Rebirth & Decline: A Thought About Ghost of Tsushima and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

I’ve been playing Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima and FromSoftware’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice a lot lately. I can’t help but compare the two in my head. Comparing the gameplay is pretty pointless, as they’re different types of games, but the themes? The arc of the story, the way the settings help tell the story? All of that stuck with me, and after mulling it over a bit, I wanna share it with you.

FromSoftware’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima—created by a Japanese and American studio, respectively—are similar video games in the same way that Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and Spectre were the same kind of movie. They share a family tree, which means they have enough texture in common to make looking at them in juxtaposition with each other pretty interesting.

Ghost of Tsushima is set during the 13th century, and its protagonist Jin Sakai is the head of a samurai clan that’s fallen on hard times. The Mongol Empire invades his family’s lands, taking complete control of the island of Tsushima. Sakai, his uncle, and an unlikely gang of allies band together in order to take back their lands. Ghost of Tsushima depicts a samurai clan on the cusp of being reborn into a beautiful world full of untold potential.

Sekiro takes place much later, during the Sengoku period. Rather than a rebirth, Sekiro depicts a decline. The Ashina people lost control of their lands in the past, and have been subjugated for quite some time. Eventually, they clawed their way back and took control of their lands again. But by then, it was too late. The warring states period had turned the land of Ashina into a slaughterhouse, filled with nothing but death and those who would forsake their values in order to achieve victory.

Jin Sakai and Genichiro Ashina both stand in the gap, determined to preserve their lands at all costs. Sakai indulges in assassinations and befriends thieves to get his results, much to the disappointment of his samurai uncle. A similar disappointment to his grandfather, Genichiro pursues dark arts, allies with the corrupt, and seeks immortality in order to gain the power to restore his lands.

But Genichiro isn’t the main character of Sekiro. Wolf is. And Wolf is only loyal to the Iron Code, which demands that he protect his master, Lord Kuro, the Divine Heir. As it happens, Wolf’s goal is mutually exclusive with Genichiro’s, which leads to some of the game’s most bitter battles.

If Sekiro were Ghost of Tsushima, Wolf would be the villain, most likely, rather than a hero. In Sekiro, he makes for a grim protector.

These games depict two different fantasies about the samurai: rebirth and decline.

Ghost of Tsushima is big on exploration, achievement, and restoring a community. While Sekiro is focused mainly around melee combat, leading to several intensely memorable one-on-one encounters. As you progress in Tsushima, the lands around you become more beautiful as the people reclaim their land.

Pleasure is common in Ghost of Tsushima. Even though it’s a very dramatic game, the visuals and story both emphasize that Tsushima is a beautiful island populated by a beleaguered but industrious and kind people. You can take baths in hot springs and reflect on recent events, or feel so inspired that you pause to write a haiku.

Pleasure is much less common in Sekiro. Sharing sake with certain characters is one of the primary ways to gain info about the story, and those characters do tend to enjoy themselves as they reminisce about their lives. The different varieties of sake are described in glowing and unique terms as well, but Wolf himself doesn’t seem to take any pleasure in sharing a cup.

Almost everyone in Sekiro, Wolf included, is focused on their duty or their selfish desires at the expense of everything else. As Sekiro progresses, Wolf only ever becomes a more efficient killing machine.

There are two subtle touches in both games that perfectly encapsulate what they’re about to me.

I think of Ghost of Tsushima as a deeply romantic game, in a classic, adventure sense, It has an idealized depiction of the samurai—kinda like a samurai version of copaganda, I guess—and life in that time period in Japan.

The game is stunningly beautiful, like an enormous temple covered in red and gold. Jin Sakai knows and appreciates this throughout the game, such as when you’re traveling through a field of pampas grass and he reaches out one hand to let his fingers run through it, enjoying the sensation.

Sekiro, on the other hand, is a deeply passionate game to me. Wolf has spent his entire life ignoring pleasure for the sake of duty. But, late in the game, his lord gives him a sweet sticky rice ball. When Wolf bites into it, he’s surprised at how good it tastes. He describes it as delicious, one of the few times Wolf seems to be enjoying himself during the game.

