Early this year, I started work on a novel.
It isn’t my first longer writing project: I have a bad middle-school fantasy epic under my belt, and last year I earned an MFA after two years’ work on a collection of short stories. This novel is, however, the first project for which I’ve had real artistic and professional intent from the start.
And maybe it’s because I’ve told myself this book “has to matter” that, halfway through a first draft, I find myself visited by the old habit of despair. I’m just enough of a journeyman to know that, realistically, this project is going to take years of writing, reading, re-writing, and revising before it approaches its final form. Putting all the work I am now into raw material that will, in the end, be deleted or at least reworked into oblivion is hard to stomach sometimes. Creating draft after draft that doesn’t work feels like a string of personal failures. It’s foolish, but I keep asking myself: why I can’t just produce the good stuff already?
Playing video games is part of how I recover from despair like this, but this summer my time in front of the TV got a little more intense than I’m used to: this summer, I played my first Souls game.
It was my brother’s fault. Deeply in love with the series, he hounded me and hounded me until he finally bought 2015’s Bloodborne for me as a Christmas gift, a maneuver calculated, I can only imagine, to give me no choice. Like many, I’d stayed away from the Souls suite because of its reputation for severe difficulty. I had heard horror stories. Players throwing themselves against bosses hundreds of times without success, labyrinths filled with enemies that respawn every time you die.
You’re wondering if I made it out alive. I did. At points I didn’t know I was going to. I certainly didn’t expect to fall as deeply in love with this game as I have, and I certainly didn’t expect, as a novelist wading through the thick of it, to find things so familiar.
Let’s not make bones: the Souls games are hard. Set in the blood-soaked alleyways of a Lovecraftian, pseudo-Victorian city, Bloodborne sees you caught up in a plague of beasts with cosmically horrifying consequences, and these beasts are vicious. Most of the game’s common enemies kill you in two or three hits, and they’re intentionally placed around dark corners and down misty lanes to punish thoughtless exploring. Should you engage more than two enemies at one time, well, prepare to die. And then there’s the game’s trademark Souls experience point system, which steals your XP forever should you die twice before reaching your “bloodstain.”
All this, plus the series’ infamous refusal to explain anything, adds up to a game that is utterly disinterested in easing new players into its mechanics or world. The Souls series and its offshoots—Demon’s Souls, the Dark Souls trilogy, and Bloodborne—are huge outliers in the industry for the risk they take by insisting, fiercely, that you earn not only your completion of the games but your appreciation of them. It’s work to love a Souls game.
Theoretically, progressing through Bloodborne is a linear process: you work your way through areas and defeat the corresponding bosses. But as anyone who’s played it can tell you, the experience is rarely so straightforward. Because each encounter is so hard, most of my time in Bloodborne was spent in repetition. Repeating encounters again and again, trying to best them.
Such repetition is the aspect that defines a Souls game experience for many. You die, you try again, you die again, you succeed. My brother tells me he loves to be stuck on a Souls boss, being locked in this very specific brand of punishment, correction, and reward.
Bloodborne’s bosses are poster children of the game’s difficulty and best-in-class presentation. These hulking monstrosities also kill you in a few hits, only they have terrific reach, terrifying speed, and extensive, devastating movesets they use to tear you, the poor, hapless neophyte, to shreds.
Beating one of these bosses for me was, indeed, a specific process of distinct stages. There was the first attempt, in which I didn’t understand anything and everything was rather frightening and the boss killed me in a few seconds flat. Post-disemboweling, I wasn’t frustrated—I was in awe. Thanks to Bloodborne’s phenomenal sound and art design, the task of defeating a boss always felt impossible, even in late-game.
Most of the work that happened over the next dozen or so tries was, in fact, just getting past the initial shock and realizing that Bloodborne’s bosses were governed by AI like bosses in any other game, with patterns of moves I could predict or at least react to. This was the second, dynamic stage, which eventually culminated in the win. If you’ve never played a Souls game, the sheer exaltation you feel upon defeating one of these enemies is hard to describe. It’s a high that addicts.
The Souls community likes to throw around the cheeky adage ‘get good,’ but what I was surprised to discover was how fundamentally progression in Bloodborne hinges on simple observation. Overcoming boss encounters was almost never about somehow gaining skill I didn’t have before, about becoming a better player—that’s a longer, more nebulous process. Instead, it was about teaching myself to pay the right kind of attention. I had to learn to recognize a boss’ attacks, and then experiment to learn the most advantageous response to each.
What’s clear, then, is that Bloodborne is a game with revision as its most central design concept. The game’s challenges, by design, require reconnaissance to truly master. In other games, death is a fail state; in Bloodborne it’s an essential method one uses to learn fights. To die to an attack is to understand its capabilities so that we might survive it next time, and understanding a boss is the only way to beat it. It’s often said of Souls games that they are hard but fair. I’d agree, with the caveat that encounters don’t always start out fair—they become fair with repetition and experience. With revision.
