Impressions: Bloodborne

A Hunter must hunt…

Bloodborne is a game I tried to play several years ago, but it didn’t fully click with me, other games came up that I wanted to play and it ended up falling by the wayside.

Not the best first impression clearly, but that is not the end of the story for this beautifully gothic game…

After not playing Bloodborne for a long time I played Sekrio: Shadows Die Twice and I loved it. The game taught me to play aggressively, focusing on parrying and riposting; a stark contrast to the defensive, conservative combat encouraged by the Dark Souls games. It turns out that this game retroactively trained me into the correct mindset for playing Bloodborne.

But there would still be one more insight I would have to gain before I was drawn back to Bloodborne; the discovery of the cosmic horror that was lurking beneath the surface.

Over the past four years I have become very interested in horror, watching many a video-essay on horror in both film and video game media, and I realised there was much more to Bloodborne than the visceral bloody gothic horror that Bloodborne appears to be. Great Ones, the cosmos, nightmare realms, all lurk behind the opening stages of Bloodborne, and are the very essence of Lovecraftian cosmic horror.

Like many other From Software games, Bloodborne is filled with lore that is found in item descriptions and locations, with a wide space left open for personal interpretation and analysis. It was by watching lore analysis videos, by youtubers such as VaatiVidya, Lance McDonald and TheLastProtagonist, that I discovered a deep passion for the story that Bloodborne has to tell. A story of humans striving to attain a greater level of understanding about the universe and their place within it, but discovering an eldritch truth that drives them to madness. A story where mankind’s battle against their own inner beastial nature take on a far more literal and visceral dimension.

The story is intriguing, and is considered by some to be the best realisation of Lovecraftian horror that has been achieved in video games.

The gameplay is similar to other FromSoftware games, with a focus on evasion and parrying enemy attacks. When you take damage you have a small window of opportunity to recover your health by attacking the enemy, which encourages an aggressive playstyle, and you will quickly learn in game that backpedaling is not the way to succeed in this game, its all about sidestepping or dashing through enemy attacks to try to flank them, and punishing every opening that the enemy presents you with.

It is fun, fast paced and exciting.

The aggressive gameplay is complimented by beautiful sound design and an a wonderfully detailed gothic artstyle. It feels like you are truly stalking beasts through the small streets of a gothic era european city, and it lends itself wonderfully to the thematic horror stylings the game has. Frantic fights give way to atmospheric tension, which builds as you expect an ambush around each corner, knowing that it takes just one hit to wipe out your health, but if you retaliate quick enough you can regain your health and get the upper hand.

The game is difficult. and this will undoubtedly cause issues for some players, which make the game somewhat impenetrable. The same can be said of the indirect storytelling; if you like a clearly defined story, then I would recommend starting by checking out the lore videos that various youtubers have made on Bloodborne as a prelude to playing, as it will give some structure to the game that would otherwise be somewhat obsure.

Bloodborne is certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is a brillant game if you are looking for a game which is difficult, and has an obscure story that takes some searching and interpretation to tease out. It is very much my kind of game, and I hope that you can enjoy it as well!

Impressions: Remnant from the Ashes

Remnant from the Ashes is a game I discovered completely by accident when watching YouTube. I had heard nothing about this game before watching this random video, but I was intrigued by what I saw.

A post-apocalyptic third-person shooter, which involved online co-op and dodging attacks thrown at the players by Dark Souls-esque enemies.

I had to give it a go.

Fresh off playing Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, I was feeling hesitant to try a game I had heard so little about. I needed some tried and tested quality in the games I was playing, but I took a chance on picking up Remnant from the Ashes in the PlayStation Summer Sale.

This was a satisfying purchase.

You play a human fighting across a post-apocalyptic Earth, taken over by the plant-based horde of the Root, bringing guns to what would typically be a sword and shield affair in any other entry to the Souls-like Action RPG genre.

The world you explore is pseudo-randomised, with different dungeon layouts being generated each play-through, and randomised bosses and events filling these worlds, leaving the player with a unique feeling campaign, add giving players to ability explore uniquely rolled layouts that other players have discovered in co-op play. It is a neat feature, and also leads to a replayable game experience.

