Tim Rogers is a game developer and writer. His next game is Videoball for PS4, Xbox One, and Steam.
Do the Souls games have a Secret Design Formula? Well, yes. As far as I can tell, here it is:
1. Have good taste
2. Have a lot of money
3. Make something you like
Now that I've used up my "say something snippy" quota for the week, I want to be serious about Bloodborne and the Souls games: I like them a lot.
I like them because they have great action design, they have great level design, and they have great experience design. I'll talk about those three things in that order. If you are one of those people whose first instinct is to ask for a "short version" in the comments, here it is: Souls games are great because of action warm-ups. Put action warm-ups on everything. If you don't know or can't deduce what I mean when I say action warm-up, I'm sorry: you're going to have to read the long version.
Controlling a humanoid character in a game has always been, for me, a mildly body-horrible experience. Some games try to make the experience more comfortable — Super Mario Galaxy calmed the length of Mario's trademark slide to a stop, probably to make the game easier for new players — and this only makes me feel weirder. Other games, like Assassin's Creed, go all-out floppy, though only when you're holding The Happy Puppy Button — just hold the right trigger and move the analog stick, and your character sprints around, grabbing onto and climbing up over any surface the level designer tagged as grabbable or upoverclimbable. This makes for a surreal out-of-body experience for me: Why did I grab that and not that? Oh no, I just wanted to run up these stairs to get to my ship's steering wheel faster, and now I'm running up the railing — and now I'm jumping toward that other railing — and now I'm hanging on another railing — and now I need a shower.
This is part of the reason why I like games about simple polygons.
The Souls games, meanwhile, perform a civilized fancy dance (maybe a waltz) with the body-horror of using a video game controller to remote-control a humanlike character inside a television. They do this by putting you far outside your comfort zone via jerky body movements, actions of unexpectable timing, and collisions of mysterious geometry. I'll try to talk about what I mean by all three of those in separate, though my most important top-level impression is that Bloodborne (and the Souls games) makes Floppy Body Game Design work because though its Puppy is Happy (so to speak), every action, however floppy, is of exact predictability. When you press the button to attack, the character begins a weird drunken kung-fu-movie swirl as they contort to whip the heavy object around into a deadly angle. This swirly, loopy, floppy, happy puppy of a noodly delay before the pounce is the action warm-up, and it is maybe the most important element of Souls action design.
"This swirly, loopy, floppy, happy puppy of a noodly delay before the pounce is the action warm-up, and it is maybe the most important element of Souls action design."
Maybe the most important (and I don't say "most important" lightly) element of Bloodborne (and the Souls games') success is their rock-solid foundation as action games. Maybe the most important (and I'm still not saying "most important" lightly) element of Bloodborne and the Souls games' success as action games is the designers' unbending, unswerving devotion to (sometimes shockingly) long warm-ups and cool-downs on every button action (I say "button action" because movement is also an action; it just doesn't involve a button).
Your character's attacks all have warm-ups and cool-downs. The enemies' attacks have warm-ups and cool-downs. If you chain together multiple attacks, the next attack in the sequence requires a shorter warm-up. When I say the controls in the Souls games are "responsive," I mean your character responds with perfect immediacy to your pressing the attack button. Only the response is not an attack: it is a warm-up into an attack. Did you think before you told the character to do that? If the answer is "no," you might not have been playing this game very long.
The warm-up into the attack is the same length every time. When you press the button, you're making the decision to invest that exact length of time into launching that attack. Therefore, the controls are, in fact, "Perfectly Responsive" — just not in the way that clicking a mouse to fire a rifle in Call of Duty might be.
An enemy confrontation is an invitation to decision: you will evade, attack, or run away. Evading is a multi-pronged decision: maybe you want to evade because the enemy is winding up an attack, and you want a better position. Attacking presents you multiple decisions as well: maybe you will do a quick attack, or maybe you have time for a slow attack.
