It’s A Process
This week saw my review of Bloodborne emerge. From Software’s latest role-playing game is just as engrossing and punishing as the Souls games that came before it. They most certainly are an acquired taste, though, which, as Fluka pointed out, is kind of a shame for players looking to experience From’s approach to art and world design:
I wish I could enjoy the From Software games more. The environments and creature design are so beautiful and adept at creating a sense of palpable despair and dread. I get why the action is the way it is, and why some people would love it, but these games just fundamentally aren’t for me. My two attempts at Dark Souls have ended the same way, with me getting frustrated after being killed by a boss for the 15th time, and then having to go through the same exact set of low-level mooks once again. It’s not a game that rewards improvisation and experimentation. Dark Souls wants you to learn how to play Dark Souls, and by god, you’ll keep doing it until you get it right. People have characterized this repetition as an almost zen act, which helps the player to develop a sense of mindfulness. I love that idea, but in practice, I just get antsy and start thinking about all the other games and books I have waiting for me.
Many other commenters brought up having a similar problem. For a lot of people, there just isn’t enough time in the day to learn how to play these demanding games—and even if there were, it’s flat-out not the kind of experience some are looking for. Merlin The Tuna mentioned that the biggest time investment has to be in learning the arsenal of little tricks that apply to most of Dark Souls’ hazards. Harrowing expanded on that:
You learn the game’s general rules and how it works, and suddenly, the otherwise impossible bosses aren’t so impossible. In fact, it’s rare in this series to have a boss that has only one tricky way to beat it. (And everyone hates the few bosses that are like that to the point that From Software doesn’t seem to do that anymore.) It’s more about learning the way your attacks work and the general rules for how to fight. In Demon’s and Dark Souls, it’s: “Don’t get greedy. Hang onto your shield. Always be on the lookout for traps, because they’re always visible. Watch how a boss attacks, and you’ll see their openings.”
All of those apply to Bloodborne, along with: “You can stagger more enemies with your gun than you think, and the best strategy is often to be aggressive, even when it seems risky.” Most of the bosses can be staggered with your gun or by hitting their limbs or head, and often you can do a really powerful “visceral attack” while they’re stunned. And weirdly enough, in every Souls game, the safest place to be is often right next to a boss.
What I’m saying is: These games aren’t about dying until you find the One True Way To Play that the game refuses to explain. They’re not actually trial and error. Instead, once you get the rhythm of the game down (and Bloodborne’s is different from Demon’s/Dark Souls’, so I struggled at first), you can adapt to anything and discover your own approaches to its challenges.
But Merlin The Tuna thinks those overused tricks make the game a little too repetitive:
That’s true, but in a way it’s also one of the things that I ding Dark Souls for. The rules are so general and broadly applicable that it leads to a lot of repetition. Enemy ahead? Pull him away from his buddies like an MMO baddie, hold your shield up, and strafe around him until you can stab him in the butt. Giant enemy boss? Unlock the camera, run around to stab him in the ankle a few times, and roll right before the attack hits.
I think I’d actually have appreciated a little more “One Weird Trick!” factor just to mix things up. You get components of that in the various bosses whose tails you can cut off, the interesting layout of the Bell Gargoyles’ arena, the tower you can attack the Taurus Demon from, Bed Of Chaos, and whatnot. But you also have a lot of fights that are simply “Which direction should I roll in when I’m not slapping that thing in the heel?”
And Duwease described another take on the learning process:
I think there comes a point in From Software games where your failures turn from “Um, something just happened, and I died” to “Okay, I understand exactly where I went wrong there. I need to start dropping my shield between blocks to regenerate my stamina faster, and I’m starting to see that blocking that boss’ overhand swing takes too much out of me, so maybe I should try rolling left and getting behind instead.”
The first type of failure is frustrating, for sure. I gave up on Souls the first time having not really bypassed it. But the second time, the combat system clicked, and because I knew exactly what my new strategy was after each death, I was eager to get back and try it. At that point, I saw where the addiction comes from. And the depth of the combat system meant I was tweaking my strategies constantly, all the way through to the end, so it never let up.
