Bloodborne was one of the most critically acclaimed games of 2015, arriving exclusively on PS4 and setting the internet ablaze. From Software, the same studio behind the infamous Souls franchise, decided to go all out in developing a new, but familiar take on the genre so annoyingly named “Souls-Like“. And it is this familiarity, mixed with its Lovecraftian influence and new gameplay switch-ups that make the game so memorable, action packed, and harrowing. I managed to buy it in the summer release, it being my first experience with a Souls-Like, however it took me literally the whole summer to finish the game. And I promise you it wasn’t because I suck at videogames (I really don’t, honest), but because I was instilled with fear. Two primal fears, to be exact. The fear of death, and the fear of the unknown. And I think it’s just about time I get over my PTSD and begin to tell the tale of how Bloodborne straight fucked me up.
In the Beginning…
I admit freely that growing up I had a major fear of the dark. It may have been a product of my over active imagination but even reaching my teen years, I could freeze up in abject horror when alone in a room and thinking of how something sinister could be just about to wrap its claws around my neck. Needless to say, I was a wreck for a long time, and I couldn’t get over it until I realised something important. That I wasn’t afraid of the dark itself, but that I was afraid of what might be lurking within it. It was imposing to say the least, and it scared the hell out of me. And within time I got over the fear, but Bloodborne brought that fear back. See, Bloodborne was developed by From Software, the crazy guys behind the Dark Souls Franchise. A franchise known for its punishing difficulty and imposing enemies. The series had, by the time Bloodborne was developed, achieved notoriety for its no hand-holding policy. You’ll probably die within the first 15 minutes of playing and be introduced to the despair, pure and unadalterated. People played Dark Souls on the defensive, biding their time and extending encounters with enemies and bosses. Essentially, playing it very very safe. So From Software decided to switch a few things up when developing Bloodborne, and that was the best decision they could make for the project. Enter game director, Hidetaka Miyazaki, the person behind the first two Souls games and someone who has been with the company since 2004. Miyazaki is one of those Japanese directors who gains a lot of inspiration from Western works, such as Dracula, and A Song of Ice and Fire. Its also clear to see how European Architecture inspired him, and this shines through in the level design of the Souls games, with high towers and the harsh facades of medieval castles. More on that later, however one influence on Miyazaki that he had never used in his games. The works of H.P. Lovecraft, the progenitor of Cosmicism, and The Unknown, and this as we will soon discover, created an unforgettable atmosphere.
The Hunter’s Tale
Bloodborne does a great job of introducing its plot and setting before plunging you into a world of mystery and malevolence, and while I won’t be discussing all of its points, I sincerely suggest you watch VaatiVidya, a Souls Series lore master. You are a Hunter from out of town. A slayer of beasts and monsters, and you arrive in the fictional town of Yharnam. A not so subtle nod to, most notably, 19th Century London with it’s Gothic atchitecure and cathedrals. Your character arrives on the night of the hunt, where the inhabitants band together to purge the city of everything evil and unhuman, and after receiving a blood transfusion from a local, you are plunged into a neverending nightmare. After this point, Bloodborne does very little to actively tell a story. It presents hints and links to the lore of Yharnam itself, the role of the hunters, the Church, and the people themselves, as well as the hunts and beasts. And the truly observant will begin to piece together a small semblance of a story, even though there is no official ending or plot line, so to speak. The game merely gives you the pieces and allows you to craft your own story, which is a brilliant way to tell a story while allowing the player to put just enough of themselves into the character.
And the various characters the player encounters on his or her journey definitely contribute to the feel of the world of Bloodborne. They offer insight into what is going on, what the people think of you (they hate you), and what you might expect. And the fact that they offer information sparsely and in intervals or after you reach a plot point, making you even more interested to hunt for information. Some characters, like Father Gascoigne, make you feel the feels, while others, like Queen Annalise only appear randomly after doing something not directly related to the main quest. However, many of them can just as easily be antagonised or killed for items or to unlock another plot point, meaning that being the “good guy” means you miss out on plot points or items. My favourite NPC function however, is how they each tell their own tales from their own perspectives. Whether it be a hunter watching over Old Yharnam, to a Healing Church cleric, to a prostitute. All of it can be considered incredibly important, or meaningless, depending on the player.
If it wasn’t made obvious by now, Bloodborne has a morbid obsession with blood. In fact, blood is the main driving force and currency of Yharnam, and at the end of the game, the blood will be all you think about. As you progress through the game, you discover story details that paint Yharnam as even more sinister than its creepy architecture suggests. The blood in Yharnam, distributed by the Healing Church, contained special properties. The ability to cure sickness and plague through blood ministration, essentially the letting of blood and blood transfusion became very useful, and the church restricted the knowledge of the different types of blood and how they were used. And in time, the inhabitants of Yharnam became addicted to the high the blood afforded them. But as the city became addicted, a plague hit the town, and turned the men to beasts who became less and less human. Of course, this was most likely all because of the Healing Church, but they conveniently came to the rescue, setting up the scene for modern hunting and continuing the use of blood ministration. This was of course, due to the knowledge that they guarded. That the secrets of blood ministration came from the Old Ones, Lovecraftian aliens who had visited Yharnam long ago and brought with them many secrets. So basically you, and everyone in the town is hunting things that were once human all because of their addiction to something that is, by all means, not normal, and this is brilliant.
It gives a certain element of repugnance to the player, especially knowing when the player realises just how much they rely on the blood. To heal themselves, to replenish their ammo when they have nothing, to upgrade skills and weapons and to buy items. Therefore, by the end of the game, just like the poor inhabitants of Yharnam, the player is just as reliant of the blood.
