Saturday, September 9, 2017

Bloodborne and the Context of a Duel

Some of the most iconic images or moments in movies, video-games, and television come out of a duel. It's that moment where the hero and villain are finally clashing swords, or shooting each other down. It's almost impossible to count all the great duels we've seen over the years; from the Mexican standoff of The Good, the Bad, the Ugly to Luke facing Vader on the reformed Death Star to Oberyn Martell fighting the menacing Mountain. Bloodborne, though, manages to exemplify the very best out of a duel time and time again throughout the game, taking characteristics from past, iconic duels and possibly forging the path for new ones to be made. 
Of all the duels in Bloodborne, there are but two that have any true narrative impact: the very first Hunter battle you have against Father Gascoigne, and the climactic duel with Gehrman in the Hunter's Dream. There are dozens of other Hunter fights in the game, appearing in various areas, but all coming at certain points of impact to give more context to the world at large, if you're into reading into these sorts of things.

Bloodborne's implementation of all the Hunters, and by extent their true duels, is all but a means of giving more hints at the truth of what's going on here, and what players are involved in which schools of thought. There is a five way battle going on throughout Bloodborne shown throughout each Duel you partake in: The Choir (attempting to usher forth a Great One), the School of Mensis (attempting to ascend and become like the Great Ones), the Hunters (stopping the scourge of the beasts and hiding their own truths), the Church (trying to spread accursed Blood and thereby rule the world), and the Player. While initially it seems the Player should be on the side of the Hunters, it should become quite evident (like, the second boss fight) that there are no good guys in Bloodborne

The only true good thing in Bloodborne is the Doll, and even then she's little more than a construct crafted by Gehrman as a means of serving the Hunters. Alfred, Eileen, Gehrman, they're all out to get you eventually if you cross them. 

This war that is going on simultaneous to the exploration and discovery of the Eldritch truth of the world perfectly lays the groundwork for a battlefield. Hunters are scattered, trying to kill one another for the good of their own leaders and you, the Player, have finally arrived to stop them. Thus, you must fight them, Hunter vs. Hunter, as if you're fighting yourself. 

Because of the rich narrative of Bloodborne and the great breadth of characters it has to affect your agency and how you will wind up dealing with the world, it's easy to assume that the reason Bloodborne implements so many duels is so you can just fight these people and experience true, genuine combat. But, if a duel is truly the climax of something, how can there be so many? Are there really so many narrative climaxes throughout the game? 

No, there aren't. There are environmental climaxes, or barriers to entry. Think about the pair of Hunters that guards your path into the Lecture Building and, by extent, the Nightmare Frontier. They serve as little more than a means of testing your mettle to go into the next area. Or what about that Choir member that bars your entry further into Mergo's Loft? Just another rest to see if you have what it takes. 

But if you really start to look into why some of these characters are where they are, these Duels start to make much more sense not necessarily for the narrative, but for the environment. And that's why Bloodborne so perfectly captures the essence of a duel: it understands the importance of environment in relation to a duel and how this, in turn, reflects the characters. 

Let's look at an outside example first, of a great duel and how the environmnt reflects the character(s) involved: the Mountian and the Viper: 

Consider Oberyn's character throughout this last season. He's lavish, unashamed, always running around and making himself known. Now imagine if this fight had taken place in some tiny indoor arena where only the Lannisters and Martells were allowed to watch. The fight loses impact because it takes the character away from the environment, and thus takes the influence of the characters off the fight. 

The environment is reflective of both Oberyn and the Mountain. Remember: environment is all about setting + mood. The outdoor, grand setting of a trial by combat is perfect for Oberyn, but is sharply contrasted by the dour moods poured out by Cersei and Tywin that is shown in the Mountain as he meticulously follows Oberyn about, waiting and waiting until he finally pounces. 

Now let's consider where we meet several opponents in Bloodborne for a duel. We meet: a strange priest in a graveyard (Father Gascoigne), an assassin in the back alleys of the city (Eileen), a psychopath atop a castle (Alfred), and an aged man inside a dream (Gehrman). Each environment we can fight these characters in is reflective of their character in some way or form. 

Gascoigne has gone from a loving father to consuming the blood and sending people to their graves. While initially this is an ironic twist of priests presiding over funerals, while Gascoigne is killing these people, the graveyard becomes more reflective of who he has become as a person. We discover this throughout the fight, as he changes up weapon styles in a desperate attempt to best our character. Bear in mind, this is the first true Hunter fight of the game, it can be difficult to adjust to Gascoigne at this time. 

The context behind this duel is indeed lathered all over the environment. Think about it from a meta-perspective: all those tombstones are, basically, the number of players that crashed against the Hunter fighting style, all against this monster. Now you're not only besting the character, but you're also besting the style. You're putting to death the old methods of play, leaving all that behind in the graveyard. It's time to become the Hunter. 

Another fight I loved was duking it out with Alfred in the hidden castle of Cainhurst, the one revealed after destroying Logarius and meeting the Queen of the Vilebloods. We finally see him for who he is, as was hinted when we hand him the Unopened Summons for Castle Cainhurst. Upon fighting him, we see that Alfred has slipped into the madness of most hunters, but instead of madness from the blood, it's madness from his obsession and single-minded attempt at vengeance. 

In a single move, Alfred becomes the villain and it becomes a question of whether or not the Player can fight him. If we do fight him, the Duel is personal and the environment feeds into it throughout. We fight him in that throne room, with statues of all the old Vilebloods that have passed on, and we fight before the remains of the final, now-dead, Vileblood. All the while, Alfred is soaking himself in blood from Logarius's wheel, the martyr we just silenced. 

