Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption changes the action-RPG formula by making you weaker as you progress in-game, a game mechanic that creates a great opportunity to reflect on the process of aging.

Heads-up: this contains spoilers for Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption.

I’ve wanted to play games like Dark Souls since Demon Souls released on the PS3. Owning an XBox 360, I patiently waited for it’s spiritual successor’s release, actually buying Dark Souls on the first day it came out. I ended up trading it for likely half what I paid for it (thanks, Gamestop) not but 48 hours later. The large metal box for the “Prepare to Die Edition” still sits on one of my bookshelves in my parents’ house.

The game beat the hell out of me, and I wasn’t ready for it. What started off as poor navigation (I kept wandering into the skeleton graveyard, getting destroyed by enemies far above my level) became frustration at the game’s surprise tactics: boulders rolling down staircases unannounced, “cheap,” unavoidable attacks. Nevermind the “Prepare to Die” on the metal box; I felt completely blindsided.

In the years since the original game’s release, Dark Souls has become a highlight franchise. Its three games (along with Demon Souls and spin-off, Bloodborne) spawned countless hours of player frustration, Let’s Plays, and rage-quitting livestreams. Communities blossomed around these titles, with people sharing tips, tricks, and personal stories. And none of this mentions “Souls-likes,” games created in the spirit of the tough-as-nails action-RPG. All the while, I’ve been haunted by old memories of disappointment, both in the game and in myself, keeping me from venturing back into the fray.


A new mission

At PAX West 2017, I found out about Sinner: Sacrifice for Redemption. Though the term “Souls-like” seemed to have been thrown at virtually every game under the sun released with a moderate difficulty and third-person perspective for a good couple of years, this game really seemed to channel the spirit of Dark Souls: a dark, medieval/fantasy setting, swords, a health flask you carry around with you, dodge-and-counter oriented combat. But it had a couple of interesting differences: instead of a lengthy RPG, Sinner was a short boss rush. Sinner also turned the basic premise of RPGs on its head: as you progress through the game, you became WEAKER.

This was it. This was the game I needed to prove to myself that I could do it, that I could take on the world of real Souls-likes.

Sinner starts by giving you control of a nameless, almost goblin-like figure ready for war. You carry two blades: a long, serrated broadsword, and a short sword used in combination with a shield. You’re sheathed in full armor, and you carry health potions, bombs, throwing spears, and a potion that lights your weapon aflame. It’s enough to destroy a small army.

There’s virtually no narrative as you walk through the brief tutorial zone: ghostly spirits tell you things like “Press R1 to use your item” with no real context. As much as I love a good narrative and strong writing, I knew that wasn’t what I was coming for. In September of 2011 I wasn’t ready for what was coming. But this time I was prepared to die, as many times as it took to emerge victorious.

I wasn’t prepared to think about I’d changed since 2011.


Prepare to tilt

I walked through an archway filled with white light, entering an open, elevated landscape with seven tall pillars. Each pillar represented an enemy tied to one of the Seven Deadly Sins: greed, sloth, wrath, pride, lust, gluttony, and envy. Each pillar also, as promised, demanded a sacrifice. Gluttony requires decreasing the number of healing potions I can hold, as well as the speed at which they heal me. Another requires me to lose my ability to light my blade afire for bonus damage. Others are more significant: one requires decreasing my stamina, and getting stunned by exhaustion whenever I overexert myself. Another decreases my attack strength. I pick and choose my boss fights based on which advantages I’m most comfortable losing.

Sloth goes down surprisingly easily, making me feel a bit of confidence… but I’ve still got most of my abilities. The next boss I choose, Gluttony, is not so kind: a giant, pig-ish beast with a tooth-laden maw in its stomach. It chops me to bits with dual cleavers and periodically creates gaping holes on the ice floe we battle on. I’ve a tendency to fall into these holes. Frustrated, I decide to move to another boss: Envy.

Envy successfully “tilts” me, frustrating me to a point of anger. Envy is actually a pair of twin sisters, each with their own deadly techniques. They tag in and out of combat, alternating between one throwing hovering daggers and scythes and the other summoning bolts of lightning from the sky. Once one’s health dips below 50%, she summons the other sister to join, creating a two-on-one fight from hell. After over an hour of death after death to this boss, I finally put the game away. And I put it away for longer than I intended.

It’d be easier with full health, right? If only I could still light my sword on fire. For a while, I was upset with my lessened capabilities. I flashed back to death after death fighting skeletons in the Dark Souls graveyard. Then I shifted my thoughts a bit, adapted.


Learning from defeat

Each of Sinner’s 7 bosses are tough in their own right. Each one carries at least one seemingly ridiculous and unfair attack: Lust transforms into a giant worm right before she dies, completely refilling her health bar and chasing you around while threatening to bite you in half. Pride is a spindly, armored giant with a charge attack that can knock you out of the arena to your death. Wrath, a giant monster emerging from a pool of lava, slowly destroys the narrow platform you fight on, which can eventually force you into the fire. Sinner takes joy in the many ways you can die: most of the game’s achievements are tied to getting killed in various ways.

