The Hunter & Her Relation to the Unconscious
towards a psychoanalytic discussion of FromSoftware’s Bloodborne
… we can read Beyond the Pleasure Principle as a text concerning textuality, and conceive that there can be a psychoanalytic criticism of the text itself that does not become — as has usually been the case — a study of the psychogenesis of the text (the author’s unconscious), the dynamics of literary response (the reader’s unconscious), or the occult motivations of the characters (postulating an “unconscious” for them). It is rather the superimposition of the model of the functioning of the mental apparatus on the function of the text that offers the possibility of a psychoanalytic criticism.
— Peter Brooks, Freud’s Masterplot
The first hostile encounter of Bloodborne is between the player’s avatar — the hunter — & a wolf-beast. Moments before, the hunter begins her story in typical videogame form, amnesiac. She awakens on a cot in an abandoned clinic, carrying no supplies & having no motivations other than hazy memories of coming to the great city Yharnam to receive a special medical treatment, blood ministration, to cure her of an unnamed ailment. When she descends to the ground floor of the clinic & encounters the wolf-beast she is almost certainly doomed.
After dying, the hunter wakes up in a new level: the “Hunter’s Dream,” a dreary graveyard suspended like an island above the grey clouds. At the doorstep of the workshop standing at the middle of the Dream, small withered men emerge from the ground to offer the hunter several items: her choice of a melee weapon & firearm, & a small notebook. After she accepts some combination of these things, the small men recede into the earth, & the hunter is guided to a gravestone which she can use to wake up (for the third time) back in the clinic.
Newly armed, she sets off to the room which the wolf-beast still haunts. The developers, FromSoftware, have clear intentions for how the scene should play out: the hunter is meant to revenge herself on the beast, imitate its cruelty. She cuts the wolf down after a try or two, maybe taking another trip to the Hunter’s Dream if need be. Beyond a few, scattered hints on which buttons on the controller perform which action, this short encounter is as close to a tutorial as the player will receive. It models a cycle which they will practice at for the rest of the game. Waking up again & again & again, the player learns to resist or coexist with the domineering systems of Bloodborne by being overwhelmed by them.
For as often as she is sent unwillingly to her death, the hunter can choose to return to the Hunter’s Dream of her own volition. The dream is the only place where she can spend her currency, “blood echoes,” to purchase supplies, maintain her weaponry, & improve her own abilities. Almost everything the hunter can do in the dream is about prolonging her survival in the exploration phase of the game’s cycle. The danger present between her various awakenings is near-constant. The hunter is always either being attacked or on her way to be being attacked. Hers is a world almost entirely populated by hostile others, a baleful cosmos encloses her.¹ The difficulty of her encounters can feel insurmountable to the player.
It’s a wonder that anyone thinks this stupid game is fun.
I have trouble explaining what interests me about Bloodborne. There’s a lot to be said about the game’s merits — the way the plot & mechanics conspire to keep the narrative constantly confusing, the tightness of the controls, the vicious combat, the overall weird aesthetic — but its most compelling feature to me is its difficulty, & the decadence that difficulty provides. One point which is perhaps lacking from the discussions on difficulty in games is a few words on the psychical & economic problem of failure in games. Is there something about losing, failing, dying, or otherwise reaching a negative (or improper) ending in a game which satisfies the psyche? After all, the threat of failure is present in the majority of known games, though it is a much maligned formality. It must be to someone’s taste.
Bloodborne’s difficulty demonstrates the paradox of painful art, which roughly follows the three premises:
- I will always try to feel good.
- I fail often & hard while I play Bloodborne, & it doesn’t feel very good.
- I really really like playing Bloodborne.
Jesper Juul attempts to account for this masochism in several ways over the course of his book The Art of Failure. Juul offers a believable synthesis between theories of deflation (pain caused by art is aesthetic & therefore illusory), compensation (pain caused by art is outweighed by that art’s positive aesthetic qualities), & a-hedonism (pain caused by art is its own goal).
