Punishing Games: To What End?

bloodborne logo

Recently I took the plunge and started into From Software’s Bloodborne. From Software is known for their punishing games (the Demon and Dark Souls series among them), and I had been more than a little intimidated to try them out. The lure of Bloodborne was strong, and my early time with it went relatively well. However, after a few play sessions, I started to question several aspects of the game. Consumables didn’t regenerate, but enemies respawn. The camera is rarely your friend. The rag doll physics of fallen enemies sometimes means you will drag them after you for far longer than you might think. Some enemies (after being defeated) fall through the geometry of the world and you won’t be able to loot them, sometimes losing out on precious consumables.

If you’re thinking I got frustrated for those reasons, you’d be right.

I realized that even though I wanted to like the game, even though I was interested in the story, I had little interest in continuing to play it. And I felt conflicted about that.

In the Souls games, it is understood that you will die. A lot. And I certainly did (though more so at the beginning). That wasn’t really my issue. My issue comes down to the punishing nature of the game.

At a certain point (well after beating the first two bosses) I started feeling that the game was punishing simply to be punishing. That concept isn’t really of interest to me.

I am fairly decent at games. I’m not awful, and I’m rarely exceptional (perhaps at a few games, Dr. Mario and Borderlands among them), but Bloodborne started to make me feel like I was the worst at games. Even if I was paying attention to attack patterns and tells, even if I was dodging between attacks, I started to feel like I couldn’t play the game properly.

And some design elements felt cheap.

I happened to be in a certain zone where this angry jerk is shooting a Gatling gun at you throughout. You have to dodge his shots and move into and out of “safe” zones while also dealing with some seriously unpleasant enemies. I was baiting the enemies out a couple at a time, defeating them, then proceeding forward cautiously. I kept looking behind me to make sure I wasn’t caught unawares (another cheap thing that happens occasionally in the game), and at a certain point, it happened anyway. I was jumped by a half a dozen lesser enemies and they just obliterated me. Due to the checkpoint system, I respawned at a lantern a sizable distance away where I knew I would have to do what I’d just done all over again (baiting out the enemies bit by bit so I could progress “safely”), only this time, with less consumables. Something seemed to click (snap?) for me and I just felt done. It wasn’t the fact that I’d have to redo what I’d just done, it was the principle of the matter.

I also realized I wasn’t enjoying the game. This put me into a weird dilemma: should I press on even though I’m not having fun? Or do I put the game aside and start in on one of the many games I have just waiting for me to play them?

As I get older, I think more and more about time and the value of it. This time, this time I’m writing these words and this time that you are reading them, we don’t get this back. Time is the most precious of all commodities. It’s one of the many reasons I’m grateful for each and every person (this means YOU!) who reads anything I write. You could literally be doing anything else, and yet you are here, reading this. It means a great deal to me.

Sorry, brief digression over.

Back on track.

I found myself wondering what to do about Bloodborne. Ultimately, I decided I wanted to put it aside. For now. I am not ruling out going back to it at some point in the future, but for now, I’m choosing to spend my digital time elsewhere.

But this brought me to the question of why people play punishing games. Do they exist for bragging rights for the gamers who play them? Do they exist simply for the challenge? Are they punishing simply for the sake of being punishing? Are they for gamers with little adversity in their lives who want the feeling of overcoming something? Or, on the flipside, are they for people with a great deal of adversity in their lives who don’t necessarily feel they can do much about it so they have a tangible (digital) way to work that out?

I’m assuming it’s an amalgam of any number of those possibilities. And infinitely more.

So my question is: what are your thoughts on punishing games?

Though Bloodborne may be metaphorically on pause, I’m certainly not ruling out going back to it in the future. I’m just not sure what would drive that choice. Either way, my mind remains open to the possibility.

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20 replies »

  1. I think punishing games need to exist. Super Ghouls and Ghosts is still in my opinion, the hardest game ever and I love it. It may not always be fun in the same sense other games are, but they can be rewarding in their own way.