In Bloodborne, as in any Souls game, Your Brain is the Experience Points. Each enemy has an attack warm-up timing, post-attack cool-down timing, attack range, and attack speed. These games require, expect, want, and beg the players to learn to identify the first attack of a combo by the visual presentation of its wind-up. These wind-ups always fall far short of the theatricality of a Super Mario 64 boss or a Zelda boss: These enemies do not run in place for three seconds, kicking up dust clouds, before charging at you. No, it's always something understated: if the chubby troll in front of you just squatted down halfway for a half a second, it's going to charge at you. You should dash out of the way. If it shudders for a second, it's about to raise up that brick in its hand. If it raises up that brick in its hand, it's going to bash you with it. Fire your pistol and the troll will fall to its knees. This is a simple example of an enemy whose telegraphs are easy to read, and so we encounter another spider web of these games' design: if an enemy's invisible "Telegraph Trickiness" number is low, its raw physical power is probably massive. Weaker enemies' telegraphs are tricky and stealthy as heck: you'll need to watch whether a dude is pointing his rake down or holding it parallel to the ground before you decide whether to attack head-on or reposition yourself.
Repositioning yourself is a good choice much of the time. The level design is miserly about giving you perfect position. The enemies move in unpredictable patterns. The enemies are part of the level design. You'll always want a better position. It's maddening. It's great.
When people say a Souls game is "hard", they're saying one of three things:
- They don't like repeating the same part of a game over and over
- They don't like when a game gives them a number and then takes it away
- Either innately or because of psychological friction, that the first two bullet points instantiate in this player's brain; the player is impatient to such a near-total density that exercising patience is "hard," if not impossible.
The trick to the Souls games' "difficulty" is that these games always require patience. Enemies will always hit you if their attack warm-up is past the point of no return — past the point during which you could have executed a fast attack to cut them off. You need to pay attention. Maybe you're replaying a level for the tenth time, and your impatience is borderline demon-possessed. You might run down some stairs and swing at the guy waiting there. However, he saw you running down those stairs and started his attack. The game is saying: Look, you've killed some dudes in this game before. You can do it again if you just pay attention.
Rushing kills you. The game wants you to be thoughtful. The game wants you to think about your place in its world, on both the macro and micro scale. On the nano scale, the game wants you to know when an attack is definitely coming, and to not be standing there like an idiot when it arrives. It wants you to change position.
"The enemies move in unpredictable patterns. The enemies are part of the level design. You'll always want a better position. It's maddening. It's great."
Changing position is such a big piece of Bloodborne that it has its own action button. If you're locked on to an enemy (click the right stick (fitting, since the right stick controls the camera)), all you need to do is press the Agility Button. "The Agility Button" is what I call the circle button: with it, you can roll (tap it while walking and not locked on), you can run (hold it while walking and not locked on), or you can do the evasive dash-step while locked on.
If you press the agility button without touching the left analog stick, your player dash-jumps backward. Press the button in tandem with any direction on the left analog stick to dash-jump in that direction. You are not invincible during this dash jump, though you certainly can cover a longer distance than most enemy attack ranges in a shorter amount of time than most enemy attack warm-ups. Of course, this dash has a cool-down of hopeless vulnerability when you reach its endpoint. And of course, this game is not about one-on-one combat, so your dash-step might put you two inches in front of another psycho monster who is past the point of no return in its attack warm-up.
Bloodborne's side-step is a friendly gesture: The designers took away the shield of previous Souls games, and now they want you to play with something better than a shield — rather than stand helplessly behind a portable wall, the game now allows you to be somewhere else in an instant. "Somewhere else" is a risk, of course, in that it could also be "somewhere deadly." It's up to you to learn how to control this evasive maneuver. In true Souls Game fashion, it doesn't make itself easy. In fact, the better you get at it, the more you overestimate your skill, and the harder it becomes.