Lord Kuro is pleased by his response, and shares a story about how he’d like to open a tea house some day. He’s prevented from fulfilling his dream because as the Divine Heir, he is responsible for more than just himself. Similarly, Wolf is his protector, and must remain focused on his lord. There is little space for pleasure in the midst of duty.

Ghost of Tsushima is a romance, and that’s reflected in the visuals, the gameplay, and even the way Jin Sakai lives and moves around the island of Tsushima. He’s very comfortable here. He’s at home, and the love he has is obvious and ever-present.

Sekiro is more of a passion play. You visit incredible locales, you fight a diverse group of enemies, and the game is truly beautiful, with exquisite animation and exciting combat. But the game is fundamentally about Wolf suffering while serving his lord. He’s here to kill, be killed, and to rise again to kill for his lord.

david brothers, 9/6/2020

This is the second one of these I’ve done, closing out what I’ve got to say about Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. The first was called SEKIRO: in the blood, charting my emotional arc with the game. I’ve also got an irregular newsletter on TinyLetter called (me+you). If you’d rather read some fiction, check out some criticism, or download these videos, visit my Gumroad. I’ve done a few limited-run podcasts too, under the Brothers Before Others umbrella.

SEKIRO: in the blood

Transcript:
The closest thing I’ve felt to agony in video games is when I first played Sekiro, from From Software.

The game is very difficult. It demands a lot of you. This fight, where Wolf, your player character battles Genichiro Ashina, was the first big road block I hit when playing the game. I must’ve bounced off him easily forty times before I finally got a lucky break and beat him. It took me a while to learn to see his moves, and even longer to learn how to react to them. Most of my runs ended like this.

SEKIRO: in the blood
david brothers

Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing power?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
Are you fully trusting in His grace this hour?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

“Are You Washed in the Blood?”
Elisha A. Hoffman, 1878

Pain is central to Christian doctrine. The cross has grown to be the dominant symbol of the religion, but the Blood of Christ is what gives the cross its power. The cross was just a tool for His sacrifice.

As a child, I was taught that the wages of sin are death, but the blood of Christ washes you clean.

Agony is a prerequisite for salvation.

Pain and agony are two related, but different, things to me. Pain is just stimulus, it’s value-neutral. It’s not good or bad. It’s just an indication that you are at risk, a self-preservation response.

Agony is pain that is directed or allocated. Enhanced maybe. Pain with a purpose. You can see what I mean in monks who self-flagellate to mortify their flesh in order to push their souls closer to godliness.

But maybe that’s an extreme example. I don’t rightly know. But I do know “No pain, no gain” and “Nothing worth doing is ever easy.”

I think of people who push themselves toward excellence by forsaking everything but their goal. That lack in their lives, that sacrifice, seems agonizing to me. The idea of looking away from love.

The feeling of pushing yourself harder than you ever have before and still failing is also agonizing. So, agony is a little broadly defined, maybe, but it’s consistent for me.

Sekiro has been one of my pandemic games. The blues have been brutal this year, and falling into this game and absorbing the pain it brings with it, accepting the agony of trying and failing until I finally manage to succeed, that has felt amazing.

I’ve been stressing over a million things over the past few months, just like anybody else. I spend a lot of time sitting, or staring at a ceiling or wall while I process. But when I’m controlling Wolf and looking for the right opening, that split-second between swings when I can turn the fight in my favor, I feel more free. The only thing that exists in that moment is the goal, and the pain that is going to get me there.

Sekiro has a very satisfying gameplay loop. You find a wall, and it bars your way until you learn how to clear it. Learning how to clear it takes so much physical time and emotional energy that finally making it happen feels great—it feels euphoric. It’s as if the agony reversed direction.

The agony of Sekiro was good for the blues. It gave me an emotional release that was sorely lacking while I shelter alone here, and a way to get some distance from my anxieties. It makes weathering the fears and worries brought on by this pandemic a little easier. And it keeps me from spending all my time on just the sad end of the emotional spectrum.

In the moment, when I’m trading blows with the boss and trying to fight my way to the deathblow, it kinda feels like meditation. The self falls away, the world falls away, and the only thing left is just this moment.