This final theory of a-hedonism makes the curious & fun move by far, as it “denies the first premise of the paradox and argues that humans do not simply (or primarily) seek pleasure.”² Juul doesn’t linger on this possibility for long, & doesn’t maintain much effort in supporting it, though I think it can be easily accounted for & expanded with a reading of Sigmund Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle. The 1920 essay is a revision Freud’s previous belief in a dichotomy between the sexual drives & egoistic drives which fuel all psychic motion. Discarding the notion of a primarily egoistic drive which is in competition with a primarily sexual drive, Freud adopts a new belief in a death drive which is happily intertwined with the sexual drive. The death drive is a deeply unconscious phenomenon, one which human subjects may never become entirely, consciously aware of. It is a drive which pulls us towards endings, compelling us to repeat experiences until we can end them in an unexciting, habitual, & intentional way. That is to say, it is a drive towards the mastery of experience, so that when one must finally meet an ending, it will be in a way of one’s own fashion.
The death drive is largely only observable through the compulsively repetitive behaviors & feelings it fuels — searching for the death drive is like watching a black hole, one can only understand its presence by watching the gravity it exerts on nearby bodies. Freud himself observes that the compulsion to repeat seems to act before or against the demands of the pleasure principle — the tendency of humans to always seek pleasure. The dreams of analysands with traumatic-neuroses (what we might now consider PTSD), which subject them to harmful & re-traumatizing images; the need of the analysand to not just remember, but re-experience or return to repressed memories in therapy; & even certain games played by children illustrate to Freud the capacity of the psyche to repeatedly subject itself to the same displeasures without consciously meaning to. To him, there seems to be no satisfactory economic (with the currency being pleasure) explanation for these observations except to speculate the existence of a psychic drive which is perhaps satisfied by hurting, & has priority over the pursuit of pleasure.
To return to games, if we were to assume that humans primarily seek pleasure, the most direct route to it would be to begin & then quickly end a game. A player presses a button, they win, they receive the yield of pleasure associated with winning. There would be no complicated middle, no potential interruptions. While this may sound attractive, Juul’s studies for The Art of Failure indicate that it hardly remains satisfying for long.³ Instead, many games present a series of complications, challenges, or potential failures which delay an experience of a proper end. By playing Bloodborne, players voluntarily accept excitations which are carefully designed to overwhelm them, rousing them from the relatively comfortable state of not playing Bloodborne. It’s ridiculous, & the only way to end it all is to either walk away or “win” the game. This is to say, while we readily take on the repetitions & experiences of the game (positive & negative), the most essential goal of Bloodborne is to not be playing Bloodborne anymore. A player beginning the game naturally presupposes that it might at some point end, & that that ending is the most favorable outcome possible.
Imposing the model of the death drive onto the structure of Bloodborne’s gameplay suggests a potential elaboration on Juul’s a-hedonism. Viewed from this angle, the goal of indulging in painful art & in difficult games would be to practice unpleasure towards the aim of mastering & reducing it. If we reframe the pleasure principle to say that our tendency is not about seeking out greater & greater pleasures, but rather to reduce excitations, to reduce stimulation to the least measure possible, the easiest option is complete inanimacy. This reasoning is what allows Freud to see the death drive & the sexual drive as co-existent, & also what enables him to proclaim, somewhat infamously, that “the aim of all life is death.”⁴ As a subject experiences a new sensation, one of the functions of the mind is to understand & codify that sensation, binding the potentially overwhelming stimulation into smaller, more manageable units.⁵ These now-bound energies allow a subject to practice towards the goal of receiving the least possible amount of unbound excitations — those sensations will be less of a surprise, next time. The most extreme goal of this process is a return to the inanimacy from which life arises & to which it ultimately returns, though in games & in life we can see this is hardly the most practical aim. To account for the tension between the goal of the death drive & the course of modern life, Freud concocts a theory of psychic evolution.
For a long time, perhaps, living substance was thus being constantly created afresh and easily dying, until decisive external influences altered in such a way as to oblige the still living substance to diverge ever more widely from its original course of life and to make ever more complicated detours before reaching its aim of death.⁶
In its purest form, the death drive is not a death wish or a subterranean desire for self-destruction, but a drive towards a death in one’s own fashion, to one’s own taste. For most beings, the proper death is unexciting, without pain, & of natural causes. At some point in the early development of life, Freud claims, the threat of an improper death forced a living being to do something slightly more complicated than immediately, comfortably die. As the world’s “decisive external influences” continue to become more complex, the beings in it required longer & stranger lives in order to master the experiences necessary to die properly. Taking Freud’s dated biological speculations as metaphor, Peter Brooks draws his own equivalency between the death drive & literary plot.
