Saturday, April 11, 2015

\\ Eulogy of the First Flame: Bloodborne //

This article contains spoilers of gameplay scenarios and locations in Bloodborne, developed by From Software and published by SCE Japan Studio, and Dark Souls, developed by From Software and published by Namco Bandai Games. Bloodborne is exclusively for PlayStation 4, and Dark Souls was played on PlayStation 3.

From Software’s Bloodborne is in many ways an excellent game. When I wrote about their last releaseDark Souls II, I worried that game indicated a future fraught with stagnation and tedium for the Souls franchise. While I still fear that Bandai-Namco will attempt to bring this once-thought dangerous and intimidating series down with aspirations of near-annualization and profitability (perhaps the immediate re-release of the game in Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin confirms my suspicions), I still believe that Souls in the hands of Hidetaka Miyazaki (who saved Demon’s Souls from development hell and shaped it with his obtuse yet forward-thinking vision, and would go on to direct Dark Souls and Bloodborne) has the potential to be a consistently interesting prospect for years to come. Still, I don’t think Bloodborne is a perfect game, and I’m not confident that I would name it the best Souls title. Here, though, I will only be focusing on one aspect of the game, the lamps.

Much of the promotional artwork for Dark Souls (and a good deal of fan artwork for the game) revolved around the prevalence of the bonfire, and I think there’s good reason for that. In Demon’s Souls, the archstone which appeared at the beginning of each level and whenever you would defeat a boss served as a means of teleporting the player back to the game’s hub world, the Nexus. Bloodborne features a similar idea in the lamp, which are sprawled throughout the game world, though it made more sense in Demon’s Souls, since that game featured five separate worlds as opposed to one world which could theoretically be explored entirely on-foot without the need to warp, with one exception in the game’s Cainhurst Castle location.

While Demon’s Souls technically did not need a hub world either, as Dark Souls would later prove, I don’t really dock it for that, as it was the first Souls game and established the now well-torn formula, which I believe is worth considering when thinking critically about that game. With Dark Souls, however, From Software had much grander plans in mind for the Souls franchise. Miyazaki and his team managed to craft a (mostly) labyrinthine, sprawling and interconnected Metroid-esque world which often would loop back upon itself. Aside from Anor Londo and from there the Painted World of Ariamis, the entire game could be reached on-foot, just as Bloodborne would again do years later.

Honorable fire.
Honorable fire. (Image credits: Dark Souls Wiki)

Yet the game featured no hub world as Demon’s Souls did, instead opting for the game’s various checkpoints, the bonfires, to serve as sort of an all-purpose area of respite. From your bonfire, one could rest in order to restore their health, Estus flasks, and magic usage. They can level up, fortify and repair their weaponry, and withdraw and deposit items. The player can offer one humanity to restore their human form, so as to enable the summoning of other players (and to open up the way for invaders to ruin their play experience), and as a human they can offer another humanity to kindle a bonfire, so as to allow for more Estus flasks afforded from that particular bonfire. Better yet, the existence of these functions available within the game world itself speeds up the act of actually playing the game, as players no longer need to be sent back to a hub location in order to perform menial tasks often necessary to help push the player forward in their overall progress.

In their practicality, the bonfire becomes the essence of Dark Souls’ world, that of Lordran. In a game rife with struggle, we endeavor for victory as if combing haystacks for needles. From Software purposefully designed here lands which push back upon our digital avatars, virtual remnants of the player’s humanity which chip further and further away as we peer upon the infamous “YOU DIED” message, still blunt and indifferent as ever. We are punished for making mistakes, for lacking the qualities of patience and caution which the modern sprawl has bashed away from our consciousness. In this way, Dark Souls offers to us reminders of our own mortality.

And yet, we are human, and thusly require space to breathe, to disengage, and to rebuild. As our homes do for us in the land of the living, so too does the bonfire offer to Lordran’s undead. They are vital, a reprieve, yet only temporary, and directly embedded within the horrors forever surrounding us. We step away from our shelters, and immediately re-experience the turmoils of everyday life. Take only a few steps away from the bonfire in the Undead Burg to find Undead Soldiers intent on murdering you and stealing your hard-earned souls.

Still, for much of the game, the bonfire gives only just what  the player needs to survive, no more, no less. You are not afforded the ability to teleport between bonfires until given the Lordvessel following the intensely difficult defeat of Ornstein and Smough at Anor Londo. This is a right to be earned, not given. Up until that point, the player must simply live with the direction they walk in. It helps to internalize the world in the player’s head, forcing them to learn shortcuts and optimal paths from one location to the next (hence the interconnected nature of the overall world design, something which both Dark Souls II and Bloodborne after it are missing, as opposed to Dark Souls, the locations in which have many entrances and exits). The sense of permanence to your actions through all of the Souls games is strong (the games save your progress all the time), but nowhere is this truer than in the first two-thirds of Dark Souls. By the time you are given the Lordvessel, you’ve already deeply understood the valleys, swamps, castles, and dungeons of Lordran, and have only four linear pathways resembling dungeons left to explore to gain access to the final area of the game (The Catacombs into the Tomb of the Giants, the Duke’s Fortress into the Crystal Cave, the Demon Ruins into Lost Izalith, and Firelink Shrine (or the Valley of Drakes) into New Londo Ruins), making teleportation at that point a necessity.

Gorgeous, but simple.
Gorgeous, but simple. (Image credits: Nerdist)

In Bloodborne, upon death, the player is sent back to a lamp. As stated previously, the lamp serves only one purpose aside from being a checkpoint, to warp the player back to the Hunter’s Dream. There, they can partake in the same luxuries afforded to us by the bonfire in Dark Souls (leveling up, fortifying and repairing weapons, storing items, etc.), as well as purchase items from the messengers, access the chalice dungeons, and warp to other locations in the game. The bonfire not only streamlined this process, saving us from load times (which, as has been noted to death by critics, are rather egregious in Bloodborne) and general tedium, but also felt truer to its world. I can think of no harsher a fate for a hunter than to become a victim yourself. The world of Yharnam itself is sprawling and oppressive in a way that is fantastically-realized, but being able to return to the Hunter’s Dream erases the sense of foreboding danger which Miyazaki and his team were going for. No lore justification could ever replace such wasted potential. If I need to go from the Cathedral Ward to the Unseen Village, I can safely teleport there within a couple minutes; there’s no danger, no struggle, no reward, no point.

Bloodborne is very much worth playing for a ton of reasons, but it would be redundant to repeat much of what others have said about it. Indeed, the game is expertly crafted, and one worthy of your time. Still, like the flames of Lordran, a fire in my heart still burns for the sense of danger permeating Dark Souls, but for now, I’ll deal with the cold.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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