Are you washed (are you washed?) in the blood (in the blood)?
In the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb? (of the lamb!)
Are your garments spotless? Are they white as snow?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

“Are You Washed in the Blood?”
Elisha A. Hoffman, 1878

david brothers, 9/1/2020

This is the first one of these I’ve done, and Rebirth & Decline: A Thought About Ghost of Tsushima and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the second, completing my thoughts on Sekiro. I’ve also got an irregular newsletter on TinyLetter called (me+you). If you’d rather read some fiction, check out some criticism, or download these videos, visit my Gumroad. I’ve done a few limited-run podcasts too, under the Brothers Before Others umbrella.

Gokudo Cats, Emma Ríos (2012)

I’m trying to write more. Probably the day after you read this, I’ll have a new short story up on essays.iamdavidbrothers.com. In the meantime, though, I’d like to talk about this old drawing from my friend Emma Ríos, co-creator of Pretty Deadly and Island magazine, and creator of ID from Image Comics.

The Flickr title for this one is “Gokudo Cats,” gokudo being a Japanese word that references the yakuza, and cats being…c’mon. You know what cats are. Meet me halfway here.

What first struck me about Emma’s art way back in 2011, when she was working on Osborn with Kelly Sue DeConnick, was the way she approached motion. She was using a technique in a way I found remarkable and striking, one of those “read the page, then read the page again, then save a screenshot of the page” kinds of things. She really brought some superhero bombast to the page, filtered through influences I’m not qualified to guess at. (I guessed that there was some Kirby in the mix when I first wrote about it, but I think that’s true of the vast majority of people who work with Marvel and DC.) That sense of motion made for exciting superhero comics, a genre where if the action scenes aren’t on point, everything else falls apart. More than that, it was new, novel—I saw it and it made me pause. That’s a feeling I chase in comics and media more generally, and Emma really delivered way back then.

Gokudo Cats is different. It’s from 2012, a single illustration that Emma submitted to a yakuza-themed art show in Portland that was running at the time. (I submitted a short story in zine form, which you can read here.) Emma perfectly captures stillness in this work. Not the absence of motion, that’s not what I mean. More like…if I had to describe this scene, I’d call it a vibe. There’s a narrative depicted here, but not necessarily one that’s being pushed forward or held back by the actions of the characters in the narrative. It’s just a moment, and in building that moment, Emma first had to build the vibe of that moment. I asked a few people about it, and most of them remarked on the way that it feels liminal, my favorite take being that it felt like a “calm between two storms.” It’s a moment frozen in time, but it’s a moment that lasts forever too. She’s drinking, he’s tattooing, and the cat is doing cat-things for eternity.

So: stillness in the sense of not inaction, but subdued or minimal action. It’s like watching a kid playing with building blocks. There is motion there, even though they may not be moving around too much. Every time you look at them, it feels like they’re in the same place, but there’s evidence of their movement too. If this picture were a Boomerang, like from Instagram, you’d see the old man pushing his tattoo needle down into the subject’s skin, the cat batting at something in the woman’s clothes, and the woman raising or appraising her beer can. Outside the window, a wind would blow back and forth, swirling in such a way that you can’t tell whether it’s coming or going.

The window is a crucial piece of the drawing for me. I like hiking and being outside, and recently went on a solo hike. It was eight miles, bright and early on a hot day, and I saw something that struck me early in the hike. The area where the cloud cover or fog met the tops of the trees looked like a mid-air waterfall almost, with the water vapor streaming down “into” the forest from afar. But it looked like the reverse, too, with the vapor rising out of the trees simultaneously. If I focused one way, the water fell. The other way, it rose. I was halfway up a mountain, staring at a sea of green and grey, trying to guess at the tides.

The way Emma drew the clouds, ground, and forest intermingling outside the window feels like that to me. It’s a concrete thing, very specific, but it’s anything too. It’s an ocean, it’s the sky, it’s the Earth. It’s an injection of the idea that some things are bigger than us into a piece that’s focused strictly on humanity otherwise. The posters, the tattoos, the posture, all of it feels deeply real to me, something that could be to such an extent that it might as well be. But the forest and clouds are out there saying, “There is more.”

The intrusion of the branches in the foreground does that for me too. It could be from a bonsai tree or from an off-screen full-sized tree, but it’s another reminder that nature surrounds us. We exist within it, rather than the opposite. In the Flickr post that went with this image, Emma described it as being a little Hayao Miyazaki-ish, and I can totally see it.

