Someone recently asked me what I thought of Bloodborne, the new game by From Software, the trailer of which was unveiled at E3 2014. The Souls franchise is a major touchstone for my ideas about magic systems (and game design more generally). Here’s a one-paragraph review of my thoughts so far, and a brief extension of that review into some further thoughts on the philosophical implications of From Software’s design practices.
I think this trailer (and the project as a whole, based on leaked screenshots and gameplay footage) looks magnificent. With Miyazaki back at the helm, From has managed to transfer the gorgeous, Gothic heart of the Souls franchise into a new vessel: a dinosaur-haunted, barely industrial 18th century. This shift in setting and IP was necessary to avoid sequelitis and the creation of Dark Souls IX: Electric Boogaloo. From Software excels at spiritual successors, not sequels. King’s Field begat Shadow Tower begat Demon’s Souls begat Dark Souls begats Bloodborne. Some specific thoughts: the room packed densely and inexplicably with far too many candlesticks echoes the most surprising scene in Demon’s Souls. (If you’ve played it, you know the one). The discovery of what appears to be a dinosaur shrine points to another strength of From’s world-building: the suggestion of layers of lore from bygone times, which must be excavated like an archeological dig. I love the little quirky details here: the padded wheelchair, and the way the collar on the protagonist’s jacket turns up to look like the horns of a black knight’s armor. These subtle details and echoes suggest that From knows how to preserve the atmospheric essence of a franchise (its soul) while guiding it into a new body.
While the innovations of Demon’s Souls might tempt us to see it as springing fully formed into existence, it is in fact the self-avowed spiritual successor of the King’s Field franchise, which begins in 1994 and spans several consoles and platforms. Demon’s Souls exists within the broader context of the overarching mythology created by From Software in their King’s Field franchise and its spin-offs, including Shadow Tower and Eternal Ring. Specifically, the installments of this franchise are iterations of the same core vision, in which the designers at From Software have refined their concept and learned from their mistakes in much the same way that Demon’s Souls requires its players to learn through trial and error in a brutally unforgiving world. The mysteries of Demon’s Souls, especially the relationship between its innovative gameplay systems and its fictional metaphysics, can be illuminated within the larger context of From Software’s interconnected web of innovative RPG’s. In the process, I explore what it means for a game to be a “spiritual sequel” in a world that is thematically preoccupied with discarnate and reincarnating souls.