Friday, March 3, 2017

The First Time I Played Bloodborne: A Memoir

So, a couple of weeks ago I finally got around to playing Bloodborne. (If you have no idea what that is, it's a dark and fairly gruesome video game. Check out Wikipedia or watch the trailer.) I was interested in it mainly because I'd been told that it had a lot of Lovecraftian themes, and fighting horrible monsters with bladed weapons in a cursed or haunted city sounds like exactly my sort of game. My knowledge of the game, however, was limited to one or two casual conversations; I had not, for example, watched youtube videos of the gameplay, or looked at any walkthroughs, or really even read much in the way of reviews.

So I bought the game, installed it, and fired it up.

This was... educational.

The game begins -- and I don't think I'm really giving anything way here -- with a cutscene that lays out the basic plot dynamic. You've come the city of Yarnam looking for something called "Paleblood" and you're going to have to become a hunter to do it. Tonight is the night of the hunt, which will give you your chance. In order to do all this, you'll need a transfusion of Yarnam blood, and in order to get that you'll need a contract. The contract is actually the character creation process, which allows you to customize your character's looks and select one of maybe eight or ten backgrounds that determine your starting abilities. I selected the one that said I had a tragic past but was tougher because of it, because I wanted a character who would be hard to kill. This will become funny in just a moment.

So, having generated the character, I signed the contract and watched the admirably-spooky cutscene.

After the cutscene, my character woke up in the now-empty clinic. I looked around a little bit, then headed downstairs and promptly encountered the Giant Wolfy Monster in the lower room. There were some little bubbling spots in the floor that looked like puddles or maybe pools of water, but I circled around those; they didn't look safe. After considering my situation -- i.e. unarmed, fresh from a medical procedure, and having discovered no other ways out of the building -- I decided to try to sneak around the Giant Wolfy Monster and out the door on the far side.

This went exactly as well as you might expect: I died immediately, and horribly.

At this point I found myself in a new setting: The Hunter's Dream. The little bubbly-water areas were on the ground here, too, but this time they had creepy little homonculi half-emerging from them, and holding out weapons. That looked a lot more encouraging, so I went over and tried talking to them. This was the point at which I discovered that these are Messengers, that they were offering me weapons and weren't going to try to kill me, and that by avoiding all the puddles in the original room I'd conveniently avoided all the little messages that would have told me which buttons on the controller allowed my character to do what. I made my selection of weapons, then wandered around talking to the messengers and getting basic instructions, and looking at the other things in the area. Much of it couldn't be activated yet, but I was expecting that; I'd just started the game, after all.

So I found the little headstone that let me return to the waking world, and came out back in the clinic -- downstairs, of course. With the Giant Wolfy Monster, of course. This time I took a moment to consult the messengers here, and learned how to do things like run, attack, dodge... you know, just the minor little extras. Nothing that important.

Now that I was ready, I tried a few practice swings and discovered that I still didn't have any weapons. This, despite having selected an axe and a pistol back in the dream. Well, maybe I needed to get a little further along in the game before I could use them. Maybe having selected them in the dream, they'd show up later here in the waking world. I could work with that. All I had to do was get past the Giant Wolfy Monster. And while I didn't have weapons, I did at least now know how to make an attack. I tried it a couple of times, and sure enough my character would smack things.

So I walked into the next room and attacked the Giant Wolfy Monster bare-handed.

This also went exactly as well as you might expect: I died immediately and horribly.

I tried again. I died. I tried again. I died. I tried again. I died. I tried again. I died. I dodged past the monster and out the far doorway, then raced up the steps and threw open that door. The monster caught up with me and I died. I tried fighting the monster again and died. I tried dodging past the monster and out the door into the small courtyard, and had to stop and open the gate out of the courtyard. I died again. I dodged around the monster again, made it all the way out of the courtyard and out onto the streets of Yarnam. I'd escaped! I took a moment to look around, found some corpses on the ground and searched them for useful items. Then the Giant Wolfy Monster jumped out of the gate and killed me again.

Well, all right: there was a guy around the corner, patrolling the street with an axe and a torch. Maybe he would help me with the Giant Wolfy Monster? I dodged around the monster, raced out of the building and through the courtyard, ran up to the guy, and waited to see if he'd help me.

Nope. Killed me with his axe.

I tried again, but this time I just ran up and attacked him. He looked mostly human, with his coat and top hat. Surely he'd be easier to kill than the Giant Wolfy Monster. Maybe I could take him bare-handed?

Nope. Killed me with his torch.

After dodging past him three more times, I figured out how to lower a ladder and escaped up to a ledge. I was safe! Finally! Maybe I was close to the area where I'd finally get my weapons, and hopefully some sort of tutorial to introduce me to how combat in this game worked? (Remember how I carefully chose a character whose background would make him hard to kill? I sure did.)

I moved a little further along, and crossed a bridge.

A guy burst out from behind a stack of crates, swinging a scythe at me. I took one look at him and jumped off the nearest ledge. I landed with only minor injuries, and started to explore the tiny little raised yard where I found myself now. There was, of course, no way back from here. There was also (of course) a fire lit in the middle of the yard, where a crucified monster was being burned at the stake. Presumably that was what the townsfolk did on the night of the hunt. And there was a guy standing by the stake. Maybe if I approached him, he'd help me out?

Nope. Attacked me with a cleaver.

This time, however, it went a bit differently: he lunged forward and got too close to the monster-burning pyre. Y'all, my very first kill in the game happened because one of the townsfolk set himself on fire and died.

...And didn't I feel silly two hours later, when I finally figured out how to equip the weapons I'd received in the first five or ten minutes of gameplay? Ohhhhh, yes. Yes I did. And then I went straight back and killed the hell out of that Giant Wolfy Monster, and the guy with the axe, and the guy with the scythe, and the guy with the cleaver.

Annnnnnnd then I stepped out into the street, where a whole group of townsfolk immediately turned on me and I died. But at least this time I was able to go back and eventually kill them too.

Now, I realize that that isn't really how the game is intended to be played. For one thing, I'm playing it offline. (I play video games so I don't have to interact with other people.) Apparently if you play it online, other players in other games can leave little notes at various spots in the landscape, often with helpful tips and warnings. For another, I imagine most people who start Bloodborne have already played the Dark Souls games and are at least passingly familiar with the interface. I was not, which was how my character ended up carrying perfectly serviceable weapons but not actually using them. But even taking all that into account, I do think the game could have maybe offered just a little more instruction, particularly in regards to the inventory system (which I finally discovered by accident).

On the other hand, trying to escape the clinic and explore Central Yarnam with no weapons whatsoever made for one the most harrowing experiences I've ever gotten out of a video game.

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