Content Warning: abuse, domestic violence.
There is an argument currently finding favour within games criticism as a loose field that states that Bloodborne — in fact that all of the games in the Souls series — are equivalent to abuse or to being in an abusive relationship. Just… no. Stop. This argument is embarrassing and it is offensive and it fundamentally misunderstands abuse, turning pain into a badge for posturing with.
Bloodborne will never beat you so hard that it breaks your ribs and puts you back to work on the farm the moment you leave the hospital.
Bloodborne will not tell you that it could not live without you. That you are the only thing keeping it alive even while it keeps you dead inside.
Bloodborne will not make you cover your bruises with makeup and lies about door frames.
Bloodborne will not correct your every minor mistake in front of your friends until you begin to doubt that you have ever made a statement in your life that didn’t make you look like an idiot.
Bloodborne will not tell you that it will change, and never even try to do so.
Bloodborne will not systematically alienate your friends and family until it is the only thing that you have to rely on and then tell you that you are in the best place you can be.
Bloodborne will not tell you that you would be nothing without it even while it keeps you from ever changing or growing or being who you are.
Bloodborne will never hit you and tell you that it only does so because it loves you.
Bloodborne will not find you, even after you think you have escaped, and drag you back into its life.
Bloodborne will not scar you where it knows that it will not be seen.
Bloodborne will not poison your life so that even when you are finally free of it you secretly fear that every relationship must exist in that model until you sabotage each one so that it does.
Bloodborne does not see you primarily as a tool to further its own designs.
There are all sorts of valid and useful conversations to be had around the Souls series of games. If you are a survivor of abuse and playing these games speaks to you about that abuse then I would love to hear about how that works, if you are willing and ready to share it. There are valid and useful conversations to be had around addiction and exploitation and an industry that is known to abuse and facilitate abuse of its workers. I maintain — and always have done — that games are a form of art and should be discussed as such, but even so it needs to be remembered that art is a product. Tell me how it made you feel, or what its place in the history of aesthetics is for sure, but do not ever tell me that playing with your £300 toy is the same thing as a lifetime ruined by active, sustained and calculated dehumanisation. Bloodborne is not, in and of itself, an abuser.
So Bloodborne didn’t hold your hand through a difficulty spike? Boo hoo. My heart weeps. The problem is that everyone likes to talk about the way Bloodborne makes them fail, even as they succeed. A litany of bosses, each harder than the last, all making them fail; but to even recite that litany they must have defeated each in turn. To call Bloodborne abusive under these circumstances is to ultimately buy into the rhetoric of the abuser, to believe them when they tell you that they only want to make you stronger, that it is only you that is holding yourself back. But that is a lie. Abusers do not want you to be stronger, they want you exactly where and how you are, directly under their control, shoring up their position in the world. Maybe, just maybe, if Bloodborne kept you in the starting area, if it denied you the tools to get out but told you that it was your own fault for not being strong enough, then I might agree that it modelled abusive behaviour. But it doesn’t. Its failstate is a soft reset, and some spooky text, not a permanent physical or emotional scar. Abuse breaks you down in a way that Bloodborne neither can nor is interested in doing.
While it may instil in you conflicting and difficult, even self-flagellatory, emotions Bloodborne remains a game that you chose to play, that you can leave behind at any time. To call such a thing an abuser is to once again fall into a dangerous and destructive rhetoric around victimhood that real life abusers use to their advantage to perpetuate their abuse: ‘You chose to be with me’; ‘You could leave any time, but I know that you aren’t strong enough to do so’; ‘She brought it on herself by going with him, we all knew what he was like and at least she’s got a nice house and kids.’ But abusive situations are not games. You do not level up and eventually beat them by design. Sometimes you walk into them and sometimes you are born into them, but you never know beforehand what they will be like; there are no reviews to tell you you might want to give this one a miss if you don’t like difficulty.
Talk about hardship and struggle, about different forms of teaching and agency and even whether the precious leisure time that you spend playing with unbelievably expensive toys is being wasted by something that you are in no way beholden to play. But do not equate it to abuse.