Bloodborne’s Intoxicating Narrative
Get up. GET. UP.
…Left stick forward, tap O. Furiously mash R1.
Blood flows from my enemy, coating my character. Relief washes over me as my hunter’s health replenishes. For now, at least, the fight goes on.
Hit it! Hit it hit it hit it DODGE
Left stick left, tap O.
Impatiently I wait for my stamina to refill before exchanging blows with the enemy. With my store of vials spent and more than a fifth of the beast’s health left, I am left with two options: don’t take damage, or rapidly counter if I do.
Six tries later, the boss fades into splatters of crimson and a bluish-white smoke. Having neglected to replenish my blood vials, I had had to limp along with minimal healing, leaving me in a panicked frenzy anytime the boss’s health dropped below half. The fight leaves my pulse pounding. My hands quake. I breathe an exultant, shaky half-laugh.
On regaining my composure and stopping by the Dream, I allow myself a sardonic inner glee reserved for Miyazaki’s singular brand of torturous rapture. It’s time for the next hunt.
Story vs System
To prepare for a venture into the world of video game development, I’ve been reading articles, listening to podcasts and generally devouring information about the art of game design. Recently I’ve come across a curious idea from some pretty well-known game designers that argue there’s a fundamental conflict between a game and its story. The story, they argue, is a one-way narrative delivered to the player through cutscenes and dialogue while the game is in so many words “the system.” In Bloodborne, the crux of the system is the combat. It is what drives the game.
If you’re reading this, you’re likely familiar with the narrative (aka story) arc – a way to classify different parts of a story. The segments include Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action and Resolution. The next time you’re playing Bloodborne and a boss makes its introduction, pay close attention to how the fight plays out and your emotional reaction. Best to perform this experiment with a boss you haven’t yet encountered.
Inevitably you’ll observe an exposition (the boss’s introduction, even if it’s as simple as Blood-Starved Beast’s creeping walk), a rising action (the fight itself, with the boss’s different moves and behavior modes ratcheting up the intensity), the climax (the R1 mash to get that last hit in), falling action (the final blow and boss death animation) and resolution (Blood Echoes gained, and euphoric feeling).
System as Story
Beyond a shallow observation of the story arc present during a boss fight, there are still questions that deepen the connection between gameplay and story. Is this hunter still himself at the end of his journey? Am I, the player, still me after playing Bloodborne? As individuals, small changes by degrees – a few more calories before bed, a couple of changes to a website each week – can add up to a transformation.
If I were to personify the character on my screen, the early stretches of my hunter’s journey through Yharnam could be described as nervous at times and frantic at others. In the setting sun, his cautious steps and careful looks around every corner slowed the hunter’s pace to a crawl. But with experience, by the light of a pale moon, the character twitched not in fear but anticipation. After mastering the system and enlisting the aid of a doll, this hunter eventually welcomed the challenge of an upcoming boss fight. A true hunter of beasts had been born. The eager, visceral nature of his tactics against the final boss spoke volumes.
Volumes without words.