But all of these features are mere gimmicks without a solid core gameplay to build these features into.

Thankfully Remnant from the Ashes delivers on this gameplay, with some crazy gun-shooting, quick-rolling, fast-moving gunplay which keeps you on your toes in a fun and high pressure way.

The game feels fluid and weighty, the random generation is nice, although the random boss generation can lead to some difficult fights. My first boss was an enemy that spawned explosions on you every 3 seconds. It was overwhelming and I had to go online to find out how to beat him because I was struggling significantly with the encounter.

Once I saw that you had to just keep running the battle thankfully opened up and I beat him on my second attempt after watching the video.

You dodge-roll out of the way of enemy projectiles, you can melee enemies that get too close, you have to control your space, and you face more horde-type enemies than you get in Dark-souls, but it feels perfectly balanced for the gun-play focus of the game.

The game world is well realised, if not a little bland. I am currently exploring a ruined city and it is…a ruined city. Not particularly exciting, but I am aware that you explore different locales as the game progresses I am not able to comment on how well these other locations are realised at this time.

In cut scenes the game looks pretty ugly; character models have clearly been designed for being looked at from a distance, and they look plastic and awkward up close.

Thankfully in general gameplay everything looks fine. It is not pushing any bounds in graphic fidelity or beauty, but that hardly matters when the core gameplay is so solid and fun to play.

This game feels like the anti-thesis to Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order; not the prettiest game, but it has a solid, tightly tuned combat system creates a fun, fluid experience that is a fun twist on the action RPG genre.

I am excited to play more of this game which at this stage I would categorise as a diamond in the rough.

‘Show, Don’t Tell’ in From Software Games

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

‘Show, don’t tell’ is a staple of advice given to everyone who tries to tell a story. The purpose behind this advice is to avoid excessive exposition; the temptation of every storyteller who wants to let the reader know everything about the characters they have designed and the world they have built.

In every medium the storyteller must work on the balance between showing and telling. Tell too much and there is nothing to engage with, just facts on a page or read out to a listener, like a historical timeline or scientific analysis of an experiment. But if you don’t tell enough then there is no story, just events happening, without the insight that telling provides.

From Software games take this concept to heart and strip down the story telling experience to some of the barest bones that one will experience in a non-indie game, whist still providing an enormous amount of story to explore.

Many people who play their games feel that the storytelling technique employed by From Software falls into the category of events just happening with no story, and there is no real insight into what events take place between the beginning of the game and the end.

This is a view I strongly disagree with, and in this article I will attempt to illustrate the ways that From Software pushes the boundaries in ‘show, don’t tell’ storytelling through two key avenues; Item Descriptions and Item Placement.

This article follows on from my previous article on Dark Souls’ story telling, and contains spoilers for the Dark Souls Trilogy, Demon Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

Environmental Storytelling

Environmental storytelling is what it says on the tin. The reader understands what has happened, not because the narrator has told then what has happened, but rather because the environment makes it clear what has happened. This is commonly used in video games when you encounter a pile of dead bodies before a major environmental hazard or enemy. The player understands that these bodies are here because something has killed them.

An example taken from Dark Souls would be as you enter Anor Londo. You can summon Black Iron Tarkus to help fight the Iron Golem. He is heavily armoured and incredibly strong. He can almost beat the boss single-handed. And once the Iron Golem is defeated you travel to Anor Londo, which requires you to traverse across the narrow beams of the roof of a cathedral, whilst being attacked by quick and dextrous enemies. On the floor of this cathedral you can find the body of a warrior in giant black armour. It seems that Tarkus may have been able to handle the great Iron Golem, but lacked the manoeuvrability and dexterity in his armour to traverse the cathedral roof, falling to his death.

Tarkus
So close, and yet so far…

From Software uses the placement of items throughout their games to add to the strength of environmental storytelling. This is subtle, and can easily be missed if you are not paying attention.

For an example of item placement being used in environmental storytelling we can take a look at Bloodborne. In Bloodborne you can encounter a young girl who hides inside a house. She can be convinced by your character to try to make it to the cathedral, but you never encounter her there. It is not clear what happens until you kill the giant pig in the sewers. The pig drops a red ribbon, and only drops this item if the little girl sets out from her home.

