Steven Poole stares for too long at Bloodborne’s loading screen
Shoot first, ask questions later
People who don’t play games much (or at all) often ask the most penetrating questions about them. As I was blundering around the opening stages of
Bloodborne one evening, my girlfriend kept posing innocent queries to which there was no good answer. I passed by a carriage still attached to a dead horse – no point, I quickly decided, in flogging it – and she asked: “Can you get in the carriage?” I had to explain that in this kind of videogame you can’t interact with objects that way. The same went for a coffin she fancied opening, and so on.
She was also interested in character aesthetics. We’d had an entertaining time choosing an avatar who looked as much like me as possible (Troubled Childhood, natch), and then during the game she commented: “It’s funny: you spent all that time on your face, and you don’t get to see it much.” Perfectly true. Which prompted another good question: “I wonder why your braces are hanging loose?” Seems like an impractical decision if you’re going to spend a lot of time in close combat with monsters. Surely those dangling braces are going to catch on something at some point.
But I haven’t played the game to the end to see if there is some braces-related incident. Bloodborne, of course, is the latest in a lineage of videogames that are more than decidedly not for people who don’t play games; it’s tough enough for those who do. Because I had company, I began to find it funny that for half an hour I couldn’t even figure out how to acquire and equip some weapons. It became perversely entertaining to be savaged multiple times by a giant zombie wolf. Later on, once I was finally armed, and had spent many more hours blundering around Steampunk Rotting-Cowboy Town, I was able to see the brilliance of its tough-but-fair fighting system, but I decided the game wasn’t for me either.
We know that in Bloodborne, much more than in most videogames, death is an experimental tool. You are supposed to die frequently. Death is the engine of discovery and improvement – as it is in evolution. I admire this as an uncompromising game mechanic, but I could already feel the yawning loading times between dying and starting again threatening to take weeks off my life just by themselves. And, after all, in other respects Bloodborne is a very normal and familiar kind of videogame. It even has a shop. (The currency might be Blood Echoes, but it is currency all the same.)
Normal and familiar, it is true, can mean comforting and fun. Beginning a co-op campaign through crunchy twin-stick confection Helldivers, for example, meant noticing familiar mechanics and translating them into the vocabulary of other game systems. As my friend and I started to spread Managed Democracy through the universe, we noticed that you could collect Samples and said, “Oh, they’re like gems” (the currency in isometric Tomb Raiders). And we managed our automatic gun turrets with confidence, since we’d done the same thing so often in Modern Warfare 2. In this way, the game began to seem like a well-chosen compilation of favourite mechanics from other games, with added hilarity from friendly-fire incidents and other pleasantly gratuitous touches.
When a game is so nearly perfect, however, the little things do start to rankle. There is no excuse for ever letting one player disappear from the screen, as Helldivers does in some chaotic fights. ( Dead Nation never committed this sin, even with many more enemies involved.) Worse, however, is the fact that if you fail a mission you can’t instantly start again. Shall we start some kind of campaign about this?
Maybe I am too optimistic about technology, but my expectation in the year 2015 is this: any videogame that is trying to inculcate a ‘just one more try’ feeling – as both Helldivers and Bloodborne so expertly do in their very different ways – ought to let that one more try begin instantly. Instead, waiting around through interminable loading screens or more meaningless presses of X in menus makes it feel as though the game is only grudgingly letting you play it. And it is during those blank periods that one feels most intensely the existential absurdity of videogaming. If Jean-Paul Sartre were alive today, he might write a play in which the characters are locked in a nondescript antechamber or waiting room, with the single flashing word LOADING projected forever onto the wall.
Any videogame that is trying to inculcate a ‘just one more try’ feeling ought to let that one more try begin instantly