While the throne room is nice and lavish, it's more the fact that we're capable of fighting him in the throne room surrounded by statues that makes it more intense. The duel would be good if it were in an open throne room, but Bloodborne understands what is truly needed for a great duel. An environment needs to have as much character as those fighting in it. Those statues add an eerie air to the whole place, as if you're being watched as intently as Alfred is, judged by all those who came before. Or, those statues show you who you are dueling for. 

Duels, from a narrative sense, need to have purpose. They can't just be fights for the sake of fights. One of the reasons that the "Matrix" films following The Matrix are so poorly received is that the action serves little point beyond spectacle. Why dedicate so much time fighting people that have no names and won't be important? The complete opposite of that is Bloodborne, giving weight to each fight for the characters' narratives as well as for the environments. This is the final battle for Cainhurst, a personal battle between two former allies who believed they were servicing the same goal. 

Player agency also factors in hugely with all of these duels. You don't have to fight Alfred at all, you don't have to experience that duel. You can go all throughout the game and never fight a Hunter; it's just as easy and quick to run past them. They are tough fights and maybe that style just isn't for you, and that's fine. That just means you're going to be way better at fighting other types of enemies, and that's great. 

But it's that choice to fight that gives these duels weight, because you get to pick the most cases. Eileen can be fought in the shadows of an alleyway, like the assassin she is. Alfred can be fought in front of a great memorial, which nicely adds a bit of irony to where we'll find him later, having vanquished the members of Cainhurst. 

Not all duels in Bloodborne, though, manifest that level of weight or have that level of understanding about how environment influences the fight. The Bloody Crow of Cainhurst battle, for example, takes place in the Grand Cathedral. It's unclear why that is. A more fitting place would have been the area in front of the Cathedral, the one with the giants. That makes more sense from an assassin's standpoint as there are several places of cover to fight and kill the Crow. 

This is one of those duels that tries to add narrative importance over environmental importance, and the game only truly succeeds at that once, and we'll get to him soon. Should the Player already have the rune bestowed to them by the Bloody Crow, they instead get a Great One's Wisdom item, implying that the Bloody Crow has come across a Great One and has gone mad, thus leading them to the Cathedral in order to find Ebrietas below (or they've just come from finding Ebrietas). 

But we only discover that after the fact. Most duels in Bloodborne inform you through either dialogue or context in the setting why characters are in certain places. Patches the Spider isn't in the Nightmare Frontier because he wants to screw with you, he's there because he's devout to Amygdala. So without way of knowing besides retroactively assessing things, the reason behind the Bloody Crow's arrival in the Grand Cathedral is unclear. 

Perhaps the best duel in Bloodborne, though, comes at the very end of the game, as it should. It's both the emotional climax of the story and plot, as well as the final test to see how truly great a Hunter the player has become, both as a Hunter of beasts and as a Hunter of Hunters like Eileen the Crow. 

Gehrman may not be my favorite boss in the game, but have to admit that I had some of the most fun fighting the old guy. His fighting style is fast, erractic, but not unreadable. After some attempts, it becomes clear what his moves are and he begins telegraphing them well. It becomes fair, and easier, and by extension, a much better fight. 

Often in videogames I struggle to believe that characters really take so many sword slashes to the chest and are able to get up. I get it, we have to have health-bars. But with Gehrman's fight, it genuinely felt multiple times like we were clashing swords and exchanging blows at an even rate like a true fight, like a true duel. 

He would attack, I would dodge and attack at the same time as him. Gehrman's fight mirrored the fighting style of the Hunters so well, but again, it's the environment that truly brings things home. It was so powerful it often gets me emotional to think about. 

I was standing at the base of the hill, looking up, and the perfect image of the fight appeared as my camera locked onto Gehrman. He strode, slowly, wounded, with his scythe and blunderbuss drawn, down the hill with the Hunter's workshop burning in the background. It was over for him. Whatever the outcome of this fight was, Gehrman was ended. The dream was on fire, the quest was over. A Hunter finally slew a Great One, and now the one that killed them seeks more? 

With the dream on fire in the background and coupled with the idea that we could explore every aspect of the game but this one, the duel with Gehrman simply skyrockets in my mind. It's topped with an incredibly sad score, too, showing the tragedy of what has become of Gehrman. It's matched, emotionally, with the battle against Lord Gwyn in another From Software property: Dark Souls

Gwyn, this unimaginable cosmic force that slew dragons and basically twisted time and space around him, has become some hollow old man, fighting in the dingy shadows in front of a flame of his creation that he so desperately clings to. Both Gehrman and Gwyn exemplify the final vestiges of hope that we often see in heroes, not villains. And while Gehrman is by no means a good guy (see: The Old Hunters DLC), there's still a ton of loss and weight to this battle for him. 

This fight would lose almost all of its impact had it taken place in some new location beyond the Hunter's Dream. It had to be there, it had to have the Workshop on fire. The final fight had to be Gehrman to climax the story (unless you fight the Moon Presence, a much weaker boss in terms of difficulty as well as service to the narrative). 

Bloodborne gets what it means to have a duel: environment. The environment must be correct, and it must either reflect the nature of the characters or the personalities of the characters that are in it. The environment will, in turn, have an impact on either the narrative of those characters or the path that the character has chosen. If you don't believe me, give Bloodborne another whirl and really focus on where some of the Hunter fights are taking place. Then I'll think you'll start to see. 

After all, Bloodborne is all about seeing what's truly around you. 

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