Volumes Without Words

Volumes Without Words

Last updated on August 7th, 2015

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.

I fail.

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.

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21 comments on “Volumes Without Words”

  1. Avatar Fexelea says:

    I’ve been at that "Get up Get up GET UP!" moment. Also panic vialing! I hope you write more of these, I enjoyed it :)

  2. Avatar BlitzKeir says:

    I have to physically stop myself from mashing R1 to get the last hit in. Usually, it results in your death. Bosses are very good at reacting to onslaughts, especially viscerals, just before your next salvo connects.

    Best game in the series by far, in my opinion. Really excited to see what’s in store for DLC.

  3. Avatar skarekrow13 says:

    You captured the experience many of us have had very well. Awesome job

  4. Avatar DE5PA1R says:

    Thanks everybody!

  5. Avatar Guinness4me67 says:

    Awesome write up!

    Kudos! :cheers:

  6. Avatar Northborn says:

    Excellent read, it really captures the essence of Bloodborne (and souls game) for me.

  7. Avatar med says:

    As someone who is within said world that you are edging toward, and has written many stories (and blogs/articles before hand) for a very long time, let me first say that I enjoyed the short read. That said, here is my quasi suggestion with question, rolled into one. How would you approach this invisible divide between story and gameplay that is becoming more and more evident in modern gaming? I am, purposely, asking this in a vague way because, before long, it will come down to distancing yourself from the next guy and one great way to do just that is not just presenting what is, but also presenting what is… with what can be. Nail that, and the right people will take notice. Of that I can guarantee.

    Regardless, well done, keep it up.

  8. Avatar DE5PA1R says:

    Thank you. I have to keep this vague because my mechanics aren’t set in stone, but I’ve always wondered why party-based RPGs allow the player to control the characters’ actions in battle but not when conversing. That dramatic divide between active participation in a fight and passive perception during conversations is jarring.

    That’s all I can say for now.

  9. Avatar med says:

    To answer that looming question in one word: Subsidiary. In today’s game industry, the ability to expand on creativity, ideas, large projects and everything therein rests in the hands of either a deadline being dictated from someone or some group who know absolutely not a single thing about video games or a group in their infancy who do not have said deadline looming over their head. Why does this matter? Quick releases, bounce backs to the next project and, most of all, plausible ideas for DLC sales override the creative ability (in most cases) to really expand and make a fully developed product. "Conversing" takes time, takes the hiring of extra bodies to flesh out options, and, because of this, will push release dates. Most gamer’s never really saw it until the Destiny debacle but now it is becoming more known and that is a good thing for gamer’s if and only if they punish those responsible for these decisions by not supporting them.

    At the end of the day, gamer’s are the boss and the final say. There is not a stronger online community than the gaming community when they stop bickering and pull head from ass. When an issue arises, gamer’s bind together like nothing I have ever seen. So if you or the rest of the community want something, all you have to do is force the issue and make it happen. Mother companies are extremely scared of such things happening. Personally the company I am with has always had an extremely long rope, in fact, the longest in the industry but even we have to deal with monthly issues from people who have never played a video game in their life going over work to assure that this trigger word isn’t in the script, or that artwork might not offend anyone, or group of characters has the proper blending of special interest personalities.

    It’s my hope that the next generation of people who are hired or (better yet) form their own companies to make a product revert back to what we set in motion in the late 90’s and make products that they could say to themselves:
    "I would love to play that game" instead of "how much can I make off of this title?". In the end, the power is with you and the rest of the community. You can either seize that power… or…. play a viable and complete title 3/10 times (if you’re lucky).

    Hopefully that helps you with some direction, go get it.

  10. Gasarocky says:

    I realize the question wasn’t directed at me but I’d still like to chime in.

    Personally I actually like this because when I enjoy a story, game or otherwise, I don’t put myself in it AS the person controlling things. It’s almost like I’m an observer who, during gameplay, is just nudging the character I’m playing as along. It even makes sense when you consider that you can’t ACTUALLY make the character do WHATEVER you want, even in a game with a ton of control freedom. You still have preset animations and abilities and you can’t work outside of those(excluding glitches/bugs). And I’m fine with all of that. One of the things I specifically avoid is games that are very focused on giving the play choice, because that’s not what I want to focus on, and I know there are plenty of other gamers like that, especially in other cultures around the world.

