Bloodborne again: a response
Ah, Spelkybeard. Let me tell you a story.
Bear with me, there really is a point to this.
“Hit ‘em hard early, kid. That way they’ll hesitate for the rest of the match when they come near you.”. My dad said this to me when I was thirteen. I was playing hockey in defence, in the regional men’s XI for the first time. I was like a negative of my current 44 year old self. Bony, lanky, thin. I must have looked like a series of awkwardly shaped twigs, randomly connected at the joints.
I must have looked like easy prey.
So the first tackle was vital. It sets the tone for the rest of the game. A big burly bloke, 3 times my size came hurtling at me, challenging for the ball that I already had under control. He seemed like a steaming rhino charging me down. He obviously wanted to set the tone too. He didn’t even look as though he even thought about slowing down, he was going to flatten me, take the ball and most likely score. I was definitely easy prey.
Except I wasn’t. The thing about being a meatless collection of bones, is that you have lots of angles. You have lots of bony pointy bits which hurt. So I leaned in at an impossible angle, turned my head away to avoid contact. My shoulder would be the first point of contact, just after I flicked the ball away to a midfielder.
We collided. I wasn’t exactly an immovable object, but the laws of physics did apply. See, he was so much bigger than me, that I made contact with his ribs. I made contact there using one of the sharpest parts of my body, my shoulder. He went down like a sack of spuds. I got up off the ground instantly. I ran up the field to back up my team. As I jogged back, the move leading to a score upfield, I helped him up off the ground, we shook hands and continued onwards. He never came at me in quite the same way after that. He treated me with a little more respect, and my job as defender was so much easier as a result.
It turned out afterwards, that I’d broken his ribs. I felt guilty for like a minute. Then realised that if I hadn’t have done that, he’d have flattened me.
So what has that rambling, old man “I used to be fit, honest” anecdote got to do with Bloodborne?
From Software are the absolute masters of the “Hit ’em hard early, kid” gambit. They know that for you to buy the illusion of punishing, exacting, unforgiving gameplay, they have to sell that illusion to you early. So they put you in your first area, unable to level or obtain co-op help, until you see ( not beat, just see ) your first boss. They make it as dark and nightmarish as possible. Everyone there wants you dead, or gone, or dead and gone. They are literally coming at you with pitchforks and flaming torches. There’s one enemy in there who’s super hard to beat, even when you’re levelled up. Seemingly just to make you think twice. But he also rewards you with materials to upgrade your gear…
It all feels like a jolt, if you come there from games where you feel like a god from the first minute. Where your omnipotence stretches to seeing exactly where you should go at all times. The levels are works of genius, wrapped up in a covering of crazy haphazardness. They warp, and loop, and branch at every opportunity. The genius only becomes apparent when you get to know the area well, when you pop out of a new door and get a hit of “ooh, THIS is where I am!” as you open up a new shortcut and cut out massive chunks of the map. The lie of the land is only learnt through repetition, and repetition in Bloodborne, and any other Souls games, comes through death.
Ahhh yes. Death. The thing that happens in almost any game, but From, manage – through brilliant use of camera angles, animation, sound design – to make feel like the most brutal thing in gaming today. When you have a giant beast towering above you, smashing you rapidly and repeatedly in the head, roaring as it does it, all you think of is survival. Blind, moment to moment attempts to cling to life.
Because you have to get close, and you’ve locked the camera on it, the beast looms over you, amplified, terrifying, making you forget everything but this moment of panic. You are in the closest thing gaming has to fighting for your life. All else is erased, replaced by the moment to moment scrap, retreat, recover, close distance, hit, roll, hit again, hit AGAIN, stamina gone, SMASH. YOU DIED. Ah man, I should have rolled back, recovered and gone in again.
Bloodborne hits you hard early on. Souls games always do, so you don’t notice that it picks you up and dusts you off. It wipes away the blood, snot and tears, says "There, there. Get back on your bike, it’s so much fun once you learn how to ride it well.“. You don’t notice because they are masters of this illusion.
Prepare to die. That was the Dark Souls motto. Even before you bought it, it was selling you a dummy. Prepare to live again.
All the souls games give you so much more than the measly life they take every so often. They give you everything you picked up before you died. Apart from souls ( okay, blood echoes ), and they even even give you a chance to get that back too. They let every door, gate, ladder you unlock, stay unlocked. Every shortcut too. Progress is always far more than you think. The most important part of progress is knowledge. Knowledge gained through your own hard work. and that of others, left on the streets of Yharnam, or the threads of forums.
All of these things (trolly gits aside) are designed to make you realise that you’re not alone. The notes on the pavement from fellow Hunters, the ghosts of other players, the puddles of blood that enable you to see how someone died ( when they work ). It’s all of us, and Miyazaki san shouting ” You’re not alone! We’ve all died! Keep going, we are too!“. Everybody dies in Souls games. It’s right there for you to see. They’ve built a self help system into the game. It’s brilliant thinking, that’s yet to be equalled outside of these four games by this one developer.
What I have always found wonderful about these games, is the respect that From treats the gamer with. The games are an ode to the hardcore, a love letter. Gamers, increasingly, are loving them right back.
Persevere, Spelkybeard. Get Zen about it. Stop chasing the "woe is me” dragon. You’re not different, not worse at it than anyone else. You’ve just bought into the best sold illusion in gaming. That the souls games want to kill you. They don’t really. They only kill you so that they can pick you up, dust you off, and send you on your way once more. This time better equipped than before.
Ready to battle your demons.