You Shall Not Pass: Bloodborne, Dark Souls 2, and Cutting Open the Gameplay Loop

From the lamp, I run straight down the stairs on the left, past a crazed huntsman. He notices me but doesn’t have time to attack. He’ll follow me, so I just keep sprinting. I veer left again down another set of stairs. There I find two monstrous creatures with a hammers where their hands should be. I roll around them, only briefly slowing down if my stamina is drained. Past them I find an elevator which takes me to a bridge full of more bloodthirsty huntsmen. If I just start crossing the bridge and retreat, a giant fireball–a trap meant to wreck me–will clear most of them from my path. Once the fireball has passed, I juke around any enemies who survived the blast of flames. At the end of the bridge stands another hammer monster. I wait to see where he’s going to attack and I roll around him in the other direction. There’s a huntsman with a shield behind me after I dodge so I still can’t slow down to take in the scenery. Instead, I head for the branch to the left, up another set of stairs, and find my destination: a door made of fog.

Over a year later, I still remember the path to Father Gascoigne in Bloodborne. Every turn, dodge, and trap is etched into my mind from the dozen or so times I ran the obstacle course the first time I played the game. Gascoigne is the first major challenge of Bloodborne. He’s a highly mobile boss who transforms midway through the battle into a furiously aggressive monster. For a beginner, he serves as a bottleneck, forcing players to learn how to parry with your offhand weapon, a mechanic that becomes increasingly important as the game goes on. Mastering that mechanic makes Gascoigne relatively simple (and there’s a hidden item that can assist as well) but for a lot of people, including me, he’s the first major roadblock in Bloodborne.

The difficulty of Gascoigne makes the run above all the more important. Learning to beat Gascoigne means studying his attack patterns and practicing how to counter them. And, like many Bloodborne bosses, fighting him often feels like beating your head against a wall until it finally breaks. Anything that gets in the way of trying the boss again is a frustration, so it is a relief to run to the fight without being forced to deal with enemies along the way.

These “runs” are almost universal for bosses in Bloodborne. The world is littered with shortcuts. There is always a path between the lamp and the boss door allowing you to dodge around the enemies that populate the world and arrive unscathed. It isn’t always easy–sometimes very timely rolls are required to get around large monsters in narrow hallways–but a way is there. And I honestly thought this was a critical aspect of the game design. Bloodborne is all about figuring out difficult areas and boss encounters are the hardest of them all. Setting up a way for players to reach those bosses quickly (and with full health) made retries quick so even failure could feel like progress.

It’s a similar philosophy that makes other games notorious for being hard–Super Meat Boy and Trials HD–work. These games take it to an extreme. Retries are instant. Levels are incredibly short and there is literally zero down time between death and another attempt to conquer the level that just killed you. The process certainly isn’t instant in Bloodborne. Load times ensure that. But once you start to think of the run to the boss as a quick ~2o second part of the encounter (since it sometimes takes skill on its own) then it starts to have a similar feel.

Bloodborne is not technically a Dark Souls game, but it might as well be. The developer is the same, many of the mechanics are the same, and the focus on brutal difficulty is definitely the same. Before Bloodborne, I attempted to delve into the series with the first Dark Souls. I liked it for many of the same reasons I loved Bloodborne up until I hit Blighttown. The frame rate issues there, plus the mechanics of the area (poison arrows that require dodging) made it frustratingly unplayable.

After tearing through Bloodborne (twice, because I wanted to try a different main weapon), I figured that my problem with the series was almost exclusive to the technical issues that plagued the first Dark Souls on consoles. I hoped that PS4 version of Dark Souls 2 would mitigate those issues and picked it up for some more terrifying, occasionally frustrating hack-and-slash action. Then a couple weeks later The Phantom Pain came out and I lost track of DS2, only to pick it up recently.

This time around, I played Dark Souls 2 like it was Bloodborne. I didn’t use a shield, instead devoting my left hand to a parrying dagger and occasionally magic. I pumped stat points into Adaptability and wore light armor to increase the effectiveness of my dodge roll. For a good long while, it was amazing. Not having to worry about diminishing health vials made DS2 less stressful than Bloodborne and it had all the great exploration and over-the-top boss battles I missed.

Then I hit the Iron Keep and something strange happened–something I’d yet to encounter in all my time with these games.

DS2one

If you can’t tell, this is the first boss door you reach in the Iron Keep. And there is an archer directly in front of it. Since there is a brief unskippable animation before you can enter a boss door, this enemy can stun you out of using it. Which means to fight the boss, this enemy has to die first.

This isn’t entirely out of character for my experiences with the series. Occasionally there is one enemy that you simply can’t roll past or reliably run away from. However, not pictured are three swordsmen and another archer that will happily run up behind you while you fight this enemy. Or the dozen or so swordsmen between the bonfire and this point that will chase you here if you sprint all the way here.

Because this enemy directly blocks the fog door, it must die. And because you have to stop to kill it, so must everything else you aggro’d on the way to the fog door. All in all, it’s about 20 or so enemies.