Bloodborne's side-step mechanic runs further with this Weird Body Game Design than any previous Souls game.
The quick step will shoot your body with speed enough to evade an attack. The distance the sidestep launches you is unsettling in its quirk; it evades the instincts of muscle memory. It's not exactly as fast and as far as your brain wants to think it should be. It's a little bit slower and a little bit farther. It might put you into attack range of an enemy who is past the point of no return on its attack warm-up. It's maddening. The sidestep begs you to learn its way instead of holding onto yours.
Bloodborne's attack warm-ups and sidestep are what I call "actions of commitment" — you press a button in a specific context to begin a "long-haul" process that commits your character to the completion of the action. This "long haul" might only be one or two seconds. To paraphrase Vin Diesel, for those one or two seconds, you're alive (well, you're more alive if you're sure of your ultimate success).
When I think of actions of commitment, I think of the early Castlevania games — specifically Dracula X: Rondo of Blood. In these games, every enemy encounter is a tiny boxing match. Rondo of Blood is so thick with commitment actions that it literally places a warm-up on turning around! Think about that: it takes almost a full second to turn around in Rondo of Blood. This is a side-scrolling platform action game from 1993, and its designers were thinking that hard about risk-reward. Rondo of Blood places so much importance on second-to-second action that, fully knowing that it has implemented "turning around" as an action choice, it allows the player to walk backward by holding the attack button. Ducking and jumping also have warm-ups, so if an enemy is using projectiles that the player wants to duck under or jump over, the player needs to decide if they have enough room and time to duck or jump, or if they need to move in the opposite direction a little bit to earn more time and space.
All the elements of every enemy encounter are in perfect concert: The projectiles move just slower than you can walk, and ducking takes a non-insubstantial amount of time to activate, during which the projectile might hit you. You can turn around to move to the left to avoid the projectile, or you can hold the attack button. If the projectile is an axe knight's axe, you can whip it out of the air. However, your attack has a warm-up, and a fixed distance. You need to be in the right place and have enough time in order to whip that axe out of the air. You can jump over a low axe if you have the time; you can duck under a high axe. You can be facing either direction for either of these things. If you hold the attack button, you can be facing your enemy, stepping backward, jumping over some axes, ducking under some axes, whipping some out of the air, fighting for inches forward. It's maddening for the first-time player. It's fine wine for the twenty-year veteran. Rondo of Blood's sequel, Symphony of the Night, swapped the heavyweight action out for Super Metroid-like exploration and role-playing-game elements (numbers which go up).
I like to think that Demon's Souls put the heavyweight action back into Castlevania, without removing the exploration elements. Souls is the new old Castlevania.
Heavyweight action games always put you in vulnerable positions, though an escape — either via countering your opponent or sidestepping — is only a fast decision, a button press, and a tingly warm-up animation away. These games are about seeing the decision fast enough to choose it.
The stamina bar is a curious complication. It's a green bar beneath your (red) health bar. When you attack, roll, sprint, or sidestep, your stamina bar depletes. When your stamina reaches zero, you can't perform an action. The stamina bar recovers on its own. If you go all-in and combo-attack an enemy to the limit of your stamina bar, you can wind up with not enough stamina remaining to either roll away or attack again. The stamina bar running out mid-rousing-combo manufactures a situation wherein your enemy is able to begin an attack warm-up while you are unable to do likewise. It's possible that an enemy will decide to initiate a long warm-up during your stamina bar zero moment. It's possible you'll recover enough stamina during the enemy's warm-up that you'll be able to use a quick attack that hurts the enemy before their warm-up reaches the point of no return. This is where even a player with dozens of hours of experience is going to mash a button, hoping to catch the stamina meter at the exact moment it reaches enough stamina to perform a quick attack. Your muscle memory doesn't translate this command into words, so it has a tendency to trip even the hardest brain: You want enough stamina to interrupt that big attack long enough for you to be able to walk backward for just long enough to recover just enough stamina to perform a back-step that will put you far enough out of range for long enough that when you greet your opponent's approach, it is with a stamina meter long enough and ready to execute a killing combo. The game has attached itself to your reflexes on a molecular level. Your brain and fingers take turns being the bar and the athlete in an exhibition of cognitive gymnastics.
