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.

Impressions: Code Vein

There have been a lot games that have tried to walk in the footsteps of From Software’s Dark Souls, with varying degrees of success.

Those that succeed do so by putting their own unique twist on the dark, nihilistic formula, and Bandai Namco Studios bring a massive dose of anime goodness to the genre in a Dark Souls-meets-Tokyo Ghoul action RPG.

Set in the ruins of a fallen civilisation you awaken with no memory of who you are, alongside a mysterious girl who leads you forward into a broken world filled with monsters that used to be human, but are now husks of their former selves.

Sound familiar?

The story is not nothing particularly special, and is filled with very tropy anime characters and story beats (did I mention the girl that finds you when you awaken has disproportionatly large breasts, barely covered by an incredibly ripped up mini-dress?) but there is a real gem of a game hiding behind the tropey awkwardness.

Press Any Button to Start

The first thing you will notice with this game is the in-depth character creation. You get to craft your very own waifu/guyfu, and it is one of the more detailed character creators you will experience in any game. I could spend hours making lots of different characters that are completely unique and is a fun experience in and of itself.

Once you get through the character creation you jump into the game and get to see the beautiful world the Bandai Namco Studios have created; a ruined modern city, where gangs of bio-weapons (read vampires) search for rare fruits called a bloodbeads, which provide sustainence in the absence of a human to feed off.

You will make allies as you progress through this world and explore several environments that will not feel unfamiliar to Dark Souls players.

So what does this game do differently?

What you will discover when you enter the first ‘dungeon’ of the game is the existence of an AI controlled ally that will come with you througout your wanderings. This ally will be able to fight alongside you in combat and heal you if you go down.

This ally mechanic is a welcome variation to the traditional lone explorer, and you will find different allies have difference strengths that will be better suited to some enemies than others. For example I have one ally I use for general exploring who can quickly dispatch surprise enemies and a different ally who can tank in boss fights for me to be a more hit and run attacker.

With the addition of an extra ally, it means that you will be frequently facing larger groups of enemies, that will try to swarm and surround you. Maneuvering becomes a key part of staying alive, and the traditional stamina management mechanics you have in Dark Souls are a key part of combat here.

In addition to the AI ally, Code Vein also provides an incredibly flexible skill/class system. There are 39 base blood codes, which are the classes available. Each blood code has a number of abilites associated with it. As you progress in the game you will unlock more abilities for each bloodcode, and if you master a code, you can transfer particular abilities from one code to another. One code for example will specialise in quick hits with a one-handed sword, whilst another specialises in resisting status effects, and another specialises in draining your opponants lifeforce. By synegising these abilities you can really craft a class that feels unique to you, as well being able to be changed on the fly, as your situation requires.

In keeping with the anime styling of the game, combat is fast paced and fluid. You really feel like an anime protagonist fighting against the odds, dodging, diving, and following up with an awesome feeling attack from an oversized weapon. You can handle more enemies in Code Vein than you would be able to in Dark Souls, and have access to more crowd control abilities, but you still need to dodge and parry and backstab your way to victory.

In terms of difficulty Code Vein is balanced to feel alot easier than other souls-like games. It feels like a familair, casual game to experienced souls-like players, and I think it would make a great entry-level game for players new to the genre.

Conclusions

Code Vein is a fun romp of an action RPG. It has a clunky and awkward story, with too much exposition for exposition sake, which drags on the gameplay experience. If you can see past this failing, you will find a game which has fast paced, fun combat tin a beautifully realised game world, and is worth playing for people who are interested in the souls-like genre. It doesn’t re-invent the wheel, but it adds some nice gameplay elements which lead the game to feel unique in its own way, and the style is a nice vibrant splash of colour in a traditionally bleak and dark genre.

‘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.

Dark Souls: Video Game Literary Classics 101

‘If only I could be so grossly incandescent…’

Dark Souls

You sit in a cell in the Undead Asylum.

You cannot die, but you can be left to rot.

And so you wait.

You cannot remember who you are or how long you have waited, losing your humanity…

…until someone drops your key to freedom through a hole in the ceiling.

And with that key hope is kindled.

