When the game Bloodborne came out recently, I started noticing something: The articles, Tweets, comments and posts that crop up around it sound like they've been ripped from the dialogue of an anime series about friendship through crisis: "You can do it!" "Don't give up!" "Believe in yourself!"
Large numbers of people giving other video game advice that sounds like it belongs on a motivational poster with a soaring eagle? You know something's going on. I decided to learn more.
If you're not familiar with Bloodborne, it's the spiritual successor to the cult classics Demon's Souls and Dark Souls by creator Hidetaka Miyazaki, action series famous (or infamous) for their merciless difficulty. The games tend to inspire either feverish devotion and intense dislike, constantly dangling the warring prospects of both dizzying triumph and crushing loss before those players willing to endure their arduous gauntlet.
Here's a glimpse of the common emotional response:
Bloodborne's theme is as uncomfortable as its mechanics. Although details are initially scarce, the game begins when you awaken in the world of Yharnam, a ruined city whose skyline of endless Gothic spires seems perpetually bathed in a funereal orange-brown light. A terrible sickness has transformed the townspeople into savage, hideous monsters, who roam the streets and lurk in the shadows, ready to tear you to shreds at the slightest misstep.
"That all sounds like a nightmare," said one of my friends, when I described the game to her.
"It kind of is," I said. If the game wasn't already hard enough for me, there's the fact I hate horror games. I hate the horror genre, period, and there are few things that entertain me less than gore, torture, human misery, or anything that makes me feel frightened and anxious.
Of course, I decided to play it anyway.
Part of why I wanted to play Bloodborne has to do with my particular psychological wiring: I have an almost masochistic compulsion to do very difficult things. At its best, my penchant for risk and challenge — my refusal to say die — has compelled me to jump out of planes, hang off vertical rock faces hundreds of feet in the air by my fingertips, and move to foreign countries. At its worst, it has trapped me in bad jobs, bad relationships and bad habits, unable to step back or say uncle until I ran myself into the ground.
As I've gotten older, it's become the defining question of my life, or at least my happiness: What's the difference between bravery and masochism, between perseverance and self-abuse, between putting your nose to the grindstone and grinding your face to an unrecognizable pulp? When will I learn the difference? Friends attempt to analyze me: What if I secretly enjoy being miserable?
"But I don't enjoy it," I insist. "I don't like being unhappy. I just don't always know when to give up."
When you're a woman who works in male-dominated spheres — especially on the internet — it can feel empowering, even necessary to cultivate a sense of bravada, a larger than life identity that has no limits, no fear, no weakness. But the illusion of invincibility can feel like paper armor sometimes; you still get cut just as deeply, but you can't let anyone see you bleed, and you certainly can't retreat.
Everyone has a breaking point, and last year I finally hit mine: the moment where I just couldn't do it anymore. I was tired of the online abuse, the diminishing returns, the endless credibility contests, and the sense that no matter how much of myself I gave, that it would never be enough. Why did I always have to make everything so goddamn hard? Why couldn't I ever go just easy on myself?
I started asking myself hard questions: how many of the intensely difficult, challenging things in my life have I actually enjoyed, have rewarded me? And how many of them did I simply endure out of some misguided sense of duty, or because I had something to prove? I slowly started picking those experiences apart, trying to discard the wheat from the chaff. It's not an exact science, and I'm still working on it, really. Maybe I'll be working on it for the rest of my life.
Maybe that was why I felt so intrigued — and even a little bit fearful — when I heard people talking about Bloodborne, about how punishing it was and how much they loved it. There's an ambitious part of me that I think I'll never be able to completely tamp down, the one that always wants to emerge triumphant from the darkest, most difficult dungeon, wreathed in gold and laurel. I bet you'd be good at it, it whispered, whirring in my head.
But what if I played the game and I hated it? Would it mean that I'd finally gone soft, that I'd lost my edge? Or worse, what if I loved it? Would it mean that I was broken, that I was a masochist after all, that I was ultimately doomed to a lifetime of painful grind?
I figured there was only one way to find out.
All you know for sure at the outset of Bloodborne is that you're a Hunter, a grim, black-clad figure tasked with an even grimmer duty: killing every monster (or man-monster) in your path. I'd been warned that this was the sort of game where you die and die and die, and indeed it was. The first time I played, I spent about an hour trying to get past the first few enemies I encountered. When the grotesque figures rushed at me, armed with torches and pitchforks and guns, I panicked, mashing buttons and swinging wildly at the air as they cut me down again and again.
"This is just impossible," I muttered to myself, around the twentieth or thirtieth time that the words YOU DIED wafted coldly onto the screen in blood-red letters. There are moments when you feel a bit like the Bride in Kill Bill laboring beneath the cruel tutelage of Pai Mei, punching and punching at a block of wood until your knuckles are raw and bloody. Death is the only tutorial you really get in Bloodborne — but eventually, it does teach you. Slowly, very slowly, things started to change for me.
