Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Bloodborne's Gameplay and Difficulty: On the Mainstreamification of the Souls Series

With all the recent info that has come out on Bloodborne this past week, I've decided to write-up my own thoughts about the game at the moment. Mainly, I've noticed a couple of things about the game that I think people have generally missed because they require you to read between the lines of all the various press releases, interviews, and demonstrations that have come out over the weeks leading up to and including Gamescon. These points have to do with the nature of Bloodborne's gameplay and its difficulty, as well as with how these things fit into the evolution of Souls series toward what can be called the "mainstream gaming audience."

First, regarding Bloodborne's gameplay: After reviewing the leaked footage from Gamescon and assessing it in light of From's past statements about the game, I've come to the conclusion that although Bloodborne's dark aesthetic is reminiscent of Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, its design is much more influenced by Dark Souls II. In the first place, Bloodborne will return us to Dark Souls II's emphasis on mob combat with renewed force. Watching the Gamescon footage, you will see that players come against many enemies who attack in groups rather than one-on-one. This was a gameplay direction introduced by Dark Souls II and it marked a significant departure from the previous two Souls games which favored single enemy encounters. It's safe to say that the mob combat style will be a staple of Bloodborne as well, as From has said more than once that the threat of being overwhelmed by multiple enemies is part of the game's core design philosophy.

Another point to consider is how Bloodborne constructs player's combat repetoire. Like Dark Souls II, Bloodborne will emphasize the agility of the player. Dark Souls II made this into its own stat within the RPG mechanics of the Souls series. Its function in that game was to increase the character's ability to react swiftly and dodge enemy attacks. In Bloodborne, this stat has been made into an obligatory feature of  gameplay, with evasive swiftness now being a necessary part of the player's toolset rather than an optional playstyle. In essence, what was a new, experimental mechanic in Dark Souls II will now be a crucial, required component of Bloodborne.

There are lots of other little things that suggest that Bloodborne and Dark Souls II are conceptually connected in terms of design. The return of torches and dark spaces in Bloodborne hints that this attempted and seemingly abandoned mechanic in Dark Souls II is being re-attempted in Bloodborne. Also, at least one character revealed in the Gamescon footage appears to be a near copy-and-paste of an enemy from Dark Souls II. I am speaking here of the cloaked monster banging on the gate that appears around 2:45 in this video. The enemy is very similar to the Undead Jailors fought in the Lost Bastille section of Dark Souls II.

I think these links between Dark Souls II and Bloodborne should be seen as very significant. For starters, it undermines a hard and fast division between the two games that many fans have imagined to exist within From Software's development process. In an interview with Miyazaki (the director of Demon's Souls and Dark Souls), it was reported that Dark Souls II was developed by a separate team of which Miyazaki was not a part. At the time, Miyazaki was actually working on Bloodborne with another team. Some have used this fact as a way of asserting that Bloodborne will be cut from a whole other cloth from that of Dark Souls II. I think these initial comparisons between the games that I have made suggest a different relationship between the two games. Rather than happening in separate isolation chambers, it's clear that there was a good deal of communication and shared design ideas between the two teams. Indeed, it appears that the two games grew out of the same pool of ideas and were guided by same overall plan to re-tool the series into something else. It is this something else that I think fans of the first two games should take time to pause and consider, because it is part and parcel with From's apparent plan for the series since the success of Dark Souls.

The plan, in brief, is to make the Souls series into a more mainstream affair--a plan that, however beneficial it may be to the game's creators, conflicts with what some, including myself, would call the "purity" of the series. This purity, for better or worse, has to do with the uncompromising sense of difficulty, both in terms of figuring out how the overall game system works and mastering the individual challenges presented moment to moment, that the series reintroduced to the world. This is probably the most touchy subject for the games. In the past, any hint that their "hardcore" aspects would be pared back has been swiftly denounced by the most ardent fans. At the same time, there has been a consistent appeal from the wider gaming community that the game be made less unwelcoming to less dedicated gamers. Like it or not, From has shown itself to be more interested in reaching out to the latter group than in satisfying the hardcore desires of the former, and this is an attitude and approach that is written all over what we've been shown about Bloodborne so far.

