When I was a kid, going to the zoo felt like a big exciting adventure with unlimited things to explore and see. Then one summer when I was a little older, I realized all those exciting adventures were actually pre-planned trails, and I was certainly never going to get the opportunity to befriend the wolves and fight crime as the Wolf Pack.
I recently had such a revelation about something truly important: video games. This Earth-shattering moment of clarity came about over the past month, as I finally started Bloodborne. Yeah, I know, I’m a year late to the party. But playing Bloodborne has forced me to realize something about modern mainstream gaming: nowadays, players are explicitly told what to do every step of the way.
Let’s back up just a bit. I had long been intrigued by From Software’s Dark Souls games, but also scared shitless to try them. The reputation surrounding them was one of intense difficulty, an unrelenting frustration that demands 100% of you to even get started. From Software’s games were for “real” gamers, and part of me was afraid to find out I was not among those ranks.
Bloodborne seemed like a good way to jump in. There wasn’t a huge mythology from previous games to worry about, and the Victorian horror setting had a much greater appeal to me than the Dark Souls medieval world. So I took the plunge, ready and expecting to fail as hard as Gods of Egypt.
But I didn’t fail. Well, I did. Repeatedly at first. But the thing about Bloodborne‘s difficulty isn’t that it’s impossible. “Tough but fair” is an apt description for the game’s approach. It isn’t hard and frustrating because the developers are constantly pulling the rug out from you, or engineering impossible situations that rely more on luck than skill. The steep learning curve is simply the result of the game never holding your hand and spelling out for you how it operates. It has rules that it sticks to; it just wants you to learn them on your own.
There is no tutorial. There are very few on-screen instructions advising you how to perform actions. There is no real introduction to the world itself. Bloodborne simply throws you right into the thick of it, wishes you luck, then sits back with a tub of popcorn to enjoy the show. Because you will die. A lot. The first couple hours of gameplay found me repeating the same section over and over, slowly getting a little further each time as what the game wanted me to do slowly became more apparent. For a lot of you this sounds incredibly frustrating, and it is. But it also becomes rewarding like no other experience when you do figure things out. When I finally defeated the first boss in Bloodborne, it was like a fucking rapture. I had done what seemed impossible, and had become a god.
In addition to fostering a superiority complex, Bloodborne has also thrown into focus what is largely missing in today’s games: a true sense of exploration and discovery. Games like The Legend of Zelda and Metroid were built on this kind of experience. You started the game with just a little bit of information, and then went off to explore, and as you progressed you discovered more of the world.
But for the most part, today’s Triple A games forgo the thrill of discovery for maps with an endless supply of checkpoints, making sure you never lose your way. There is always a marker, something to guide you to your destination, presenting a clear and linear path. Your objectives are always clearly laid out, and what you need to do next is never in question. Call of Duty. Shadows of Mordor. Fallout. The Arkham Batman games. Really, just about any major game you can think of makes sure there is never any doubt as to what you are supposed to be doing. Hell, Assassin’s Creed has gone pro with this concept, to the point where the maps themselves are mostly checkpoints.
Even the gameplay itself often gets spelled out for you, like in the Arkham games where Batman’s inner monologue is always ready to provide you with hints when you get stuck. Ditto the Uncharted series. This isn’t to say that these are bad games. The Arkham series has provided some of my favorite games, and I am certainly not going to argue that every game should be as opaque as Bloodborne. After all, people play games for different reasons, and those reasons can change depending on the kind of day you’re having.
But I do think it is telling that as a whole, games have shifted towards explaining everything rather than trusting the player to seek things out themselves. Even huge open-world games like Fallout 4 and The Witcher III utilize a seemingly infinite number of side quests in order to get you to explore the various locations on their sprawling maps. There is rarely a moment without instruction, and it has become more and more noticeable.
Again, that doesn’t mean these games aren’t fun. We need the variety. While I mentioned games like Metroid earlier, let’s not forget you also had much more straightforward fare like Super Mario Bros. But it seems that mainstream games have by and large decided that what is important is simply that players accomplish something, even if they are told how to do it every step of the way.
With the sheer number of games available, it seems like there is a fear of being too frustrating, and alienating enough players to affect sales. Sure, the actual gameplay and combat mechanics can be challenging, and that can be frustrating in its own way. But there is a difference, I think, between knowing what you need to do and failing to do it, and having to take the time to figure out what needs to be done in the first place. Both have their place, but the balance is out of whack. Balance must be restored, dammit!
And I think this mindset bleeds into that of the players, too. Be honest, if you do get stuck in a game and aren’t sure what you should be doing or where you should be going, how long do you go at it before looking up a walkthrough online? It’s like muscular atrophy. We’ve been somewhat conditioned to just do things and accept that as reward enough.
The solution isn’t just to make every game like Bloodborne. As refreshing as it has been, you can’t just go full tilt in the opposite direction. We’d go insane. But I do think we need to put a little bit of uncertainty back into gaming, and trust that gamers will willingly and gladly explore and figure out the world they are in. Because those feelings of achievement are worth more than any number of digital trophies or achievements you can throw at us.
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