Welcome good hunter, you’ll be here awhile
Anybody who knows me will probably have surmised that Bloodborne is a game tailor-made for me. After all, I love the works of H.P. Lovecraft, I love games with strong atmosphere, I love subtle storytelling, and of course I also love to swear at screen and throw my controller in frustration a lot.
I’m kidding (a bit) because Bloodborne ended up being the most even handed game I may have ever played. It’s such a tightly constructed game that it began to affect my ability to enjoy other games. Witcher 3 is a sprawling epic RPG and a labor of love but now I find its clunky controls and repetitive combat jarring. Platinum Games’ Transformers: Devastation fares a bit better with its tighter controls but as a result I found myself instinctively going back to Bloodborne’s control scheme and wondering why I was dodging instead of attacking. Bloodborne is a game that infiltrates your headspace in such a way that you end up viewing other games through that lens.
What makes this game the most impressive to me is the way it intermingles with the Lovecraftian themes. Between the atmosphere, the oppressive difficulty, its subtle storytelling, and its lore that has inspired hundreds of fan theory videos, Bloodborne is the best game made to take on the themes of cosmic horror and human insignificance that H.P. Lovecraft set down. Whether it’s the use of dream worlds, (an oft-forgotten aspect of Lovecraft’s work) the bizarre scope of the ending, or even the unbelievable monster designs, nothing can touch the atmosphere that Bloodborne has created.
When you’re stuck in Bloodborne, don’t be afraid to ask for a hand oh ho ho.
I’ve played a lot of games that deal with Lovecraftian themes, a number of them quite good. Some of my favorites include Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Eternal Darkness, and -more loosely- Cthulhu Saves The World. As much of I’ve enjoyed these games, there are a number of recurring issues that end up harming the atmosphere that the games try to impart. Bloodborne is fascinating in how it jumps over these hurdles, keeping an atmosphere that feels foreboding and alienating while still keeping familiar themes.
The first is a slavish desire to be ‘authentically’ Lovecraftian. This isn’t even unique to video games. So often people find themselves dedicated to the lore and its details and lay them out in painful detail throughout the story, with quibbles over whether Cthulhu is an elder god or an old one taking central emphasis in the plot. Call of Cthulhu: Darkest Corners of The Earth submerges itself in lore and has a whole bunch of scenes made specifically for fans who have read the material. Even games that don’t deal directly with Lovecraft’s mythos drench themselves in the trappings to a ridiculous amount. Eternal Darkness doesn’t feature elder gods like Cthulhu or Dagon nor any monsters like shoggoths or star-spawn, but it still features a woman researching a mysterious book left by a New England academic. One of the chapters is even just a straight retelling of the H.P. Lovecraft story The Rats in The Walls, though without the cat with the horrifically racist name.
This isn’t unique to video games. Too many creators dealing with the mythos Lovecraft created are often more interested in showing how well-read they are rather than creating a chilling world. This is something that makes Bloodborne unique, in how much it’s willing to deviate from its source material. An interview with developer Hidetaka Miyazaki revealed that as a child he would read many books in the library with complexity that he struggled with, resulting in him filling in the blanks with his imagination. You can draw a straight logical line from here to why Bloodborne’s fast and loose playing with Lovecraft’s world still manages to remain faithful to the original ideas without being slavish to the world. The details might be different -this is a game where you can stab Elder Gods in the face after all- but the overwhelming presence of more powerful forces that aren’t actively malicious but simply dangerous to us by their very being shines through.
Light your way and take a breather when you can. You’ll need it.
This isn’t to say I think that you’d be at an advantage for writing cosmic horror stories by not reading the works of H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, out of the mind of a creator that had less attention to detail and exactness in craft than Miyazaki this could have ended up being a mess. The subtle storytelling provides opportunity for ideas in regards to Lovecraft I’ve never seen done before. Instead we get hints that these gods have an actual rapport with humanity and perhaps even were sympathetic in their own twisted way. Lovecraft’s work treated elder gods as being far too above us to even view as alive, while the more lazy stories using figures like Cthulhu or Yog-sothoth turn them into Luciferian figures. The world Miyazaki creates is filled with so much detail and life (as it were) that any explanations that we would be given would have made this world less powerful.