    The value of a classic JRPG is in the fact that they are directed experiences. This is also why I loved The Last of Us. The player was NOT Joel, JOEL was Joel. He’s his own person and makes his own decisions, and this is why there is no alternate ending. And the narrative is stronger for it. Joel, as despicable as some may find him to be, is such a believeable character that you can appreciate the story in it that much more. I’m not saying that all JRPGs reach that same level, but the point is the same, that that character, in places where their personality is shown, is who they are, and not you, the player.

  11. Avatar med says:

    In over 30 years of gaming and nearly 20 years of actively being involved with the creation, there is absolutely not a single shred of doubt in my mind that "The Last of Us" is the greatest experience (yes, "experience") I have ever had the privilege to play. It wasn’t even a game to me, it was a journey. A journey I didn’t want to end and the first game, ever, to actually make me sit and consider its relation to the real world. Hell, it’s even the first (and only) game created by a different company that I decided to write a story about. So I certainly understand why you would have the feeling you have about that game.

  12. Avatar DE5PA1R says:

    You make some assumptions in your response on how one would address the issue I posed.

  13. Avatar Fexelea says:

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on my Last of Us review then :D

  14. Gasarocky says:

    I’m not sure I do? I was mostly just giving my own answer for it. Though I was spurred on by what you said, which is why I still quoted it.

    I’m honestly not sure what you’re saying at all. I’m not saying your wrong, I’m just lost, sorry lol. Could you clarify?

  15. Dr.funk says:

    Nice write up man!.

    And for the Last of Us.. ive been gaming now for 24 years and
    this was one of the few games what i didnt want to end and really sucked me up in the story and feel for the characters.

    Same with Fall Out 3 the moment you step outside the fault.. I really felt lost and alone! daddy were are thou. awesome story

    Vampire: the masquerade bloodlines was another game that really let you feel a vampire and the story was good to! one of the RPG games that stil sometimes pop up in my head and like yeah that was nice.

    And Darksouls 2 i cant help it but for me that game was much better than demon souls and Darksouls 1. just the lore and the awesome coop and pvp system and newgame plus just needed to be done!

  16. Avatar DE5PA1R says:

    Yeah, sorry. I posted that in a hurry – please don’t think I was being an ass. Unfortunately I have to make my response short as well.

    Specifically, what you’re assuming is that the player has a binary role in a game. Either we sit back and observe conversations happen or we tell character(s) what to say a la Mass Effect or Fallout 3.

    There is an in-between – we could play as an active listener – deciding who speaks and when, but not what they say. This allows characters to be characters and players to be players. But it requires A LOT of work.

    Also, Dark Souls II’s lore is junk. I had to say it.

  17. Gasarocky says:

    Hmm, that’s interesting but could you clarify a bit more? Like, my first thought is simply changing timing. Like does the character wait 1 second or 2 seconds before saying something which doesn’t seem that valuable.

    Or are you saying like, changing the order of dialog, or further than that but actually changing who might start a conversation therefore leading to different dialog simply because different people spoke at different times leading to characters making different connections in their own minds.

    If that’s what you mean, I would honestly wonder if even that would conflict with personalities too though. Generally in a group of people that know each other, from my own life experience, the people that start a conversation almost ALWAYS do so. People that are reactionary in conversation are almost always that. The reactionary conversationalist very VERY rarely starts a topic fresh on their own, and if they do it was probably after much internal deliberation.

    So, the difference between the dialog started by the talkative(kind of not the right word) one and the reactionary one would probably be huge, to the point of completely changing dialog and/or even characters feelings about a situation. Which IMO is so intense that you’d have to make your game ABOUT that.

  18. Avatar DE5PA1R says:

    Good point about conversation-starters, but I anticipate the player taking care of that.

    Challenging but doable with a small enough amount of dialogue and a limited cast of characters.

  19. Gasarocky says:

    I’m skeptical but I’d certainly like to see it pulled off well even if I might not be a fan of it on a personal level.

    It does kind of remind me of the interrogation conversations in Deus Ex: Human Revolution though, and I quite liked those. Though, also that they were very much a specific section of gameplay unlike regular dialog scenes.

  20. Avatar Castielle says:

    This is quite the interesting concept. I feel myself, as a player, has evolved through the course of the game, much (from what I can tell) like you did. It is THAT evolution, in my opinion, that has made the Souls franchise famous and THAT evolution that disappointed many players in Dark Souls 2.

    I first had this evolution in Dark Souls (I never played Demon’s Souls until after). It is a once in a lifetime experience, or so I thought until I played Bloodborne. The game was simply different enough to create THAT evolution (even if to a slightly lesser extent) again.

    I think you nailed exactly "That Thing" that makes these games so special.


  21. Avatar DE5PA1R says:

    Thanks for the interest and kind words everyone!

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