Playing Against Type

Bloodborne.  Lots of people call it a good game.  And they’re right.  Some people call it a great game.  I’d agree with that.  Some people call it a masterpiece.  Those people, I start wondering if they need their heads checked.

Bloodborne has a lot going for it.  It was built on top of a great, proven engine, it has a great design, its lore is steps ahead of your average game, the combat engine pushes the player’s limits in just the right ways, and so on.  But it’s also a flawed game, and it has a lot going against it that other games I would consider true masterpieces, such as its predecessor Dark Souls, deliberately and deftly avoid.  Two big things come to mind.

The first, I’m just not very good at Bloodborne.  I don’t click with the combat style.  Which is fine.  I didn’t get to where I’d actually consider myself good at Dark Souls until Artorias kicked my face in for two hours, so I think I just need a moment like that.  And everytime I look online for help, I come across a past conversation with the type of infuriating wanker that thinks there needs to be a holy war between the haves and have-nots of Bloodborne skill.  Which, really, is not a problem with the game itself, but I get to choose what I think are masterpieces, and the skill barrier disqualifies a game until I cross it.

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The second factor, I have to blame on the game.  Bloodborne’s gameplay has several mechanisms that just work counter to each other.  Bits of the design philosophy that conflict.  The most prominent is that Bloodborne requires grinding.  Specifically, it punishes you with grinding.  Your health items and one of your key defensive tools are consumable.  You use them, and they’re gone, even if you screw up and get all your progress you had used them towards erased.  Enough failed runs, and you’ll have to spend an hour’s time just farming enemies in order to build your supplies back up for another go ‘round.

Which would be a black mark on its own.  But what makes it even worse here is that Bloodborne is built around trial and error gameplay.  You are expected, almost required, to fail.  Because that’s how you grow.  Enemies are built to be too much for you at first.  Even at second.  Maybe up to fifth or beyond.  It doesn’t matter.  They only put you down so that you can get up again.  They hurt you so you get better.  As you fail, you learn their timings, you try new strategies, you find yourself moving where they’re weak, and by the time you’ve triumphed, you have had internalized who and what they are, through your repeated trials in overcoming them.

It’s glorious.  It’s one of the things that make so much of From Software’s recent output so great.  But it’s made so, so much weaker by the fact that you are punished for it.  The game requires you to learn from failure in order to succeed, but if you fail, it will take away from your experience.  The game abuses you for playing as it intends.

Thing is, having some mechanics push in one direction and other mechanics pushing you back is totally common thing in games.  In fact, to some extent, games are built on it.  The later Persona games created their whole time management gameplay by matching their mechanics encouraging you to take as much outside-dungeon activity as possible with mechanics limiting the amount you got to do.  Resident Evil 4 was all about deftly navigating hordes of enemies as you cut them down, yet would constantly limit your ability to do so by locking you into a vehicle or situation that restricted your movement.  Fire Emblem is focused on utilizing the near complete availability of information to build completely safe and defensive strategies, yet still left the unpredictable elements of critical hits and enemy reinforcements in there.  And they’re all great games.  In fact, the counter-productive elements add to the experience.  So why is it that it works here, but not in Bloodborne?

A lot of it lies in the nature of how these counterproductive elements are used.  In all those good examples?  The interworkings were set in place to provide limits.  To place challenges to overcome.  Games require rules and boundaries, and those elements were how the designers set those in place.  They gave you something to work around.  Providing new gameplay, even if, the way I explained it, it seems they should take away.

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Bloodborne’s grinding requirements?  Along with stuff like Dark Cloud’s fragile freakin’ weapons when the game requires you to be grinding them down?  Like Skies of Arcadia promoting exploration when the game has a monstrous random encounter rate?  Like Final Fantasy 2 requiring you to enter doors, yet more often than not sticking you in a stupid monster closet whenever you did so?  Those are all mechanisms of punishment.

Failure needs to have consequence, or so goes a common set of game design knowledge.  Thing is, games don’t exist in meatspace.  They can’t reach out of the screen and slap you when you screw up.  Yet.  I call dibs on the patent.  In fact, game designers don’t have a whole lot of torque over players in the real world.  So, for punishment, they use one of the few things they do have power over.  They punish you by wasting your time.  They remove the progress or resources you’ve already bought with your time.  Or, as in Bloodborne’s case, they make you spend more time before you get to the stuff you want to play.

