Playing Bloodborne as a Person who Menstruates
Thoughts after 20 hours
What it says on the tin. I might have very different things to say after I finish the game, but I think what I have to say right now is valuable too, in its own way. This is also written “blind,” which is how I’ve been playing. I fully expect (and look forward!) to be referred to people who’ve said these or similar things sooner and better. I haven’t done my reading yet because I didn’t want to borrow somebody else’s thoughts, accidentally or not. Also, this is my first review/commentary/whatever. All feedback appreciated.
It’s all blood, you see.
“We are borne of the blood, made men by the blood, undone by the blood… Fear the old blood.” - Master Willem, Bloodborne
Around 20 hours into FromSoftware’s Bloodborne I run carelessly through a doorway where two creatures wait in ambush: little scuttling old women hunched and hooded in rags, moving like hounds or hound-sized spiders. They are easy to kill — my massive hunter’s axe brings them down with one stroke — but I have been through this doorway five times in the last five minutes and I am impatient to get back to the thing in the next room that has been killing me with infuriating ease. It’s not so much the deaths that are getting to me as it is the fact that this thing doesn’t even seem like it’s trying; I am being absentmindedly, lazily, almost instantly killed. I’m frustrated, and I’m in a hurry, and I am careless with the woman-things in the doorway. A few seconds later, one of them shoots out a hand and grabs me, rendering me helpless to her special attack animation, which no amount of button mashing can escape or speed along. She stands over me, suddenly twice her previous height, and with gusto takes what looks like a medieval can opener to my neck. Or perhaps it’s a pair of pliers and she’s digging out my eyeballs. I can’t be sure because, blessedly, this animation occurs with my back to the camera. Still the upshot is the same: the woman-thing is howling ecstatically, there are chewing or sucking or crunching sounds coming from what used to be my head, and my blood is spurting everywhere.
There is so much blood in this game. Beasts and man-beasts and blood-addled men are rended gleefully, geysering, fountaining blood and more blood on the teeth of your axes, cleavers, blades of all sorts. And the blood sticks around, thanks to FromSoftware’s delightful combat mechanic in which your enemies’ blood (and your own) gradually stains your weapons, your clothes, and your skin, and isn’t washed away until you either die or depart the main game for the hub world, “the hunter’s dream,” where your character is granted a full health bar and a set of clean gear. By the time I arrive at a boss fight after clearing a full level of enemies, I look like I came out on the wrong end of some old Nickelodeon game show. Every square inch of me is dark red-purple and shining, except for the whites of my eyes. I am so drenched with blood that it would be comical if it weren’t so visceral. At this point the blood must be sloshing in my boots.
The game’s lore, unsurprisingly, is permeated with blood. As far as I can tell right now: some group of scholars or archeologists went digging into something they shouldn’t have and woke up something better left asleep — per usual for scholars or archeologists it seems — which somehow led to a blood sickness that spread throughout the world, causing people to turn into horrific beasts, horrific beast/human hybrids, or just “blood-addled” people. All the bad guys are hungry for more blood, for whatever reason, as are you, because it’s what you’re using to heal from your beast-slaying injuries. One of the in-game consumable items is a “pungent blood cocktail,” which can be thrown to lure enemies toward the smell. As one of the load screens informs you, blood is more intoxicating in Yarnham than alcohol.
Further game lore includes some vaguely Lovecraftian business about blood-hungry eldritch beings, a “healing church” of questionable character and its accompanying blood sacraments, and the fact that blood is the in-game currency. Killing an enemy grants your character a certain amount of “blood echoes” depending on the enemy’s strength, which is what you use to level your character and purchase various items. Descriptive text refers, unsettlingly, to hunters “imbibing” the blood of their enemies “with thoughts of reverence.” Other items in my inventory include blood shards, blood chunks, blood gems, ritual blood (special because it’s non-coagulated), and something called “red jelly,” whose picture on the item description is literally a tiny red human fetus, and whose provenance you are left to consider on your own. To be fair, most of what happens in this game you are left to consider on your own, aside from cryptic item descriptions that appear on the game’s load screens and occasional vague yet weighty proclamations from the game’s cast of characters (see epigraph above).
Blood in Bloodborne is mysterious, confusing, poorly explained, creepy, vaguely disgusting, definitely menacing, sacred, profane, and most importantly copious, just absolutely all over everything. Bloodborne is not the first time I’ve felt this way about blood; that started when I was about thirteen.
There is a time while I’m bleeding when I feel like nothing but an animal. This usually happens in the middle of the night. The blood is heavier on certain days during my cycle and usually I will wake at some point on the second night with the realization that blood is just on the verge of pouring out of me. I wear tampons during my period, and I wear them to bed. Logistically it would be better to wear pads. Perhaps if (more) men could menstruate we would have menstrual pads that didn’t feel like wearing a bloody diaper, but until then I am going to wear tampons and deal with the occasional consequences. Midway through the second night is one of the consequences, when my bleeding becomes too heavy for the tampon to contain. I have to get out of bed gingerly, otherwise there will be blood on the sheets (if there isn’t already). I have to move gingerly, otherwise the blood will start running down my thighs (if it isn’t already). I have to move quickly enough not to drip too much blood on the floor between the bed and the bathroom, but slowly enough not to further jostle the tampon’s precarious position. By the time I make it to the bathroom I am, at best, just beginning to overflow. The tampon goes into the toilet, covering my hand and forearm with blood, while the blood on my thighs smears onto the toilet seat. The smell in the room is like copper pennies and raw meat. Wiping with toilet paper at this point is a joke, so I stand up and head for the bathtub, hopefully remembering to move the bathroom rug out the of the way of my blood trail. I squat in the tub and turn on the water, rinsing and washing and rinsing myself while my blood swirls down the drain, accompanied by a couple dark red gobs of my former uterine lining. Then the scramble to dry off and insert a fresh tampon in the few clean seconds before the blood begins to flow again. Then the cleanup: tub, tile, toilet seat, sometimes the floor between the bathroom and bed. If the sheets are bloody I lay a towel over it until the morning. Exhausted by the last forty minutes, I go back to sleep. It is hard to communicate how I feel during those forty minutes, how vulnerable, how bloody and unclean, how disconnected from my body, disgusted with it, helpless to it.
