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Forgotten Pleasures

bloodborne

One of the unexpected effects of regularly reviewing games is how jaded I’ve become. It takes an enormous amount to impress me nowadays. And even for titles that make the grade, it’s rare that they grip me for a long time. Readers demand novelty, so the old makes way for the new.

Sometimes a game still gets its claws in me and demands play time in the face of all competition. The last video game to achieve that was Hearthstone, early last year. The last board games were Wiz-War and X-Wing back in 2012.

It’s even rarer, though, that an unreleased game grabs my attention. Years of exposure to marketing hype has given me a tough crust of cynicism. The advent of Kickstarter and the ensuing failed promises have just made it thicker. Nowadays, I take nothing about a game at face value until I’ve played it and confirmed it for myself.

I can’t even remember the last time I was dizzy with anticipation about a game.

So it’s remarkable that over the last couple of months, one title has managed to break through. That game is Bloodborne, the spiritual successor to Dark Souls from the same design team.

The latter game transformed my understanding of what a role-playing game should be. It was a blend of genres I’d always wanted to see, a game that felt like real-life fantasy combat combined with the salivating skinner box of experience and levelling up. It was brilliant, but often the deliberate difficulty curve got too much.

Early reviews of Bloodborne make it sound like it’s solved that problem by giving players more information and an easier time early in the game. Then ramping up to the more brutal levels expected once players have adjusted. It seems an excellent solution. Plus, the rich graphics, emphasis on offense over blocking and obvious horror theme had me hooked.

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The trouble is, I don’t have a PS4. So I can’t play it. And there’s no way I can justify buying one when I’ve still got Gears of War 2, Halo 4 and Red Dead Redemption I want to finish on the 360. Not to mention Dark Souls, which I’m only half-way through.

So I’m left hanging in a trap of my own construction. It’s something I remember well from my teenage years when I just couldn’t afford most of what I wanted. There’s nothing for it but to knuckle down and carry on, trying to ignore that awful itch of desire. That’s what being grown up is all about.

I understand all that. What I didn’t expect was to find that wanting could be so much fun.

It’s the same principle as the ascetic. In denial, one learns to find satisfaction in self control. Except that this is a thousand times better because I know that at the end there will be a sweet reward. There will be a time that I can cave in, get a new console, and enjoy my game.

And when I do, I’ll enjoy it all the more for having waited.

Finding this unexpected pleasure made me yearn for the days when it happened more often. Because make no mistake: this isn’t just about being a games writer. Fans and commentators alike have been decrying the lack of innovation in big-name titles of both video and tabletop games for years. That’s what’s at the root of the malaise lingering over the current console generaiton, at least until Bloodborne came along.

While there’s plenty of creativity amongst independent designers, arguably it takes a big game to engender a big sense of desire. It takes overwhelming production values and an enormous potential play time. It takes a certain level of marketing polish, too.

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Other media have already been through this. Blockbuster cinema was floundering a few years ago. That empty space summoned forth white knights to fill it, and alumni like Peter Jackson and Christopher Nolan answered the call. I’m not sure who their equivalents might be in the video gaming world, but I’m confident the increasing interplay between big studios and small developers is going to throw up some surprises.

Who, though, is going to break through the tabletop barrier? If my money was on anyone, it’d be Rob Daviau or Vlaada Chvatil. But we’ve heard nothing big from either of them for ages. I hope one of them, or someone else, delivers soon. I want to feel that sharp hope of hype about a cardboard game at least once more before I die.

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Matt Thrower

Matt is a board gamer who plays video games when he can't find anyone similarly obsessive to play against, which is frequently. The inability to get out and play after the birth of his first child lead him to start writing about games as a substitute for playing them. He founded FortressAT.com and writes there and at NoHighScores.com

4 thoughts to “Forgotten Pleasures”

  1. If you’re dedicated to holding off on Bloodborne, I recommend steering clear of the Game Informer site for a while. Dan Tack is the single most effective proponent of that game I’ve seen. I don’t mean that in a negative sense either — his enthusiasm for the game, combined with his steadfast refusal to discuss anything beyond the earliest levels for fear of spoiling the sense of discovery is really intriguing.

