Bloodborne, as fantastic as it is filled with long loading screens(or not with a new update), this game is a big step forward for From Software. While some of us might hope this means we can get a really awesome Armored Core game on current gen systems let’s hold our requests and just stew on the themes and motifs in Bloodborne.
Horror. Horror, scary stories, the macabre and the eldritch and the unspeakable horror of our nihilistic culture. Scary stories, and by extension all media based on them, is a chance to look not only at our fears but how we, ourselves, add perspective to these things. From amazing films like It Follows looking at our fear of adulthood and sex that exists hidden in that adolescent haze of a very specific time in our lives to Unfriended and our fear of an endless stream of cheap Hollywood movies capitalizing on fears of our modern world a lot of horror goes back to several themes.
There was a time when horror was about a gothic setting, where there might or might not be a supernatural element, and in the end people would fall in love, wait what? At a certain time, we’ll call it the dawn of true horror, themes became more important and falling in love was less important. Frankenstein, Dracula, Poe’s work, themes and psychology slowly became more important. Scary stories had always been a cultural fear, with different cultures having their own stories, but as horror became it’s own genre we see this new movement making headway at an amazing pace.
Bloodborne is a game that goes through so many different types of horror that it actually starts to re-contextualize stuff you see earlier in the game.
Alright, there’s the start of it, spoilers from here on out. Like, total and complete spoilers.
Blood. It’s gross. There’s this weird low-hi thing in people’s brains expressed in our use of language. Basically we go from lowest of low being words and images associated with the body, and eventually we move up to higher concepts. If we look at a list of words they don’t want you to use on TV though you’ll see words like douche, cum, asshole, ladyballs. OK, maybe not the last one so much, but it’s definitely not something people want to hear while they’re eating.
The basic elements of human life, the things we all do, they’re considered gross. They’re considered low. Culture that relates to this stuff is considered low. There’s a social stigma in life, it keeps us from talking about certain things, and as a man there’s another social stigma of talking about your fears. Also your hopes, dreams, goals, aspirations, and any sort of sexual fantasy that doesn’t sound like a beer commercial. Women most certainly have fears too, and you don’t have to put out too much effort to figure out what they are.
Bloodborne starts us off in a world dealing with this endless nightly hunt. We exist in a warped version of the type of world that existed around the turn of the last century with carriages and guns and disease right next to fancy homes that probably have fainting couches in them. The Victorian era helped set up some of our basic concepts regarding horror.
Part of why this is the way it works is that the Victorians had a lot to fear. The culture was the first to encounter mass media, the horrors of war and empire were coming into their houses every day. Things were changing, and yet killings of prostitutes would highlight how they were still trapped in something awful. However, we also see the beginning of actual social movements designed to try and deal with poverty and homelessness. Sadly for Wilde other changes would still be decades off.
The world of Bloodborne is more familiar than that of Dark Souls, partly because fantasy worlds aren’t brought to the cinema as well as period pieces. When I step into the world of Bloodborne I carry with me not just this cultural information from games that use this sort of world, but also all the films and books as well. I love Dark Souls, but a player that starts that game wouldn’t necessarily be wrong in ascribing the starting area in that game “generic castle area.”
Bloodborne gives us a sense of the real world.
It’s a completely fantastic thing, as there are werewolves and birds constantly attacking you, but the realness is there. As you push yourself forward you hit the graveyards and churches and towns that you will see progress throughout this night. One story, that of the little girl who wants you to find her parents, is particularly tragic. There isn’t a right answer. You can try to help this girl, but she is going to die.
As we get to the church area we find out more about this history of this place, and slowly begin to get the pangs that there is something more going on. Invisible gods, blood...stuff, the healing church, none of this stuff really makes any sense. As well the enemies are actually starting to get stronger so working on those backstabs becomes important.
The backstab mechanic mixes in with the stealth mechanic, not a stealth mechanic like “press x to stealth” but still. While most of the combat is very quick, the game is really beginning to reinforce the idea that you need to go slow and soak in your surroundings before-Werewolf jumps out through a door. Ahhh.
Slowing down makes the game switch from a traditional hack n’ slash action game to something deeper. Not the super deep intellectual horror you get when every mechanic feeds back into the feeling, but enough gets through that you really feel the vibes the game is putting out.
In the 30’s Universal made a series of horror films starring the major monsters of literature. Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Invisible Man, and the Wolf Man. These films often weren’t the first time these monsters had been shown on movie screens, but this was the moment that something changed and the films were popular around the world. Why wouldn’t they be, though? There was a depression on and movie houses were a decent way to get out of the heat/cold for a bit.
Around this time period, preceding it, we find a weird guy writing weird stories. Pulp, which wasn’t considered a negative at the time, was a cheap type of paper that was making the mass media of the day possible. A literary tradition for years had been, well, just reading all the damn time. People read short stories, they read novels cut up into chunks, they read newspapers and journals. Also people died of easily treatable illnesses. Truly a golden age.
