I’ll admit I haven’t yet finished Bloodborne. In fact, I’m still very early on. I’ve fought four bosses. I’m still not sure about the concept of chalice dungeons, or even what story the game is attempting to tell. Yet, as someone who has been playing games for as long as they can remember, on and off when real life allowed me to, I cannot remember the last time a game captivated my attention like Bloodborne. Of course, I have loved games and treasured the experience, but that’s just it: loved. I haven’t played enough of Bloodborne to use the ‘L’ word just yet – and won’t for some time. For Bloodborne, ‘love’ is the wrong word. Something like absorbing or addicting is better suited.
If a person was watching me play Bloodborne, they would most likely make a remark about my frustration, angst and exasperation at the game. In essence, I should hate it. I’m 98% sure it has irreversibly raised my blood pressure. I didn’t understand half of the screen when I levelled up. It took me 45 minutes to pass the first obstacle, only to learn that I could have quite easily ran past it. That, however, is the nature of the beast.
It can be hard to accept that you are bad at something, and I was definitely bad at Bloodborne. I’ve never played any of the Souls games, but I was so wrapped up in the excitement of getting a PS4 at long last, and with the rave reviews that Bloodborne received I couldn’t wait to make it one of my first purchases. Like anything, I’ll learn. And I did, to an extent. The first few hours spent with the game I was so perplexed. Why do they make it so deliberately difficult? Have I been this bad at games my whole life? Would throwing the controller out of the window really be a bad idea right now?
Even when I closed the game, I thought about it. I thought about tactics, and how best to plan an ambush. I thought of the pros and cons of fleeing enemies altogether and whether or not I may run into them when I was more vulnerable. I thought about how best to collect and preserve blood echoes. In short, my experience didn’t end when I turned off the console.
Bloodborne reintroduced the feeling of ‘fear’ into me while gaming. Typically, discussions of ‘fear’ in modern gaming terms revolve around what on earth has happened to survival horror, or discussions of a future AAA under a well-bruised franchise name. Yet, this kind of fear is associated with psychological horror and terrors taking the form of crude anthropomorphically-charged pixels. It’s about crucial timing, trying to find the perfect jump scare, and less about the mechanics of a game engineered to make us feel like we are ‘in’ a horrifying situation.
As players, we can only form so much of an emotional bond to the story. We can get involved and cry and laugh. We can think about the story long after the game ends. But it is important to remember that when we play games we are attempting to reach an end, with everything in between as the means. The story can be beautiful and touch us dearly, but at the end of the day we’re trying to get from Point A to Point B.
Bloodborne does its very best to make that a near impossible feat. Naturally, this is also the logic behind the Souls series. The difficulty is ramped up, and frustration and helplessness are the initial orders of the day. But perhaps most importantly, when we charge head on into battle with our foes, there is the lingering terror in our minds that if it goes horribly wrong, or we make an unfortunate wrong move, we have everything to lose. Nervously, our eyes dart to the top right corner of the screen, assessing our blood echoes. We replay the last five or ten minutes of the game in our mind and wonder in panic whether we have the mental capacity to do it all over again.
The sense of urgency the game creates is something I haven’t encountered in a long, long time. In Bloodborne, not only is patience a virtue, but you are rewarded greatly for planning and taking your time. In so many modern titles we are not truly penalised for ‘losing’. This is all well and good when the developers want to show us the magnificence of the storytelling or the visuals. But as someone who grew up glued to a Sega Mega Drive and learned the hard way that when you die, you go right back to the start, it’s a precious dip into the gaming pool of old. It’s truly astonishing how similar the crushing feeling of defeat is when I played Sonic the Hedgehog and bombed the Labyrinth Zone, and when I get mauled by several werewolves in Bloodborne, 15 years apart. Both failures take me back to places I don’t particularly want to be in the game, and I have to go through the whole thing again. But there was a lesson here: I want to do it better next time.
There is no right way to enjoy or play a game. This is not the purpose of this piece. Each game contributes something different to the industry. And I am grateful to Bloodborne for reigniting something I thought was lost in the AAA side of things. Namely, that it pays to take your time. Rushing in without a plan or goal in mind is a recipe for disaster and can take you two steps back and none the wiser as to how to get that one step forward. I relished the challenge, and with each setback, came to appreciate the game just that little bit more. Of course, by the seventh time my character got battered by Gascoigne’s unrelenting axe, it’s normal to feel slightly irate. Yet, I had forgotten how rewarding it can be to overcome an obstacle in a video game, and the feeling of accomplishment can become an obsession. Perhaps bad for the blood pressure, but honey for the soul.
This post is the first in my Reflections series, where I share a bit more than usual on a particular topic. As always, thank you for reading and have a great day!