I picked up Bloodborne expecting not to like it. I’ve never played any of the Souls games and from what I’d heard, Bloodborne was the same sort of game. As I understood it, these were brutally hard games that seemed to generate equal amounts of frustration and joy. I’m not an especially skilled gamer and I don’t tend to play very difficult games. I get frustrated easy and I’m usually the first to read a game F.A.Q. when I get stuck. I just sort of assumed Bloodborne was not for me. Boy was I ever wrong.
Today’s comic is 100% accurate. I “quit” Bloodborne a bunch of times but I always ended up coming back to it. Every time I died (and I died a lot) I had the feeling that I could go back and do it better. It’s true that I was ridiculously frustrated and there were times when I had to keep clearing the same area over and over again that I wondered why I was doing this. I remember early on thinking that it must be impossible to fight more than one guy at a time. I avoided the big bad guys entirely. The starting zone was incredibly hard but I kept going back to it over and over again. Eventually I got through it, and it wasn’t because my gear got better, it was because I got better. That’s an incredible feeling.
Playing Bloodborne is sort of like free-diving. I think of the lanterns as diving bells on the”surface”. Each time you venture out into the world you’re sort of holding your breath and diving into an incredibly deadly place. You go a little further each time as you start to familiarize yourself with the area and its dangers. When you are deep into an area, far away from your lantern and carrying a bunch of loot, you feel the weight of the world around you. The thing about Bloodborne is that any jackass can kill you. If you’re not paying attention the dude at the beginning of starting zone can cut you down. Sometimes just getting back to the lantern can feel like an incredible accomplishment. Like breaking through the surface of the water and finally getting a breath. That’s a great feeling but the real thrill is pushing yourself further. When you keep pushing and you go past where you stopped before and then find yourself up against a boss. When you decide to commit to that fight and you beat them and find a new lantern, it’s like nothing I’ve experienced in a game before.
Last night Tycho and I were in a voice chat while we each played Bloodborne. We were not playing together, just talking while we each played our own game. We were sharing tips and I was helping him find a secret area I had discovered. It was awesome and I can’t remember the last time something like that happened. My guess is that no one “sort of likes” Bloodborne. I think you either hate it, or (like me) become completely obsessed with it.
The first day, he quit on two separate occasions. This is not weird in any way. It would be like if you had just gotten a job and your job was to be kicked over and over in places ill-suited to jostling. You would say, “Maybe this isn’t for me.” Then I got this text:
I didn’t really want to tell him how to feel about it, I just wanted him to know that there was another camera on this scene and it was returning the same data. He had unquit, but encouragement wasn’t what he needed; what he needed was to succeed. I got this shortly thereafter:
That’s it. That is what people come to these games for; to seize the whip from your tormentor and choke him to death with it. The “lows” in this game are the lows of the cemetery - of the grave-yard. They are subterranean lows; their altitude is represented by a negative number. They describe half an arc, and when you earn its upper equal, its bright sister, you may not know entirely how to contextualize the sensation. It is not joy. And that’s why I don’t super understand why I’m seeing this game written about everywhere. This is the least mainstream game there is. It’s the interactive, electronic equivalent of BDSM and the audience for it can’t possibly match the fevered coverage. But I welcome anyone who wants to test the flesh of their palm against its edge.
Multiplayer doesn’t work in these games the way it works in other games. You don’t invite your friend to your game and then they come help you. Everything is very ritualistic, tied into the underlying narrative and systems, so I can’t open the Multiplayer Menu and choose from a list of friendly names and then win. I will tell you that we tried last night to have him pop in to my game, and it didn’t work. If it were any other game, I would say, “Well, that’s some bullshit. Patch it, you fucks.” But I tried to bring him to me by ringing a bell, and he rang his answering bell; we put a “password” in to make sure we joined each other, as opposed to a rando. He never showed up, which I chalked up to the strange fluctuations of bell magic.
The game is about being alone; even inviting another person to help you is also simultaneously, inviting strangers to come into your game and kill you. You are merely opening the door. If I tried to summon a person from a parallel dimension this afternoon, say, it probably wouldn’t work a hundred percent of the time. What’s strange is that I still felt, and feel, as though we were playing together; there is suffering enough to go around and it is the same suffering, but because we cannot share it, it is doubled on both sides. People leave messages for each other, helpful messages, troll messages, all of it. We’re waist deep in shit, and we are all alone, together.
