Thursday, April 23, 2015

Bloodborne and The Failure of FromSoft Storytelling  


As a long-time fan of FromSoft, I'm quite familiar with their work and had been looking forward to Bloodborne, which released to widespread critical acclaim a little less than a month ago. I completed the game last night, and after rolling credits, I felt incredibly unsatisfied with the story and ending… Probably more unsatisfied than with any other game in the Souls series.

(And yes, I realize that Bloodborne is technically a new IP, but for the sake of this post, I'm going to lump it in with its predecessors.)

For those who haven't played Bloodborne, it's built on the core of the Souls series (Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls 1 & 2) but instead of slow, methodical dark fantasy, it offers significantly sped-up action with a Victorian edge and lots of Lovecraft. However, what hasn't changed is the cryptic, piecemeal storytelling that has become synonymous with Souls. This obfuscated narrative has many admirers -- I’ve enjoyed it myself to various degrees in the previous games -- but in Bloodborne, it’s at an all-time minimum and tougher to parse than ever.

At the beginning of the game, the player’s character (the hunter) wakes up in a clinic and receives a blood transfusion. From that point, they’re set loose in a dark city to hunt. There's no backstory given and it's not explained who the hunter is, what the player is supposed to hunt, or why. I had no problem exploring the environments and slaying the beasts that came across my path, but I never felt any motivation or logic for what I was doing.

When I bring up these concerns, the Souls faithful inevitably raise the same defense: this lack of specificity is a metagame of trying to figure out the plot with others. I can agree to a certain extent, but in this case I feel like the developers held too much back. Things start off in a haze and the lack of direction only gets worse as the game progresses. By the halfway point I had given up on hoping to figure out what the point of the adventure was, or why my hunter was doing anything. And the ending I got? An utter head-scratcher.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not asking FromSoft or Bloodborne director Hidetaka Miyazaki to abandon his mystery-laden methods and switch to typical Western-style storytelling, but in this case just a little more clarity and context would result in a more satisfying adventure overall. The gameplay is enjoyable, the level design is excellent, yet without something making it all stick together for me mentally, the experience fails to be what it should. It’s not the first time concerns of this sort have been raised, either. Both Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2 received DLC and patches that greatly expanded on their storytelling, and I think most would agree that the games were better for it.

…So, about piecing that story together.

While there are a few brief cutscenes which generally don’t explain much of anything, the bulk of story and lore information comes from item descriptions. Whenever a player picks up a sword, a piece of armor, a consumable, or anything else, they can go into the menu and click a button to see some flavor text. By taking these snippets, players extrapolate meanings and do their best to make sense of it. However, I've got a big problem with this.

First, I'm not a believer that a player should have to go online and do research in order to enjoy a game. Of course, it's quite possible to go through Bloodborne and get value from the kinetic, brutal gameplay, but there's clearly meant to be some kind of a story going on that frames it all. Without tracking down summaries on fan wikis, huge chunks of worldbuilding will be missed by most, and precious little is given during normal play.

image courtesy of @lcferrarezzi

As far as the item text itself goes, I have a real problem rationalizing its existence.  When my character picks up an item in the game, there's no hand-written note attached to it. When you pick up a sword, it's just a sword. So, where do these item descriptions come from? They don't appear to exist in the game outside of the menus, and there's no NPC who's telling my character about this information… So where does this information come from?

The answer is that it comes from the developers and goes straight to the player. Not the player’s character, but the player. Looking at what's actually happening in the game, my character is never privy to this info. There’s no way they could know any of it. As such, I find this method to disrupt my immersion in the game’s world, and acts as an awkward, inelegant way of communicating something that should be illustrated during the course of play.

For example, following the semi-hidden sidequests of Alfred or Eileen (both speaking NPCs) does a great job of giving the player a good sense of certain things, and encountering a speaking boss late in the game accomplishes the same. None of these instances go over the top with exposition, and they’re consistent with the world. Unfortunately, examples like this are very few and far between, and after completing the game, I felt like I’d only received an eighth of the tale that should have been there. 

The developers at FromSoft seem interested in making their work more accessible in some ways -- after all, anyone familiar with Souls can see that the design changes in Bloodborne are significant, and apparently quite successful in reaching a larger audience. However, the storytelling technique that was so notable in the past three games falls short this time around. 

There’s just not enough of it, and what’s there doesn’t say enough. 

While I did enjoy Bloodborne in large part, there's so much richness and potential left untapped. As my friend Jim Bevan said in one of his recent reviews, minimal storytelling does not mean incomplete storytelling. I agree. FromSoft needs to take a hard look at what they're doing -- while they may have reinvigorated the gameplay, their narrative techniques are overdue for a touch-up.


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10 comments: to “ Bloodborne and The Failure of FromSoft Storytelling


    *Note: I have not played Bloodborne yet

    I thoroughly enjoyed the process of discovering the lore of Dark Souls through wikis and youtube as a full-blown extension of the game world that fell over into my world. I thought that was quite fascinating as a process in itself - the community driven side of gaming (or in this case, storytelling). Also, like many books, most games upon completion are forgotten about as you pick up the next one to start, so that was another way to continue my involvement.

    I do agree with you on your point with regards to Bloodborne though, and mostly on this one aspect: if you change the gameplay, change other parts as well to feel like they coincide with that change. Since the combat has sped up, it seems logical to carry an aspect of pacing over into another area - here, the storytelling. Allow for more in-game discovery as another reward system for getting past the boss fights. I felt the reason Dark Souls worked so well was because it was a slow game that you took your time with, therefore more attention was paid to how you were levelling up and getting through each area. I always felt like my goal in Dark Souls was just to get the hell of Lordran, so ringing the bells and then making it to Anor Londo was just an extension of that. It was only after I beat Ornstein and Smough that that personal quest changed and become a much bigger world-centric quest.