"The game is saying: Look, you've killed some dudes in this game before. You can do it again if you just pay attention."
The stamina bar running out instigates a necessity to decide upon a better position (if you want to avoid damage or death). Deeper skills require hyper-passive awareness of the stamina meter, on a level from which you're considering your position at all times, and how that position will change based on your decisions or your enemies' decisions. Souls games are at times naval battles in which your boat looks exactly like a person.
If I were to draw a diagram to illustrate the importances of awareness of position (your own and your enemies', relative to your own weapon ranges and your enemies' weapon ranges), timing (your own and your enemies'), and stamina (your own) in Souls games, I'd be drawing an equilateral triangle.
Bloodborne adds a maddening little difference that is equal parts insulting and delightful. I tried to play this game cold and unspoiled, though that became impossible when I also had access to Twitter. It turns out Bloodborne officially calls this the "Regain System": If an enemy hits you, doing damage, you can get your health back if you hit them soon enough after they hit you. This is idiotic. This is insulting! This is a huge, dumb punch in the face of a perfect combat system. It's filthy and it's gross. Wow, it's so great; I love it a lot.
With the Regain System, Bloodborne begs you to take tiny risks. I say the risks are "tiny" because that's how it feels: just one more button press. That button press is highly likely to get you killed, because for the length of that button press — the first few dozen times, anyway — you're not thinking about position, timing, or stamina. You're thinking, "Hey, I can get that health back, so let's see if I can get that health back." Ten seconds later, the enemy is dead, and you have half the health you had during your initial engagement with the enemy. You feel like the biggest sucker in the world. You've seen the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. The Wizard of Oz was flipping you off.
The Regain System, too, with cold eventuality, grafts itself onto your body the way every element of a Souls game does. It pencils in another Interesting Decision on your laundry list. For a moment in the middle of every slugfest, you're looking at a chessboard. It's not a super-detailed chessboard. Maybe it has four pieces on it. Are you going to use your rook to take a rook? Are you going to use your bishop to take that knight? Why isn't there a king or a queen?
You misjudge either your timing or your position. The enemy hits you. The white vertical slash at the end of your life meter moves to the left, to illustrate a depletion. The life to the left of the white slash is red; the life to the right of the white slash is orange. It's going to be orange for a couple of seconds.
- I just got hit. I can get that health back if I hit this guy again.
- Can I hit him again? He is winding up an attack.
- If I side-step him, maybe that guy over there is going to be in the middle of winding up an attack.
- If I back-step, well, do I know who's behind me? Maybe there's a box on the ground.
This internal monologue plays out thousands of different ways in a second. Sometimes it's screaming at you to calm down. It's endlessly fascinating.
When you let your brain think about the Regain System in the middle of a battle, our game of My Weird Warm-Up Versus Your Weird Cooldown, Your Weird Warm-Up Versus My Weird Cooldown, and Our Weird Warmups Versus Each Other (and All of Time) has boarded an express elevator for the penthouse (or the dungeon).
Learning when to let go is a skill as surely as the momentary courage to allow something unexpectably good to happen upon taking a risk is a skill; Bloodborne asks you to learn to decide to let go in the context of every single mundane encounter.
When I used the word "mundane" in the previous sentence, I meant that these battle encounters are "mundane" in the greater scope of Bloodborne. In any other game, the smallest player-versus-drone battles of Bloodborne would be without a doubt the standout element. In Bloodborne, they're only one of three tent poles.
