Bloodborne, gothic horror and the sublime.
Slight Spoilers for Bloodborne. Thou Art Warned.
When I first played Bloodborne, I went through a rite of passage that is all too familiar for those who have played it or the ‘Souls’ series of games. I created a character, watched the unnerving opening and found myself thrust into a world of nightmarish beasts and semi-human monstrosities with little or no explanation or tutorials. Then I died. A LOT. I died to the first few enemies in the game because I did not understand what the game expected of me. The almost impenetrable story told me I was a hunter of beasts. Yet my gun did little or no damage and I always found myself stuck in a mob of angry, pitchfork wielding villagers after I ran out of stamina. I traded the game in within the week of buying it due to frustration and forgot about it, at least for a while. Some of my favourite lets players ran through the game and I watched with interest, listening as they extolled its virtues and marvelling at the grimy, hopeless Victorian setting and finding myself drawn to the game’s many wiki pages despite loathing horror games (or what the modern world considers horror games). Then I bought it again and I’ve beaten the second boss in 3 days.
Bloodborne takes place in and around the city of Yharnam. It’s a place ravaged by plague, unnatural beasts stalking the night and something even more terrible lingering just below the surface.
As previously stated you play as a foreign hunter brought to Yharnam in search of the Paleblood as the city is the only known place that holds ‘the healing blood’ (blood with the power to cure all diseases). This city has such an extensive knowledge of the red stuff that they just might find what you’re looking for. A blind doctor conducts a blood transfusion, which causes you to experience horrific visions that the doctor assures are nothing more than a bad dream.
When you suffer your first of many inevitable deaths, the game transports you to the Hunter’s Dream, a spectral realm that acts as the only true safehaven in the game. You meet and greet the First Hunter Gehrman, who acts as a quasi mentor and sends you out on your mission to cleanse Yharnam by ‘slaying a few beasts’ after all It’s just what Hunters do and his reanimated doll who helps you level up. Then you warp into Yharnam proper.
The first area is a love letter to writers like Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson. Gothic buildings seem to crawl over one another in a desperate attempt to escape the city’s fate. The sky is a roiling blanket of storm clouds punctuated by the constant, watchful eye of the full moon and in between the inhuman screams, moans and groans of the beasts and the townsfolk succumbing to the infection, constant booming tower bells can be heard on the whistling wind.
Bloodborne puts you on edge immediately and it doesn’t need jump scares or any other cheap horror clichés to do it. Almost everything in this place wants you dead and the few things that rarely welcome outsiders. The townsfolk do little more than shriek or scream as they try to slash you with makeshift farming tools or rusted blades and yet that isn’t what makes them scary, it puts you on edge yes but what really stuck in my mind about these people is what they say when you cut them down. ‘This town’s finished’, ‘Foul Beast’ ‘you won’t last long’ and ‘Please God’. Slowly you start to realise that even on the night of the hunt, the people don’t want you here. They HATE hunters for a variety of reasons.
This is exemplified in the second boss Father Gascoigne. Gascoigne is a hunter like you and he is very good at his job, almost too good, before you face Gascoigne you can talk to his young daughter who gives you a small music box that she says is the only thing that can bring her father back to his senses after a hunt. You find Gascoigne, blood drunk and slaying beast and human alike, his reason being “You’ll be one of them, sooner or later…” As you fight him you can use the music box, which causes him to stumble in shock as if in a brief moment he regains his humanity, however if you try to use it more than three times it ceases to work. Then you bring him down to half health and he transforms into a hideous bestial form.
You beat him (no easy task) and the game forces you to reflect on what you’ve just done. Yes you’ve fulfilled your duty as a hunter but you’ve also cut down a once respected soldier in this never ending war who succumbed to the very evil he tried to fight against, slaughtering his wife in the process and leaving his young daughter alone in this nightmare. That is downright Shakespearean, and it instills in you the possibility that YOU might end up like Gascoigne by the end of the game.
It was here that I realised Bloodborne is something deep in the sublime.
What’s the sublime you ask?
Edmund Burke defined it as Whatever is in any sort terrible … is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling in Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.
So in essence the awe you feel when gazing at the majesty of a nearby mountain tinged with the slight possibility that nature does not care about you there’s always the possibility you could fall from such a great height.
There’s beauty in a tiger but you know it can tear you to shreds hence it is sublime. Poe’s Telltale Heart drips in the sublime when you find yourself unable to stop reading the wonderful prose covering the man’s horrific eye and his terrible fate. Dracula is both regal and terrible.
Frankenstein becomes learned but exists as a horrific monster.
These things stay with you long after you turn the final page in much the same way as Bloodborne’s world and characters do.
In Bloodborne you are the only one sane enough to stem the tide of horrors and yet you will die and resurrect again and again no matter how many beasts or bosses you defeat there is no way to escape. Yet you fight on anyway in the vain hope you can fulfill your purpose. There’s a terrible beauty to Yharham’s architecture and its world, even the few characters that aid you are either beset by the plague, mad with blood lust or trapped within the Hunter’s dream.
There’s so much in this game and I’ve barely scratched the surface. If anyone’s looking for subtle Gothic horror and find yourself wanting, step into Yharnam and ‘don’t you worry. Whatever happens… You may think it all a mere bad dream’…