I come back to the game off-stream, returning to the chessboard dance floor of Levin Undok and Indok, the twin sisters of Envy. And though it takes me another thirty minutes, I succeed and defeat them both.

For context: when I defeated Sloth, an option came up that said: “Press L2 to Redeem.” Once I pressed the button, Yordo disappeared in points of light and my maximum health increased.

I gave Envy no such mercy. I attacked again and again until the remaining sister simply vanished. And even though I’d thrown away an an additional health boost, I still felt stronger…and vindicated.

I took on boss after boss, making more sacrifices: lowering my maximum health and stamina, stunning myself from exhaustion. But even as my character got weaker, I could feel my mind, my playstyle getting stronger. Tips I’d gotten from folks in chat sunk in: I became more aggressive, dodge-rolling through attacks and countering with my own swings. I died plenty on each boss, but I learned its techniques, developed strategies, used my failures to inform the next attempt. It was painful progress, but it was progress nevertheless.


The final redemption

Once I slayed the last of the seven bosses, a portal opened up to the final boss. The game finally made its story known: I, as Adam, had brought these seven sins into the world. I’d battled each one to make my atonement, and now it was time to defeat the source of all the trouble: myself. WIth a nearly-broken shield, missing armor, abbreviated stamina, and all the other debuffs, I had to fight the fully-powered version of myself from the beginning of the game.

Death came for me, and it came often. Even so, I never reached the level of frustration I did at the end of the twin sisters fight. I analyzed enemy attack timings to dodge at just the right moment. I used the parry mechanic that let me counter blows and land critical strikes. I watched my stamina meter when attacking to avoid fatigue. And when none of that worked, when Adam countered me with unblockable attacks that sapped 75% of my health bar, I used my mind. I recentered, lowered my aggression, and focused on waiting for him to create attack openings instead of trying to create them.

I stretched out the length of the fight, but it was the only way I could think of to win. The battle boiled down to each of us with a single hit’s worth of HP, circling each other tenuously. But I didn’t jump in for the impulsive strike like I would have hours earlier. I walked away from him to get my stamina back, dodged when he leapt at me with his broadsword, and slashed into his back with my own blade, bringing him to his demise.

I didn’t get to choose whether or not to redeem Adam; the game’s story ends with your character becoming Adam, taking the sins into himself to bear the punishment alone…or something. Again, I wouldn’t say the goal of the game was to create a compelling narrative experience. But Sinner made me focus on my mind as the key weapon, a trait uncommon to action-RPGs. It’s a trait I’m applying to my own life.


Using age and experience to win battles in real life

I don’t consider myself old, but I certainly felt that way as I walked around TwitchCon 2018 this year. Teenagers and twenty-somethings walked around with hordes of followers, sat on brightly-lit stages with high-brand sponsors, and it felt evident there was something I was missing. (Part of that something I’m missing seems to be a love of Fortnite.) In the meantime, I dealt with perfectly-timed bouts of anxiety and depression, and am entering that stage of life where it’s possible to wake up sore the next day because I slept wrong. I used to work all day on the show floor without eating, still feeling like I was firing on all cylinders (Note: DO NOT DO THIS. Please take care of yourself at conventions). But my mind’s adapted to help me push past some of the impulsivity and bad habits.

This year, when I felt overwhelmed by social connections, I took breaks away from people. I kept my schedule open so I wouldn’t feel pressured to meet folks I didn’t want to. I made time for meals, and I spent time with friends away from the show floor so my brain could cool down. I meditated in the mornings, and I wrote notes about the topics I wanted to cover before each panel. Knowing that alcohol can be an anxiety trigger for me, I didn’t drink at all until after my panels, and even then I still took it easy for the duration of the trip. Moderating the two panels turned out to be a great experience, and some of the high points of my year.

Like in Sinner, as time’s gone on, I know I’ve lost some of my raw power.  Though I think I’ve always dealt with anxiety and depression, my relationship with my mind has changed over time. I pale thinking about the number of hours necessary to stream enough, to create enough content. But Sinner reminded me that sometimes our most effective techniques come from honing in on what works, forgetting the flashy extras. Most of all, Sinner taught me that learning and growth can come from failure, and that resilience is key to that experience.

Secretly, I hoped near the end of Sinner that clearing the game would scratch my Dark Souls itch. I wanted to have learned my lesson of perseverance, never needing to invest hours-upon-hours into the franchise. Instead, as I look at the copy of Bloodborne on my bookshelf, think about the copy of Dark Souls in my PC backlog, I feel something I never have before with those games: hope.