Bloodborne, or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Admit I Suck
Putting the smackdown on Bloodborne‘s final boss in the early morning, I had the chance to sit back and reflect while the credits rolled. As a gamer who’d come out on top of Dark Souls, Dark Souls II, and made a respectable effort at Demons‘, the thought that came to me loudest was also the most surprising.
“Huh. That was easier than expected.”
It’s not because I’m a pro player. I’m really, really not. It’s not because the final boss was actually easy, either. It’s because ‘easy’ in Bloodborne means a different thing than in any other game like it. A hard boss means one you fall to a dozen times or more, one that fills you with such frustration at your inadequacy that you enter a focused state of pure determination. A hard boss is something so big, so inhumanly strong, or so skilled that you can’t fathom how to survive half its attacks, much less defeat it. In Bloodborne, an ‘easy boss’, like my final foe, was one I only died to five times before managing to work the pattern out.
Five times. Look at any other action game, any other RPG, and the concept of ‘easy’ is so prevalent that ‘hard’ is just higher damage and lower health. In JRPGs especially, the solution to every boss is about the same: be of a certain level, attack, and you’re fine. No wonder the Souls games (Bloodborne being one of them, despite the lack of suffix) have such a notorious reputation when they dare to demand your time, your patience, and repeated failures before you can succeed.
You see, this is where Bloodborne-hard diverges from other games. Every time you die, the fairness of the thing stops you from quitting in a huff like so many others might. It wasn’t due to an obscenely overpowered move that randomly struck three times in a row. You know that you died because you rolled into an attack, or didn’t bother to heal, or got cocky because the enemy was at 2% health and just one more hit would have finished it off once and for all. Bloodborne demands you take nothing for granted: even with the most basic of mooks, ignoring enemies is the fastest way to a pitchfork through your sternum. The sleep-walking nature of other RPGs or action games where one can wade through enemies mashing the attack button will not stand here, and it’s wonderful.
But, as always, it’s the little things that really cement the philosophy of the game. Losing your experience is a Souls-only innovation, giving you a new appreciation of the fruits of your labour. Killing enemies grants you blood echoes (EXP) as per usual, but if you make a bad decision and die, all your echoes drop right where you were. Sometimes, the echoes will be absorbed into a nearby enemy, requiring you to defeat it before you can regain them. If you happen to die again before that – too bad, sucker. They’re gone forever. It’s an appreciation of the amount of effort it takes to level that sets this process apart. Many other games have impressed me with the difference between my damage output at the start of the game and the end; none have ever managed to make me admire the difference in experience points before the Souls series.
Then there’s the jolly cooperation. For a series so intent on brutalising its players, the sense of community in its take on multiplayer is one I’ve rarely seen. Throughout Bloodborne, players have the ability to leave notes for other players made up of pre-programmed sentence fragments. These can be warning of ambushes, mentioning hidden items, or even just silly jokes. If you pop down a note and someone else likes it while you’re playing, bonus: your HP is restored. It’s a simple system that absolutely has the potential to be abused, and though lying messages aren’t uncommon, by and large people use these notes to help one another. You might never see another person in Bloodborne, but you’ll still never feel alone thanks to those little scribbles helping you along where you might otherwise admit defeat.
So, as you might have guessed, I’m one of the bug-eyed devotees of this series. While it’s much more on the casual end, I still had the good fortune of converting two of my good friends to Bloodborne recently. Therein lies another delight: sharing the struggle of the journey with others. Thanks to a wide array of weapons, play styles and skill levels, everyone’s Bloodborne experience is different from both its highs to its places of utter frustration. While I breezed past the Blood-Starved Beast on my first try, for example, many decry it as an absolute progression-blocker. One of the friends was so hopelessly stuck on the Shadows of Yharnam that they almost gave up, then breezed through the rest of the game afterwards. For every player, there’s one area or boss which will absolutely destroy them, and sharing that creates a real moment of connection, not unlike the camaraderie of soldiers. Just, you know, more comfortable and with top hats on.
All of this contributes to the appeal of Bloodborne. To me, that’s still not the best part. The best part is the sense of humility you gain: the game might knock you down, but only so you might conquer your fear, learn from your failure and try again. So many other games in the modern landscape are terrified of letting players have freedom, let alone the capacity to fail or feel bad. Amongst that deluge of heroes, champions and all-conquering wardens against evil, Bloodborne renders you a single, mortal hunter. Bloodborne humbles you, humanises you, and reminds you that victory is not necessarily all that matters.
Most of all, Bloodborne taught me that I suck at videogames. And that’s just fine with me.