I have broken controllers in my day. We have all had a moment like that; a boss who we had yet to conquer, a race we couldn’t finish first in, or a puzzle we just could not solve. Maybe it was a glitch in the game that made you lose all your progress, or perhaps it was simply because you were stuck. Maybe it was because you simply weren’t strong enough to face a boss up ahead, but you couldn’t go back to prepare any better so you just had to fight and hope that you won. These are not our best moments. But we must own them to know who we are not just as gamers, but as people.
I have long accepted that I have anger issues. They go deeper than just a quick temper for video games and I struggled in my personal life to acknowledge that. It’s hard for me to explain without getting more personal than I would feel comfortable with really. I would most readily describe my temper in the fashion of the old philosophers: I feel a build-up of bile, a fire inside me that I desperately wish to temper but yet burns even without me wanting it to. It’s a shameful aspect of myself, but one I have tried to council. Unfortunately, my video gaming consoles have felt the brunt of my rage at certain moments. One of my PS2 controllers (ironically the only one I own that still works properly) is currently being held together by duct tape and another from my Xbox 360 has a shattered backplate which prevents it from holding a battery pack. In one unfortunately instance, I accidentally knocked my PS2 (one of the original models, the fat ones I call the VCR build) off of its shelf and irrevocably scratched my original copy of Kingdom Hearts. My anger was troubling for me personally but I acknowledged that I needed to release it when it came up in gaming so it wouldn’t appear at other, even worse times. So I would chuck my controllers into a pile of pillows on my bed when the need arose.
I am not proud of these moments. They’re silly, petty, and nonsensical. I regret them almost immediately and they almost always end up costing me more money than I wanted to spend. So you can imagine my hesitance to deal with the Souls games. It would be madness for me to tangle with the most infamously difficult series in modern gaming, especially while they reside on consoles that would cost me hundreds of dollars to replace should they break. I’m lucky my original PS2 still works, but how would my PS4 and its much lighter controllers fare?
*Take care, ye readers. Spoilers for Bloodborne lie ahead*
I sold off my copies of Watch_Dogs and Destiny, both titles that had angered me in some way; Destiny for its horrible business practices and strange development in structure, and Watch_Dogs because it simply doesn’t work as well as it should. And with the credit I gained from that sale I purchased Bloodborne. I did this because I wanted to spend as little as I could on it, not because I didn’t think FromSoftware didn’t deserve my money but because I didn’t want to spend full price on a game I might end up hating. These are the horrible mathematics that gamers like me must take into account. Will I end up hating this game? Should I buy it on Day One, or should I wait? I could use this money for other things, why does this developer/publisher deserve it?
I had owned the original Dark Souls and found it so opaque, so ridiculously difficult and tedious for my temperament, that I simply couldn’t deal with it. I didn’t have the energy, the time, or the wherewithal to devote to it. I didn’t even sell that copy; I gave it to a friend for free because I couldn’t stand to look at it anymore. It cluttered my shelf, a shelf filled with games that I loved and wanted to play much more than it. I felt like I was disrespecting it by keeping it in my collection.
Since then I have held a respect for the community of Souls fans Hidetaka Miyazaki has fostered. I have always wanted to be one of those players. I have watched the Let’s Plays, the secrets guides, and the ever-intriguing lore videos with stunned fascination. The Souls games are an achievement of game design and writing and I truly wished I had been able to get in on the ground floor of such a community. But I contented myself with my story-driven games, my platforming indies with impeccable writing, my artful games about a flower petal on the wind or a lone traveler in a vast desert.
And then, in the middle of Sony’s 2014 E3 presser, a trailer for a gothic-horror centric version of Dark Souls entranced the crowd. Every part of my literary and video gaming mind was intrigued. I am a huge fan of gothic horror and Lovecraftian fiction, and coupled with the depth of thought out design and lore that gets put into the Souls games it made Bloodborne seem absolutely perfect for me. But there was still that barrier I had yet to get over, the difficulty.
As I discussed in my previous article, the online community and the critical reception of the game eventually persuaded me toward just taking the plunge. Armed with my knowledge of at least the first few levels of the game, some of the secrets within, and with the support of my friends, I created my Hunter and entered the forsaken city of Yharnam.