It is hard to be part of the modern video game and media world without being at least familiar with the name of the game Dark Souls. It became particularly popularised in internet circles for its punishing difficulty and the associated catchphrase ‘Git Gud’ which is often the only advice offered to individuals who struggle to progress with the game.

But if a high difficulty were all that made this game notable it would be quickly forgotten. After all a real challenge is presented by many video games out there, and other options can often be more accessible than Dark Souls, offering players difficulty sliders to fit their challenge preferences.

So what sets Dark Souls apart?

There is no simple answer to this question, which I think is part of the game’s beauty, but in this article we can explore some of the threads of this answer that I am more drawn to.

1) Your character is not special

When you start there is nothing spectacular about your player character. You are a husk of a human. You cannot die, but that is true of many in the world you inhabit. It is not a glorious immortality you experience, but a debilitating curse.

You spend the game trying to break this curse, but you are just as well equipped as any other undying human to do this. There are plenty of humans more skilled at fighting than you, better equipped, and you live in a world filled with fantastical beasts and lovecraftian horrors.

At no point in the game does your character become anything close to invincible or overpowered.

You could be strong enough to fight the final boss, and still be quickly killed by enemies in the starting area if you are careless. A fact that many people showcase when they perform runs of the game without levelling up at all.

So what impact does this have on the player experience?

When someone experiences a story they need a character that is their proxy to provide the experiences the reader needs to feel.

This is why you start the Lord of the Rings in Hobbiton with Frodo; you have a character that lives a simple ‘country life’ where events and happenings are a close analogue to our real world. Frodo has little knowledge of the world outside those borders, any of the more fantastical elements of the world. But then Frodo moves out of Hobbiton into the unknown, and as he learns about the complex world he lives in, so do we. Frodo is our proxy.

In Dark Souls we are given that character; unskilled in combat, unknowing about the world, and unprepared for the task that is ahead.

But you get better.

The more you fight the more you learn how to respond to the enemy and how to beat them. Your character does not gain any special abilities to shortcut combat, but you personally get better at the combat that is functionally the same at the beginning of the game as it is at the end of it.

Your characters ability is directly proportional to your personal ability, and if you are not winning in a fight, you can only, generally, win if you personally learn how to be better at fighting in game. This dynamic is what gets commonly reduced to ‘Git Gud’ on forums. There is not a shortcut to success and death is part of the experience.

With that in mind.

2) Failure is part of the journey

You will die in Dark Souls.

If someone says that they have played Dark Souls without dying I would be confident in calling that person a liar.

Why?

Because you are meant to die in Dark Souls.

This was a fact I personally struggled with when I first started playing the game, often switching off the console before the death properly registered and autosaved.

It was rage and frustration that led me to do this.

In most games death is a fail state, a sign that you were not good enough to succeed. It is something I have been trained over the years to avoid as much as possible. And the impact of this attitude was obvious when I first played Dark Souls.

I was afraid to progress.

I was afraid of moving away from safe-zones, and areas where I knew the layout of enemies.

Because I was afraid of dying in game.

But the game is more fun when you take the plunge and accept you will die. You still need to be cautious and careful to progress, but if you fear the consequences of failure you will not progress at all.

Death in Dark Souls is part of the story. The game continues after you die. You return to life at the last bonfire you rested at. Items you used before your death are gone, but your experience remains. This is because your death is canon within the game. The thing that sets your character apart from the hollow undead you see scattered around the world is that you keep striving to reach your goal, whilst the hollows stopped trying.

You as the player keep playing, keep trying and keep learning from mistakes of the past.

In doing so you work out how to overcome the challenges you face and if you persevere you will eventually succeed.

You succeed in the same way as your character succeeds. Dying constantly and learning from that experience.

In this the game does something clever. On one level it helps you the player to learn that it is okay to not succeed. Failure is not a permanent state, nor is it a final state. It is just a step that you, and everyone else, must experience in the continued story that is life. Learning that failure is not the end is an important lesson in life, and Dark Souls incorporates this lesson into the heart and soul of the game.