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It’s not a good system.  Wasting your time is one of the biggest sins a game can commit.  There’s a reason why gaming has largely been moving away from this method of punishment, or, at least, limiting its impact, as the medium has developed.  And yet, we still see it pop up.  And it’s never to the game’s favor.  The sparse placement of checkpoints and the long walks after failure was one of the few black spots on an otherwise gleaming game in Dark Souls, and that, combined with the time required to grind up to recover from your losses, is one of the biggest weights dragging Bloodborne down.

It does lead to a more old-school feel, which is what I believe the Soul series is going for, but unfortunately, it does so without adding to the experience.  It’s better than a lot of other applications, such as the Do It Again, Stupid style gameplay I’ve been running into all over the PS2 era lately.  But I do feel that this is misused.

So how would I overcome this without changing this feature of the gameplay?  Try and make more use of it to add to it.  Bloodborne’s a bit more straight-lined than Dark Souls, but mayhaps this would lead to an opportunity to expand upon the rails.  Have one area give you a certain type of resource as a common drop, another area give you another, both needed to get through.  So, if you’re having a lot of difficulty with one place, the game guides you towards the section that carries the resource you’re lacking, so you still make progress there, while taking a break so you can get back to your trouble spot with a fresh mindset.

Then again, that doesn’t really fit in with the philosophy of the souls series.  But then again, neither does making endless runs through areas you’ve already got down pat just to get yourself back to a state where you can try the area that’s giving you trouble once more.  In any case, the counter elements should be posed more as limitations or as obstacles to be overcome, rather than as punishments, in order to lead to greater gameplay.  If Bloodborne implemented a more complex system of resource management, or a better way of recovering your supplies than mindless repetition, this may be a good fit.  As is, it only hurts the game, and it’s largely because of the way it’s posed rather than anything else.

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9 responses to “Playing Against Type

  1. Earthbound Beginnings was another game that both encouraged exploration while beating the player down with infuriatingly frequent random encounters. It’s clear that there wasn’t much playtesting done in the later stages of development, at least from a gameplay standpoint (from a story standpoint, the ending would be very impressive and introspective for a modern game, let alone one made in 1990). Also, that stupid door system in Final Fantasy II annoyed the hell out of me. It’s like trying to complete a test without being allowed to know what the questions are, leaving you to fill out random spaces on the Scantron sheet. As a contrast, the Fire Emblem series has you deal with the RNG, which can be irritating when it doesn’t favor you, but it also teaches the player to think strategically, and I sort of like the fact that you have to take a few risks to get ahead. Even if you don’t buy into that, it’s nice that Awakening and Fates have Causal Mode so if you do get unlucky, you’re not punished too much for the times the RNG doesn’t favor you (which is good because the Conquest campaign is amazingly difficult even on Normal).

    In short a lot of gaming enthusiasts pine for NES era, but there are some trends from that time I’m not sorry to see vanish, and wasting your time through artificial difficulty is one of them; it just meant that there’s a good chance you couldn’t finish the game. This wasn’t so bad when they had mostly non-existent stories, but once developers started to include complex plots, it forced them to adopt better design choices by necessity. I probably wouldn’t have liked Planescape: Torment as much if it was as difficult to complete as Ninja Gaiden.

    • Yeah, punishing difficulty really, really doesn’t have its place in heavily plot-based games. I remember running into that as a kid all the time, being really wrapped up in a game’s plot, but just not skilled enough to get beyond it. That would burn me. Which, part of that was because I got way too invested in what were really saturday morning cartoon plots, but with some of the plots games are pulling out nowadays? Some of these video gaming epics we’re seeing? Difficulty’s a hard thing to balance with plot. Too little, and your going to lose engagement and your gameplay will suffer. Too much, and you’re going to lose people who are otherwise interested in the plot, and that’s just a shame. And there are so many different skill levels to design for. Difficulty levels are helpful, but aren’t a perfect solution. In fact, I’m not sure there is one. In any case, having some engaging difficulty is going to get you a lot farther than just laying on the punishment.

