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The Concepts Of Structuralism And Semiotics In Video Games

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The “Perilous Attack” is a concept used in the video game “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice”, being presented as an aspect of it’s combat system, shaping the way the game is meant to be played by its audience. The Perilous Attack can be analysed through the context of the theoretical field of Structuralism as well as Semiotics due to the fact that the system keys in mental concepts that is used to communicate with the player in the larger scheme of the video game itself. Furthermore, the analysis of this system is a direct example of how language is used and understood in a linguistic community.

Background information on the Perilous Attack system

The Perilous Attack is a system within the video game, primarily designed to communicate the idea of danger to the player in the form of a symbol. The video game is primarily set in the Japanese Sengoku period, where the combat is heavily designed around the use of Japanese martial weapons. Aside from enemies having normal attacks, the game introduces a mechanic known as Perilous Attack; unblockable, strong attacks from the enemy, a system akin to rock-paper-scissors, forcing the player to attack with the correct counter. Being a game set in ancient Japan, the production of the work influences the style of the feature to create a unified aesthetic. This system is presented to the player in the form of a red kanji symbol, with the word “danger” written, when a Perilous Attack is about to be performed by an enemy, as well as a distinct audio cue. Its shape being a kanji symbol in Japanese, features lines of varying thickness and stroke patterns as if it were painted with a brush. It also stays as a flat red colouring, presenting the player with a sense of danger, as well as being able to stand out due to its ghost-like appearance. As a result, the amalgamation of these various elements and principles assist to create a stronger impression of the sense of danger.

Background information on Structuralism

Structuralism made its emergence from theories of language and linguistics, where it was sought to understand underlying elements in human culture and literature by way of their relationship to an overarching structure. Structuralism, being a philosophical movement was introduced by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. It was used to fundamentally expose what and how humans think, perceive and feel. There are three main properties that make up structuralism; the first property, ‘wholeness’, outlines how a system operates as one part of an entire being, not just an individual function. The second property, transformation, highlights how the system will always have room for change, albeit subjected to the rules of that system. Self-regulation, being the final concept relates to transformation, where despite the fact that you can add elements into the system, its foundational structure can never be changed. Structuralism can alternatively be seen as “the belief that phenomena of human life are not intelligible except through their interrelations.” (Blackburn 2008), due to the fact that human relations constitute a structure in society. In an environment where change and evolution is prone to occur, this creates possibilities for constant laws of abstract structure to flourish.

Background information on Semiotics

Semiotics, also called semiology, is the study of ‘signs’ and its use in human context as well as an investigation of how meaning is created and how meaning is expressed in our everyday lives. Likewise to Structuralism, Ferdinand de Saussure laid the foundation for many significant developments in semiotics. Semiotics not only involves the study of what is referred to as signs in everyday speech, but also of anything which ‘stands for’ something else, where “signs take on the form of words, images, sounds gestures and objects” (Hawkes 2003). Saussure proposed a dualism in the idea of signs where there was what is known as the ‘signifier’, which represents the form of the word, symbol or phrase uttered, while the ‘signified’ is the mental concept that comes when that word, symbol or phrase is heard. Saussure even believed that a connection between sign and meaning isn’t necessary and that sign itself is arbitrary, since we use signs to express something that stands in for something else. Our thoughts and actions, especially the unconscious kind, are governed by various complexities of cultural ideas and conventions, which is heavily dependant on our ability to interpret them (Saussure 1916). It is essentially a way we see and interpret the world around us.