    Hey Warstub. Thanks for your comment. I definitely have no problem with folks who like to dig through the lore, I just wish more of it was immediately obvious! Just a bit!! ^_^

    I hear ya, tho!

  • Gathercole


    Hey Brad. Regarding the notes attached to items, they're not from the developer, they're from the narrator. Big difference. Unless you think the Japanese programmers at From habitually speak in Victorian English?

    Much great literature features communication directly from the narrator to the reader (player), without involving the main character. You may not like it, but it's not a violation of the conventions of good storytelling.

    P.S: I've finished Bloodborne and I loved it. This may or may not be affecting my opinion :)


    Hey Gathercole!

    Nice try, except that there's *no* narrator in Bloodborne, or any of the Souls games. No voiceovers, no direct storytelling... No narrator. The devs are writing in that style to keep up with their design theme, but there's just no a narrator. Those notes are information, not narration.

    And even if there was (and there's not) there's still no way for your character to have ANY of this information since narration happens out of the context of the situation on-screen and goes straight to the player. My point there still stands.

    Sorry! ^_^

  • Gathercole


    From the Wikipedia entry on "Narration":

    "A narrator is a personal character or a non-personal voice that the creator of the story develops to deliver information to the audience, particularly about the plot. The narrator may be a voice devised by the author as an anonymous, non-personal, or stand-alone entity; as the author themself as a character; or as some other fictional or non-fictional character appearing and participating within their own story."

    The voice used to deliver the flavor text in Bloodborne certainly seems to fit that definition of a narrator.

    I understand that you don't like this style of storytelling. But I think it's unfair to claim that having an impersonal voice deliver exposition is an abdication of the responsibility of storytelling.


    Hey gathercole!

    I take your point about it technically being a narrator, but it just doesn't sit right with me. The information is just too abstracted from what's going on in the game for me -- it's like an audio track playing while i'm watching a different show.

    not trying to be difficult or anything since i do understand what you're saying, but for me, i just don't see these snippets as narration, especially in BB when there's so little of it, and what you do get isn't often relevant.

    of course YMMV and no problem there, it's just where I'm coming from as someone who felt really dissatisfied with how little was in BB. a few bits about some history still left huge gaps in what i was doing as the player, so it's hard to get past that. ^_^

  • Gathercole


    Hey Brad,

    I definitely agree with you that there's a lot of missed opportunities for storytelling in the game. I'm not sure I would characterize it as a "failure" overall but definitely some head-scratchers.

    One example for me is the "hunter's badges" that unlock weapons in the messenger store. It would have been much better if when you defeat Djura, for example, the hunter using the Stake Driver, you get to pick up the Stake Driver he was fighting you with! Instead, you just get a badge that lets you buy the Stake Driver in the store. About half of the weapons are done this way and I can't think of any good reason for it; it makes you feel like a coupon-clipping consumer rather than a resourceful adventurer.

    With the huge critical success of the Souls games, I think From sometimes has trouble sorting out the good from the bad elements in their games. When a game with oblique, incomplete storytelling is a smashing critical success, it's tempting for the developer to think that the NEXT game should have even MORE oblique storytelling. Same thing with the difficulty to some degree.

    Anyway, I always enjoy reading your take and I'm definitely looking forward to hearing you all talk about the game on the GC podcast now that more of you have completed it.


    Hey Cole.

    Yeah, good points all. Very astute comment about From not exactly understanding what their success is attributable to - i've often felt the same way.

    Dark Souls 1 for instance... Demon's was a hit, so they seemed to think the *difficulty* was the selling point so they jacked it up in some crazy ways - anor londo archers, the pure dark of the caves area, etc.

    i definitely agree they don't quite *get* what makes the games so great, but i hope they keep trying to grok it. and keep making more games! = )


    Hey Brad. Back again, and this time I've played through Bloodborne and am on the final boss now.

    I pretty much whole heartedly agree with you. The game felt like a drag of just combat, with very little motivation. I mean, I get that I was a hunter hunting beasts, but little was explained in terms of who I was and why I was doing it, and I never really found out anything along the way, other than more mysteries. This game would have been a prime opportunity to unpack a full story to the player within the game, and it would have been amazing due to the cramped and claustrophobic environments, the darkness and decay; but most of that just felt like a burden without any compensation.

    I constantly couldn't help comparing it to Dark Souls while playing. Two things in particular struck me: In DS The environments were more open, and I had genuine motivation. Light was everywhere in DS which meant the environments popped out and you could see far beyond in all directions, while Bloodborne has seriously spooky and gorgeous moments combined, the oppressiveness never gets relief. And then in DS there's the ringing of the bells and the colourful characters you meet along the way which help buoy the crushing difficulty.

    I'd also add that The Forbidden Forest felt very Dark Souls 2 like, in that the design was rather uninteresting. Also, the barred doors and gateways just became excessively overdone - to the point where almost every gate or door you encountered had to be opened some other way.

    Dark Souls is fun, Bloodborne isn't.


    Hey Stub,

    Yeah, you know, Bloodborne does some cool stuff but overall I guess I'm kind of surprised it's on so many GOTY lists. The story's a mess (as the DLC proves) the mechanics aren't fully dialed in and overall I'd say it's nowhere near being From's best work. But hey, good on you for going out and giving it a shot!

    let's hope Dark Souls 3 is a little more on the money. ^_^