In conclusion: If, like me, a doctor recently prescribed you reading glasses, it's because that doctor wanted you to wear them when playing Bloodborne. (In seriousness, my eyes focus and track faster when I am wearing reading glasses, so I do in fact wear reading glasses while playing Bloodborne, though not with other games. Maybe that's interesting! Maybe it's not.)
The Level Geometry
The second of Bloodborne (and the Souls games') three tent poles is the level design.
The level design in these games is excellent.
In both Demon's Souls and in Bloodborne, the player starts in a dark, uninviting environment full of tall walls, staircases up and down, and right-angle turns. It's easy to get turned around or lost in these levels. The game is teaching you to remember space. You inch through each level. You turn right sometimes. You turn left sometimes. Sometimes you take the stairs up; sometimes you take the stairs down.
Enemies wait throughout these sprawling mazes. Sometimes you will run past them. Sometimes you will fight them. Sometimes they will kill you. If they kill you, maybe the next time you attempt the level, you'll try to go right when last time you went left. You're looking for something — you're not sure what, because the game seems to not want to tell you — so you're moving through the level. You're trying to make progress, because the blindfolding right-angle turns and dead-end alleys are so cold in their refusal to etch themselves into your sense of direction's memory that you're certain the whole game experience is a clever trick designed to demotivate you. You have just post-motivated yourself.
Enemies are strong because the game wants you to think. Enemies kill you because you didn't think. In your impatience to get farther and see more, an enemy who you killed ten times has just killed you without your getting a single hit in. Every time you stop to fight some weird bearded or skeletal drone, the memories of the right-angle left turn and downward staircase ahead begin to fade like a dream upon waking. Enemy threats suggest a pace. You decide the pace. You will go faster or slower than the pace the enemies suggest. Either decision can kill you.
The very first time, in Demon's Souls, you loop around and unlock a door that had stared you in the face at the very beginning of the game, it feels like an accident. Let me tell you about that accident: It knocks the wind out of you. If you've ever had a moment of great or terrible luck in your life, you know what I'm talking about: the weight of the "I Totally Almost Didn't Do That One Tiny Thing That Ended Up Putting Me Right Here" is enough to almost physically implode your skull.
Demon's Souls dances with you for an hour; it steps on your feet a hundred times. You fight for and earn a knack for jumping on hunches. You know which of the multiple paths ahead of you now is best. You pause. You go the opposite way. You traverse a lonely corridor. You flip a switch. A door opens. Oh, hey: It's that first area in the level. No part of your brain is disappointed. Your entire brain is in love with your having connected these two regions. Then, in an instant, your entire brain is aflame with the What-Ifs. "What if I hadn't gone this way and something had killed me? I'd have to have done this all again." You feel bad because of something that didn't happen. It's amazing. It's a symptom of two things:
- You would have immediately reloaded the game and tried again anyway.
- You won't stop loving this game.
I've played some Souls games. I like Demon's Souls the most. I love the level design in Demon's Souls. I've played through that game a couple times. I like its minimalist, bucket-headed-knight-armor look and world-feel.
Maybe because I've studied Demon's Souls with such care, I've gotten good at memorizing right angles. So I pumped my fist with ferocity when, in Bloodborne, I discovered the first shortcut: Journeying deeper into that first area, I stopped and said, "The lamp is around that corner." I went around the corner. I opened a gate. There was the lamp (the warp / spawn points in Bloodborne are lamps). It felt great. I felt such a ghostly pat on the back at this moment. No, the game isn't a villain trying to trick me — it's an old friend keeping me on my toes.
That's the word I'd use to describe these games: friendly. These games have uninviting atmospheres and their enemies can crush you: The game is comfortable showing its real face to its best friends. We're the game's best friends. Not two hours into my first experience with Demon's Souls, I knew I'd found a weird best friend that trusted and respected my opinion and my intuition: I was the only friend who could figure it out.
It's all the joy of a "hidden object" game, now available for hardcore action game players.