A player might talk to the girl and kill this pig without ever really thinking about the items they have picked up. This missable story adds to the depth and darkness that is found in Bloodborne; the little girl never made it to the safe place, due to being caught and eaten by the pig, and she only left her safe place because of you.

Pig
It’s twisted grin just makes it all the worse…

Another example can be found in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. The Guardian Ape drops the item ‘slender finger’ and can be found with a sword embedded in its neck. By sharing drinks with the Sculptor you learn that he used to train in the Sunken Valley with a friend who used a finger whistle. When you bring the finger to the Sculptor he appears to recognise it saying; “What’s that you have there…Where did you get that finger?…I see… To think it was in the belly of an Ape… Let me see it. I’ll fix it to your prosthetic arm.” 

Finger Whistle
A sad story for so simple a description…

The Sculptor never explicitly states it, but if you take in the information presented with you across these different locations and item descriptions you realise the finger is the same finger that belonged to his friend, and you have confirmed the death of his friend by presenting him with the finger, which was not something he was aware of. It is possible that the sword belonged to the Sculptor’s friend, Kingfisher, and the ape killed her when it regenerated from the deathblow she inflicted upon it. It is never confirmed, but there is an interesting story that is told using the environment, without ever explicitly forcing it upon the player.

This second story adds another element of story telling which ties well with environmental story telling, but is distinct. Micro-exposition.

Micro-exposition

Almost every item in all From Software games provide world lore information that the player would not have access to, but not in the form of a large info dump.

You get little nuggets of information and the responsibility of the players to piece these nuggets together.

For example, in Bloodborne the ‘Great One’s Wisdom‘ item has the following description:

“Fragments of the lost wisdom of the Great Ones, beings that might be described as gods.
Use to gain Insight.

At Byrgenwerth Master Willem had an epiphany: “We are thinking on the basest of planes. What we need, are more eyes.”

great ones wisdom
Madness follows…

This micro-exposition might not make a huge amount of sense in isolation, but for a player who pays attention to the Environmental Storytelling and the details of these micro-expositions, a story begins to take shape. Around Yharnham and the College of Byrgenwerth are lots of unspeakable horrors covered in eyes. From these kinds of micro-expositions one can learn that the Scholars at Byrgenwerth undertook experiments to attempt to gain more eyes to achieve the wisdom of the Great Ones, Lovecraftian higher beings.

Although not directly explained, suddenly the monsters you encounter begin to make sense.

In Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice an item named the Ceremonial Tanto has the following item description:

‘Dagger with a stark white blade and hilt. Converts Vitality into Spirit Emblems.

Resting replenishes its charges.

Originally, this tanto was used in a ritual offering to the dragon, in which an emblem would be cut from one’s own life force and set adrift on the Fountainhead waters.

The blade is inscribed with its true name: “Devoted Soul”.’

tanto
Carve emblems from your body…

This item gives players an insight into the world that they are living in. We do not know why this ritual was performed or what it sought to achieve, but it gives the player a taste of information that encourages interest in the player and adds to the depth of the game more effectively than if the player had been given a larger exposition dump on how the dragon was worshiped.

You get an aperitif of story, that builds the experience without overloading it with large volumes of text that often go unread (*cough, cough, Dragon Age: Inquisition, cough*).

Tying Storytelling Together

The storytelling philosophy of From Software undeniably attempts to embody the concept of ‘Show, don’t tell,’ with varying levels of success. The fact that many gamers struggle to follow the story of earlier titles they have produced shows that this is not something that they have always done as effectively as they can, although the work of fans like VaatiVidya shows that the deep and complex stories are there to be found.

With From Software’s latest release, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, From Software seems to have found a good balance of showing and telling. The story is easy to follow, and we still have a glut of world building that happens only in environmental storytelling and micro-exposition, adding to the depth and enjoyment of the experience.

Seeing how these techniques work for telling stories in video games is something that should be studied by both video game creators and writers of traditional fiction.

The translation to paper of these techniques may be tricky to master but should lead to effective and creative storytelling and world building.