I was thinking/talking about Bloodborne elsewhere, and I figured this community might appreciate this post as well.
I broke this up into four parts based on four pieces that I think have something worthwhile to state about Bloodborne. tl;dr it’s rly gd. The summary tags are just extra text that add more context to the information already being quoted. If you like the intersection of game design and narratology/ludology/etc. (this is the main reason I like the game so much, the gameplay itself is secondary or tertiary), I hope you will enjoy this.
BLOODBORNE AND THE HISTORY OF HORROR
by David Chandler
“If modern horror literature has an urtext, it is probably Bram Stoker’s Dracula…The titular Count bears all the markings of late-Victorian anxiety. An Eastern threat assimilates himself among the populace of London with the purpose of re-establishing his long-dead empire. His methods are supernatural (mesmerism, shape-shifting, inhuman strength), but his threat appears strictly biological. He spreads his curse like a disease, exchanging blood with his victims in a sexually-charged perverse sacrament that leaves them appearing physically ill rather than spiritually broken.
[details=more on this]
It is easy to recognize the parallels between Dracula and Bloodborne. The latter echoes the gothic vision of the former, only in Bloodborne the infection has already spread through the city. The mysterious plague that has turned the citizens of Yharnam into beasts seems similar to the vampiric disease Dracula carries to England. The player’s role as a hunter of these beasts provides an obvious connection to Dr. Van Helsing, Stoker’s scholarly vampire slayer of pop-cultural fame, and the blend of Victorian medical practices and religious zealotry exemplified in the Healing Church’s practice of blood ministration offers an homage or reconstitution of the tropes that Stoker made famous.
The immediate accessibility of this aesthetic, however, hardly reflects Miyazaki’s now-infamous approach to game and narrative design… Instead, these designs prove to be so much easy fodder to be consumed by a much grander narrative when Bloodborne invokes another giant of the horror genre: H.P. Lovecraft.
Willem’s scholarly pursuit of eldritch knowledge and the numerous schools that followed shattered the planes that separate humanity from the Great Ones, while the Healing Church’s experiments with transfusing the blood of these beings into the veins of the faithful transforms them into beasts, manacled to their new grotesque forms. The environments echo this thematic division as well. Dreams fold into reality, and lines that separate the cosmic and physical planes become blurred. The player, too, exists in the confusion between these spheres, measuring the academic excavation of Yharnam’s mysteries against the visceral tactility of the game’s combat.[/details]
It is a curious thing that Bloodborne looks back at the early twentieth century to find a locus for its thematic horror. Initially I thought that the game’s beginning with such overt aesthetic reference to the gothic horror of the late Victorian era only to reveal a much different world of cosmic horror seemed to prioritize the importance of the latter over the former. Yet Stoker, for all his focus on Dracula’s physicality, still shrouded him in mystery. The reader’s entire experience of Dracula is mediated, pieced together from letters and diary entries of the novel’s heroes struggling to make sense of an ancient evil a modern world. Our vision of the vampire will always be incomplete. Lovecraft’s horror elevates this concept of incompleteness to impossibility. Dracula’s epistolary structure clouds what we know of the count, but Lovecraft illustrates that maybe language itself fails to describe the true horrors that lurk at the edges of our reality… Such is the lingering effect of Bloodborne, a game that starts out as a visceral, recognizable horror game that evolves into something distressing and uncomfortable. If Dark Souls was Miyazaki and his team’s reconstitution of gothic romanticism, Bloodborne is their take on modernism, a confusing experiment of genres that attempts to access something new.
UNDERSTANDING THE SUBLIME ARCHITECTURE OF BLOODBORNE
by Ario Barzan
… Bloodborne involves the player in a sublime romance with pre-industrial European architecture. As broadly as mannerism can be described, then, it makes the most sense to place Bloodborne within this particular European lineage.
[details=more on this]
What makes Yharnam so different is that it is not separated into its own “world” as the Boletarian Palace is, nor is it elevated and isolated like Anor Londo. Instead, it serves as the narrative locus, both where the player begins her journey and where she most acutely bears witness to the ongoing collapse of a civilization.
in Yharnam—the environmental protagonist in Miyazaki’s evolving theme of humanity’s collapse despite (or due to) its ambitions—that principle has exploded into a dense, fractured mountain of anomalies. It’s here that Bloodborne’s mannerist essence can be found. Crocket-coated gothic spires, normally reserved for a church’s pinnacles, punctuate the railing on a great bridge. A clocktower lurches further out the higher up it goes, as if its foundation has been inverted. Below a fenced off area, an ornate gable rises from the ground.