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Critical analysis

By analysing the Perilous Attack system in context of the theoretical framework of Structuralism and Semiotics, we can understand how the system effectively utilises cognitive abstractions to communicate meaning with its player audience. Hidetaka Miyazaki, the president of FromSoftware crafts this unique combat system with the intention to create game around the focus of simulating swords clashing against each other. The designer had most likely used this feature to convey a specific sense of danger as the symbol flashes in a red light, where even if the player was in darkness, the symbol flashes in a consistent light, accentuating it’s intentions. The colour red is typically seen as an emotionally intense colour, depicting ideas including love, energy, war, danger, strength and power. In context to Sekiro, danger is the most evident element being presented through this colour, as the player is subjected to an environment where they control a character to fight. Furthermore, the symbol doesn’t blend with the background the player is presented in, easily diverting the player’s attention to the symbol. French Philosopher Roland Barthes’ “The Structuralist Activity” highlights how Structuralism seeks the process of obtaining meaning rather than absolute meaning itself. By focusing on the underlying pattern of meaning, the red kanji symbol when isolated can be considered unintelligible, but made intelligible when given its association to the video game. The signifier in this case is the red kanji symbol and the audio cue that comes from it, providing an audiovisual expression for the player. The signified evokes the idea of danger. The symbol of the Perilous Attack can therefore be related back to the idea of a sign, where the visual and auditory stimulus the symbol presents the player with the concept of ‘danger’. The colour red and the written language of the symbol does not have a natural link to danger, but as a society, we have typically expressed the colour red in such context, where the colour does not refer to a specific emotion previously mentioned, but merely the concept of such emotions.

As a result of cultural development in human society, we can only understand words in the context they are used in. Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein believed that a rigid concept of definitions wouldn’t work when it came to defining meaning. For example, to give the word ‘game’ a specific definition wouldn’t be possible without being presented with a counter argument through a game that is excluded by the definition, or even simply a definition that not everyone would agree upon. Similarly to Saussure’s Structuralist way of thinking, who believes “language is arbitrary”, Wittgenstein believes that this doesn’t matter, since everyone knows what a game is. This is due to the fact that we learn the meaning of words through context and how they are used by way of hearing other members of our linguistic community use those words (Wittgenstein 2009). We unconsciously piece together what is common between these “game”. However, this can also result in the original meaning of the word to change due to how we use those words. Conversely, in Susan Sontag’s “In Plato’s Cave”, like the men and women in a cave who lived their whole lives being only able to see the world in one dimension, she juxtaposes this idea with our current lives where we consume media through photographs, through only one part of the whole story. Like how we see a photograph, we tend to jump to give it meaning despite the possibility that we may not know the actual truth. Similarly to a Semiotician, German philosopher Gottlob Frege expresses two ways he believed a term may have meaning by drawing a distinction between the terms ‘reference’ and ‘sense’. The reference is what the object means to designate or indicate, whereas its sense is what it expresses and ties with (Frege 1892). In reference to the Perilous Attack system, the social community of gamers who play Sekiro and other kinds of games made by FromSoftware can piece together the idea that something will inevitably happen when they see the red symbol flash. Other video game titles made by FromSoftware, such as Dark Souls and Bloodborne have been notorious for their difficulty, where the player character can easily die to even the simplest enemies. This has created a way of identifying the company, in turn generalising them with the notion of ‘difficulty’ despite there being no original link between the two.

Furthermore, as society continues to grow it is even possible to develop an entirely new language within a culture. In Arthur W. Burks’ ‘Icon, Index and Symbol’ he makes a critical analysis of Charles Sanders Peirce’s classification of signs into icon, index and symbol. Burks highlights the idea that a sign represents its object according to three rules; whether “by being associated with its object by a conventional rule; by being in existential relation with its object; or by exhibiting its object.” (Burks 1949). He makes this distinction by likening these rules to the colour red, by pointing at the object and by showing the object visually like in a diagram respectively. To continue with Wittgenstein, he believed the meaning behind words or phrases should be looked at as cluster concepts than a rigid structure, since it is impossible for one element in the entire cluster to have something in common with everything in the cluster. Language is a living phenomenon and will have constant change and variation, where “meaning is use”. So long as a social community uses a certain word, symbol or phrase in a specific way, it will have meaning. Two types of meaning can be utilised; speaker meaning – the idea speaker intends to express when using a word, and audience meaning – what the audience perceives when hearing a word. Since the whole objective of language is communication, it is then up to us to ensure speaker meaning and audience meaning are uniform.


In conclusion, I believe that this system has effectively accomplished its intended design. The concept of the Perilous Attack explicitly communicates to the player its intentions as its attributes as a sign comes from the way society has typically expressed elements within the symbol. By understanding its concept through Structuralism and Semiotics, we can easily see how the designer has utilised particular notions of societal expectations to create an effective design.

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The Concepts Of Structuralism And Semiotics In Video Games. (2022, February 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from
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