I was surprised that my cohort went in for something like Bloodborne - he’s never accompanied me on any previous journeys into “From Software Bullshit,” except in one instance, which I will detail later. The main thing that distinguishes the new one from the old cadre is that it allows (in a way) for a more traditional co-operative multiplayer, which is almost certainly what sold him a copy.
“Traditional” may be a misnomer, come to think of it, because while their work in this vein is traditional in its own context it doesn’t share a lot with other games. They have their own bizarre width and breadth that maps primarily to themselves. There aren’t many reviews of a “traditional” sort out there - a lot of previews, but nobody is rushing to affix a number. I would say that the pressure to like Bloodborne, and to be named among the faithful, is very strong and I’m lucky that I do like it. Because if you didn’t like it, this would be the worst way to spend your time that I can possibly imagine.
Oh, but review wise. This review of “Day One” with the game over at Forbes communicates it with precision. That’s about as real as a review of this game is gonna get. When you describe what it’s like to play it to someone - let’s say, my wife Brenna - it doesn’t sound good. It doesn’t sound like something you would do on purpose. I would say that equipment is important in these games generally, it seems like it may be less so in Bloodborne, but the chief thing you need to succeed is a different, more perfect self. So, if in a Metroidvania you amass at each juncture a revelatory device which reinterprets the space, here you are becoming something that can withstand the intense heat and pressure. It’s like those game shows where you have to contort yourself to fit through the shapes in a moving wall. Or, it is, until you begin walking confidently through wall after wall, in a ballet of flawless keyframes, leave the set through the back door, and squint at the sphere of hot light whose name you cannot entirely recall.
Bloodborne is a Sony Exclusive, which is sort of funny when you think about the history of From’s relatively recent excursions into brutality. Demon’s Souls, the game that got this ball rolling, was published by Sony in Japan - we wouldn’t have gotten it at all if it weren’t for Atlus, who must have been startled to watch this thing grow. Dark Souls and Dark Souls II went everywhere - anywhere that could handle it - there was even a weird PC version. But Bloodborne is back at Sony, and the title screen seems to imply it’s theirs altogether, so this isn’t the illusory “timed exclusive” thing, it’s legit. Functionally speaking, they have put a ring on it.
But Microsoft… you know, From Software did something special for you, also. Chromehounds. Remember? A game where people construct their own robots from parts could “activate social,” by which people in your line of work generally mean Social Media, and a persistent, multi-faction online campaign seems ready-made for a cloud-first company. So, what do you say? I can guarantee that you’ll sell three, maybe four copies, which I think is better than last time around.
You can watch the same intro we did if you want to, and you should. If I suggested that Final Fantasy XV had a wild tone - Monster Hunter Road Trip + heartthrob warlocks - the austerity and documentary presentation here will twist your head a few degrees past its stated tolerances. Some have found it confusing! As usual, I stand ready to part the veil.
It’s entirely possible I’ve already talked about this particular thing, but I can’t risk it: I am not good at golf. I am the only person I have ever heard of who has managed to putt into a sand trap. Weirdly, this was an improvement from my earlier efforts, which involved me moving the ball a couple inches. Under ordinary circumstances, I’m drawn inexorably to holes. In this context, however, they have proven elusive. The advice I was given by my cohort is that the ball has to go past the hole to go in. Which is good advice there but for some reason it seems like creative advice, also. You have to be willing to overshoot in order to hit. So, as much fun as I might make of what you might call The Square-Enix Style, I love the arc of that swing. I like how far it goes. Most games - most writers - don’t take chances like this. They don’t have it in them, or they aren’t afforded the space by the structure that contains them.
Do you know what I actually wonder? I worship the Epic because it represents a scale I don’t get to work in, and possibly couldn’t execute. But I bet that grand scope is just as stifling, in its way. I wonder if those motherfuckers desperately, perpetually want to work at Popcap. In their dreams, are they matching three gems, over and over? Do they see a four or five gem combo, and pass it over?
In any case, I want to investigate more of that tone. But do I want to investigate that tone more than I want to figure out what the fuck is going in Bloodborne? It’s close enough to Werewolves in Top Hats to be a real danger, and its iconic pistol/massive razor combo already has its black mold growing in the creases of my brain. Is the roguelike multiplayer - not typically a focus for them - truly a marquee feature? I want to be a Bloodborne person, like I am a Menite, or any of my other signifiers. But it’ll barely be hatched by the time Pillars of Eternity comes out on the 26th. I think most people would probably be safe from this conflux, but as Penny Arcade’s Lord High Genre Fetishist, I am routinely boned.