Something like gods exist in the world of From Software’s Bloodborne. They’re hanging out in ruined chapels and atop castle walls, often just waiting for the hapless player’s Hunter to stumble upon them. Some of these gods are gruesome beasts–the kind of unthinkably horrible, bizarre things that inspire a genuine sense of awe. Others are humbler creatures, taking unassumingly human forms. Whatever they look like, the power these beings exude is felt constantly in the game’s setting, the city of Yharnam. Despite the intricately crafted mechanisms and finely detailed buildings that suggest the application of advanced, scientific human knowledge in this city, unknowable forces are felt in the margins of even the most recognizably familiar of the game’s environments.
I’d be going too far if I claimed to really, fully understand Bloodborne‘s plot. Though I’ve tried to explore every area of the twisting game world and fought my way through to its credit sequence, the story is deliberately vague and full of intricate, often hidden details. Still, much of the narrative can be intuited through audiovisual design and cryptic text hints. Moving from one area of the game to the next, its consistently high difficulty making the process one of slow, determined attrition, the player is made to absorb the nuances of the setting. To succeed in Bloodborne, it’s necessary to pay attention to every environmental detail. Because of this, the story conveyed by enemy design, sound cues, item descriptions, and minute visual details is felt on an almost bone-deep level.
What that story is about, it seems, is a conflict between the rational and supernatural.
Bloodborne‘s setting acts as an immediate real-world reference point. Yharnam is a city filled with Gothic architecture, its nod to our own history suggesting the end of one era and the beginning of another. The crumbling cathedrals and towers, similar to those built in our own past to impress a sense of astounding power upon worshipers, seem as if they’ve begun dying in anticipation of a Renaissance that emphasizes logic and erudition over divine awe. Bloodborne evokes a time when Europe began moving out from beneath the long shadow of infallible churches and monarchs and toward the pursuit of humanist philosophy. It isn’t hard, coming upon the immense shaggy beast waiting beneath the high, heavily ornamented arch of a cathedral, to feel that the player has stumbled into the twilight of an older time. The gods of Yharnam seem to have grown old, awaiting their decline into irrelevance.
Alongside this, the player finds statuesque figures, frozen in an attempt to crawl away from unspecified devastation–one that seems to have been unleashed by scientific experimentation gone too far–and into Yharnam’s churches. They find no sanctuary there, apparently let down by the power of the gods they believe capable of sheltering them. Earlier in the game, the player’s Hunter comes to what seems like a dead end. An infirm old man, sitting in a chair, points to a ledge that hangs over an enormous drop. On a leap of faith, the Hunter jumps off the cliff to find themselves face to face with Rom, one of the “Great Ones.” The spider-like god presides over an impossible vista of shallow water and grey skies that seems to stretch on forever. The ensuing fight is awesome in the original sense of the word. Like all of the Great Ones encountered in Bloodborne, though, Rom dies as readily as any other enemy in the game. If it is a god, it isn’t as powerful as it once was–even though its form suggests the sort of logic-defying mystery that would compel worshipers to prostrate before it.
The game suggests that the city is heading toward the collapse of metaphysical or spiritual thinking in its introduction, too. Regardless of the other strange forces at work within it, Yharnam is a place to which sick travellers come in order to seek treatment from the city residents’ advanced understanding of blood-based medicine. Though there’s obviously a level of mysticism to even the most “scientific” thinking in Bloodborne, the presence of so many scholars and doctors in its world makes clear that the game is interested in exploring the advance of reason within a vaguely medieval period.
If the game continued to offer only further elaborations on these themes it would make for a clear (and probably pretty boring) indictment of theism. Luckily, this focus is only one part of larger concerns. Far from being entirely vanquished, the gods of Yharnam continue to make themselves known even within the physical world of human scholars. They’re not entirely one-dimensional, holy beings, but likely an outcropping of the great unknown that lies at the heart of both theological and academic inquiry. When the player’s Hunter arrives at a grand university, full of dark hallways, offices, and lecture halls, s/he finds the students of this centre of learning have turned into strange-looking blobs. Similar to the twisted church guardians who have transformed into things resembling demonic Swiss Guards, complete dedication to their calling has made them deformed. Neither side is safe from what comes as the result of plumbing the depths of knowledge, mystical or otherwise. This isn’t meant to condemn the pursuit of information, but to show the depths to which an obsessive disciple can plummet if they follow their ambitions unchecked. Bloodborne‘s priests and scholars have devoted themselves entirely to a quest for understanding–theological or academic–without pausing to consider the consequences of failing to exercise restraint with their findings. The lesson, it seems, is that extreme, unregulated pursuits, driven by zealotry in faith or science, can have disastrous results. That Yharnam often accompanies its Gothic visuals with imagery from the late 19th century–foggy Victorian streets, top hats and tail coats –allows the player’s mind to wander to a period of time that saw science and spirituality intertwine in the heightened form of eugenics, world-spanning nationalistic wars, and rampant imperialism.
And yet, almost paradoxically, Bloodborne consistently seems to recommend delving into both the seen and unseen world. It values the act of categorizing things that are beyond easy perception, recognizing that the greatest discoveries come from a willingness to grapple with ideas just outside our current understanding. Even the basic act of exploring the world speaks to this. Setting out from one of Bloodborne‘s progress-saving lamps, pushing through the hidden traps and deadly enemies lurking in the unfamiliar terrain ahead, is an act of courage. Triumphing over a stretch of the environment strewn with monsters–just barely hanging on against the odds–is a testament to the value of potentially life-ending curiosity. The willingness to risk all in pursuit of knowledge forms the very foundation of Bloodborne‘s gameplay. What is condemned isn’t the act of learning, but rather the unquestioning willingness the information brought back without restraint. The religious warrior and the dispassionate scientist are equally vilified in Bloodborne. They’re responsible for the horrors set to play out in the 20th century that the game, in its aesthetic, hints is just around the corner.
The quest to forge further and further into the unknown takes personal forms. For some, it’s an act of spiritual understanding; for others, it’s a process of demystifying what could be taken as divine. The numinous seems to win out in Bloodborne‘s final cinematic (though apparently there are different endings where this changes), but even then it’s hardly on the ascent. The city of Yharnam remains the home of dying gods and dilapidated icons. Regardless of the power it still possesses, spiritual concepts are quickly being dissected into their component parts through the determination of curious academics. Rational explanations for supernatural phenomena, as in our own history, are changing popular modes of thought. Bloodborne, within and without the confines of its narrative, looks to our history and humanity to identify our common desire to learn more about the operation of this strange, seemingly impenetrable world and to lay bare its mysteries.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at Kill Screen, Pixels or Death, Paste, VICE, and The Escapist. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER (a compilation of critical essays on the shooter genre), runs Digital Love Child, and tweets @reidmccarter.