I come to you today a broken, disheartened man. You may be wondering where these feelings stem from. Is it the sad state of world affairs? Nay. Is it from the growing political divide of the left and right side of the aisles here in America? No. It is from playing a video game judged by many to be an outstanding title filled with intelligent game design decisions and atmosphere. A must-play for owners of the PlayStation 4.
It is FromSoftware’s Bloodborne that came recommended so highly as an easier-but-still-fair entry into what many dub the “SoulsBorne” series. That is, games from this developer that have a reputation for being excruciatingly difficult. Along with my fellow Life’s A Game comrades, we all settled on playing a different game from FromSoftware and coming together after a couple weeks to discuss them upon completion. Instead, heartache. Tears. Rampant expletives screamed at TV sets and computer screens. All culminating in utter anguish over our decisions and, at least for me, a new perspective on gaming that has truly scarred me.
My first impression of Bloodborne came through its environment and tonality. This dark, Gothic vibe was right up my alley from the get-go. I have always appreciated the elaborate architecture of this era. The spiky brass gates, the sharpness of a cathedral’s spires and the shadows they cast. It’s classy, it’s refined, yet also brooding and enigmatic. I felt drawn in to this world in hopes of discovering the secrets behind every corridor. Beyond that, the lack of music creates a relatively somber journey through this nightmare world. I felt a sense of loneliness akin to hunting aliens in Super Metroid, wandering the wasteland of Fallout 3, and fighting for my life in Dead Space. A “you vs. the world” scenario for certain.
The character designs were spot-on for this cityscape. My stoic playable character wore a lengthy, tired brown leather trench coat and a three-point cap reminiscent of an 18th-century Englishman. The enemies were horrific and brutal, rushing at me with unbridled rage, making even the humanoid foes seem animalistic. Every encounter would feel like a desperate struggle for life, as you can never let your guard down around these terrible, twisted creatures. Even the most common of enemies can turn an unsuspecting player into minced meat, regardless of how leveled up you’ve become or how many times you’ve felled their friends.
And the gameplay. Whooo, the gameplay. Many fans of this series will be quick to say that what makes this series different from other games is its treatment of death and failure. In other games, you may die intermittently, and when you do, you may blame the game. “It’s unfair, that enemy was stupid-strong.” “What the hell kind of a power spike is that?!” “There is no way they can expect someone to beat that on their first try.” So you get angry, you get riled up, and you may look up tips to help you overcome the trial. How FromSoftware approaches death is that it is necessary and a crucial part of the process of getting through the game. Because every battle could end in your demise quite easily, you’re quickly taught to be more cautious. More aware of your surroundings. More careful to check corners, to listen for signs of hidden enemies, and to be prepared to dodge roll at a moment’s notice.
And when you do inevitably perish at the hands, claws, and blades of your adversaries, you drop all currency you’ve collected since last you died. Yes, all the hard work you put into that run is lost… Unless you can reach where your body fell in the previous run! Then you have an opportunity to retrieve your “blood souls” so it wasn’t all for waste. But if you don’t reach that spot in the subsequent run, THEN they are gone for good. It creates this loop of die, try to get better by slowly pushing beyond your death point, gather your souls up, then likely die again shortly afterwards. It’s a design choice that tries to get players to stay interested despite the immensely challenging gameplay. It’s like the game is saying “Look, I know this ain’t easy, but do you really wanna give up all those souls you earned last run? If you do, that’s so much wasted time!”
And then there are the bosses. If average, run-of-the-mill enemies are able to fell the impatient, reckless player, you can probably guess how dangerous many of these bosses can be. What many players of the series will say is that, though initially intimidating, these bosses just require learning attack patterns. Analyze the “tells” so that you can better avoid the strikes and slashes aimed your way. If only it were that simple. Let’s say you face off against a boss and you’re able to figure out that when they step right, they immediately charge forward. Then you’d know to roll to the side to dodge. However, enemies also know how to feint, so when you dodge to the side, they don’t charge forward, but instead punish you for being predictable. It’s easy to say the canned response of “just git gud (get good)” or “practice makes perfect”, but that’s just a cop-out, quick-fix “answer” so we don’t have to critically analyze the game at a fundamental level.
When it takes you 8-12 minutes to reach a boss from the spawn point and the fight itself barely lasts 1 minute before you die, there’s a problem. Games like Super Meat Boy or other indie titles that allow you to respawn immediately creates an addictive feedback loop because of the ease of jumping right back into the fray. The pacing is the key factor there. If you turned the FromSoftware games into titles where you could quickly rechallenge bosses, you’d have a significantly different experience. The lead-up to the boss fight does not act as a means of practicing one’s skills. Instead it exercises your patience and sows frustration, knowing you have to get through the same long sequence of dangerous corridors and minor battles (that can still murder you) to reach your next chance at redemption.
That’s not to say this formula doesn’t work for some. Clearly there is a significant fandom built around this gameplay loop and the pain it induces. The games are far from impossible to beat. Certain particularly avid players have even decided to up the challenge by conquering the titles in the series using all sorts of wild controllers, like a Guitar Hero guitar or a Dance Dance Revolution dance pad. But I think for the average sort of gamer, Bloodborne and the other From Software releases represent an unreasonable challenge that (un?)intentionally discourages and depresses.
This is particularly true for a certain subgroup of gamers that I have found myself belonging to as time has gone by. The “weekend warrior” is an idea not limited to gaming, but instead reflects how we many of us are tied to our daily 8:30-5 grind. Monday to Friday is when we are bound to our desks and clipboards, but once the weekend hits, we can finally engage in the activities that brighten up life and make the grind worthwhile. As I’ve gotten older, it’s become clear how difficult it is to become truly skilled at something like gaming when a third of your life is spent at a job and another third is spent preparing for said job (sleep, basic chores, etc.) Gaining skill requires significant time, commitment, and focus investments, all of which are not as easy to come by once you reach a certain age or point in your life.
Not to mention the argument that reaction time slows after a certain age, thereby implying an adult may not be as capable at gaming competitively as their fresh-faced counterparts. Back in 2017, ESPN reported the average age of top esports players as 21.2 – 25.2 years old, depending on the game being analyzed. This ranks underneath 4 of the major sports here in the US, with the average NFL player being the next youngest at 26.6 years of age. Simply put, we have to recognize that our ability to take on these challenging titles will likely deteriorate as we age.
At the end of the day, Bloodborne has left me battered and bruised, but I’ve learned a lesson in how to think about progress in games. When I was a kid, I’d blow through a 40-hour game over the course of a couple weeks. If I wasn’t eating, sleeping, or being educated, my hands were glued to a controller. Having that same sort of expectation as a grown man with more pressing responsibilities (y’know, HOUSING, INSURANCE, small things like that) isn’t being fair to myself. This is why I’ve decided to turn Bloodborne into a long-term project. One I intend to complete one day, but certainly not during an intense, 2-week digital bender. Breaking up the title into chunks, a boss here, a new area there, will ensure I make progress without being disappointed in my lack of skills. Slow and steady wins the race, right? Sure, I might be on the verge of retirement at that point, but at least I’ll be able to say I didn’t give up before my knees or back did…