I’ve played a bit of Bloodborne. Not as much as I could have, because I don’t want my experience of it to be the weird, isolated experience of playing a game before its release, when the servers are empty and the code has strange wrinkles. I want to play Bloodborne like I played Demon’s Souls six years ago after I picked it up in a Japanese game store with no idea what it was. I want to discover it alongside a secret community of fellow players around the world, helping each other out. Not in an office somewhere, fumbling through pre-release code on my own.
Everything I’ve seen of Bloodborne so far suggests it’s going to be something really special, too, which has only hardened my resolve. Like quite a few early Souls devotees I know, I found Dark Souls 2 strangely difficult to love despite its many great qualities. The prospect of a new game from the series’ mastermind Hidetaka Miyazaki excites me so much more than a Souls retread, however good it might be. And I get the impression that it excites Miyazaki himself, too; when I speak to him at FROM Software in Tokyo, the studio of which he is now President, he seems incredibly energised about Bloodborne - eager to share it, but wary of spoiling it. The game has literally just gone gold, and the studio’s nearly empty. I see futons and pillows stowed under desks.
Three years or so ago, Sony came to Miyazaki with the then-unannounced PlayStation 4 hardware and invited him to create something unique for it. I’d assumed that Bloodborne might have started out as Demon’s Souls 2, but evidently that wasn’t the case - Masaki Yamagiwa, the Sony Worldwide Studios producer who’s been working with FROM on Bloodborne since the very beginning, says that Sony wanted something new. “The goal was, just like we did with Demon’s Souls, to give people a whole new gaming experience - this time on PS4,” he says. “We always wanted to have this as an entirely new experience and allow Miyazaki-san’s directorial vision to come through. There was never really a conversation about it being a Souls game.”
Bloodborne might share an extraordinary amount of the Souls series’ DNA, from the third-person perspective to the sound that footsteps make on its cobbled gothic-Victorian streets, but there are key things that are very different about it - things that will feel very significant to anyone familiar with the subtle symbolism of Demon’s and Dark Souls. The Victorian horror setting is an obvious change, but I’ve also noticed a thematic shift. The Souls games are about dying - every feeble creature and majestically grotesque monster and crumbling castle in those games is a manifestation of death in its many scary and sometimes beautiful forms. But Bloodborne? Bloodborne’s more about killing.
The rhythm and style of the combat is different, you see, even if it might look broadly similar. In Souls you’re usually on the defensive - you walk into a room with your shield up and can take a few hits before reacting. That just does not happen in Bloodborne. You don’t even have a shield. When something hits you, you have to hit back, and quickly, to regain health. My initial instinct was to dodge backwards and regroup after getting hit by some screaming madman with a cleaver, but after a while my mindset changed and I was lunging back aggressively with my own transforming cleaver after every blow I took. It’s exceptionally aggressive and exciting and on-edge. Every single encounter feels like life or death, and it usually is.
It gave me a feeling of bloodlust that was rare in Souls. It made me behave like the hunter that I was playing. Souls’ protagonist is a dead thing amongst all the other dead things, but Bloodborne’s is a demon-hunter drawn inexorably to the sight and sound and idea of blood. During boss fights his clothing becomes saturated with it. Every slash sends ribbons of it gushing and flying. It had a very strange effect on my primal brain. “You’re certainly drawn to a more aggressive style of fighting,” Miyazaki tells me later on. “It’s a running theme within the story of Bloodborne that you are drawn to the blood, and as you fight more and more in this terrifying combat, you’re being gradually swallowed up by this nightmare. If that is getting across through the combat mechanics, I feel that’s very effective in telling the story of Bloodborne.”
I’m not usually a fan of gore, or of horror, which made me nervous about Bloodborne - I’m still not convinced that I’ll be able to get through it mentally unscathed. This isn’t dark fantasy any more. It’s more gruesome than that. But it’s not gross-out - there’s no viscera gushing from wounds, no gore-porn, nothing that made my nose wrinkle in disgust. I’ve been scared and occasionally shocked by the things I’ve seen so far in Bloodborne, but not repulsed. This shouldn’t be surprising, really, as this is a Miyazaki game, and rarely has there been a game creator more devoted to aesthetic beauty - even if that beauty is also gruesome.