On another level your character reaches their goal by learning that lesson as well. They are a human that is only remarkable in one respect. They persevere. That is the story that Dark Souls tells. An unremarkable individual with no particular talents or abilities will defeat the strongest creatures in the world, because they persevere and do not give up despite the setbacks they face.

3) Your character does not achieve the goal they set out to complete.

This part of the article contains major story spoilers, so if you do not want the ending to this game spoiled before you can play it, I would stop reading now and return once you have played it.

When you first start the game you have no particular goal. You are given a goal by way of a prophesy from the man to rescues you from your cell; to end the curse of undying.

To do this you must ring the bells of awakening.

And so your character sets out, fighting through enemies and monsters. But you never actually manage to end this curse.

It is something beyond you.

You are informed by Kingseeker Frampt, the primordial serpent that is awoken by the bells of awakening, that it is your job to succeed Gwyn, Lord of Cinder.

You must succeed Gwyn and preserve the Age of Fire by linking the first flame.

Which involves burning yourself in the first flame that will feed off the eternal strength of your undying soul.

You are destined to sacrifice yourself to keep the first flame alive and stop the growing darkness. You are told this will cure the curse of undying.

Unless you meet Darkstalker Kaathe before Kingseeker Frampt.

Darkstalker Kaathe is hard to find accidentally in game, but he lets you know the truth, or a kind of truth.

Kingseeker Frampt is not your friend.

He seeks only to keep the fires lit, a failing and ultimately fruitless task.

If you meet the Darkstalker you can instead choose to let the fires die, and you walk off into an uncertain future.

You do not learn what becomes of your character in this ending. All you know is that the light has died and darkness will grow.

So what is important about this choice? Surely the Darkstalker’s plan is evil? Shouldn’t light live on?

Maybe not.

Your character is told a story where light is good and dark is evil, and so preservation of the light prevents evil from growing.

But your character is lied to.

At the Kiln of the First Flame you meet Gwyn, Lord of Cinder. A husk of what he once was. A hollow shell, like so many of the undying that you have met before him.

The light is slowly failing and the world is stuck in a strange limbo. People don’t die, much like the fires of the first flame, and the world looks tired.

Maybe, just like how it is natural for people to die, the flames should be allowed to go out.

Maybe there is potential for something new, in a world of ashes than the world of the dying flame.

After all the Age of Fire came after the Age of Ancients, in which nothing changed and everything was stagnant. Gwyn felt this was not good but now fights to preserve his own unchanging age, fighting against the most fundamental of processes in life: change.

Dark Souls plays off of our traditional pre-loaded notions of good and evil.

Humans are naturally phototropic beings, being drawn towards the light.

But the world of Dark Souls is not our own.

And that instinct is being used to manipulate us.

Ultimately your character does not manage, as far as they know, to break the curse of the undying.

They will either let the flame die and usher in the age of darkness, or they will spend the rest of their lives burning, until the Kingseeker finds a new undying to take your place, and an endless cycle continues.

The ‘good’ ending is unknowable.

They are both debatable.

Both have dire consequences. You and your character have no unique insight into the situation.

You lack the full understanding of as to what the consequences of your actions are.

But you must choose to do one or the other, or consign yourself to slowly hollowing, losing what humanity you have left.

Conclusion

These are just 3 aspects of Dark Souls that make it the classic game it is. Much more can be said about the game, which I may touch on at a later article, but for now I will conclude with this.

Dark Souls tells a human story.

An unremarkable human without perfect knowledge sets out to try and help the world.

They face challenges and setbacks, but they grow, and develop as they learn from their mistakes and overcome their challenges.

They reach points in their life where decisions need to be made, but they are uncertain as to what is the best course of action.

They have the power to shape or change the world by their perseverance, but do not know how they actions can affect everything.

And you the player join them through this experience.

You make the choices in imperfect knowledge, build up the skills, test your perseverance, and are left unsure as to whether or not you made the world a better place or a worse one.

You can convince yourself either way.

But you will never know.

This game is a classic because is speaks to those fundamental human drives of overcoming adversity, and finding purpose.

But you do not know what impact your life will have.

And that is all part of the human story.

This article is part of Backlog Crusader’s Video Game Literary Classics 101. If you are interested in more of these articles follow this link to read more!
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