Even with the gun, the beer, and the tattooing, the image brings Miyazaki to mind because it evokes peace and contentment more than anything else to me. Everything and everyone in their right place, from the armed woman with a beer to the tattooist with a subject. Everything just looks right. Everything looks as it should, like the platonic ideal of a cool evening in this particular setting.

Sometimes, it kills me how good Emma is. I’m happy we’re friends.

Right now, Emma and Kelly Sue DeConnick are releasing the third part of their Pretty Deadly project. They just put #2 to bed, so that should hit in a few weeks. #1 is out at your favorite place to get comics, and the paperbacks are at bookstores, comic shops, libraries…shoot, you probably know somebody who owns them. Ask around. Tell your friends.

I do an irregular newsletter with lots of stuff like this. If you’re interested, check out (me+you) on TinyLetter. I also wrote a story inspired by this illustration called In-Between, which you can read here.

In-Between

 

 


A woman sits in the background holding a gun and a beer while a man in the foreground tattoos a gangster.
Gokudo Cats, Emma Ríos (2012)

 

Emiko sat by the window nursing a beer, with her legs splayed in the same way that her mother used to chide her for as a child. A cat played around her feet, alternating between demanding attention and studiously ignoring every human in the room. Emiko wore a robe with the top pulled down to let the touched-up tattoo on her back heal and cool off in the evening’s breeze, two more things that would’ve made her mother frown in that certain way she did, as if she hoped that making a sour-enough face would let her walk back her daughter’s bad decisions. It was bad enough her husband had tattoos, but her only daughter too?

Though Emiko called him uncle, Hideki was actually her father’s sworn brother, now an old man who retired from one life and found another. Hideki had dedicated his new life entirely to leisure and tattooing. When he permanently left the city and moved halfway up a mountain—Emiko had taken a car most of the way there this evening, and walked the last three miles as the sun set—he took an artist’s name and set about his second life’s work. He was a horishi who worked without the aid of machines, like many others in their world, and had a good reputation amongst his prospective clientele. Hideki wasn’t particularly exceptional, but he was still connected, and that went a long way. The relative inaccessibility of his studio and his lifelong cranky attitude only added to the mystique. He certainly played the role of a master, even if he was more of a journeyman.

Hideki had been Emiko’s haven for decades. He first put ink to her skin when she was sixteen, a solid decade before before he permanently left the city. Her father had died six weeks earlier, upending her idyllic home life. She fought with her mother until she either ran away or was put out of the house, depending on who you asked, and she ended up running straight to Hideki. She was oozing grief by the time she knocked on his door, her hair dirty and matted and her eyes huge and wet in the twilight outside his apartment’s door. He gave her a bed, chores, and structure. He loved her father, and so, he loved her too.

Together, they designed and executed the first step of what would later become her munewari soushinbori, a type of full body tattoo with an opening on the chest. It was dedicated to her father, but when her mother saw it by accident some months later, the halting reconciliation they’d embarked upon froze solid. Her mother attacked Hideki with a ferocity Emiko had never seen before, a flurry of swinging fists and flung curses. She broke Hideki’s nose and orbital before Emiko finally pulled her off him. They drove home in silence, save for Emiko’s occasional whispered apology. It took over a year for her mother to trust her again.

The view out of Hideki’s window was incredible. The window looked down the mountain, back the way Emiko had come. She could see clouds wafting past tree tops down below in the bright moonlight, a spread of white and blue and green that felt more like an ocean than a forest. The colors reminded her of her own tattoos, with designs that coiled and twisted around her body as if they were swimming through a sea of their own. She could see for miles, and the sounds of the mountain and bright night sky made her feel relaxed. Emiko knew that there was a city in the distance, somewhere past the gloom and clouds, but for now, the whole world felt natural. She finished her beer and set it on the windowsill next to the mostly-empty rice bowls, sake cups, and other cans that had settled there over the course of the evening.

Hideki claimed he had an eye for aesthetics, and so had designed and built his home to maximize its harmony with the outdoors. Branches from trees tapped his windows on windy days, plants of all types littered his working area, and the building was cooled by natural air flow in the summer. The sun rose through his bedroom window in the mornings, his own personal alarm clock, and set through the window in his living area, where he ate dinner and read before bed. From the outside, his home seemed like it was on the verge of being overgrown. Inside, it simply felt right.

