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.

The Bloodborne Mumbles

I’ve been playing and publicly humiliating myself at Dark Souls for years.  I finally got myself through that.  You might think I need a break from that, but nope, apparently not.  After a scant few weeks away, I started playing Bloodborne, and stepping back into that engine, that design philosophy, that world of challenge… well, it felt good.  It felt right.  So much so that, after spewing so many words at Dark Souls, it just feels like there’d be something wrong with the world if I didn’t do the same for Bloodborne.  No Let’s Play here, because I don’t know how to get screens off my PS4 I want to play this one for myself, but I’d still like to get my first sessions’ thoughts down about the game.

Let’s make this happen.

  • First things first, the Otaku Judge and I’ve been in each other’s spheres for a good long while now. So when I finished up my Dark Souls run, he suggested Bloodborne to me, thinking I would like it, unaware that I had already picked it up and it was already on its way through the black magic and the mail.    And hey!  He was right!  I do like it.  Great minds thinking alike and all that.
  • Dark Souls was a very hard game to stay unspoiled from. I ran into things by accident.  Knowing I’d eventually be interested in playing it, I’ve been a lot more careful with Bloodborne.  This will be about as pure an experience as I can get here.  Very little spoilers for me.
  • We plug the game in and… not off to a great start. I’m really starting to get tired of always being asked to download and install a patch every time I buy a new game.  I get this thing, I want to play it.  I don’t want to spend my limited gaming time with this new piece of art I’ve been looking forward to just slapping some files together.    Screw that.  I don’t get to play online because of it, but whatever.  I’ll just try it out later.

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  • Dark Souls’ opening was full of lore and backstory. High concept fantasy stuff.  Bloodborne’s is a lot different.  The big thing they’re delivering is unanswered questions.  Hinting at the lore to come.  I’m a paleblood, whatever that is, and I’m here for blood ministration.  Going by the dictionary, that’s ‘the provision of assistance or care’.  To my blood.  I’m here for a transfusion with some of Yharnam’s super cool pimp blood, then contracts are mentioned, then character creation screen.
  • You get a lot of options with character creation. As is my wont, I spend a lot of time here.  I’m really attracted to the options you get with the skin color.  I briefly consider popping the Incredible Hulk in there, but since girls aren’t watching and I don’t have to show off, I go with something a lot more basic.  I end up with a willowy muse, who just happens to be very, very blue.
  • Demon Souls let me have my characters face, but didn’t have a lot to play with in creating it. Dark Souls was less limited, but in one memory I actually find really funny, totally played me by making my character completely skinless.  Kind of wondering if Bloodborne will end up jerking me around the same way.  I’m hoping they will, actually.
  • I originally intended to base my starting class on which one had the sexiest hat. Unfortunately, none of the classes change your equipment layout.
  • So, the embarrassingly long amount of time I’ve spent fine-tuning my appearance is over, back to the intro. I pass out, creepy wheelchair doctor disappears, here comes a werewolf made of blood.  Just like a Tuesday morning for me.  Werewolf burns for no reason, then from around the bed I’m strapped to, here pop a whole lot of creepy baby Ghoulies.

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  • Okay seriously, I don’t like these guys. Don’t want to look at them.
  • Oh hell they’re touching my face!
  • Okay, that was horrifying and I’ll never be clean again. I’m free now, though.  Let’s play with the controls.
  • Okay, that is totally just Dark Souls. I can’t block, and my dual wielding button is moved, but otherwise, right at home.  The path I’m on leads me to a werewolf.  Let’s test my knowledge of this out.
  • Considering I’m unarmed and doing 12 damage a shot, I’m actually doing quite well. The werewolf can’t touch me.  At least at first.  But one difference from Dark Souls, when you’re locked on, your dodge is a quickstep rather than a roll.  The timings a bit different.  While it’s clear from the first time I used it that there’s some invincibility frames in there, I don’t know where they are, exactly.  After smacking him like twenty times with my bare fists, I get caught, and that’s the end of that.
  • That seems to have been the intended path, though. That makes me even more frustrated at that loss.  I bet I’d have gotten something super sweet if I had managed to get past that first werewolf.  In any case, upon death, I’m transported to the Hunter’s Dream, which seems to be the hubworld for everything else.  Big flashbacks to Demon Souls here, but unlike that time, it wasn’t something super sick wicked that killed me.

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  • Weapon time, though! I almost gave up on them, given that the Ghoulies have touched all these weapons and they’re super icky, but I’m not into that much abuse.    I know very little about how Bloodborne differs from Dark Souls, mechanically, but I do know that it requires a more aggressive playstyle, focuses on counters over guards, and has you fight groups of enemies a lot more often.  In light of that, I opt for the faster weapons over the stronger ones.  Figure mobility is more key here.  On top of that, this gives me the option to beat down werewolves with a cane, like the gentleman I was always meant to be.  Sweet.
  • Fast forwarding a bit, the first bits of lore you get about the game you find from talking to jerks hiding in their houses. And they’re always jerks.  Anyways, that’s some great use of light.  There are lots of doors, given that you’re fighting your way through city streets, but all the ones that will talk to you have a lit lantern next to them, or light peeking underneath, or some other use of lighting that just draws your eye to them.  Clever, and it feels really natural.
  • So, yeah, lore. The city of Yharnam is pretty screwed thanks to ‘the Hunt.’  I am a ‘Hunter’ and it’s up to me and ilk to slay ‘beasts’ such as those werewolves and all the other jerk townsfolk I’ve been smacking around.  Also, I’m an ‘Outsider’ and that means everyone ‘hates’ me even though I’m somehow supposed to make everything better and they can all go ‘die horribly in a fire’.
  • A few werewolves have been crucified and set on fire. Not necessarily in that order.  So far, I’ve mostly been smacking around a bunch of townsfolk who’ve gotten a little too bigheaded, rather than the beasts everyone’s talking about.  I wonder if this is going to end up being me just going mad and slaughtering everyone, my insanity driving me to think I’m some great liberator as I’m doing so?  The pieces all fit.

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  • The Dark Souls engine was never great at having you fight groups. The camera’s too close and controlling it uses the same thumb as your vital dodge button, your defenses are pretty uni-directional, and the margin of error is way too slim.  Bloodborne keeps some of those problem, but fixes others, so overall, it is a bit better suited.  Namely, your dodge roll/quickstep is faster than it used to be and actually has some invincibility frames, so you can weave through multiple attacks a bit better, and, I don’t know if every weapon has this, but the alternate blade-whip mode of my cane was great for keeping groups of enemies at bay.  I still had to employ a good bit of my old Dark Souls scumbag tactics to get through, but I’m comfortable with that.  Positioning is very important, taking control of choke points or at the very least getting everyone to come at you from all directions, but so far, the levels seem designed to give you ample opportunity for that.

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