Breaking a Personal Trend in Character Creation
Whenever I fire up an RPG in modern gaming, I most often default to a build that is familiar to me. Unfortunately that build is horrendously bland: a male human warrior or rogue. I avoid magic users, and that included Biotics in the Mass Effect franchise. Even further, I never changed how the default Commander Shepherd looked in any way. In both of my Elder Scrolls games I played first a human Imperial (in Oblivion) and then a human Nord (in Skyrim). I gave them backstories I enjoyed—my Nord was a skooma dealer shipping product across the eastern border into Morrowind before he was arrested at the start of the game—but for the most part I stuck with what I knew. Whenever I started a second playthrough I made sure to play as either a Khajiit or an Argonian, but that doesn’t change the fact that I felt safe playing the game for the first time as my male human warrior. This is another one of the strange niggling things about my playstyle that I felt like I should change in some way but I almost never do because it just feels right to me.
But Bloodborne, and all Souls games for that matter, view Character Creation in a much more cosmetic sense than other games. In every game you are going to be a Hunter plunging into Yharnam’s dingy streets. You can select stats in the initial screens, but you don’t have much idea at first as to what those stats are going to mean to you going forward. So when I opened up Bloodborne’s Character Creation I immediately began making my male, strength-centric, Hunter. I even made his name, Lukas Fehrwight, a reference to a fantasy book I like called The Lies of Locke Lamora.
Except about halfway through I began to change my mind. My character didn’t look right to me and I began to second guess some of my decisions. Lukas didn’t look the way I felt he should if he was to be an avatar of me as the player. Video games have the power to grant the opportunity to manifest a power fantasy for the player, but that wasn’t what Bloodborne did for me.
Instead I ended up switching the gender. I made my hunter a female with high vitality and endurance. I gave her deep blood red eyes—meant to suggest the “sickness” all our Hunters have that drives them to seek the Paleblood—and covered them with brightly orange tinted glasses reminiscent of Alucard’s from Hellsing. I gave her a thin build and a violent past. Thus was born Luka Fehrwight.
I’m not saying that Bloodborne made playing a woman seem more alluring or anything or that this was a feminist moment in gaming history. I’m not qualified to judge that. I will say that I felt better creating a female character in Bloodborne for whatever reason and I enjoyed how natural this felt. I wasn’t creating a female because I thought I needed to or because I felt like I owed it to anyone, it just somehow felt more natural to do so than it has in any other game I have ever played. I’d love to know if anyone else felt this way or if this was just me, but it felt significant enough to mention.
In the end though, as I said, Character Creation is very much a cosmetic thing in a Souls game. So let us move onto the actual game.
The Mercy of Father Gascoigne
Father Gascoigne is by far the hardest boss I have ever faced in video gaming. He is not the one I spent the most time hung up on (that strange honor goes to Evrae from Final Fantasy X for whatever reason), nor was he the one I got the angriest at, he was simply the hardest. But I knew that going in. I spent two days of preparation gathering Blood Echoes and discovering the secrets of Central Yharnam before walking into the Tomb of Oeden and confronting Father Gascoigne. I had even come prepared with the music box given to me by Gascoigne’s daughter. I knew it wouldn’t be a huge advantage, but it made me feel better. So I entered Gascoigne’s domain…
..and died. I died a lot. I died about a dozen times.
But you know what? I didn’t get angry. That was the weird part. Back when I was playing Kingdom Hearts as a kid, when I was fighting Ansem/Riku at Hollow Bastion, I was livid. Every time I died I got a little angrier. It got to the point where I was screaming at my television, convinced that the game had been cheating me. But Bloodborne was different. I had heard gaming critics and personalities that I liked and respected single out Father Gascoigne as one of the hardest bosses they fought. I didn’t go into the fight blind, and I had no illusions.
Perhaps that is the magic that the Souls games are able to conjure that other games cannot these days. Other games today seem to engender a community where players are told they must “get good” to enjoy it. Low-level players are chastised in multiplayer as noobs or scrubs. There is a divide between the elite and the beginner. Souls players have a different problem: they fear for their lives. They are bound together by a fear of the unknown. Players leave scrawled notes for each other warning and encouraging them. At the elevator shortcut just before Father Gascoigne’s arena, I found notes from players urging me to “remember courage” and “don’t give up!” These were the messages of tormented player like me who had conquered Gascoigne. Just outside his arena, another player had scrawled the message “please, carry on in my stead.” I was a little saddened by this. Did this player give up? Did he give into the part of his heart that would urge him to get rid of the game? I have heard stories of people so angry at a Souls game that they microwaved their copy out of spite. Had this player reached his point of breakage?