Every time you defeat a foe you gain "blood echoes," a mystical currency that can eventually be exchanged for various weapons and abilities. Whenever you die, you have just one chance to go back to area the where you were killed and retrieve the echoes; die again without claiming them, and you lose them forever. Accidentally fall off a roof on your way to regain the echoes you just spent three hours collecting? Sorry, friend, there's no way around it: you're screwed.
If you're playing a Hidetaka Miyazaki game for the first time, as I was, the learning curve is often steep; for hours and hours, it feels frustrating and painful, and sometimes incredibly unfair. But here's the trick: it's not. Over time, you start to realize that the game is actually fair in the absolute, and you even learn to trust it. When you die, it's not usually because the game is just mean; it's because you screwed up. Much like a martial arts master who knocks you to the floor every time you leave yourself open, it isn't actually trying to crush your spirit; it's trying to teach you. And if you're willing to listen, it will slowly transform you into an incredible badass.
By the time I'd put about five or six hours into the game, I'd turned from a quivering wreck who could barely defeat the very first enemy, to a ruthless killer who could cut through every monster in the level like butter, dodging and slicing them apart with precise, perfectly timed blows. But it wasn't because I had leveled up, or found a better weapon. My character wasn't any more powerful. I was just that much better at the game. I felt like the greatest video game player in the history of the world.
There's a familiar scene in a lot of martial arts movies, where the warrior rushes at his enemies with a sword, and after a moment's pause, they all tumble to the ground in unison. That's exactly how Bloodborne feels, when finally you figure out the perfect attack and a gruesome monster that has defeated you over and over suddenly drops like a rock.
People talk about the moment where the game "clicks," when you're finally adept enough that its carefully crafted system of risk, challenge and reward snaps into place. For me, it was fighting the Cleric Beast, the first boss you encounter in Yharnam. Here's what it looks like:
It's massive. it's terrifying. It looks like an Elder God lunging towards you, with claws the size of scythes attached to a fist like a wrecking ball. I'm going to die, I thought, the first time I saw it, and of course I did. Many, many, many times.
You learn to conquer your fear, because being afraid is maybe the fastest way to die in Bloodborne, to lose the focus, precision and strategy that help keep your vital organs on the inside of your body. You learn to breathe, to plan, to be careful — and when necessary, to be bold. After about an hour of fighting, I wasn't running away from the Cleric Beast anymore; I was charging towards it, dodging between its legs, and carving it to pieces.
As its health bar neared zero, my hands started to shake a little. Was it really going to happen? As I took one last swing with my axe and its body finally slumped to the ground, the words "PREY SLAUGHTERED" appeared on screen. I felt my body flood with an intense, visceral feeling of giddiness, relief, and euphoria. This was what everyone was talking about, I thought, as I felt my heart pounding, my brain flooding with a deeply primal sense of triumph. Fuck yeah.
One of the things I liked the most about Bloodborne — especially as someone who hates horror — was something that I hadn't expected from a horror game: the way it taught me to stop being afraid, and start being awesome instead.
The first time you encounter a daunting new enemy that crushes you to a pulp, it's easy to get scared. But once you fight them enough and figure out how to take them down, you stop being afraid. Now, you can take them apart any time you want. Slowly, the alleys and sewers and shadowy houses that you used to enter with trepidation become your stomping grounds, become yours. You're not the victim in the horror movie anymore, running from the monsters. You're the terrifying figure in black, methodically killing everyone in your path.
Was Bloodborne "punishing"? Absolutely. But that's a loaded word, and one that too often gets conflated with the idea of pain for pain's sake. In an ideal world, punishment isn't intended to manipulate or harm, but to instruct. Failure isn't a prison cell in Bloodborne; it's a classroom, and like any teacher that's tough but fair, it's not giving you difficult assignments because it wants you to fail; it's doing it because it knows you can succeed.
It's not a sadistic game, and you don't have to be a masochist to like it. Not everyone will, of course, and not everyone needs to. But I fell in love with Bloodborne, not because it hurt me but because the more effort I put into it, the stronger and better I felt. Despite being laborious, scary and often grotesque, it was its own sort of fantasy for me, a perfect ecosystem of intense effort and almost sublime reward.
When I really thought about it, that was the answer to the question; the difference between perseverance and masochism is the difference between building up and breaking down, between holding out for something that's worth the effort or abandoning a sinking ship.
What Bloodborne offered was what I'd always really wanted from the jobs, the people, the places I had found it so difficult to quit, the bottomless maws of time and energy that took everything, and gave nothing back. It was what I believed they could be, if I only tried harder, believed more, and just kept on grinding. But it wasn't that I failed at them; it was that they had failed me.
They were just shitty games, I realized suddenly. I should have quit all of them a lot sooner. There are just so many better games to play.