I didn’t expect to ever return to Yharnam. But here I am, grinding for blood vials. Sure, they were a terrible decision by From Software. They probably wanted to make healing items more precious, so that players would lean harder into the Rally system. But, let’s be honest: the vial system sucks.
Still, here I am, slamming my giant wheel into the soft, malleable heads of Yharnamites. These strange scratch-and-dent Colonial Williamsburg by way of Brotherhood of the Wolf Generic Militarized Farmer and Townsfolk wargaming miniatures. I love the way they howl and moan and crumple. The wet smacking sounds as my giant reinforced conestoga wagon wheel slams into body and face. I love that I’ve decided my character is Lady Caroline Lamb. That these Yharnamites are actually Byrons. Maybe a Shelley or two. I love wrecking them with the wheel. I love the wheel.
The wheel is pure, the purest weapon in Bloodborne. Not as brittle and fussy as that Tesla beatstick leftover from The Order: 1886, the Tonitrus (which I do love). Sure, there’s the saw, and the other saw, and the axe-halberd, and the big sword. They all have their place in the hunters arsenal. But when Lady Caroline is opening up a group of Byrons to siphon off their blood for later sustenance? It can only ever be The Wheel.
I don’t know that I love Bloodborne. Not fully, but when I think about why in this moment, this past week, that I am falling in love with Bloodborne, it’s this goddamn wheel.
Why did I fall off of Elden Ring? I gave it an 8.5. I called it “The King’s Field successor I needed.” Dozens of hours later, I wrote breathlessly to Cameron Kunzelman about it. And yet, here I am, with Elden Ring constantly in danger of being uninstalled, and me elbow deep in my previous save of my least favorite From Software game, one that I swore had nothing for me to return to.
I still like Elden Ring a lot. From the creepy weirdo at the outset of the adventure, to the choice between the parts of a severed hand, or the internet’s many-handed blue-doll witch-wife, hunched and insistent Rya, or my best mate, the loveable blackguard who’s keen to share his prawns—I love these characters as much as I love my himbo daughter who abandoned her faith in the middle of a lake for raw strength and a heap of raw iron or my frail vampiric blood witch who is devastating until she’s looked at by a gentle breeze. But I kept thinking about the laundry I have to do, the podcasts I could have been catching up on (I listened to half a season of Friends at the Table while guiding people through dungeons), or all the other games in my library I could be playing. Even the most convoluted dungeons are still too perfect, too readily intuited, and once you’ve done them once? There’s nothing there again. Elden Ring is a game that lacks friction. There’s no coarseness to keep me adhered.
There’s an argument to be made that Elden Ring is plenty frictious. From calamitous bugs to From Software’s classic abstruse NPC triggers and quest demands that are made all the more perplexing by the signal decay of distance and the noise introduced by an open world without many definite character cloisters. But the world betrays how it was built and populated with procedural tools (a necessity for something this large and high end), stretched and extended from sharp spikes and swingy parabolas into a long, gradual gradient. The even measurement of a lineage that’s gone from 10 to 30 to 60 to 120 hour games. The friction for me with Elden Ring isn’t in how it constructs systems and mechanics, though. It’s in my expectations and desires as a player. I don’t have that when I’m playing Bloodborne.
Every aspect of Bloodborne is one of resistance. To play Bloodborne is to embrace friction both in mechanics and aesthetics. Nothing here is smooth or apparent, from the murky, cluttered UI to the murky, cluttered landscape of Havok objects and overly textured, convoluted geometry. Slowdown is absolutely a problem, still, in 2022 on the PS5 where it hasn’t even been frame rate unlocked. It’s a game that wants to be fast, faster than the PS2 Shinobi, but can’t stop halting and jerking like a modern PC port on the aged Nintendo Switch. Bloodborne is a game that fights you to play it. Even the muscle memory and intuition from other From Software games is betrayed here—just look at that health vial system or the bullets. But what ties all this together into the sensation of steel grinding on steel is how condensed it all is. Yharnam collapses in on itself despite the verticality. Even at its most expansive and cavernous, meandering and stretched—its forests are small English gardens of ruin, not the broad medieval woodland of Elden Ring. Its mistakes are clustered, layered, abutting. And nowhere is this more present in the Root Chalice Dungeons. There are 2300 potential combinations of Root Chalice Dungeon, and while each combination has been mapped, you’ll likely never hold them all in your head. You can’t know them the way I know Tombsward Catacombs or Stormveil or even Crumbling Farum Azula. And a lot of the combinations are terrible dungeon designs. The kind of dungeon layouts that would have your players in revolt and see you jeered out of the back corner of the game store where you run Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay on Saturday nights. By comparison the dungeons Diablo (1996) generated feel more logical, consistent, and less frictive. And that’s where the simplicity of the wheel comes in.
As I told Cameron, I struggled with finding a character to play post-review Elden Ring with. There’s so many options, all of them hybrids in some way (even my strength build has a handful of points in Faith, because why not? Why shouldn’t I throw a boulder or pocket sand?). But in Bloodborne? Lady Caroline Lamb spent her time flipping tires and getting swole and now she’s ready to smash Celestial Centipedes in the face (at this point I don’t even need loot aside from the occasional health vial to keep going). The reward is in the mayhem, turning a corner into a dead end. Smashing a squad of powered up Garden of Eyes and then backing into a hallway to nowhere only to barely survive a Winter Lantern encounter where the frame rate drops to the teens as I bring the wheel down on that tremendous head. Muck-drenched, blood spattered, and covered in soot, Lady Caroline smiles with textures never meant to be upscaled to 4K by a cheap 55” TV. We go back, we do it again. There’s no traversal. No getting from one dungeon to the next. We leave, we go back. Effortlessly pursuing more friction to surmount.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.