I remember that point for me in the first Dark Souls. It was fairly early on unfortunately. Just past the Firelink Shrine at the beginning of Lordran there is a cemetery just past a waterlogged temple. That cemetery is covered in extremely powerful skeleton creatures. Mind you, I hadn’t yet even made it to the Undead Burg. Because of the way the level was oriented, I had thought that I had to cut through the skeletons. I had heard the game was hard so I thought that cemetery was normal, that I just had to get through them enough times to level up to the point where they weren’t such a challenge anymore. I had no idea that this was an intentionally difficult area that was hiding some weapons with higher stats than the starting equipment. I had no idea that all I had to do was just go a different route from the Firelink Shrine to get to the Undead Burg where the enemies were more on my level. I quit the game after dying for the twentieth time, and then I offloaded the game on a friend a year or two after.
Oh don’t look at me like that, Souls veterans, I know I was stupid.
Gascoigne was different. I had been warned, I had been cautioned, and I was prepared to face that. Even though I was losing, I knew it was my fault every time. Every misstep, every shorted dodge, and every missed blunderbuss shot; they were all my fault. I wasn’t too weak to beat Gascoigne, I wasn’t misinformed or misunderstanding the fight. I simply kept screwing up. I kept getting caught on the tombstones and misjudging the moments where I should stagger Gascoigne instead of lunge at him. And because of all of this…I was laughing. I wasn’t angry or seething or spiteful, I was laughing my ass off.
I finally slew Father Gascoigne at 2 in the morning. It was my third attempt on the third day of fighting him and it was late. I was mostly fighting him because I just wanted to attempt it once more; third times the charm, y’know? I hit him with a barrage of attacks in the first part of the fight, balancing his melee attacks on me with my own and gaining my health back the whole time. Then he switched to his long-axe and I dodged and weaved around the tombstones while landing visceral attacks when I had him stunned. When he finally reached his beast form, I readied to hit the music box. So many times before I had miscalculated when to use the box, but this time I was lucky. I hit square, played the music box, and watched as Gascoigne was stunned. I sidled up behind him and hit him with a heavy attack.
He fell. I had done it. I had killed Father Gascoigne. I was stunned. For a moment I thought I was the one who had died. But no; the words Prey Slaughtered appeared on the screen and I let out a triumphant “YEEEEEEAH!!”
One down, many more to go.
A Temporary Conclusion
I’m nowhere near finished Bloodborne. In fact I’m still in the first half by my calculations. I have felled the Cleric Beast, Father Gascoigne, and the Blood-Starved Beast and stand ready to face Vicar Amelia. But it says something about Bloodborne that there has already been enough that has happened that amazes me about the game to warrant this many words. On the whole Bloodborne has felt far more accessible to than Dark Souls, even while critics I respect remark that Bloodborne is actually harder than Dark Souls. In his glowing review game critic Jim Sterling notes that:
“Bloodborne is an altogether vicious experience. Yes, you can swing a blade and swipe at three or four fiends at once – that doesn’t change the fact there are four psychopathic mutants going apeshit at you. Your average Souls encounter has always hit hard, but these ones hit hard and hit often, with Hunters easily becoming overwhelmed should they not take care.”
Even though I have been known to break a controller or two in my day out of anger, in all my time traversing the streets of Yharnam I have yet to burn with anger or boil with bile. My PS4 is safe, as are my controllers. I have not once gotten angry at the game. My failures and deaths are my own. And these are the experiences I wanted to share, the boss battles I wanted to talk about. And while, yes, on most days I would more than likely be found relaxing and playing thatgamecompany’s Flower (which is pretty much the perfect antithesis of Dark Souls if there ever was one) This is the video game I needed. So for now, I shall continue to plunge through the streets of the charred and destroyed Old Yharnam and discover the secrets of the city.
And I hope to see you there, be you specter or shade.
Images gathered through Google Image search.