There are some games I simply cannot play.
That sentence is one that is unique to the interactive medium. There are certain genres of movies and TV shows I like less than the other – scary things and I don’t always get along – but I can watch them. I was never a fan of the Faulkner books forced upon me in school, but I can read them.
But the work of Japanese game design master Hidetaka Miyazaki? I’m pretty sure I can’t play it.
I’ve spent better parts of the last four days with “Bloodborne,” a Gothic fantasy epic with lots of human-like ghouls getting slashed to bits by a blade. I thought, at first, I would review it, but reviewing it has turned out to be impossible. I simply cannot advance far enough in “Bloodborne” to properly analyze it.
Miyazaki warned me this would happen when I met him late last year. I don’t feel ashamed. I am a professional, after all, and in recent weeks I’ve played and conquered “The Order: 1886” and “Ori and the Blind Forest.” Yet those can’t even count as practice. Just last night I spent hours fighting off the same horde of wobbly monster masses, many of them dressed dapperly in a fedora. This was at a very early part of “Bloodborne.” How early? We don’t need to get into that.
“Sorry, “ I said to my friend, who watched my character perish about six times in 10 minutes of the just-released game. “I didn’t mean to die so much.”
But death was expected. It was, in fact, the reason I had an audience. Don’t apologize, he said, “That’s what I came here for.”
This was as Miyazaki intended. His games are brutal. “Bloodborne,” an exclusive to the PlayStation 4, is punishing.
What is it about? The game gives the player an answer. “Don’t think too hard about this. Just go out and kill a few beasts,” says an elder character early in the game.
Miyazaki’s goal, he told me, “is for our core users to really get the sense of accomplishment and achievement that comes with overcoming the hardest challenges a game can present.” He was eloquent when he said that via a translator, leaning forward with his arms resting on his knees.
I am not one of those core users. I favor narrative over competiveness and fanciful over deadly. “Bloodborne” and I never had a chance. I can respect it, and can find awe in its twisting spires and sharp, finely-detailed edges. I can even find its talking pretty doll creepy, and I am impressed at how every new enemy requires a different approach.
But mostly what amazes me is “Bloodborne’s” humor, the gleefulness with which it tackles the end of life. Kill someone, and they can become weightless little things on the ground, as easy to flick around as a housefly. “Bloodborne” even allows you to create a character that it calls “waste of skin.” “You are nothing,” the game says. “Talentless. You shouldn’t have been born.”
You’re dead before it even begins, and this made me laugh.
But your character is actually dead before the game truly begins. The game starts with a blood transfusion – let it be known that it’s never a good idea to have a blood transfusion in an old, rickety Victorian building – and death soon follows.
“YOU DIED,” “Bloodborne” will tell you in all caps. Get used to this. You’ll see it every few minutes, as “Bloodborne” is practically bragging that you once again failed. But this is not an ending, only a beginning.
Games have been killing players since the dawn of interactive entertainment. One has to die a few times in “Super Mario Bros.” to figure out how the whole thing works, after all. But Miyazaki’s fascination with killing players is not for mere trial and error. “Bloodborne” is an upside-down world were death is normalcy, surviving is an anomaly.
Living becomes a state of fear. In that alley, above that stairwell, behind that carriage is someone with a gun watching and waiting for you. Or maybe there’s a hound (please don’t let it be a hound). On the rare occasion I did outwit a few enemies, I would notice my leg would start to quiver. Something is wrong, I would think. I should be dead by now.
Death, in “Bloodborne,” becomes comforting.
Rarely did I last more than 90 seconds before dying, but even when my character was alive death was everywhere. Skeletal ghouls emerge from the broken sidewalks, offering tips and hints for success – sometimes, that is. Players can leave notes for others to find, essentially turning the game into one where there is a representation of death at every step. Occasionally, graves glimmer in the ground, allowing you to watch red outlines that depict how others have died.
Don’t worry, “Bloodborne” says, everyone dies.
Sometimes Miyazaki’s works are referred to as throwbacks, as a reminder of the olden days when games didn’t come loaded with save points and tutorials. But “Bloodborne” is no throwback. It’s too smart, too sheen, too taunting to be anything other than of its time.
This game is an interactive dare, one in which every step, every swing of a blade, every dive to the ground delivers a challenge to the player. “Did you really think that would work?” Miyazaki’s games seem to be saying. If he were in the room, I’d be tempted to throw the controller at him.
But around Day 5 with “Bloodborne,” when it became clear to me that I would never advance to anywhere of meaning within this game, I began to find its near-celebration of death to be practically therapeutic. As the words “YOU DIED” flashed on the screen for the hundredth-plus time, and I sat in silence for the 40 seconds it takes the game to reboot, I nodded. “That’s why I’m here,” I thought.
I might not be able to play “Bloodborne,” but I’ve come to fancy how it bleeds death at every turn. In most games, death is a fail-state. Here, it’s acceptance.
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