Well, one such writer who was getting a chance to sell some stories was H.P. Lovecraft, whose fiction only barely masked his xenophobia. Though, for modern people whose minds aren’t full of garbage, what’s interesting are the themes of his works. Lovecraft brought in this idea of Cosmic Horror. This is something that movies couldn’t really touch, monsters too big to be fathomed, fear and dread that something that stretched across time and space would go against you. Where the traditional stories are man versus wilderness or man versus man Lovecraft would set his stories up as man versus timeless and faceless alien beings that would win. Forever.
Lovecraft saw a world in which the civilized section of it was being overrun by the uncivilized. Where a way of life was being destroyed and lost forever. On one level it’s easy to see the xenophobia and just stop there. But he was on to something. Philosophy in the 20th century is like a fun run where all of history has already got all the prizes so we just sort of keep going and see what happens. It’s kind of the best period of human history and the worst. Lovecraft had landed on the seeds of the existential dread ever-present in the modern world.
As we move forward in Bloodborne we start to see signs that this game isn’t pulling from the novels of the gothic or Victorian periods so much as this Lovecraftian fiction. The healing church isn’t some well-meaning theocratic institution so much as a well-meaning attempt to communicate with cosmic beings in hopes of bringing about a new world. A world with way more tentacles than I am willing to accept.
Aliens had stood in for other cultures for a long time, thinking back to Victorian England there was a history there of basically crushing less advanced people. The Mercantile trend was by no means simply a British action, but this might makes right approach to power and stability would set the stage for the 20th century, and the centerpiece of the 20th century is one specific moment. While horror is often about a moment when we lose our humanity in the 20th century we all lost our humanity.
With the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima we entered a new age of fear. Monster movies in which the ghoul was created by radiation became the norm. Attacks by aliens with weapons several times more advanced than ours darted screens. Technology and the unfolding cold war with Russia created a new era. Our fears were being projected before our eyes as they happened. Where the second World War could be seen as a chance to get people out of the terrible economic problems in it’s wake the world was again in a profound state of fear.
The world is a big place, we’re very very small parts of this, and we don’t feel like we actually have any control over the big picture. McCarthyism didn’t fail at first. People wanted a witch hunt. Similarly after the attacks in New York people wanted to feel like there was something they could do. The moment we saw that the best idea was torture though that moment soured.
Looking back to the beginning of Bloodborne it’s actually an ugly world. The first monsters you fight actually talk to you, they say they “don’t want your kind here.” These people are being turned into beasts. Yes they’ll kill you, but something deeper is here.
When people said that you should be afraid of a beast in the woods at a certain time in history it was because there actually were beasts in the woods. Over time we have fairy tales that show a progression of telling stories to kids to have them be careful about other things, namely killers and pedophiles. Though there’s another type of fear, still a fear of the unknown, that we experience when we realize we really have no idea what’s going to happen. The world is changing. Fast. What monsters could be a good metaphor for our modern fears?
Part of what sets Bloodborne apart from the previous Souls games is that the world actively changes as you progress. You go from evening to night in a basic sense, but also we see a move from the beasts to more Lovecraftian, alien monsters. Body horror becomes a bigger element as men break apart to become horrors or men’s faces appear on animalistic forms. Eventually you find the two worst enemies in the game, the dogs and the birds, are now mixed and you fight dogs with birds for faces and birds with dogs for faces.
Also the game starts to actually kill you with fear, a unique change in the old bleed status effect. The Frenzy meter fills up as you deal with the Lovecraftian horror. Just looking at certain enemies raises this fear, and as you fight more bosses this becomes even easier to succumb to. You literally enter nightmares and fight aliens.
But what becomes strongest are the pregnancy motifs. To get a different ending you find umbilical chords, when you go to some different areas you find references to an attempt to have some sort of child with the cosmic kin.
This is where we get to something unique. While all the horror elements have been linked to common horror elements from the past, Bloodborne starts to feel like this is the unique element. Though in reality this part is in fact a Lovecraft story point, I think this works very differently in this context.
The entire game has been about horror, specifically some major horror works, and astute fans of horror can clearly link it all back to issues in the real world at the time those works were created. The game has been a long and haunting list of the problems our society faces. Eventually we, as people, have to deal with this society. It stops being something terrible and beyond us, like in adolescence, and something we actively engage with each day. As we get older our fears move away from beasts or cars or sex, since we basically conquer those fears, and we get our more mature fears. Yet, like a badass Mongol army, again we conquer those fears. But this doesn’t mean we’ve somehow escaped fear, we might have jobs and cars and a cat and dog and a house, hopefully not haunted or built on an Indian burial ground, but we’ve probably also got kids.
Early on we tried to help this child. We failed. It was a dark moment, we thought it was just a sour note the game was using to get us into the mood, like how gameplay wise the game constantly pushed us to moving slowly and scanning the environs. The reality was this was our moment, and we failed. Bloodborne was constantly throwing different elements of horror at us, but this was the moment we actually experienced it. Not a new fear at all, but something very unique to place in a video game and yet on par with that cosmic horror.
Coda: so I feel like Bloodborne builds old fears up, mixing a variety of horror elements to eventually create a story based on this fabric. Well crafted and yet somewhat complicated, in an endearing way, I really loved this game. While everyone else might not feel that the game wants us to appreciate the complexity of parenthood, I think we can all agree this game was a huge advancement in From and dungeon crawling storytelling.