I think a telling aspect of the game design is that it isn’t really fast paced when compared to other action games. Both the player and the enemies generally have a lot of wind-up and wind-down time between attacks. That makes the emphasis more on learning and executing a plan rather than twitching fast enough, enough times in a row, to beat a dexterity test.
Also this week, we had Ryan Smith weigh in on Battlefield Hardline. That game, which replaced Battlefield’s wartime setting with a cops-and-criminals premise, caused quite a stir before its release, as it lumbered into public consciousness during the debate over America’s police violence and militarization. BurgerOfTheDay pointed out that this sort of discussion about whether or not shooters have a social responsibility to better portray the people you’re fighting applies to games set on foreign soil as well:
I’ve been playing some of Battlefield 4, and I have to say, I think I have a lot of the same issues with that game that people seem to have with Hardline. There’s a level early on where you’re trying to get a VIP out of a building in Shanghai, and they make a big deal for the first few minutes about not using guns unless you absolutely have to, about trying to sneak around and do things peacefully. And then, through no fault of your own, an elevator door opens up on some bad guys, and the whole level turns into an indiscriminate shootout. After being told not to cause any trouble, the game doesn’t even give you a choice; you have to kill dozens of people, in a civilian-populated area, and the game barely even shrugs.
It’s great that our society is asking hard questions about games like Hardline. We need conversations to figure out where these types of games fit, and starting to see criminals (and innocent victims who have been treated as or assumed to be criminals) as people deserving of respect is a good step forward. But humans aren’t just deserving of respect because they live in our towns, they’re deserving of that respect no matter what country they’re in, and shooters like Battlefield and Call Of Duty just refuse to engage with that.
Ryan argued that Hardline worked to divorce itself from reality and controversy, in part by structuring its story mode after unrealistic cop TV shows. ItsTheShadsy thought that was okay, while urging game makers not to give up on trying to imbue their shooters with meaning if they really want to:
I know there’s a platonic ideal of a shooter that has something interesting to say about police and the military, but outside of Spec Ops and occasionally in Call Of Duty, the traditional structure of the genre seems incompatible with those sorts of bigger ideas. In crowd-pleasing military games with big set pieces, violence tends to be the only meaningful method of interaction. That really limits what you can do and say with them, as in this article’s example of getting new guns for not using guns. Or in Syndicate or Haze, there are big moral switcheroos in which you align with another side of the same conflict, but they don’t meaningfully change anything about the game apart from what uniforms you’re shooting at. It’s difficult for these games to be popcorn romps and treatises on power at the same time.
In comparison, Payday is a great deal of fun because it’s over-the-top and doesn’t try to make any statements about the police state. You probably couldn’t add a message to Payday about the effects of your crimes and the shifting nature of moral authority. That’s totally fine, and the game is much better for not doing that.
At the same time, it would be awful to throw in the towel and just let that be the standard for games forever. There are instances (like the aforementioned examples) where shooters take themselves seriously and wring out something meaningful. But those games earn their meaning by doing something remarkably different than normal, like Modern Warfare‘s nuke scene or Halo: Reach‘s devastating post-credits stage. They’re effective because they break the genre’s established rhythms and expectations .
Too many shooters promise thematic resonance and deliver shooting galleries where people gruffly monologue about the nature of good and evil. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the genre can’t be “fixed” just by slathering more narrative on top. Games like Hardline need to admit that they’re just fun blockbusters and run with it, and games that want to offer something deeper and meaningful need major structural changes.
Elsewhere, Venerable Monk outlined a game that took the whole “you’re just an actor in a TV show” idea to another level:
I appreciate the observation that framing Hardline as a cop show is an attempt by the developers to distance themselves from the actual state of law enforcement in the US. Am I the only one who would actually play a game where the conceit is that you’re filming an action movie?
Rather than just using the opening credits and “previously on” segments as a framing device, it would be interesting if the player character is in fact a stunt person on a sound stage. You’d still have all the regular shooter trappings, but you could look over and see the cameras, crew, lights, etc. Obviously, there would be extra points for precisely hitting your marks and staying in character for the entire shot.
You could also set up the game with a short section explaining that the director is an auteur, and he keeps asking for longer and longer single-take scenes, which would ramp up the difficulty over time.
That does it for this week, folks. As always, thanks for reading and commenting. We’ll see you all next week!