Published May 21, 2015I'm dead. Again. Actually, make that many frustrating agains. Even the beginning of Bloodborne, the latest exercise in interactive sadomasochism by From Software's king of pain Hidetaka Miyazaki, pulls zero punches and gives exactly zero fucks.
Bloodborne drops you into a gothic nightmare world where a massive lupine Nether Beast blocks your first exit. So you try and fight it, because that's what you do in games, and you get slaughtered. Eventually, you will stop doing the same thing expecting a different result, but it may take a while to refrain from acting insane, because videogames almost never begin with this hard a challenge.
You will wind up in a dream-like world and find some weapons, but you may still die. So you recalibrate your strategy, bolting past the monster to find some space in the courtyard outside where you have more room and finally slay the rat bastard. It will feel good. That will be fleeting.
Over countless controller-throwing hours, you will progress by what feels like inches though the macabre metropolis of Yharnam, a city of the damned where you will rue the day you discovered the disgusting likes of Mergo's Wet Nurse, Rom the Vacuous Spider and the holy-hell-is-this-really-only-the-second-boss, Father Gascoigne. In other words, this isn't your father's videogame — or maybe it is.
The Wii was griefed by hardcore gamers for bringing in casual fans who had stayed away because the mechanics of modern videogames had grown too complex for them. But games had actually been easing up for years. Old-school gaming may have been simplistic as far as world-building, storytelling and level design, but goddamn they were difficult.
This was built into arcade cabinets as a moneymaking tool — the harder the game, the more quarters it swallowed. And they never had to have an end — just keep increasing the difficulty. That challenge-oriented game design continued into the console era. The third Super Mario was an absolute beast when it came to later levels, especially for its young target demo, and the reason the 99 lives Contra code is so famous is because it's tough to beat without the up-up-down-down-etc. assist.
But as games became more about exploration and narrative, the challenge was dramatically reduced. What was the point if only a small niche of players got to experience the whole thing? So design incorporated handholding like onscreen maps, arrow prompts, difficulty settings and more saves.
Then along came Hidetaka Miyazaki. His first infamous effort was Demon's Souls, a 2009 RPG named game of the year by GameSpot and PC World despite an out-of-nowhere difficulty that kept it from crossing over to the mainstream. That would happen with the game's 2013 spiritual sequel, Dark Souls, and its not-by-Miyazaki actual sequel, which sold over four million copies combined. Both were critically acclaimed, with the former declared by Edge magazine to be the last-gen's greatest game.
Bloodborne is currently the top-rated now-gen game (ironically tied with its polar opposite, Super Mario 3D World) and was dubbed the PS4's killer app. But here's the thing: it's no fun. When I read Facebook threads about it, from gamers who clearly love it, their descriptions of the experience involve torture, screaming, suffering and pain.
It's not the intense combat, though constant failure can crush your soul, or the lack of map or any explanation of where to go or what to do or why. It's the too-rare save points that force you to repeat the same areas over and over until you finally break through.
There are plenty of films and books that are excruciating and/or horrifying to get through, but created with such incredible depth and skill that they're worth it. Bloodborne is such a game. It's a genuine masterpiece by a visionary director boasting a darkness that knows no bounds. Miyazaki's disturbing aesthetics imbue every nook, cranny, NPC, side quest and design decision.
But the hardcore set that claims Bloodborne, and its predecessors, as gaming's purest experiences have been known to slag art and adventure games for the crime of being too easy. So if there's a larger lesson to draw here, it's that we should all be broadening our horizons beyond reductive terms like fun or challenging to appreciate that gaming has finally become a medium that defies definition.