As the city reaches up to the sky and also appears ready to collapse under the weight of its breathless permutations, it recalls the apocalyptic words of the artist Jean Fautrier: “something which can only destroy itself” must do so “in order to reinvent itself.”[/details]
Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Large Part of the Magnificent Doorway
But more profoundly, it’s an essence found in the degree to which the architecture as a collective entity clamors for space, so eager to become something absolute and grand that it threatens to collapse into nonsense—much like Piranesi’s carceri, or even his first series of etchings, the Prima parte di architettura e di prospettiva. As spires are piled onto innumerable balustrades, arches, and buttresses, Yharnam reaches a plane of feverish obsession that echoes the cosmic communion this civilization pursued to its ruin. Order has been sacrificed for contact with the sublime and a chance to explore the mind’s uncharted labyrinths. Perhaps nowhere is this felt more distinctly than in the latter portion of Yahar’gul, an enclosed area of Yharnam, where interior and exterior walls are laden with emaciated statues — or rather, as the player may come to suspect, petrified civilians — whose mouths gape in silent screams and arms stretch towards some absent salvation. It is as if, along the way, the city came alive to absorb its people, both preserving them and negating their existence.
Bloodborne embodies a process of narrative archaeology – as the player becomes the Weird explorer concerned with discerning truth from obtained objects, a revelation culminating in epistemological destabilisation. By framing this quest for knowledge through exhumed objects, both through their functional use and their accompanying description, Bloodborne develops upon the incorporation of items within narratives by utilising the video game format to stage a cosmic revelation for the player.
[details=more on this]
Bloodborne’s narrative therefore bestows each item with a functional and a narrative value. Although some players may choose to complete the game in the shortest method possible and prioritise the challenging gameplay, the Lovecraftian elements require inquisitiveness. As a result, this makes Bloodborne hard to classify: styled as an action role-play game, the general lack of dialogue options or interaction requires player agency to shape the narrative experience, whereas its emphasis on item collection and preservation aligns it more with survival horror.
Ewan Kirkland in ‘Storytelling in Survival Horror Videogames’ states that games in this genre ‘elicit a story produced through game-play by requiring that certain narratively-loaded objects be picked up and correctly used, elaborate yet casually motivated series of tasks performed, or psychologically-resonant enemies defeated.’ Although Bloodborne at times does follow this structure – certain objects are required to proceed, objectives accomplished and bosses defeated – it equally contests this format. Indeed, the majority of objects do not need to be used, the player can complete the game by beating a minimum of six bosses (thus avoiding large areas of the game), and these encounters only gain ‘psychological-resonance’ once an understanding of the lore is obtained. Artefacts in Bloodborne clearly shape an alternative narrative, offering a way to decode the story for those who willingly pursue them and restricting the comprehension of those that either avoid the objects completely, or fail to read their details.
Wrapped within these item descriptions then are clues towards the truth behind the façade… This quest to seek greater knowledge links to the Weird’s framing of the epistemological search to explore the limits of mankind’s comprehension and push the frontiers of understanding.[/details]
… Bloodborne embodies a diverse and alternate method of video game storytelling – in which the player becomes an archaeologist unearthing hidden truths similar to the diegetic scholarly inquisitors. The Weird style is apt for this connection as it bestows a foundation in which this epistemological quest can be staged – although one which inverts the archetypal narrative by surprisingly allowing the player to transcend and become the eldritch terror themselves. Bloodborne thus represents a development of plot structure, its narrative archaeology pushes the boundaries of story portrayal by insisting the player pays reverence to each micro item, if they wish to understand the macro scale and more importantly confront the eldritch Truth.
[details=fourth part on the ludic sublime, not particularly necessary, but a good read]
// Although this article discusses Dark Souls as an excellent example of the ludic sublime, I think the categoric laudations provided apply to Bloodborne to a significant if not equivalent extent.
No Mastery Without Mystery: Dark Souls and the Ludic Sublime
By Daniel Vella
… let us theorize games as aesthetic objects, mental constructs developed by the player as she engages with the unseen game system — which, in turn, allows us to suggests that what may be called the “ludic sublime” is a crucial aesthetic moment in the player’s engagement with a game, defined by the player’s drive towards mastery of the game coming face-to-face with the impossibility of obtaining complete, direct knowledge of the underlying system.
…Indistinct boundaries, unclear causes and/or effects, undefined entities and ergodic irony — by which Dark Souls suggests to the player an ineffable whole that extends beyond her necessarily limited perception and cosmic understanding of the game at any given moment.
// Example of ergodic irony (ergodic being “In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text. If ergodic literature is to make sense as a concept, there must also be nonergodic literature, where the effort to traverse the text is trivial, with no extranoematic responsibilities placed on the reader except (for example) eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages.”):
However, the full aesthetic effect of these presences is achieved once the player realizes the identity of these spectral presences: that is, that they are in fact other players, captured and re-presented in real-time as they engage in their own simultaneous playing of Dark Souls wherever (and whoever) they might be in the world. The ghostly figures travel paths different to the ones the player takes; they wear armour and wield weapons the player might not yet have discovered; they deploy techniques the player might not yet have learnt, or even known were possible. In short, they shadow the player’s own playing of Dark Souls with an intimation of all the “paths not taken,” revealing the vast space of possibility that is both hinted at and, simultaneously, closed off by the player’s activation of a single playing-out of the game.[/details]