Comfort was paramount to Hideki, he’d come to learn. He worked when he wanted, how he wanted, and on who he wanted, while keeping his own hours and generally being his own boss. No more foolish old men giving him marching orders, no cops preventing him from getting what he wanted. Just peace, quiet, and his craft.

The room was filled with a thin, hovering layer of cigarette smoke. Hideki had smoked the same brand of tobacco since she was a kid, rolling his short, blunt cigarettes himself. The smell was so familiar to Emiko that it was a comfort in trying times. Sometimes her nostrils flared as she gazed out of the window, savoring the second-hand smoke, while her uncle worked on the young gangster who’d come to his studio.

Tonight’s subject was an underling who’d recently earned some stripe or another, a milestone in his burgeoning career but one that Hideki had achieved and forgotten eons ago. The man was an underling in Hideki’s former organization and had been gifted a session with Hideki from his boss. Hideki came up with a design, accepted the enormous check, and was on his fourth of six sessions with the young man. By the end of it, the man’s back would be covered and Hideki would have another finished work for his private album.

Emiko had arrived around ninety minutes before the man, so she and Hideki had time to share a small meal and drinks while he touched up the tattoos on her back. She pulled on her light robe shortly before the man came in the door. He walked tall, full of big-city swagger and privilege. He hit on her at first, a crude attempt rooted in an assumption that she was there as another gift from the boss.

Instead of responding, she lowered her robe and exposed her torso, an act that made him smile, at least at first. But as he registered the tattoos and the withering glare she leveled at him sank deep into his heart, he realized he’d made a horrible mistake. He bowed deeply, apologizing profusely to Emiko and her uncle both for the disrespect. He was silent for the remainder of the session, even when Hideki’s needles occasionally poked a little too deeply and sent shivers of pain up and down his back.

Emiko’s father had been dead for twenty-some years now. After the drama of the tattoo, after making peace with her mother and attempting to live at home again, she had walked the straight and narrow. School, exams, and then university. But it didn’t take. She found herself drawn to her father’s business, but the sexism rooted in the field did its best to push her away, to keep her from finding a family of her own.

Still, she was good with a gun but better with a blade, and she soon found a lane that worked for her: freelance. Her new career took her all across Tokyo, and then to Hiroshima and the Ryukyu Islands. When things got too hot for her in her motherland, she left. Her mother barely spoke to her any more, and it’s not like she’d leave behind a lot of friends or lovers if she simply disappeared.

There was a city in America that she’d heard of, one where she could ply her trade and possibly find great success. Her path there took her through Taiwan, Hong Kong, and then Hawaii before making it to the mainland, with each stop deepening her connections and desire for something new. When she arrived, she was exhausted, but found a warm welcome from strangers who knew her by reputation. Within a year, she had found her groove and settled in. Within two, she’d started sending money back home to her mother, her way of making amends.

Five years after her arrival in the United States, five years after she left the only world she’d ever known, she received an email from Hideki. He was never much for flowery messages or correspondence, and the email was so short as to be curt. He simply told her to read the attached file and do as she willed. She imagined him typing out the email, one finger at a time, frowning at the screen, and smiled.

The file he sent her told quite a story. At the beginning was the same coroner’s report that she’d read dozens of times before, detailing her father’s condition when he died. After that was a dossier. It was new, and it suggested that her father died from one 5.56 round fired from long range. She immediately wondered if it was an American who’d killed her father, some bored GI wandering around drunk and armed. But the more she read, the more it came off like a professional shooting, which meant it must have happened on someone’s order. And sure enough, the following pages explained exactly who ordered the hit, who delivered the order to an underling, and which assassin who pulled the trigger. It was a mix of police surveillance, private detective work, and Hideki’s own intelligence, gathered and collated over the course of several years.

Her father had been retired for quite some time before he died, ever since she was a young girl, so his death must have been payback for some past sin. But her father was her father, so within twelve hours of reading the email she was on a plane back home—first class—and by the end of the week every man involved in her father’s death was dead, whether they were in bed, in the arms of their mistress, or attending a business meeting for their legitimate enterprises.