Plenty of Lovecraftian stories are about explanations, going back to Lovecraft himself. Lovecraft would know when to withhold the right information to maintain tension, but his love of academia meant that he would want to write in the method of scientific journal, leading itself to elaborate explanations and an establishment of detail to better lend the idea that these were things actually happening. Plenty of writers have worked hard to try and copy this aesthetic to varying degrees of success. However, Bloodborne doesn’t go that path, instead choosing to alienate you by never giving you anything clear.
I think one of the best examples of this is the boss fight against Ebrietas, Daughter of The Cosmos. Many players revile Ebrietas for being difficult even by Bloodborne’s standards but I found her fight relatively simple. Instead, what I find fascinating is the situation surrounding her. Most bosses in the game will attack you as soon as you enter the boss area. Ebrietas is the exception. Entering the boss area, you will find her kneeling in front of an altar where Rom the Vacuous Spider, one of the bosses you killed before, lies. She won’t even react to you until you actually decide to attack her. You’re the aggressor and it’s unclear if she even has any designs on humanity. The fact that you can use this altar to revive another character also raises questions on what Ebrietas was doing at this altar. Was she trying to revive Rom? Was it out of sentiment for a friend or did she need something from Rom? I’ve never seen an attempt to humanize elder gods in such a way, to make them so tragic or even to cast man’s rage against them in such a morally dubious light.
You just couldn’t leave well enough alone, could you?
Lovecraftian games have always struggled with making the ever-present theme of madness a workable game mechanic. Most simply decide to make the screen go blurry upon viewing the monsters, as though the first signal of sanity slippage is the loss of one’s glasses. Amnesia: The Dark Descent managed to make this work in its hiding-and-running focused game but still encountered the issue of a lack of payoff concerning how little we see of what is chasing us. Many would argue this makes it scarier, but for me it mitigates an otherwise scary game by removing anything immediately visceral from the threat chasing us. Eternal Darkness also had a novel mechanic where low sanity would result in the game messing with the interface. When your sanity bar was low then odd things would happen not just to the world, but your game. It would pause without your permission, sound would get low, and it would act as though the channel had just changed. It was an engaging mechanic, but the problem was that once you became familiar without it, you would cease to be intimidated by it and would deliberately keep your sanity low to see all the funny effects. The act of playing with the interface ceases to put you on edge and begins to feel like a joke you’re in on.
Bloodborne takes a more muted approach with the idea of insight. High insight grants you the ability to see monsters and obstacles you wouldn’t otherwise see. However as a result you’re both more susceptible to the ‘frenzy’ mechanic when you see certain monsters, which can quickly kill you. In addition certain monsters become tougher and more aggressive against you. For one of the bosses if your insight is 0, they’ll impotently throw paralyzing spells at you. However if you have any insight they’ll also summon monsters to attack you, resulting in a much more difficult boss fight. Insight can also be spent on armor and items, so if you really want low insight you can get it. This ‘gamifying’ of the concept actually makes it a much more present thought for players, something to ruminate on and consider the consequences of. You want the advantages high insight provides you, but you also have to consider the dangers of it.
There’s also just the utter subtlety of it. Going into Bloodborne blind you’d be forgiven for assuming it has more in common with gothic horror than cosmic horror, though there’s an undeniable overlap. Most Lovecraftian games are very excited to show you the shoggoths and fish people right off the bat, which at worst can eliminate the mystery. It’s not all bad. After all, if you buy a game named Call of Cthulhu it stands to reason that’s the stuff you want to see, so not every game should adopt Bloodborne’s slow burn. However, Bloodborne having a slow turn towards its cosmic themes makes the game more about the slow dawning realization that many characters experience that we ourselves don’t since we’re expecting it. Going from fighting werewolves to seeing statues of awkward elder gods, to actually fighting those elder gods themselves is an eye-opening experience.
I should emphasize that I don’t think Bloodborne is the model for which all games that want to deal with cosmic horror should base themselves on. I don’t think all cosmic horror games should have killable elder gods, ignore Lovecraft’s mythos, or have such a brutal difficulty. However, those who hope to make these sort of horror games should learn is how truly malleable the themes of cosmic horror are when you stop being limited by well-intentioned imitation. I love the works of H.P. Lovecraft, but creative people need to find themselves inspired to make their own things, incorporate the themes of that work into their own worldview rather than parrot the styles and ideas of Lovecraft. This mix of both the old and new is what raises Bloodborne above so many imitators.