    I haven’t played Bloodborne yet, but I dig the notion that “the best defense is offense” that seems to take over the shield turtling strategy that has gotten stale from Demon’s/Dark Souls.

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    • I do like games that force you out of your comfort zone (as how else will we grow?), but in this case, I just couldn’t get behind the mechanics and systems in the game. It’s too bad, too, as the game would was fascinating.

      Perhaps one day I will go back.

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  2. I think for a lot of people punishing games represent a return to form, when classing games like Mega Man were similarly unforgiving of most mistakes and lacked a modern save or checkpoint system. While some view those as proof of technical limitations, others view them as features.

    I haven’t yet got around to Bloodbourne or either of the Dark Souls games, but plan to. I did spend a great deal of time earning a platinum for Demon’s Souls and loved it. The tricky thing is that I really struggle to explain much of why I loved the experience so I don’t feel very helpful. I loved the world and the well-crafted atmosphere. I loved how everything hinted at such a rich story and history but you were never given enough to satisfy you, just left craving. But none of that is related to the gameplay or it’s punishing nature, and that is where I struggle for explanation. I had fun playing it, even when it was frustrating I was still having fun I just don’t have the words to say why. I’m sure some of the possibilities you listed above would apply if I think about it long enough.

    Some people don’t get it, even I don’t get it and I love the formula. Then again, I don’t get the love others have for competitive multiplayer shooters like Call of Duty, Battlefield, etc..

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    • I could see that for sure. I’ve certainly played tough games back in the day, but I’m not sure the new batch of punishing games is for me.

      I don’t love Call of Duty, but after I played through a bunch of them earlier this year, I totally get why people play the campaign. It’s a big action packed (yet concise) adventure, and I like knowing that I can finish one in a couple of days or even an extended sitting. It’s a fun ride. Usually.

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      • Yeah, that makes sense to me, the campaign side anyway. It’s the competitive multiplayer side that just doesn’t scratch me where I itch.

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      • Me either. I know some people love it, but I just find it disheartening. And odd. Perhaps if I were awesome at it I would like it more? Though I don’t think that would prove to be true.

        Itchy.

        Scratchy.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I wouldn’t know about punishing games I’m sure. As I think I mentioned before I go where the mood takes me. And what you wrote about time being precious is so true. I have limited gaming time, so all the time I do have is spent on a game that gives me a good feeling. No punishing games for me!

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  4. KotC pretty much sums up how feel about BB or other Souls games. I’d played through BB once and a quite a bit of NG+. Had never beaten ROM solo. When I finally did, that was some good brain chem dump. You know? Beating a hard boss feels good. If it was meh?, something is suspect with the encounter. I’m playing Dark Souls right now and find it way more challenging than BB. And it isn’t the bosses. In some respects I feel like your comments are completely fitting for that game. There are times when I’m like, “please, just give me a chance!!!”. LOL (which you need to have a lot of when playing From games). I dunno, I really liked BB, can’t wait for the DLC. I can’t quite put my finger on it but there seems to be a certain approach one has to take with Souls games. They’re hard, but, to me, not as difficult has everyone makes them out to be (hyperbole is like “near impossible!”) you just have to play by their “rules”. Something like that? Maybe it’s not for everyone? I find your take on BB interesting in that I found BB a more level playing field than demon’s or dark1.

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    • Oh absolutely. I very much understand how great it feels to finally beat a difficult boss.

      I hope to get back to Bloodborne one day, and I hope to do far better than I did. I have hope.

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  5. Bonus rambling, did you co op much, I found that key. And a lot of fun. Especially in the oh so cheerful Chalice Dungeons.

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      • I know i am seven months late but i agree with your post. There is no place for punishing games in The modern era. Games must Be rewarding.

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      • I think punishing games have their place, but the point of entry can sometimes keep certain players from getting to have that experience, and that part gets me down. I’d love to finish Bloodborne, but I’m not certain I’m good enough to make it all the way through.

        I do agree that games should be rewarding.

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