It was the assassin that was the hardest to kill, but he was old and slow when it counted. She caught him while he was in bed, sleeping alone. She stood there a moment, listening to him breathe, waiting for it to change. When he woke and moved to pull a snub-nosed gun from under his pillow, she threw a knife at his shoulder. By the time the gun cleared the pillow and he was struggling to lift his dead arm to aim at her, she’d closed the distance between them and buried a second one in his heart. She didn’t take her time or exercise any cruelty. He was simply alive in one moment and dead the next, the gun falling out of his limp hand as a last gasp passed his lips.

Emiko had killed him not twelve hours earlier, and taken the long drive to Hideki’s place after checking out of her hotel and closing out her affairs in the city. She had a hunch that someone would be after her, though, and wasn’t surprised to see car headlights down the mountain as she gazed out of the window. They were winding their way around the roads, getting closer and closer to the studio, flickering on and off as the cars took the twisting turns. She counted three cars or trucks, and imagined she could hear the growl of their engines over the air, despite the distance.

“Uncle?” she said. She picked up the gun that sat between her legs, checked the action and ammunition by instinct, and placed it on the windowsill.

“Yes, little girl?” he replied, his focus locked on the picture taking shape before him. His gloves were dotted with blood and ink, the ash at the end of his cigarette long and hanging dangerously over his subject’s back.

They hadn’t called each other by name for years. He called her “little girl,” and she called him “uncle” in return. It was a reminder to her that her life was not always what it is today, and a reminder to him of the same. She half-smiled every time she thought of his love for her, and hoped he felt the same.

“They’re coming,” she said. She shrugged her robe the rest of the way off and gathered her neatly folded pants and shirt to put them on. She pulled her hair into a tight ponytail and stretched her arms above her head, reaching for the heavens before dropping them to her side. She shook her shoulders. She felt loose.

Her uncle sighed a deep sigh and was quiet a moment. “It’s a pity.”

I also wrote a critical appreciation of this illustration, which you can read here.

Darker Than Blue: All You See Is…

I put together a short story collection called Darker Than Blue, Volume 1: eight stories from the city. It’s available now for $5, which gets you 62-page PDF and epub versions of the work. Darker Than Blue contains eight stories about crime, violence, paranoia, grief, joy, and family in the city, and one story about Sun Wukong contemplating murder on a mountaintop. The book design, layout, and lettering is courtesy of my old Image Comics collaborator Sasha Head, while the cover is by East of West’s Nick Dragotta. This is the prologue:


The city ended up the way it did thanks in no small part to certain actions taken in the Summer of 1974, right around the time Nixon resigned. Six men died that summer, a number that pales in comparison to the city’s quadruple-digit body count that year. While their names will never appear in any history book, their deaths marked a turning point in the landscape of criminal activity in the city.

Two years prior, a young boy named Harrison was struck and killed when a gunfight broke out near a friend’s home uptown. The conflict was part of a series of running turf wars that were beginning to bubble up around the city. Three of the men, representatives of a local penny-ante racketeering operation, wanted to prevent two of their rivals taking over, and the most expedient way to do that was to force them out. The sixth was a tame cop, one who was interested only in making sure the newcomers got what they wanted and that he got paid, not in that order. The boy was nothing more than collateral damage, and the cop made sure that his death went unsolved when the investigation into the shooting began. No suspects, unreliable and tainted witness reports, and no arrests meant that it was just another night for most everyone in the city.

That summer, Rosaline Baines, mother to Harrison, enlisted Shawn Jenkins, a relative who served with her late husband in Vietnam, in her mission: kill all six men to balance the scales. They succeeded, though Jenkins lost his life finishing the job. After, Rosaline quietly returned to her life, raising three daughters, eight grandchildren, and twelve great-grandchildren before she died. She raised a family of teachers and activists, musicians and artists. They grew up ignorant of their mother’s sin, but unknowingly lived through the aftermath.

She never understood the full repercussions of her actions, but Rosaline’s hate made waves. The men were not high-up, they were not important men by any means, but they were significant enough to be missed. Each man ran or worked with a smaller gang of men and boys in addition to representing a greater organization.

