Overcoming the Illusion of Heroism in ‘Nioh’

Nioh shows us that victory can still be sweet even when it isn’t all about you.

Written by Miguel Melendez

Whether through thoughtful narratives or engaging mechanics, some games continue to speak to us even after we walk away from them. While Nioh might very well be one of these games, it’s also a game that you speak back to . . . in expletives as you toss aside your controller in fits of frustration. Yes, Team Ninja’s Nioh is one of those games. It’s a wonderful union of Ninja Gaiden, Dark Souls brutally difficult boss-battle madness with one important distinction.

"Nioh meticulously beats you down and reminds you that you aren’t all that."
Ostensibly, Nioh puts player in the role of a hero. The game’s protagonist is based off of William Adams, an English navigator that set out on an expedition that led him to fifteenth century Japan during the end of the Sengoku period. Adams earned the favor of shogun Tokugawa leyasu; he was honored with the title “Miura Anjin” and later considered to be the first western samurai. But Nioh actually discards most of the historical details about Adams in favor of a world of yokai, magic and a more imaginative lead.

The William of Nioh is a supernatural beast of a man well attuned to the spirit world from childhood. He leaves his homeland in pursuit of a guardian spirit that was stolen from him by an alchemist with a lust for Amrita, a “miraculous stone” with the ability to turn the tides of war. As you battle scores of his apparitions and demons, you encounter famous historical figures like Hanzo Hattori, Ishida Mitsunari, and Tokugawa leyasu.

Beat down in five, four, three, two . . .

With this set up, a blond-haired white male protagonist is sure to raise caution for an ever too familiar cinematic cliche—the white savior trope. And for the most part, Nioh seems to fit the bill. The game is based on a historical account, it features a community of non-white people in conflict, and the protagonist is a white person (Irishman, in this case) who comes along and, in some way, saves the community of color; see The Last Samurai (2003) or 12 Years a Slave (2013). However, while being critical of a white male lead in a game about samurai is totally fair in my book, you aren’t really the hero in Nioh.

If Nioh’s dialogue does the game any justice, it is in the way it acknowledges William isn’t really a samurai and that the title is more of an honor than a truth. The story unfolds around him and he’s usually caught in a delirium of uncertainty. Characters gather to politic and strategize, and William carries out their orders. William’s contributions are relevant but not nearly the main point. Team Ninja’s decision here honors Adams as a historical figure, yet foregoes historical precision in favor of building out a world full of magical realism, with a remarkably effective east-meets-west mythological syncretism.

This isn’t as heroic as it looks . . . its complicated.

And even if William’s role in the story was one of greater significance, Nioh meticulously beats you down and reminds you that you aren’t all that. By all means, the game really feels a bit too difficult for the casual player going at it alone. But it is precisely this notion that makes the game so magical. Between every failure and hard-fought victory, Nioh constantly challenges you to be better.

Nioh is less about actually being a hero than it is about overcoming the illusion of heroism. Although I’m sure it’s theoretically possible to complete without ever retrying, the vast majority of players will find themselves caught in its highly addictive loop of falling short and becoming just good enough to emerge victorious from battle. There is a real thrill in understanding what you’ve been doing wrong, what techniques you’ve been neglecting, and what modifications are necessary to bring your character up to par to address the next colossus.

In this way, Nioh places emphasis on your weaknesses rather than an assumed greatness, allowing you to concentrate on consciously developing your character and adjusting how you approach the game. Ultimately, Nioh shows us that victory can still be sweet even when it isn’t all about you.