him throughout our journey to upgrade the Shinobi Prosthetic. Head over to the field where you once fought Gyoubu Oniwa on horseback, and you'll find a new boss: a huge, terrifying monster called the Demon of Hatred.
It's obvious: the Sculptor has become the Demon of Hatred. It was the Sculptor who originally made the Shinobi Prosthetic arm for our Sekiro, and it always seemed slightly odd that the man who made a prosthetic arm for us went without one, only using one arm to carve wooden statues of Buddha. It turns out that it was none other than Isshin Ashina, grandfather to the vengeful Genichiro, who once cut the arm off the Sculptor when he was a younger man in an attempt to stop the bloodlust of the younger creator.
Unfortunately, the Sculptor has succumbed to his bloodlust once again, transforming into the twisted demonic creature that now stalks the battlefield outside Ashina Castle. The Sculptor voluntarily went without a prosthetic arm because he knew what he could potentially become if he reattached his arm, so to speak. Trouble is that even without giving himself a new arm, the hatred manifesting inside the Sculptor for people like Isshin Ashina has bubbled to the surface, culminating in the transformation of the character into the Demon of Hatred.
This is the fate that lies in wait for Sekiro. The Immortal Severance ending places the Shinobi in the shoes of the new Sculptor, and if you were to put a hood over both characters, you literally wouldn't be able to tell them apart. They've both lost an arm to a rival, they've both at some point dedicated their lives to carving statues of Buddha in solitude, and they're both determined not to go back to their old ways of killing.
Remember what Lady Emma said at the conclusion of the Immortal Severance. The Shinobi Prosthetic that Sekiro used will be kept in the Dilapidated Temple, for when another warrior needs it. This sounds an awful lot like foreshadowing, or a prophecy from Emma, that one day history will repeat itself and another warrior will be in need of the arm. But if history repeats itself, doesn't that mean Sekiro will also turn into the Demon of Hatred, just like the Sculptor before him?
The pattern of repetition through violence isn't new to the works of FromSoftware. As Gamer Network tech guru and Souls veteran Thomas Marchant reminded me in the tweet below, the 'Link the First Flame' ending in the original Dark Souls is somewhat falsely perceived as the "good" ending of the game, when all you're really doing is extending the life of a world of misery and despair, while bowing down at the feet of a false god.
Obviously I haven't got there yet, but everyone used to refer to the Link The Fire ending of Dark Souls as the good ending even though you bow down to a false god and set yourself on fire— Thomas Marchant (@hippopothomasj) March 31, 2019
The Link the First Flame ending of the original Dark Souls comes back to bite us a little bit in Dark Souls 3. In the act of linking the First Flame, the player character gives themselves to the Flame, kindling it somewhat so that the power of fire may burn for slightly longer in the world of Dark Souls. At the very end of Dark Souls 3, the final boss is the Soul of Cinder, an amalgamation of not only Gwyn, a Lord of Cinder, and the final boss of the original Dark Souls, but also all the players who have given themselves to the flame with the hope of kindling it in the history of the world of Dark Souls.
It's a bleak ending, that's for sure. Dark Souls is saying that the events of the first game are doomed to repeat themselves, with players and characters repeatedly giving themselves to the flame in a futile attempt to kindle it. Repetition and cycles of violence are critical in FromSoftware's works, especially when you consider how many people play the games on New Game Plus again and again. (I know I sure did, especially with Bloodborne.)
Kuro's character arc in Sekiro speaks to these cycles of violence. Descending from a bloodline of ultimate power and privilege, Kuro hints at having seen power-hungry men be consumed by the temptation of his blood. He's a little weary of being used as a pawn in other people's plots for power, as he displays with his headstrong attitude towards Genichiro Ashina's lust for strength, which is why he's so content with ending it all with his ultimate death in the Immortal Severance ending of Sekiro.
But despite Kuro putting an end to the war for control over his bloodline, the Immortal Severance ending of Sekiro is not a 'good' ending. If FromSoftware's recent run of games in the Dark Souls/Bloodborne franchise has taught us anything about the nature of these games, it's that history will find a way to repeat itself. The Sculptor met his demise by giving in to his hatred and bloodlust. Now a former Shinobi with a blood-soaked history sits in his stead in the Dilapidated Temple. As Lady Emma foreshadows, history will repeat itself. There will always be another warrior, and there will always be another manifestation of anger and vengeance in the Demon of Hatred.