A reader explores the literary origins of Bloodborne’s plot and explains why he thinks its storytelling is one of its greatest achievements.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Bloodborne has now been out for a few weeks, and having now passed twice through its cobbled districts and eldritch nightmares I’d like to set down some thoughts on From Sofware’s latest. But rather than focus on the gameplay – which by all accounts is very good indeed – I’ll be talking about particular elements of the storyline and the legitimate function it serves in the game (as opposed to many other titles). Readers who have played it will know that the following only begins to scratch the surface, which is telling in itself.
For starters, Bloodborne is a little shorter than From Software’s previous Souls games, and this makes it feel like a hybrid of epics like Dark Souls and classic Capcom titles like Devil May Cry and Resident Evil 4 (to which it owes a great debt). And while the game retains a threadbare approach to exposition, the reduced scope makes both the narrative and the lore feel more concentrated and therefore more pertinent to your overall experience.
The story walks a path from the terrestrial plight of sickly Yarnhamites to the extraterrestrial dimensions of the cosmos, a well-worn theme in modern horror and science fiction, but also one that sits very comfortably in the hands of the game’s creative director, Hidetaka Miyazaki.
There are lessons to be learned in the way Bloodborne merges its narrative and world design, in the way it maps the interlocking streets of Yarnham to its doomed inhabitants without any recourse to a mo-cap studio. As a result the mode of engagement here is something closer to reading a book than watching a movie.
Your first directive is to seek a cure for the plague that has befallen the city, and by exploring the narrow streets you are given the option of rescuing a handful of cowering residents by directing them to one of two safe havens. Sadly, an inescapable note of darkness is sounded in the fact that any and all attempts at helping these people are doomed either way.
This casts a large and ominous shadow from which the game never truly emerges. And it is in the gaps between these conversations that Bloodborne attains an even higher level of horrific quality, most especially in relation to the character of Father Gascoigne’s daughter.
You can only glean her story through basic dialogue and item descriptions where the game insinuates what happens to her, but only in a ‘before and after’ sense, leaving the player to fill in the gaps. In this vein, you can only imagine her doomed journey from the relative safety of her house to an unthinkable meeting in the sewers below.
This particular path leads to Oeden’s Tomb – where you kill her father – and the sanctuary of Oeden Chapel beyond. And while this is only one of many routes the player will travel repeatedly throughout the game, it takes on a very different complexion once you understand what took place there. It is more troubling than a hundred well-acted cut scenes because you – the player – are invited to join the dots, to picture in your mind the terrible events unfolding around you.
But beyond the city limits – and the limits of its citizens to cope with the scourge surrounding them – the narrative ascends to another plane of possibilities, where the suffering and damnation of one young girl becomes heartlessly dwarfed by an excursion into the forested hinterlands of H.P. Lovecraft’s Massachusetts.
Here we find bulbous, blue-headed aliens, and Miyazaki’s very own substitute for Miskatonic University: the Byrgenwerth Academy for students with acid reflux syndrome. A Gothic story of blood and beasts evolves into the cosmos, and while it’s all very derivative and predictable, it also works a treat. Whatever you think of Lovecraft’s stories, there’s no doubting the importance of his imagination in bridging the gap between 19th and 20th century horror.
More pertinent to Bloodborne though is the fact that there’s something about the eldritch school of the macabre that works so well in video games. While Call Of Cthulhu (2005) missed the point, Eternal Darkness (2002) got enough right to prove this point. However, whereas Silicon Knights’ game embraced the cartoonish silliness of Lovecraft, From Software plays it for keeps with a renowned eye for detail and spine-chilling audio accompaniments that make the experience truly horrifying.
This is a game that exploits your curiosity in ways that time after time result in you being blindsided, shocked, disgusted, rattled, and usually – though not always – staring at another ‘YOU DIED’ screen. And, in keeping with the Lovecraft theme, it is man’s curiosity that always acts as a prelude to damnation, death, or just plain old insanity.
Knowledge in Bloodborne is represented by your Insight value, gained by simply playing the game, finding bosses, talking to characters, or consuming a Madman’s Knowledge. There are two methods for lifting the veil of deceit cloaking Yarnham. You can amass an insight value of 40, or you can kill Rom the Vacuous Spider: a sort of guardian of the veil.
Either way, the previously cloaked Amygdalae, unnervingly passive Cthulhu-like creatures that hug the buildings in Yahar’gul and Cathedral Ward, are revealed to have been continually present from the beginning of the game. But even more impressively, one particular choke point near the end demonstrates Bloodborne’s desire to amplify the idea of knowledge and madness as being synonymous.
On entering the Nightmare of Mensis the game becomes an intense scramble to avert the gaze of a pulsing furnace in the distance. Here resides the Mother Brain, a heaving mound of tumorous grey matter. She will frenzy the player on sight, radiating forbidden knowledge and madness, inflicting a status ailment that causes your health bar to decrease rapidly.
The Brain is an obvious approximation of Lovecraft’s Shoggoth – a similarly gelatinous creation – weighed down by a surplus of all-seeing eyes. She is the fullest representation of the idea that your knowledge and your susceptibility to frenzy are hopelessly interlinked.
In other words, the more you discover the more vulnerable you are to a mental implosion and certain death. And while the visual and mechanical realisation of this idea is undoubtedly impressive, it also runs the risk being temporarily obscured by player-panic (at least in my case it was). But, then again, even that has a certain interior logic to it.
Bloodborne revels in its lack of reassurance about humanity’s place in a vast universe. It embraces age old fears that the fire of knowledge will burn you alive as much as it illuminates the dark. For a more hopeful encounter with the cosmos you’ll have to look elsewhere, and there are many fine examples of this alternative, not least 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Instead, Bloodborne is a wholesale descent into our worst fears and nightmares, purging itself of every neurotic and primordial phobia that churns in our collective unconscious. You can take it or leave it, but there’s no denying the quality, or the integrity, of its execution.
And in much the same way you can only imagine the fates of the doomed citizens of Yarnham, you could equally imagine the game’s creators chuckling in masochistic approval at the way the player’s struggles chime so perfectly with the themes embedded in the game. It is a truly magnificent artistic achievement.
By reader Tingle’s Therapist MD
(Currently accepting appointments from any afflicted Bloodborne players.)
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