The Souls games are focused on a medieval type of combat. Swords, shields, bows and spells are the keystones. Combat is controlled through defence; a player waits for the enemy to attack, blocks or parries it with their shield, and then counter-attacks.
Bloodborne took the precision and punishment that made the combat in Souls games so popular, and threw away the shield. Literally the only shield in the game, a Wooden Shield, has this condescending text attached to it: “Shields are nice, but not if they engender passivity.”
Bloodborne favours aggression. It demands it. It asks you to control the fight and not be controlled by it. It doesn’t ask, but tells you to rush head first into combat, not with blind optimism, but calculated risk. “Don’t be a coward and hide, be a monster and attack.” This is a central theme to the game. Don’t wait around, calculate risks, and take action. In a way, it’s a theme for the series: even if you fail, you can learn.
One of the unique features of the Souls series of games is the way it handles the ephemeral online interaction with other players. In general gameplay there is no direct co-operation, and the game behaves exactly as a single-player game would. The ways that players can interact with other players is therefore limited, but important.
Arm’s length co-operation
One method involves leaving notes on the ground, with pre-filled phrases that can be strung together. The context and location of these notes can be important for deciphering them. In addition, the notes can be rated with a positive affirmation, “Fine,” and in Bloodborne, a negative dismissal, “Foul.” Whether these ratings are to be attributed to the note or the author (especially in the case of “Foul”) is up to personal interpretation.
Generally player written notes are tongue-in-cheek, calling certain types of monsters derogatory names using the (thankfully) pre-filled vocabulary. Others are congratulatory, cheering the player (and the writer) for succeeding against a tough enemy or boss. A lot though – an overwhelming amount – are clues.
You might be heading into a building and see a note on the ground. Checking it may reveal that there is an ambush ahead, and to be careful. It isn’t a lot: it doesn’t give away a twist in any specific way, but it’s a kind of gentle warning. It’s what your friends might tell you, 15 years ago, if you mentioned where you were up-to when playing through a game. “Oh, watch out for this one thing…”
It can be used to trick people too: what if that note warning of an ambush is highly rated “Foul”? Or a tip that there is treasure just off a cliff, advocating the player jump off to find it on a ledge? The callous note creators may cause you to fall to your death. Any note can be taken the wrong way, and the limited way you can phrase things can hinder or help your case. As Il-Horn Hann, an Associate Professor of Information Systems at the University of Maryland, concludes in a study about altruism in digital worlds, when given the option of sharing a digital wealth with an anonymous player, people often choose to do so. In this way, players providing helpful tips to who they might as well consider comrades or allies, makes sense.
The Phantom’s menace
A second passive way of interacting with players is through the phantom system. Phantoms of other players, either playing the game at that moment or just recently, will pass through your world. You can’t interact with them directly, and they don’t affect anything in your game physically. Like ghosts, they might climb up a ladder and vanish, attack monsters that you’ve already killed, or die to an unseen force. You can infer the difficulty of an upcoming area, or catch the glimpse of a trapdoor killing you before it does.
This passive sort of interaction can add a lot of flavor to a game that does a really good job at creating an oppressive, isolating atmosphere. People playing tricks on others, or genuinely trying to provide good advice is a small detail that can be lost if you decide to play the game offline. Does it engender passivity, though? Does the extra flavour from witnessing other players die, acknowledging that there is an ambush ahead (even if it’s just because there are a lot of notes outside a door, and you do not read them) take a sense of mystery or haunting fear from the game?
For The Old Hunters, a recent expansion pack for Bloodborne, there’s an opportunity for veterans of the game to experience that ‘mystery’ and ‘haunting fear’ once again. Most people that will be playing the expansion are already familiar with the inner workings or details of the game. They recognize ambush spots readily, know where hidden treasure might be found, and how to play the game. But for someone like me, who hasn’t played a FromSoftware expansion before, it could make or break the experience. While I wouldn’t ever want a guide open next to me while playing through the game, I actually quite like being gently nudged in the right direction. It doesn’t stop the game from surprising me or a monster punishing me for being careless.
Filling in the blanks
One of the most alluring thing about the first Dark Souls (and by extension, Demon’s Souls, but the popularity makes it a bit harder to compare) was how vague and strange everything was. This has gotten less-so with each release, as previous experience helps shed light on how certain things might work or where secrets might be hidden, but it was magical for the first month of Dark Souls. Players were still discovered secrets and uncovering the unknown. In a contemporary game, it seemed bizarre and yet somehow really exciting.
That excitement encouraged players to hunt for new secrets, to sit down and analyse clues, and to piece things together for themselves. It encouraged risk-taking behaviour, despite the punishment the game would provide for failure. It encouraged exploration in an era where games usually hold your hand and tell you what to do, where to do it, how to do it, and slap you on the wrist if you color outside the lines. It encouraged aggression.
FromSoftware explains everything that needs to be explained – what do stats affect, how certain enemies can defeat you, what you can do to defeat them – all the critical pieces, as long as you’re prepared to do the legwork and read everything you find. Then in the same breath, they hide and obfuscate the meaty parts; exploring the game worlds raises questions, and sometimes, those questions are never answered. As Mike Rougeau writes on Kotaku, “—through sly nods and cryptic item descriptions, in typical Souls fashion—make them seem more complex and maybe more interesting than they actually are. They are legends half-glimpsed, appealing to players’ curiosity. You want to know more, and you probably never will, and that makes you want it even more.”
Bloodborne didn’t change that curiosity or formula, and if anything, the twists and turns near the second half of the game made it even more surreal and bizarre. As the DLC for Souls games is often rated the highest quality content of the game, Bloodborne will have to pull some pretty fantastic tricks to make its DLC live up to the hype that the last several instalments of DLC managed to achieve.
Carving through Bloodborne and its expansion was an experience that raised hundreds of questions, many without real answers that can be pieced together. The expansion answers some questions, but mostly raises new ones. The additional areas are haunting and the boss fights are some of the most fun I’ve had in a Souls game, and with the base game and expansion available for the cost of a new game? It’s a fleshed out, fully-realised experience.