If you haven’t played the Souls games before, know that almost every enemy can kill you if you’re not careful. This is a highlight of the series and not a complaint I’m airing here. You always have to be on your toes. Every fight is important. But some fights–boss fights–are considerably more important and more difficult than others. I can carefully draw out each of the swordsmen or archers that I have to kill to access this fog door but it will either take ~5 minutes or I’ll make a few mistakes and have to use a few of my (limited) healing potions. Either way, to knock out the archers safely I’ll also have to blow a few (also limited) offensive spells. So either I’m spending a long time between each attempt at the boss fighting enemies I’ve already learned to kill. Or I’m starting the boss fight already compromised.

For those that don’t know, going back to refresh my spells and healing potions also revives the enemies. If you kill them enough times (20 or so) then they disappear forever but this is an incredibly tedious process.

Now, this is an optional boss. So I skipped it, thinking this was an extra challenge. But then I got to the next boss door.

DS2two

Same situation. That’s a guy with a hammer and shield right there to interrupt (and probably kill) me if I try to sprint to the door and start the boss. And fighting him means fighting every enemy in the room (and every enemy along the way from the bonfire) before every attempt. It’s worth noting that both of these boss doors are on narrow platforms, making various dodging tactics nearly impossible.

This appears to be the new normal for Dark Souls 2.

I’m not putting all this out there to whine about being bad at Dark Souls. I know the response. Git gud. Dark Souls is supposed to be hard. Dark Souls is supposed to be frustrating. That’s what makes Dark Souls so rewarding. I totally get that. I want these games to be hard. My issue here is with the framing of the challenge and how it’s a departure from what I understood the design of the series to be.

There are two parts of Dark Souls I enjoy. The first is exploring a new area. This is tense and often terrifying. You don’t know what is around the corner. Anything can kill you, even a chest. You venture further and further out from your bonfire to find (a) another bonfire, solidifying your progress, (b) a shortcut back to your original bonfire, also solidifying your progress, or (c) the next boss, showing you where you need to go to advance the game and reach yet another new, terrifying environment. During this exploration phase, I move slowly and methodically, killing everything that moves and mapping out the area.

Once I find a boss, the game switches. It becomes all about killing that bastard to progress. At this point, I’ve explored the level all I can. I’ve grabbed all the items, opened all the shortcuts, and the next thing to do is murder a giant grotesque creature with an intimidating health bar so I can reach a new area to explore. I’m done with fighting mooks who die in two hits and archers I have to juke to explore safely. Now I want the “run.” I want a way to fight that boss over and over again until I learn its tells and put it in the ground.

Alternating between the “explore” and “boss” phase of a Souls game is an incredibly satisfying loop. Depending on how much I want to map out an area and the difficulty of a particular boss, I usually spend about the same amount of time in each phase. And up until this point, 17 or so hours into the game, I’ve been able to do that. Dark Souls 2, like Bloodborne, was built to accommodate that play style. Or so I thought until I reached the Iron Keep.

So I’ve stopped playing Dark Souls 2. I don’t want to stop. I want to explore more. I want to fight all the bosses, no matter how many times those bosses will murder me along the way. There’s just one problem: now when they kill me–and they will kill me–I will no longer have that voice in the back of my head that says “just try one more time, you were so close” (the voice always says I was close even if the boss still had 3/4 of its health bar). Because I can’t. I can’t just try one more time because there’s a bunch of archers between me and the retry button.

Maybe I do need to get good. Maybe the real Dark Souls starts when you can no longer safely run to a boss to try it again and again in quick repetition. Maybe I was doing it wrong all along and gaming the dodge roll/sprint in an unintended way (I doubt this based on how Bloodborne was designed).

No matter what, there is a lesson in here about how the smallest decision–in this case, enemy placement–can drastically change how a game can be experienced. Simply putting a (relatively weak, all things considered) enemy within hitting range of the fog door turned Dark Souls 2 from a game I loved to a game I no longer feel the desire to play. It excised the core gameplay loop that kept me coming back. And that’s fucking weird, when you think about it.

In some ways, I almost wish the game would have started forcing fights in front of boss doors earlier. Would I have just given up earlier? Perhaps. But perhaps I would have accepted the cadence of the game as different. I would not have developed the explore/boss cycle I detailed above, realizing that a trip to fight the boss included a bunch of little fights along the way. I like plenty of games that don’t checkpoint you right before bosses, so it might just be a matter of skewed expectations.

A well designed game teaches players how to play it. Even something like Dark Souls–which hides its rules behind obscure terms, obtuse stats, and occasionally awful translation–develops a rapport with its users, rewarding them for certain behaviors and punishing them for others. Changing that dialog is a dangerous risk for a developer because it creates players like me who simply give up when the rules change. I’m sure plenty of people appreciated the extra challenge. But that’s not always going to be the case. In fact, pulling the rug out from users probably only works in a game that leans into its own lack of fairness like Dark Souls. This is a game that liberally scatters the world with mimics, enemies that look like treasure chests until you open them (and then they try to eat you). So what did I expect?

Maybe the frame rate in Blighttown was a design decision, too. Explains how the console release of Dark Souls got such great reviews when parts were a technical disaster.

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