In Dark Souls, you always knew when a boss was coming. The big bad was always behind a “fog door”, a wall of smoke that separated the boss arena from the rest of the level. It would automatically close behind you, locking you in, forcing you to fight or die. Fog doors became intimidating; they were warnings demanding your attention and respect, shouting at us “This way lies death!” Passing through the fog was not a decision to be taken lightly. Passing through the fog meant you were ready for a fight.
Dark Souls 2 screwed with our heads by placing more fog doors around the world. They wouldn’t necessarily lead to a boss fight;. They could, but maybe not. Passing through the fog became a gamble. It was just as likely to unlock a shortcut as it was a boss fight. I’m sure there was a technical reason for this proliferation. It was likely a means of hiding load times or some such, but psychologically it turned the fog door from a warning into a taunt. There was now an element of unpredictability, and as a result, everyone at some point walked through a fog door thinking that they’d get more of the level and instead stumbled, unprepared, into a boss fight.
Bloodborne continues this trend of increasing unpredictability. Boss fights can occur with no warning or at least no explicit warning. We can’t rely on the game to warn us or taunt us because it wants to catch us off guard.
The first boss, the huge werewolf known as the Cleric Beast, is rather difficult to find and that search sets the tone for the game.
Bloodborne is partly an RPG. You earn “experience” fighting enemies and spend that “experience” as a currency to make your character stronger, but you can’t actually do that at the start of the game. You can fight enemies, earn those Blood Echoes, but you can’t spend them. I have friends who have spent hours roaming the gothic city of Yarnham, confused about why they can’t access this important feature. Then they find that one bridge, and they brave the werewolf couple that wander it, and they follow it to its end, and then the Cleric Beast jumps down from its hidden perch and the first boss fight begins. It’s only afterwards, whether they win or lose, that they’ll be able to spend those Blood Echoes and level up.
To prevent us from engaging with this one consistent trait of an RPG is to make us feel like we’re missing something, and when we feel like we’re missing something, we feel unprepared for whatever awaits us. We will always be unprepared for the Cleric Beast the first time that we fight it. The game makes damn sure of that.
Then Bloodborne starts playing a meta game with our expectations. Since the Cleric Beast appeared out of nowhere, I’m expecting that kind of ambush to happen again, but it doesn’t. The next boss fight with Father Gascoigne begins with a cut scene. I walk through an archway, and instead of having a few moments to analyze the environment, I trigger an introductory video and the fight begins. Gascoigne rushes me in an arena that I haven’t had time to study. My first instinct is to dodge his attacks but that only results in me getting caught on a gravestone that I didn’t know was there—stuck between a literal rock and a hard place. Whereas the Cleric Beast surprises us by waiting, Gascoigne surprises us by rushing.
The third boss, or at least the third boss that I fought, neither ambushes you, nor rushes you. She waits for you. Vicar Amelia can be seen at the end of a long church, hunched over and praying. The environment is suspicious, indicative of a boss fight in every way that a video game environment can be indicative of a boss fight, but Amelia waits just long enough to make us doubt ourselves. You’ll walk more than half the length of the church, ready but waiting, as Amelia prays with her back to you, a vulnerable position that encourages us to come closer and attack. Except that you won’t get that chance because she quickly transforms into a giant werewolf. Crap.
Not only does the timing of the fight surprise us, but the nature of it is surprising as well. The Cleric Beast establishes that we should expect giant monsters, but Gascoigne tells us that humans can be deadly as well. Amelia looks to be one of the former, but then becomes one of the latter.
Eventually you’ll learn the patterns of Bloodborne. You’ll know when a boss is coming because of the environment and because it just feels like that time has come. However, when you do reach this point, the game knows that you know its patterns, and it’ll change things accordingly.
There’s a late-game area called the Nightmare Frontier that’s infamous because other players can invade your game with incredible ease there, and make no mistake, these invaders are bosses in their own right. You’re warned when an invader appears, but you don’t know where they will specifically appear.
The first time that I was invaded I started running through the level, desperate to return to where I had died previously so that I could retrieve my lost Blood Echoes. I didn’t consider the fact that I had died because a monster threw a rock at me and that I was running right into his line of sight again. I found my Blood Echoes and the invader, and then we fought while boulders rained around us. I died, of course. I was unprepared for that fight at that time in that area. But damn it was a thrilling death.
This is the game taunting us, toying with our expectations, and I love it all the more for that, for the way it increases my paranoia and encourages an awareness of my surroundings. There’s always a thrill in preparing for a fight, but it’s another kind of thrill to have the fight come to you unexpectedly. I’ve written before about how the Souls games are an evolution of survival-horror, and Bloodborne makes the strongest case for this yet, what with its gothic setting and Lovecraftian mythos. This is a game that wants us to be scared, and it know that to scare us it has to attack us in ways that we haven’t seen before.