Yharnam, Sweet Yharnam
Ah, the setting of Yharnam, dark, imposing and infintely frightening, Hidetaka Miyazaki really outdid himself on this one. While previous Souls games were centred around medieval architecture, with quiet barrows, decrepit castles and lofty towers, Bloodborne went forward in time. Bloodborne’s architecture heavily revolves around Victorian-era architecture, with Gothic facades and elaborate masonry. Stairs rise for many a step, and doors to new areas of the game are heavy and slow to open, creating an atmospheric reveal.
As far as level design goes, not only is the world stunning, but it has the effect of weighing down on the player. There are few open areas where one can see the horizon. It is instead dominated by towers and steeples. You must run through courtyards and narrow corridors, be assailed on stairs and prowl through gaols. And lurking within these frightening locations, sometimes silent, sometimes causing a ruckus, are the various enemies you will encounter. Despite being coined as an action game; the game certainly does its best to throw the most terrifying enemies it can at you. Whether you have a fear of spiders, snakes, slimy things or hags, Bloodborne will take those fears, twist them into something worse, and throw them back at you. And the cramped and dark environment of Yharnam does its best to either keep you from running away, or trying to find an advantage.
It should be noted that Bloodborne does well in relaying religious imagery with its level design, the heavy orchestra found in the soundtrack replete with organs. And the locations are both varied and true enough to themselves, that each one feels rich with a long forgotten culture despite usually not being filled with a sane populace. There is always indication of worship to some terrible and unseen force, and it is only in the end do you see what exactly everyone reveres.
Some areas can only be found after a loss, such as being kidnapped by the watchers and being taken to the Hypogean Gaol, which unfortunately results in the permanent loss off your blood echoes. I think such choices in regards to level design are both risky, but exciting, because once the player experiences, they realise how screwed they are. The developers are a bunch of sadistic pricks who are not above using death to advance the story, and this id only heightens the players level of unease considering death is such a significant element in the game. One could even say that, story wise, the game revolves around it.
A Fear Oh So Lovecraftian
Even though Bloodborne is penned as an action-RPG game, it is obvious that it has not-so-subtle elements of horror within it. And this horror, despite not being specifically labeled a horror game, is so palpable for multiple reasons. The first, being rather obvious in that it is a Souls game. Dying is easy and every victory is hard earned, with the risk of losing all your precious blood echoes (the currency), or having to face the same enemy that initially killed you, only know that it is supercharged and tougher. In a sense, Bloodborne very early on fills the player with the fear of death. The prospect of having to face the same enemies, with less resources and the risk of losing all your hard earned money is no doubt, fear-inducing. The fear of death is primal and perfectly normal, but the fear of having to die horrifically at the hands of beasts multiple times simply to achieve a task, sometimes minor? Now that is panic-inducing, and a fear that most people will never have to deal with. And coupled with the fact that Bloodborne is much more aggressive than Dark Souls means that players will constantly be in a state of panic, trying their hardest not to die.
The second obvious fear, is the typical fear seen when we see something scary or disturbing. Think Resident Evil or Dead Space, if you need something to envision initially. The enemy designs in Bloodborne are horrifying consisting of normal horror tropes like witches and, to more creative takes on classic characters, like the fishing village inhabitants with writhing snakes for heads. And every seemingly “normal” enemy is warped in some way, like the feral and decaying dogs, or the slowly transforming townsfolk with their elongated limbs, fur covered faces and torches. It’s the cosmic enemies that really stand out however, slimy, icky, and with all sense of humanity long gone. Ebrietas comes to mind with his outlandish character design and otherworldly appearance. And for all this we have Ryo Fujimaki to thank for the twisted and sinister character designs. And the more you delve into the game and explore the lore, the more the character design feels relevant. The character’s strange changes from raving humans to true beasts has great relevance the more you play, and those like the Healing Church bosses grow to extreme sizes due to their adherence to the blood.
And the final and perhaps most disturbing part of Bloodborne’s horror is the Lovecraftian cosmicism that seeps into every aspect of the Bloodborne’s world. Lovecraft delved into veins of horror that were both outlandish and unexplored. And Bloodborne has enough of that to keep the Player both intrigued and fascinated. The idea that we as humans are but specks of dust in the grand scheme of the universe, and that there are no gods or beings above that love us or treat us as special. We are infants, and nothing more, and that makes us insignificant. This and many more revelations such us the true nature of the Hunter’s Dream, a game mechanic that has you travel to a safe area to heal and buy items and weapons, which is revealed to be far more sinister. There also exist Nightmare Realms, areas in the game that hold the consciousness of a Great One, or a baby Great One, and these realms are truly nightmares in themselves. However, one truly interesting mechanic is “insight”, something that allows you to see through the veil that separates the “normal” world from its maddening reality. And as the game progresses, and your insight reaches new level, the true world is shown and although it is the same old Yharnam, it is given a new, evil light and old levels are filled with new and terrifying enemies as well as new paths and new areas to explore.
So with that we come to the end of Bloodborne, a terrifying but exciting game. One that, I think, everyone should play at least once. Not only for the mystery and combat, but for the lore and the hidden frights you might encounter. Yharnam is big and full of enemies and hidden treasures, and you might craft your own story at the end of it.
As usual, to end the post with an insightful quote from the game from a doll who serves the hunters in the hunter’s dream. She says, almost nonchalantly, “hunters have told me about the church. About the gods, and their love. But… do the gods love their creations? I am a doll, created by you humans. Would you ever think to love me? Of course… I do love you. Isn’t that how you made me?”