Many reviews ladle many similar superlatives on Bloodborne's level designs. I also find the levels deserving of these superlatives. The "secret" of these levels is quiet: The levels are alive inside of themselves; they are true to themselves. The geometry is more than "masterful": it's alive. This is the product of handcrafting. The levels respect the player who will traverse them. When you respect a player as much as Bloodborne does, level geometry flows naturally.
It's also a terrifying workflow prospect. Then again, if the game I was doing level design on had combat as good as Bloodborne's, I'd love testing my levels.
Bloodborne's level macro-geometry is cathedraline; Its micro-geometry is all confessionals, phone booths, and hallways. You travel down streets, alleys, and corridors toward vestibules and galleries with holes in the floors and ankle-high apocalypse garbage waiting to thwart any sidestep. The game floods you forward meters at a time before clogging you with inches. The pacing between travel and combat pit-stoppage eschews formula (by which I mean, it's organic). The game's designers know and feel the importance of the combat learning curve, and they gingerly spoon it behind the level geometry learning curve. The level geometry needs the combat: without its slow warm-ups and cool-downs and side-steps and weird balloon-animally body-flopping and risky counterattacks, this level geometry wouldn't be begging you to pay attention. Maybe you wouldn't pay attention if it wasn't begging you.
This level geometry wouldn't work in a first-person shooter.
The combat, however, would work in a one-on-one game whose only stage was a rectangular hallway five shoulder-widths wide.
No, let's say the one stage is a square, with walls on two parallel sides, and ring-outs on the other two parallel sides.
What I'm saying is, I've just crunched the numbers, and if the Souls games' level design and the Souls games' action design were people and they got in a fistfight, the action design would win. (This is not a scientific measure.)
Of course, I'm only talking about the level geometry. The experience of the game is the third and final pillar.
Here is a short story about Castlevania: I watched a tool-assisted speed-run of the first Castlevania game a few years ago. In this speed-run, the player moves forward without stopping until a boss appears. Whenever a boss isn't on the screen, the player is moving forward, until the game is over. Even knowing that the player is likely manipulating luck so that enemies don't spawn in inconvenient positions, I like the picture that this paints in my head. When I was a kid, I fought tooth and nail to understand Castlevania. My hard battle ended in victory. I spent many months learning every inch of every level of that game. Here's this speed-run where the player never stops moving, jumping over enemies at just the right time, whipping in the air at just the right time, seizing every opportunity and snapping up every minor and major victory along the way. I mused for a moment that this player was so much more of a Castlevania virtuoso than I had ever been because I had been young, and the game's schlock-horror motif — film holes on the title screen, Frankenstein's Monster, the Merman, The Mummy, The Grim Reaper, and Dracula all making an appearance — had impressed into me a need to play a role. I had to "perform" my way through the game. The game wasn't a socket wrench that I would in a fit of genius learn to use to dismantle itself. It was narrative entertainment. I let it narrate; by playing it, I entertained both the game and myself. I whipped the Medusa heads because I loved whipping Medusa heads; I whipped Medusa heads because Medusa heads loved me whipping them. Et cetera.
Medusa heads. (Image source.)
In the Souls games, too, if complete crushing victory is your goal, The Graphics Are The True Evil. These games are near-humorless in their pressing, thorough, ornate schlock-horror presentation. Every new Souls game sees me into an adjustment period. It takes several hours to tune the guitar of my brain until I am ready to Just Put It On And Hang Out. For those first few hours, a Souls game is a Sipping Drink. The mood of the games pulls me in; I struggle with remembering the old controls and learning my new weapons and enemies. The mood of the graphics and sound intensifies the learning curve.
After a few hours, I've moved forward into the game. I understand that I need to go somewhere. I've met a boss I have not been able to kill. I've collected my fair share of frustrations and complaints (mostly I'm complaining about being frustrated). This on-ramp is my "education" about the game. Eventually, part of this game is going to become Business. I am going to get s