Going back to the game's release at E3, snippets leaking out of a press meeting about Bloodborne being a less difficult game have been making the rounds. At Gamescon, some of these rumors became more concrete through some of From's own statements. According to multiple outlets, its developers are saying that "the sense of punishment is much less" this time around, explaining that they are aiming for a "wider audience." Some high profile fans, such as VaatiVidya, have been quick to dismiss the concerns rising from this, telling us to "trust in Miyazaki." Well, we've already been around that block before with Dark Souls II and its own "accessibility-gate," and we know where that ended, don't we?

Dark Souls II isn't a bad or easy game by any stretch of the imagination, but most fans of the first two games agree that a number of key elements that made Dark Souls and Demon's Souls so special, such as the large gaps between save-points and the regeneration of enemies, were significantly watered down in Dark Souls II. Other areas of compromise included the addition of voice-chat and targeted co-op, both of which I wrote about before the game came out. These were concessions to vocal gamers who weren't happy with the past entries and wanted to see the series remade along more popular conventions. From reps, including a Namco-Bandai Community Manager in response to my article, assured that these changes were not indications of series dilution (see the comments section of my post linked above). Once people finally got their hands on the game, however, it quickly became clear that something had happened to the Souls series over the course of Dark Souls II's development. Its vitality had been lost. Players weren't as moved by it as they were by the other games. Even diehard fans like EpicNameBro seem to have become apathetic to Dark Souls II at this point, despite having worked on the game's official strategy guide. Following its release, he hasn't done anything with the game in months.

Now, on the eve of Bloodborne's announcement, we are faced with the same situation, the same worries and apprehensions. From is once again making sounds about decreasing difficulty to reach a wider audience, and certain individuals are once again out in full force putting down anyone who dares to raise an eyebrow at these statements. My point is that we should learn from history and read these signs for what they are. Since Dark Souls, From has sought to market its series to an increasingly mainstream audience and the consequence of this is that it has become incrementally less compellingly intense and more banally accommodating.

Watching the demo footage from Gamescon and reading journalists' reports, it seems that Bloodborne will continue this trend by being a more forgiving game. Not only is the player character more agile than ever, making dodging considerably easier, the game further decreases the difficulty by installing a "regain" mechanic that lets player's quickly recoup lost health by (wildly, from the footage we've seen) striking back at enemies. In the demo footage leaked, one can see relatively inexperienced players gain back large swathes of health in this way simply by button-mashing. Some will defend this by citing reports that the difficulty of the demo was toned down to let players experience the full package. I remain skeptical of this. If thought about, the idea doesn't make much sense. Wouldn't that be tantamount to deceiving potential customers about the nature of the game, while at the same time alienating the series' biggest fans? I'm of the opinion that From's claim about the demo being dumbed-down is probably just a cover to stop diehard Souls players from finding out the truth until it's too late.

Some people say that we should simply trust in From. The same thing was suggested for Dark Souls II. Others try to blame Dark Souls II's failings on the absence of Miyazaki from the project, and using that as proof that Bloodborne will be better. I say such thinking is naive. There is clearly a great deal of overlap in terms of the concepts and design for both games, developed in tandem. If Dark Souls II failed to live up to the undiminished intensity of the prior games, it was not because Miyazaki wasn't involved in it. Rather, the shortcomings of Dark Souls II reflect From Software's new view of the Souls series as a mainstream title. Far from disappearing from Bloodborne, this broad-appeal philosophy clearly continues to be a driving force in its creation.

I worry that Bloodborne will  likely continue From's search for a wider audience by being a less demanding and less punishing game. I doubt it will be an easy game, and I hope there will be some good challenges along the way, but overall, I can't help but wonder if it will be part of the series' incremental slide to the lowest common denominator of video game culture, at which point violence, instant gratification, and accessibility become king.