Rosaline’s actions disrupted a delicate ecosystem in the city. The death of the cop gave the police an excuse to crack down on urban violence with increasingly militarized equipment and strategies. The police, already no friend to the majority black communities in the city, began to shoot first and justify their actions later, if at all. The death of the other men created two different power vacuums, one that left their crew leaderless and another that left their organization on its back foot and desperate to regain its former strength. The crews splintered, splintered again, and eventually went to war in the streets. Their former masters made a futile effort to regain control of their charges while the cops cracked every black and brown head in sight.

By the spring of ’75, the city was burning. Newspaper editorials demanded government intervention. Politicians found a toehold and dug in, eager to show how tough on crime they really were. The city was on track for its highest crime rate in years, with records being broken seemingly every month. Small business owners fled first, rising insurance costs eliminating the free-falling rents in the area, and a significant portion of the city’s whites soon moved to a neighboring town.

When summer arrived, crime suddenly plummeted to lows not seen in years. The police were baffled. Their strong-arm tactics worked, they believed, but the result was unprecedented. The streets went from noisy to quiet over a period of mere weeks, barely more than a month. Rumors swirled: secret police death squads, assassinations, bribes, and buyouts. The police expected a flashy new player to step in, another target to be knocked off its perch. Nothing materialized.

Outside of the eyes of the police, however, was another story. Months of machinations by persons previously unknown paid off, and the vast majority of the city’s criminal element found themselves under the control of one organization, which was itself controlled by a small coalition of men and women. Word came down quickly: settle the violence, keep the peace for a while, and we’ll make money for decades. Provide a few sacrificial lambs, eradicate the snitches, and the city is ours. Invest in politicians, in education, in the community, and we’ll be unstoppable. Resist, and the best you’ll get is a closed casket funeral in a potter’s field decades down the line, when they finally find what remains of your body.

Now, almost fifty years later, the organization had fully infiltrated several aspects of life in the city. The politicians that weren’t on the take knew that more than a few of their fundraisers and supporters had ties to crime. Undercover cops were tolerated until they ran afoul of the wrong profit-seeking venture and were ejected, not killed, from their top secret operations. A little give-and-take kept everything running smoothly. The cops got to hit their marks for the year and the crooks kept the dope moving and the streets under control.

The organization cracked down hard on random violence. Street gangs were annexed as soon as they formed and unleashed with better tactics, training, and discipline. There were rumors of a popular and expensive youth center in the hood that doubled as a front for recruitment, high schoolers used as muscle, and a veritable army of orphans who were adopted and trained to use their fists, sticks, knives, and guns in the pursuit of profit, not to mention the veterans who enlisted for a better life and came home with the best of Uncle Sam’s tactics lodged inside their head.

White flight eased as the decades passed, though the city remained overwhelmingly non-white as the black, Asian, and Latinx populations eventually reached parity. It’s one thing to fear for your life and your business on a daily basis, but if the crime is limited to happening over there, to them, then maybe the risk was worth it. There was a lot of money to be found in the city for anyone who had an eye toward profit.

Segregation was built into the DNA of the city. The further north you went, the closer you got to the Neon, a ten-block district of nightclubs, bars, music venues, and conspicuous consumption. The further south you went, the worse things got. Toward the middle was a tug-of-war between the rich and poor, both angling to push the other out of their neighborhoods as soon as possible. But it was stable. It worked as intended.

The city was ringed by a route on the light rail system that most natives called the O or Loop. It was a project that began as a triumph of city-planning but was soon outpaced by the growth of the town. The Loop surrounded most of the city, forming a perimeter that touched almost every single major district. Supplemental trains and buses covered the rest, spider-webbing across the city. For a dollar fifty-five, you could loop from blight to the Neon or vice versa in about thirty-minutes. Everyone that didn’t drive used the train, and everyone that didn’t use the train or drive never left their neighborhood.

Most people in town have one goal: don’t rock the boat. The city works. Keep it that way. It became a vibrant and up-and-coming place, a place where a family could be raised with a certain amount of care and jobs could be found no matter your skill set or education on one side, and those with certain skills or temperaments could thrive on the other. The penalty for Heaven was just a bitter taste of Hell now and then.

Life goes on.


You can buy Darker Than Blue on Gumroad.