In Defense of Blood Vials: 'Eat Your Vegetables' game design
People really hate farming blood vials
This is a pretty common criticism of Bloodborne, especially since the healing system is so different from Dark Souls’s renowned estus flask system. “Why would the developers ever force the player to “farm” a healing item? This just makes me madder. I just want to keep fighting the boss!”
Take a break, kid
“Go take a break. You’ve died to this guy like 30 times already, go do something else for a bit.”
This is what Bloodborne is telling the player with its blood vial system. If you’ve died to a boss so many times that you’re out of blood vials, then you probably need to go do something else.
But wait, what if it’s early in the game? You don’t have that many vials to begin with, so why make me grind?
But wait, what if it’s late in the game? You seriously think I don’t know what I’m doing? Let me keep fighting the boss, I’ll have you know I’m a souls veteran…
It’s the early game: You only start with 20 vials. Oh no, you died to the Cleric Beast! That’s 20 vials down the drain. Go farm some vials and practice the combat. You know who always drops 2-3 blood vials? The big boys. Go kill a bunch of them.
What’s that? They’re hard for you to kill at this level? Good. Keep fighting them. Don’t come back till you’ve killed 20 of them. Learn to dodge, learn to parry, learn the mechanics of your trick weapon, and then come back to Father Gascoine.
Late game: Take a breather
I get it, Orphan of Kos is hard. But you’re tilted, I can tell. You’ve died to that stupid four hit stunlock combo like 30 times already, go do something else. Do a chalice dungeon or something. Beat up one of those procedurally generated bosses (“The Watchdog of Anus” or whatever its called).
Come back tomorrow. You’ll beat it on your second try, I promise.
“Eat your Vegetables” game design
One of the responsibilities of designers is to protect the player from themselves
-Sid Meier and Soren Johnson, designers of the Civilization series
An example: The game “Transistor” previously had a system that discouraged players from using the same abilities for the whole game. Amir Rao from Supergiant games calls this “Eat your Vegetables” game design:
Previously, I said we were trying to discourage players from sitting on the same powers all game long and denying themselves a deeper and more varied experience. That sentiment came from a very ’eat your vegetables’ school of game design that I think many developers can be prone to. You see a relatively natural path-of-least-resistance sort of behavior in your players that you want to discourage, so you try to design all the ways in which it will be thwarted."(source)
In Transistor, “Eat your vegetables” meant preventing easy, ’low-resistance’ strategies. In Bloodborne, it means keeping the player’s mental game ‘healthy’.
When Bloodborne takes the reigns away from the player and says “take a break”, it’s almost like telling the player to “eat your vegetables”. Bloodborne’s designers know that players who bash their heads against a boss for hours will get frustrated. In an attempt to prevent this frustration and give the player a more varied and healthy experience, they step in and say “you’ve had enough meat. It’s time for some vegetables”. You’ve died 50 times, go do something else.
Ironically, it seems like this has had the opposite effect on many players. That said, this type of forced-pacing has actually been a staple of FromSoftware games since Demon’s Souls, though players knew it by a different name back then:
The “boss runback”
Dying in a FromSoft game sends you back to the nearest checkpoint. Dying to any boss in Demon’s Souls up to Dark Souls 3 usually meant returning to the start of the entire level and running all the way back to the boss (taking any shortcuts you may have found).
The runback existed not just to reward players for exploring the level and finding shortcuts, but also to introduce a moment of reflection to the player. While running back to the boss, you’re no longer actively “in combat”. Instead, you’re auto-piloting through the level, still mentally chewing on your most recent death. I find that I come up with the best strategies during these runbacks. “I should probably roll towards the boss during that attack. I can only get in 2 hits after that other attack” etc.
At the very least, it introduces a gap in the pacing of a boss battle. An tough fight coupled with a tragic death makes my heart race. Having that small gap in-between the end of a fight and the start of the next attempt is a good ‘mental reset’ for me.
In contrast, Elden Ring has “stakes of marika” that respawn you right outside the boss door. This almost feels like giving up on Fromsoft’s part: “We get it, you hate the runback. You hate your vegetables. Fine, here’s your ice cream, go nuts.”.
Bloodborne’s intent is clear
The designers are no fools. They knew they could have re-used the Estus system just fine, and no one would have complained. But making the blood vial system was a calculated gamble to see if they could alleviate some frustration by motivating practice and exploration after repeated deaths. I think this experiment was a huge success.
Don’t believe me? This is basically Elden Ring.
In Elden Ring, if you die over and over again to a boss, you’re motivated to leave and explore, only to return when you’re stronger. The core of this motivation is the same as Bloodborne’s: Take a breather, go explore and practice, and come back when you’re ready.
The main difference is that in Elden Ring, the player is more intrinsically motivated to explore. “Damn, this guy killed me in 2 hits. I’m probably underleveled. I wonder what’s south of the bridge over there…”. Whereas, in Bloodborne, the game was extrinsically motivating the player, saying “You literally cannot fight this boss again, go do something else”.
The sentiment is the same, but the source is different. In the end, I think that’s where the frustration with blood vials comes from. In Elden Ring, it feels like your idea to go explore. In Bloodborne, it’s Miyazaki putting a plate of greens down and saying “eat”.
Not sure if I’ll do more “design”-related articles, but this one was fun to write. It feels cool and taboo to have a contrarian take for once lmao. Anyway if you like this stuff and want to be notified when I make a new post, consider signing up for my mailing list.