      Man, I forgot about Earthbound Beginnings. I’ve forced myself through a lot of dreck, but I could just not stand to complete Earthbound Beginnings. Even with the encounters reduced, it’s still just too much, and those areas are too huge and maze-like. It requires you to treck all over the place, but just never gives you a break on that ceaseless, unengaging combat. Yeah, that’s a great example of just what I’m talking about here.

      • Much like Deadly Towers, Earthbound Beginnings was a game I couldn’t beat without save stating like a maniac. Even then, I just ended up running away from every fight nearing the end of the game. If you didn’t have the patience to complete it, I don’t blame you in the slightest. As powerful as the ending was, it did not make up for the rest of the game (in fact, one could argue it was the only good thing about it).

  2. Bloodborne and Dark Souls are so similar, but the small tweaks result in players gravitating to one over the other. I died a lot in BB, but it didn’t bother me. Meanwhile in DS I would get annoyed at losing progress due to a cheap trap.

    I like having a bigger stock of healing items over a limited number of flasks. Farming can be a chore, but I found the first area was good for restocking quickly. Killing the two werewolves game me healing drops or stuff to sell.

    • I don’t lose well, so I was pretty bothered by dying in both games. I’m a little surprised Bloodborne is easy on you, but I guess I haven’t run into any of those surprise! You’re dead! moments in Bloodborne the way I occasionally did with Dark Souls. So that is a point of advancement there.

      Honestly, the fact that the best place for blood vials is in the beginning of the game makes it feel worse to me. Yes, the enemies are simple, and you’ve got a good route between two lamps there, but it requires me to go back to one of the first things I conquered and is so long from having anything new to offer me just leaves a foul taste in my mouth.

      I wonder if having a bit more variation to enemies may help. If they changed up the challenge after a few runs.

  3. Great post. I think the lack of respect for the player’s time is a potential danger, especially now with these big open world games becoming so popular. That’s why a good checkpoint system, fast travel, warping, and so on are important, the worlds take so much longer to navigate than game worlds used to.

    I had a similar feeling to you of being punished several times playing Grand Theft Auto V; there were times I’d take a vehicle up a mountain or something, bust it up in the process so that I was unable to drive it… and because I’m out in the middle of nowhere, I can’t call a taxi and there’s not another vehicle for miles around to hijack! So I’m stuck on foot running around on a mountain desperately looking for a vehicle, all in the name of realism.

    In that case what I was doing was completely optional – there wasn’t any reason me to go up the mountain except to fill in the map – but it’s indicative of modern gaming’s ability to punish the player by wasting their time in all kinds of new ways that, say, an old-school 2D arcade platformer simply could not.

    • Respect for the player. I think that’s a great way of describing the core of the problem. It’s all just about not thinking well of the player. Not keeping them in their rightful focus of the design process, at least when implementing these mechanics.

      And yeah, the GTA V thing may have been optional, but it’s still an experience the game encourages you to have, then stuck you for. That type of emergent gameplay has always been huge with GTA, even if some of their later games tried to tamp it down. And it just gets painful, knowing other games do have a fix for it, in the form of fast travel.

  4. I’m in the camp that prefers Bloodborne over the Souls games, if only by a tiny margin, but even I’d have to concede that grinding for blood vials and bullets can get a bit tiresome, particularly during the earlier stages of the game. I think part of why I dug it so much was due to the combat being more conducive to my play style, I was never one for turtling behind a shield and Dark Souls practically forces you to play defensively, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; I’ve foubd Dark Souls 3 caters to a more aggressive approach though. Great post though, you raised a lot of valid points 🙂

    • The playstyles are a very weird thing for me. Usually, I do prefer to play a lot more aggressively, so Bloodborne should be better for me, but for whatever reason, I did a lot better at this stage of Dark Souls than I did with Bloodborne. I think it’s just that I’m not good at dodging. Didn’t have to so much in Dark Souls, but I can’t get around it in Bloodborne.

      But hey, that’s where opinions get magical. A bunch of people looking at the same thing but getting something different out of it, it’s a beautiful thing.

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