It’s fair to say I have a particular experience of menstruation — of course everyone’s experience is particular — but mine comes as a person who has always been deeply uncomfortable with and alienated from the idea of womanhood. Probably every child feels like an alien when their body starts bleeding from between their legs. I felt like an alien all the time. Narratives of trans* experience often speak of puberty as a time when deep tensions come into stark relief. Puberty is horrible for everyone, but it is particularly horrible for trans* children, who can feel so deeply at odds with what everyone around them — and suddenly their own bodies — insist that they are and should be. Socially, being a boy or a girl becomes a more important identity, more weighted with meaning and expectation. Physically, you experience your body changing around you, a process which feels (and is) very public, and is also weighted with meaning and expectation. I still remember the names of the first girls in my class to get their periods, or to have to start wearing bras. Probably my brother remembers the first boys to start shaving. I looked at those girls with a mixture of horror and awe. They were further along than me on some path I did not understand, but which seemed to mean a whole lot to everyone else, which I knew was supposed to mean a whole lot to me, and which I did not know how to escape.
Growing up in the Bible Belt put a particular spin on all this, with extra helpings of silence and shame, especially if you happened to be a girl. From pulpits to classrooms to kitchen tables I heard the messages of rape culture over and over: boys can’t control themselves so it’s up to girls not to provoke their lust by dressing provocatively, dancing provocatively, speaking provocatively, existing provocatively… We knew that our womanly sinfulness was fundamental to our being, a contagion we had to be careful not to spread. At the same time, we knew that our purity was valuable, was maybe the most valuable thing about us. Were our bodies sacred or profane? Treasure or contagion? It would have been confusing even if the adults in our lives had been able to speak directly about any of this, which was more than the repressed culture could handle. As it was, all we got were cryptic paragraphs in teen magazines and Judy Blume novels, and occasional vague yet weighty proclamations from deeply uncomfortable adults.
An example: when I was in sixth grade I was written up because a teacher had found a note I wrote to a friend where I said some curse words, some of which referred to this teacher in unkind ways. I had never been in trouble in school before, and my father — broken up about the person his little girl was turning into — made me tell my great-grandmother about what I had done. He then left us alone, and I was mystified when instead of telling me that I shouldn’t have written that note she started talking to me in a strangled voice about how I had to “be a pretty girl” and that I had to be sure to “get those Kotex pads and protect yourself.” I can hear that phrase to this day because it was so shocking and confusing. I already knew about periods, thank God, because I had watched a video with my girl scout troop. Even still it took me a few minutes to figure out what she was talking about. And the way she said it… “protect yourself.” Protect myself from what? And how? The blood, when it came, came from inside me. What protection was there from that? Thinking about it now, I think she was trying to tell me to contain it, not let it show, not let it stain. I think she was trying to communicate this idea with love, and that was difficult to do, so her phrasing got a little confused. I think she was trying to tell me to be a pretty girl. To protect other people from me.
Perhaps this is why Bloodborne, though so deeply evocative of such a profoundly female experience, feels so powerfully like a game made by men. The blood is more fetish than horror. The hunter whose clothes and skin and weapons are drenched with blood, whose boots are sloshing with it, seems somehow exultant, seems to be approaching some bloody apotheosis. The game’s creators render this transformation in fetishistic detail; the blood in Bloodborne shines, it glorifies. It is visceral, but not disgusting. It is not copper pennies and raw meat.
Sometimes Bloodborne seems to me like one giant case of uterus-envy. As a hunter, your character’s special attack is a “visceral attack,” in which your character forgoes his* blade, punches his hand into your enemy’s gut, and rips out its entrails. This is expressed in animation with a great geyser of blood, which gets all over you both. What is happening here, in our analogy? Is your character returning to the womb? Destroying it? Taking it for himself? And the strangely compelling blood-soaking mechanic, where your character is continually being covered in blood and then reset to go out and get covered in blood again? Somewhat the same thing happens to me every thirty days. Playing Bloodborne sometimes I imagine a massive bleeding vagina in the sky*, drenching the characters with blood as they howl with ecstasy and glee. What rough catharsis is this game working out? This game where it’s all blood, blood as mystery and contagion and currency, blood as sacrament and scripture, blood as identity, this game about getting blood all over you: what does it have to say to people who bleed?
Some people who bleed have an easier relationship with their blood than I do, and maybe they wouldn’t see Bloodborne in this way. Some people who don’t bleed look at the experience from afar with a mixture of horror and awe, and maybe they find Bloodborne compelling and titillating in ways they might not be able to say. For myself, playing Bloodborne is an experience both familiar and alienating. Sloshing in my boots up to the boss fight gate, I am reminded that this is far from the first time I have felt blood sticky in my clothes and running down my thighs. I feel like an old pro at this game. At the same time, watching my blood-soaked character bow to a fellow hunter in greeting, or raise his red-shining arms to the sky in a celebration of victory, I am reminded that blood has never made me feel powerful or glorious. I have felt many things, but not that.
*You can play a female character in Bloodborne, and there are female characters in Bloodborne, even female hunters. This is a point for another time, but in Bloodborne (and so many other games) even when your character is a woman it feels like your character is just a differently shaped man.
*If Bloodborne’s Big Bad turns out to be even vaguely uterine I am going to roll my eyes so hard.