    But the only game in this lineage that I’ve played was Demon’s Souls, and I found that it was not for me. “Challenging” game play is something I can deal with, but obscuring basic progression information behind obtuse symbols and “teaching” me how to play by murdering my character and forcing me to replay 4-5 minutes of content to figure out what went wrong felt vindictive. I never felt rewarded for finally advancing further — just relieved I’d never need to do those same parts again.

    Maybe Bloodborne is different. Like you said, the character stats have been distilled into a smaller number of more comprehensible categories and the game seems less interested in denying players access to basic features like leveling up. I also *really* like the horror aesthetic it uses. This may be a good time to give this (spiritual) franchise another shot.

    One final thought: trudging through games in your backlog because you feel obligated to play them is a sure-fire way to have a bad time. I enjoyed Gears of War 2, Halo 4, and Red Dead Redemption *years* after they each released, but that was because I waited until I was in the mood for those sorts of games. If I wanted to play Bloodborne and all my friends were playing Bloodborne and everyone on the internet was having a great time discovering things about Bloodborne, forcing myself to play Driver: San Francisco because it happens to be in my queue would only ensure I was unfair to it.

    That is not intended to detract from the value of waiting for the things you want. The satisfaction of self-control is especially rewarding in gaming where any degree of patience offers better prices, stability, and content than early adopters receive. Battlefield: Hardline released less than TWO WEEKS AGO and is already 33%-off at Best Buy!

    I’m only suggesting people should not trudge their way through 10-hour+ games because they kind of think they should. We have the whole work week to spend on obligations. Owning an unplayed copy of Gears of War 2 is a solid reason not to buy Gears of War 3, but in my experience, wholly unrelated to your desire to play something in a completely different genre.

    1. I didn’t play Demon’s Souls, so this is more of a Dark Souls focused comment, but I think what draws people to this style is the sense that “progression” itself is pretty much a lie in most games. Like, ok, you gain some levels but the monsters have more hit points now so you’re playing the same way. Or you unlock a cutscene when, you know, there’s pretty good stuff to watch on TV these days. Or, like, you get some new weapons with new mechanics but I don’t know why I care about these mechanics.

      As for repetition, I’ve heard the analogy that repetition in Dark Souls is used much like it is in music, and I think that’s a pretty reasonable view. The best time you hear music is never the first time (not to mention that all genres use repetition internally) because your brain needs to develop a sense of the structure and what’s interesting about it.

      Taken with this view in mind, the important thing to understand about Dark Souls is that the much-ballyhooed difficulty is overstated. It’s more that the failure/repeat cycle is built into the game. That’s especially true given that you get to keep your souls as long as you can get back to where you were last time, so there is ultimately some allowance for poor play. But the game is exciting and fun, so some replay isn’t supposed to be a punishment. Of course if you don’t like it in the first place…

      1. Demon’s Souls wouldn’t be the first game that I played wrong. Thief and Dragon Age: Origins each left me with a poor first impression, but survived to become two of my all-time favorites once I adjusted my expectations and approached them on their own terms. I suspect the Souls games fall into the same category…I just haven’t put out the money to pick up the later, “more approachable” sequels to find out.

        I certainly *want* to like them, though. I’d love to feel the same satisfaction that Bill and Matt Thrower get from these games, the design of Bloodborne’s world make it a place I’d love to explore for myself. At this point, I’m mostly just waiting on a nice sale.

  2. Daviau gets my money. I just ordered the Pandemic Legacy Blue Box and am already salivating at the thought of getting a core group of four to play the shit out of this one going forward.

    Not to mention Seafall, which I’m just giddy about the prospects of. That one goes to my core Risk Legacy group, provided it’s five players. But a Legacy-based exploration game is nothing short of fabulous in concept.

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