Learning to pay the right kind of attention over repeated tries at something should sound familiar if you’re a writer. A first draft of anything is so shitty (to quote Anne Lamott), because we go in, necessarily, unprepared. Outlining, color-coding your meticulous worldbuilding excel sheets—this is all well and good, but as with most things we find the actual forest darker and stranger than we could have imagined. It takes writing the thing to understand what it is.
Drafts improve because every run-through we learn more about them. A character who comes across as flat at first we may discover, in a second draft, has obvious motivations that we missed the implications of last time. Exploring those implications ekes out the character’s world view, which may contradict with that of other characters in interesting ways. All of a sudden we have a rich, complex person on our hands. Investigating, draft to draft, problems of pace might reveal uneven stakes or the lurk of melodrama.
There are many words we could use to describe the process that happens from draft to draft—it’s one of complexity, of deepening, of honest and objective regard—but one thing is clear: it’s not a process of becoming more skillful. You don’t have to suddenly get better to make your book better. You just have to throw yourself to the beasts one more time and write one more shitty draft.
Before playing Bloodborne, I understood this about the revision process, sort of. But progressing through Yharnam’s plagued streets, dying, becoming frustrated, rethinking strategies, dying again, made me reflect on my frustration with my novel project. What Bloodborne taught me, and what I think the game makes it most fundamental statement about, is the unavoidable victory of failure.
It might be surprising to suggest that a game as grimdark in its setting and brutal in its difficulty is, under everything, hopeful, but I’m not the first to suggest it, and the more time you spend with the game the clearer the truth of it becomes. Precisely because success depends on observation over repeated attempts, every attempt, no matter how miserable, takes you closer to victory—as long as you’re actively trying to learn. Because Bloodborne’s design revolves around revision as a method, death itself carries us forward. Every honest try has value.
Because I found so much familiar in Bloodborne’s version of revision, realizing this about its design philosophy was like a shot to the heart. In the mire of my wandering first draft, thinking about all the work ahead of me, it was very difficult (and still is) to see the good of what I was accomplishing day to day. But really, the good is impossible to miss. Every draft takes you closer to the finished product because the only thing standing between you and success is depth of understanding. And every draft necessarily deepens our understanding of what we’re doing.
This doesn’t, at all, mean that the process of revising drafts is easy or fast—it’s anything but. It also doesn’t mean that you’re not going to feel like crap after spending a fifth draft on the same crappy scene—I do all the time. It does mean, though, that the only real requirement for producing a successful piece of writing is that you care about it honestly, that you actively desire and work to make it better, that you are willing and able to pay attention. And isn’t that a hopeful thought?
I have a theory for why the Souls games are such a transformative experience for so many people: they make manifest, like few other games can, a player’s sense of personal growth. As you progress, you experience this constant, incredible astonishment at comparing your old “self” to the “self” that’s playing now. When, on your second playthrough, you beat a boss that took you dozens of tries last time, it might not be hyperbole to say that you feel the weight of history. You remember the frustration and confusion; you don’t feel any of it. These games feel so good to play because their difficulty and design constantly remind you how far you’ve come.
And it’s true: playing Bloodborne was partly so edifying for me as a writer because it recreated, on a smaller scale, the process from confusion to understanding that takes years when working on a novel. In a few weeks, I went from a terrified newbie to a knowledgeable, confident player. I defeated every boss, cleared every optional chalice dungeon. So early in the process, writing a novel seems just as impossible as the Watchdog of the Old Lords, but my experience with Bloodborne makes it a little easier to imagine what it might feel like to understand my project as well as I do Yharnam’s cathedrals and graveyards.
But its those particular moments of remembering frustration, remembering impossibility, that I think contain the most useful lessons, and where the Souls games might very well transcend their medium. I wrote earlier that Bloodborne demands you earn your appreciation of it. It turns out that, really, learning to love these games for what they are is learning to love the act of failing. When my brother says that he loves to be stuck on a Souls boss, he reveals that he sees the entire arc of the Souls experience. He knows that dying is sort of the best thing he can do to succeed, and is free to enjoy the act of understanding. And there is joy in such an act.
This is a lesson invaluable to writers, if not an easy one. If we can learn to love the daily drudgery of working and reworking, not only because it is the fastest and most assured method of progression toward a realized, beautiful, working piece, but because the very act of understanding something has value, we can take major steps toward combatting despair.
And despair is the most dangerous enemy. It’s mine, at this very moment. Quitting because the work seems hopeless, becoming so unsure of ourselves that we can’t progress due to doubt—these are the things that truly kill a project.
Bloodborne and the Souls series feature worlds under the grip of relentless, cosmically indifferent cycles of fire and dark, dream and nightmare, and characters who, against all odds, and sometimes because they don’t or can’t know better, push forward, fighting if nothing else their own insanity. There might be something to learn here about the brutal, animal value of putting your head down and just advancing, no matter how bad you think the work you’re producing.
But I think, in the end, that what Bloodborne teaches us is how and why to do the difficult thing and hope.
Samuel Jensen holds an MFA from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, where he is currently a Zell Fellow. His fiction has appeared in The Master’s Review and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.