Monday night, at around 3:52 AM Pacific Time, I beat Father Gascoigne. On my 9th or 10th attempt, after pressing the wrong button a couple times, manically running up stairs and jumping off ledges, and low on health and ways to replenish it, I saw my chance and took it, committing fully in a vicious flurry of strikes. A few seconds later, I had a health bar a few centimeters long, 2 blood vials (health potions, creepy Victorian edition), zero bullets, and a giant, awful, dead monstrosity at my feet. I was tired, I should have gone to bed much earlier, my friends who’d been giving me moral support earlier were gone, and I felt great. And honestly, something about all that still comes as a surprise.
Two things about me: I hugely enjoy the feeling of overcoming a tough challenge in a game, and I also have strictly avoided the so-called ‘Soulsborne’ genre of difficult action RPG created and popularized by FromSoft for years. Their reputation as punishing, impenetrable (narratively and mechanically), and grim made any of the positives celebrated by fans insufficient. Despite playing all the Dragon Age games on nightmare, multiple times in some cases, and leveraging myself into plenty of other difficult video game experiences, I was always too afraid Dark Souls and its brethren would just leave me frustrated and defeated. The feeling of running up against something you just Can’t Do is a frightening one, on some level, and I wanted to protect myself from that.
It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly brought me to this point, what exactly convinced me to give it a go. Partially, it’s because Bloodborne, compared to Dark Souls and its outwardly dreary aesthetic and fairly standard dark fantasy trappings, always looked far more appealing on a narrative and worldbuilding level. The twisted pseudo-Victorian gothic (et al) nonsense, complete with cool hats and ridiculous hammer swords, plus creeping dread and dawning realization, was very much my thing. Partially, it was the fact that through 2018 I watched portions of Waypoint’s Bloodborne stream, which was fun in a way that helped normalize the game as something that real people actually played, rather than something that was beaten only by some sort of gamer elite. So, when I impulse purchased my PS4 back in November, it was hard to justify avoiding it.
And you know what? I’ve died, a lot. That’s true. There are no lies to the reputation of these games in that regard — as a fairly new console player, and a newcomer to the genre, I’m sure I did worse than many, but I doubt most come through unscathed. But in Bloodborne, dying doesn’t mean the same thing as it does in many games, and the vectors for moving forward are often less cut and dried, win or lose, than they are in more traditionally schemed RPGs. You can’t save-scum your way into having the run where you never die, but likewise, you rarely lose your progress wholly the way you do in other games, with Bloodborne consistently encouraging iteration and persistence both mechanically and thematically. Likewise, the narrative and mechanical impenetrability remain, in their way, but largely serve to shore up the mood and experience of the game, entrenching consequences and interrogation of typical modes of play into the experience. While this does sometimes create awkward moments where clumsiness on your part or the games’ leads to undesirable outcomes (for instance, I just killed Djura, only to learn immediately afterwards of the mistake I’d made), it more often places player agency firmly in the hands of actual action, rather than through carefully scripted sequences and dialogue trees.
And, as I said at the top — I beat the boss. Not of the whole game, obviously, not by a long shot, but a hard boss, one many players point to as the one designed to needle players into better behaviors using some tough love. It wasn’t easy, but then again, I’d be disappointed if it had been. Obviously, there are plenty of challenging experiences to come, some probably more challenging in their own way. I’m certainly reserving my right to throw my hands up in frustration at some point in the future. But for now, I’m left with a warmer feeling: The feeling that, sometimes things that look like they aren’t for me can be, and that we can all broaden our horizons a bit and accomplish things we thought were beyond our scope.