Nioh is giving me impostor syndrome
The “stranger in a strange land” motif is, perhaps not-so-strangely, pretty common to role-playing games. When you’re playing an 80-some-hour adventure through cities, castles, space stations, dungeons, often around absurd magical systems or technology, you need some sort of vehicle for exposition. It's why you've probably played a Japanese RPG involving amnesia more than once in your life—and why humans are always newbies to galactic society in Western series like Mass Effect.
Nioh, the action-oriented "Souls-like" that made its way to PC last month, takes a slightly different tack. Its hero is William Adams, the real world's first recorded Englishman in Japan, and one of just a handful of Westerners who became real, honest-to-goodness, not Tom Cruise style samurai. He's a fish out of water in the metaphor's most basic sense: just some dude who wound up someplace he was unaccustomed to. That, and the Sengoku period setting, are just about where the "historical" end of this historical fantasy end. The game is otherwise full of raging demons, a hunt for magic crystals, and Hattori Hanzo's cat that's also a clock. It's wonderfully absurd.
But I never felt comfortable in William's skin—literally. Even among giant demon fights and historical figures powered by magic spirits, William stands out harshly in a room full of Japanese warlords. He is the aforementioned stranger in Japan; shipwrecked and in search for his own companion spirit. He doesn't speak the language. He doesn't look the same—more like an off-brand Geralt of Rivia than the potent samurai these historical figures constantly praise him as.
I never felt comfortable in William's skin -- literally.
And do they ever praise him. William is every bit the videogame hero. He saves the day, does what thousands of soldiers can't, has powers beyond most mortal men, and sparks romantic tension from Okatsu: a woman he exchanges about 12 words with across the game. William barely speaks at all, in fact, which seems like a means to let me project more of myself onto this manly gray turnip.
It all feels for my benefit. Team Ninja might be a Japanese studio, but it has every incentive to make Nioh a success in the Western Hemisphere. The country's console market has had its ups and downs in recent years. And even in a perfect economy, the U.S. and Europe are simply too big to ignore.
Hollywood and even the WWE deploy similarly naked tactics to draw in international audiences. Why shouldn't Team Ninja try to appeal to a Western (i.e. white and male) audience with a Western (i.e. white and male) mascot, too?
Besides the fact that it doesn't seem to work, and people don't like it, Nioh has the peculiar problem of totally backfiring. Each time William scarpered off to his next mission with "chosen one" praise from Tokugawa Ieyasu, I felt talked down to, rather than uplifted. There's a sense that everyone in a given room has been fed a script of what's OK and not OK to say to me.
Of course, that's exactly what's happening. Nioh was written by people, the same as any other game, and also like most games, it's fundamentally beatable. It's long and difficult. It strips away experience points if you die twice in a row without collecting them. Bosses can kill you in one hit with the swing of a 10-foot steel chain. But I finished it just like every one of FromSoftware's recent releases. Nioh might be tough, but only because that enhances the satisfaction of overcoming its obstacles. That particular fantasy of earning your victories falls away if the game can't be finished.
William's whiteness, and the possible economic motivations behind it, is a repeated asterisk next to those accomplishments. Did I succeed because I actually got better over time, or was it because the game wanted me to do it from the very start?
That's a question you could ask of any game, of course, but most try to obfuscate it. It's even baked into most “fish out of water” narratives. Amnesia might keep your character from recalling the fate-of-the-world-altering powers they once possessed. Being the pitiable human, uplifted to interstellar travel by extraterrestrial empires, makes you the underdog. It's all the better to peddle the fantasy that you've earned your way to the top, as so many games intend.
By contrast, Nioh's world welcomes its foreign savior from the jump. The one exception is William's apparent love interest, and even that is just setup for a late tsundere turn. So my feeling out of place is both omnipresent and never addressed out loud. Any negative meaning behind it comes from my own doubt that I deserve any of this. It's an uncanny valley of unearned respect.
Nioh's world welcomes its foreign savior from the jump. It's an uncanny valley of unearned respect.
The thing is... this all fits perfectly with the story Nioh tells and the kind of game it's meant to be. As more-or-less the kind of white man I suspect Nioh tries to pander to, I'm rarely forced to consider my identity as part of the games I play. I can see an idealized version of myself overcome supposedly insurmountable odds in nearly any game I pick off the shelf. But William's story is about a man out of his element. I shouldn't feel comfortable in his handcrafted shoes with a 25 percent defense bonus. I should feel out of my element—paranoid, even—as I face creatures that can crush me with a thought.
The eerily robotic praise of the characters surrounding between Nioh's missions gives me no respite. Its blatant falseness primes me with paranoia that never pays off or lets up. It preys on my own very real anxieties—that even my best efforts are merely mediocre, and that I've only ever benefited from a game that's rigged to make someone who looks like me feel good about himself.
No horror movie monster is ever as scary on-screen as what you build up in your head. Just the same, no well-trod underdog story of William proving himself to the Tokugawa Shogunate could match up to my own insecurities. That's just another comfortable fantasy, despite its well-worn disguise.
I don't want to be comfortable all the time. I come to games like Nioh to get my virtual head split like a hotdog bun by a giant ninja toad. So when I do finally turn around and win I know it's an accomplishment. Nioh's half-eerie, half-mocking "respect" for my skills keeps that desire in perspective. Am I actually getting the gradual fantasy of accomplishment that I want, or do games like this one just make me think I am?
If the Souls series really did inspire a new genre (as several games this year alone suggest) there's a danger I could become just as comfortable with its tropes as I am with Mass Effect's or Final Fantasy's. I'd like to see more games like Nioh -- games like Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and The Surge. But I need them to keep me on edge in the meantime. Nioh's "solution" might not be perfect, or even intentional. You can’t always predict how an idea will travel: a Japanese player would likely have a totally different reaction to playing a white, Western hero in a Japanese setting than me, a white Western person playing the same. But by using my own anxiety against me, and twisting a well-worn trope in ways I didn't expect, Nioh sure struck upon an effective formula. That’s worth some further exploration, I think, and not just in our current trend of “Souls-like” games.