On Bloodborne and Difficulty
These two words are the all-encompassing edict chanted fanatically by those who supposedly have been blessed with god-like skill at video games, and who seemingly frequent forum threads and comment sections with the sole purpose of flaunting their superiority over others. They cannot resist the opportunity to make this snide remark, seemingly half-jokingly — but with an underlying contempt that is easily discerned — whenever a genuine complaint, or plea for help is voiced by a struggling player.
In the case of Bloodborne, and the Souls series by extension, the chorus of ‘git guds’ intensifies to deafening levels, such that it would be the epitaph etched eagerly by Souls Veterans (praise be upon them) on the countless metaphorical headstones of lesser gamers who have given up on the series, or simply cannot see its appeal.
But, while I do not condone the flippant tone, I would have to reluctantly agree with the underlying thrust of this remark/insult. You see, Bloodborne is conquerable; I, a newcomer who had never so much as touched a Souls game previously, am testament to that. And to adopt the painfully brusque language, ‘gitting gud’ is the best tactic one can employ when tackling a particularly tough section, of which there are many in Bloodborne. I maintain that with a sufficient amount of dedication and determination, Bloodborne’s toughest obstacles can always be overcome.
Allow me to elaborate; nothing about Bloodborne’s enemies comes off as unfair, and beating even the toughest boss is simply a matter of learning its attack patterns and timing your dodges and counterattacks accordingly — it’s just that the margin of error is miniscule. Probably the best blanket tactic that can be applied to any situation is to keep a cool head throughout (which is easier said than done, seeing as Bloodborne is essentially a horror game), and show a little patience in exploiting openings.
Of course such broad advice is easier doled out than adhered to, and it simplifies the complex strategies and heightened skill involved in defeating a boss to a truism akin to the quaint “don’t give up!” notes scattered along paths leading up to boss encounters.
All I can say to those who feel as though they are repeatedly banging their head on a wall without making so much as a dent is to persevere, maybe look up a walkthrough or video guide, or, if worst comes to worst, summon help through online co-op. But once that wall comes crashing down thanks to sheer persistence and improvement, I can say with confidence that the rush I felt, the immense sense of satisfaction that comes at that moment, is like little else I’ve experienced in a videogame.
In that sense, I can see why this series is praised for its difficulty, rather than in spite of its difficulty. Difficulty is used as a necessary learning mechanism, forcing you to fully utilise the underlying systems at play: the dodges, visceral attacks, stamina management, and timing of light and heavy attacks of combat: as well as the passive levelling system and gear, equipment and blood gem selection that help you prepare accordingly.
Bloodborne may arm you with an arsenal of weapons, but what it really wants you to arm yourself with is knowledge. By knowledge I don’t just mean knowing when to attack or run, or how to time a parry. I mean the knowledge that by the time you reach a boss you should have unlocked at least one shortcut to get you back there quickly from the area’s lantern; knowledge to use landmarks to navigate your way around labyrinthine areas without the need for a map; knowledge that the glow of an item or lantern in the distance often indicates the next point of interest or hidden path; knowledge imparted by the notes left by fellow players, hinting at the perils and treasures that lie ahead. The game lays out an implicit set of rules which when adhered to ensure things go relatively smoothly.
That is how Bloodborne skillfully illustrates the lost art of showing, not telling. Bloodborne is a game that pits you against the darkness, both literally and figuratively. You edge forth one step at a time into the unknown, with only your wits and your hand lantern (or torch, if you are feeling bold) to guide your way. There will come times where you are ambushed and quickly overwhelmed, but on subsequent attempts you will learn to deal with these threats with ease. You will blindly move forward, hugging the walls, until you can memorise the creases in the game’s brickwork. Difficulty is the game’s way of raising the stakes, building tension, holding your attention. It trades on fear; the fear of the unknown, the fear of dying, the fear of losing your Blood Echoes. But it also encourages you to be brave, to exploit the regain system and fight back, thus setting up a delicate balance between risk and reward.
That is not to say Bloodborne does difficulty perfectly. It doesn’t so much have a difficulty curve as it has a series of peaks and troughs. I often found myself progressing through entire areas with just a few deaths — if any — only to be struck down dozens of times by the end-of-level boss, exhausting my supply of blood vials in the process. This led to me wasting time refilling my stock when all I wanted was to get the boss fight over with.
Another thing that pushed the limits of my patience was the long loading times which, combined with the run back to the boss after every death, inflated the already sky-high difficulty to excruciating levels. I’m sure that a sizable chunk of my total playtime consists of this process alone. I should note that the long load times have since been mitigated in a patch (though the occasional stuttering remains), although it came a bit too late for me.
Then there is the fact that the most difficult non-boss section in the game comes right at the beginning. If the developers’ aim was to put beginners off Bloodborne and make the point that it is not for the faint of heart, then they succeeded with gleeful sadism. I am still a little disappointed that no other section in the game reached that apex of difficulty, at least relative to my character’s level, anyway. In fact, the entire second half fails to exceed the difficulty of the first, barring maybe some optional bosses. The two bosses I found most difficult, Blood Starved Beast and Vicar Amelia, are encountered early on, and the Cleric Beast and Father Gascoigne are nothing to be sniffed at either.
These quibbles aside, I find little to fault with Bloodborne. I would much rather celebrate its strengths anyway, the most significant being that its design choices come as a blast of cold, fresh air in the current gaming climate. Where other games seem intent on coddling players with unskippable tutorials, myriad quest markers and checkpoints and QTE’s, Bloodborne is quietly confident in its quality, content to let go of the player’s hand and let them discover its secrets for themselves.
It is here that I find myself circling back to the idea of ‘show, don’t tell.’ This technique is evident in everything from the understated HUD to the conservative use of sound and music; it is evident in the obscure story that slowly unravels itself with each passing phase of the moon; in the lore that is revealed through carefully placed messages and item descriptions.
The expert environmental storytelling, that is able to say more than other games can say through a string of cutscenes, combined with the NPC’s whose (admittedly depressing) side stories add colour to an otherwise hostile and unrelenting world, is all it took to have me lost in its lovingly crafted Lovecraftian horror.
Through its subtle implementation of themes and gameplay, Bloodborne shows a respect for the player that is largely missing from modern games; and it is through its difficulty that it commands respect from the player. This mutual respect forms the basis of Bloodborne’s unique appeal, and is the reason it has won the near unanimous praise of critics and gamers alike.