“I feel like nobody will believe me when I say this, but I’m a tasteful man and I like to adjust things accordingly; there was very careful management of the boundaries of what is shown,” he says. “Things like what colour the blood would be - we had to really adjust the tone of the red that we were using. But also when creatures are attacked and blood is spilling everywhere, it’s adjusted so that it’s expressed in more of an artistic way than a violent or gruesome way; it’s symbolic. It’s expressed in the way that a painting would show something, not a photorealistic representation. That maintains a sense of terror without being gratuitous.
“There were many things that needed to be toned down. Bloodborne is set in a nightmarish world, and that sense of horror needed to be expressed, so there are always going to be things that when first created were rather too over-the-top. Where do you set the limitations of what you show visually? It’s something that I had to exercise quite a lot throughout the project. I wanted to take a step into that more sinister, gruesome setting and environment compared to the Souls series, but then you’ve always got to be careful of how far you step into it - that’s something that Sony has helped with. We did discuss what the right boundaries were, what would be too distasteful.”
It’s evident from talking to anyone involved with Bloodborne that Hidetaka Miyazaki has taken the same extremely detailed, hands-on approach to directing the game as he did with Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls - even though he is now the president of FROM Software. “Director Miyazaki is much like an art director himself the way he works, so he gives the art staff very specific, concrete ideas on what he wants. The team works together with Miyazaki on very specific nuances of how things should look in the design,” one of the lead artists tells me.
“He is a very interesting director. He’s a very logical person,” adds Yamagiwa. “But one of the biggest things about him is the process by which he creates something, where he comes up with an idea for a creation. It is very unique to him and also very fast. He is a very quick creator and that’s something that really impressed me. Another thing about him is that he gets inspiration from a lot of different things, but his strongest inspiration comes from novels - he is a big fan of literature. As a result he’ll read a book and be like “THIS!”, and underline a section, and show it to the artists and attempt to draw - he’s not an artist himself, but he’ll draw what he’s looking for. He does everything in his power to expand his imagination to that his worlds take on a life of their own. I am very impressed by that.”
I wonder how he still has time for this, given all the other duties he must now have as President. Miyazaki laughs when I ask. “I feel very lucky, because I do get away with things for the good of the game - we’ve got a parent company now, Kadokawa, and they’re very understanding, and [Sony] is also very accommodating to some of the things that I decide not to do, because in order to make time to make the game I must forego some other duties, so to speak.
“Having such a hands-on approach to everything is very important to me, but it’s also important to the company. The most important thing is to create something that is great, in whatever time that takes… The development team understands that, the surrounding staff understand that, the chairpeople understand that. So the way I see it, it’s not having the time to do everything, it’s creating the time to do everything - ensuring it. Because without that, FROM would not be FROM. If we don’t create something great, that is compromising on what we’re all here to do.”
This is a situation that any other developer would long for; who wouldn’t want to take every minute necessary to make something as great as it can be? The realities of fiscal quarters and release windows and budgets usually prevent that from happening, but not here. “FROM absolutely do not accept compromise on their work,” Yamagiwa says, when I ask if it’s difficult as a publisher to work with such perfectionism. “A lot of people, if they get to 90% of the perfect product, they’d let that go, even if there were little things they weren’t quite satisfied with. But that is not From Software. I actually don’t think they’re doing anything particularly differently from any other studio, but they are so particular about their work and refuse to let anything that’s even 90% done go. Years and years of that attitude has created the FROM style that we know today.”
When I first played Demon’s Souls, it felt like it had arrived - fully formed and exquisite - from nowhere. It seems to me that Miyazaki has these worlds fully realised in his head, and the development time is mostly devoted to communicating them to the people who work with him. There are obvious influences - Fighting Fantasy was one of Souls’ main inspirations, and Miyazaki talks about the Cthulu mythology and the Dracula stories as part of the basis for Bloodborne - but FROM worlds just aren’t like anything else you find in video games. It’s not just the attention to detail - I think it’s the directorial vision that the studio’s structure enables.
“I think it’s something connected to Japanese culture: this is how we’ve always created games, the way that we’ve worked,” says Yamagiwa. “I’m sure we’ve added various aspects from overseas game development and been influenced in many ways, but that’s the way we’ve always done it, so that’s the way it’s done to this day… when it comes to Bloodborne specifically, I definitely think that this way of creating a game is what has led to its unified world. All of the aspects of art and design are connected, all of the aspects are linked, and they’re all unified - and I think that is precisely because of the way they are created.”
Disclosure: Sony Computer Entertainment paid for Kotaku UK’s travel and accommodation near FROM Software’s studio in Tokyo.