Between these two moments of quiescence, [the beginning and the end of a story,] plot itself stands as a kind of divergence or deviance, a postponement in the discharge which leads back to the inanimate.⁷
Bloodborne is representative of a separate type of complication of than the literary plot, however. It should go without saying that the audience of Bloodborne practice a different activity altogether than the audience of a novel might. The middle phase of the game’s cycle, exploration, is filled with hostilities & excitations, all targeting the hunter. Awakening rouses the hunter from the calm inanimacy of the Hunter’s Dream, leaving her subjected to the influences of the city Yharnam. Rather than mnemonic elements,⁷ the “postponements of plot” seen in a game are mechanical (or procedural) elements. Bloodborne uses the mechanic of failure to force the player to retrace their steps & repeatedly confront whatever energy had overwhelmed them, this time with the intent to bind those energies & master the experience.
Mastering the experience of unpleasure is not the same as conquering or overcoming it — under the influence of the death drive, one masters unpleasure as they might a craft. An experienced Bloodborne player is an elegant practitioner of failure, the game serves as a space for their recreational discomfort. Bloodborne is constituted by failure, both the structure of the game & its narrative have strong emphases on experiencing improper deaths. The game is also constituted by consent; one chooses to play it. Bloodborne is an always-already bound set of energies. The game has physical boundaries, it cannot exist beyond the interaction between a human & a harddrive. A player accepts the excitations of Bloodborne with the knowledge that they can at any point stop the interaction, & that the excitations of the game are artificial. The player knows that these excitations are crafted by FromSoftware, & that they were designed to be bound.
Having mastered (or at least slipped through the cracks of) the cruel mechanisms of Bloodborne, the player is eventually given the opportunity to experience an end of their own making by “winning” the game. The death drive is successfully, frivolously discharged, though Bloodborne refuses to let the discharge be entirely satisfactory. Of three possible ways to “win” the game, two involve the hunter being killed or overpowered by the hostile forces which sustain the Hunter’s Dream itself — the place of rest becomes resting place. At this point the game is finished, it’s final message a goading call for the player to replay the entire game, to try harder at binding it this time. A suitably a-hedonistic player obliges, though many others, I assume, are content to let it be done.
1. Even the NPCs which don’t outright attack the hunter are mostly adversarial or resistant in some way. Eileen the Crow briefly finds camaraderie with the hunter, but aggressively shoos her away if she lingers too long. The Chapel-dweller, Gehrman, & the doll’s dialogs are friendly, though often disturbing or uncanny to listen to. Alfred, Arianna, Iosefka, & Master Willem were the only NPCs (out of thousands) I found unambiguously pleasant, & none of them fare well throughout the game.
2. Juul, 40
3. Juul, 11–12
4. Freud, 45
5. For more on Freud’s account of how excitations are bound, see section IV of Beyond the Pleasure Principle.
6. Freud, 46
7. Brooks, 291
8. “To state the matter baldly: rhyme, alliteration, assonance, meter, refrain, all the mnemonic elements of fictions and indeed most of its tropes are in some manner repetitions which take us back in the text, which allow the ear, the eye, the mind to make connections between different textual moments, to see present as related and as establishing a future which will be noticeable as some variation in the pattern.” Brooks, 287
Brooks, Peter. “Freud’s Masterplot.” Yale French Studies, №55/56, Literature and Psychoanalysis. The Question of Reading: Otherwise, Yale University Press, pp. 280–300, jstor.org/stable/2930440. Accessed 20 Oct. 2018.
Freud, Sigmund, and Peter Gay. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Edited by James Strachey, The Standard edition, W. W. Norton & Company, 1990.
FromSoftware. Bloodborne. Sony Computer Entertainment, 2015. Playstation 4.
Juul, Jesper. The Art of Failure: An Essay on the Pain of Playing Video Games. Reprint edition, The MIT Press, 2016.
This essay finished with the support of Robin Gibson & Ella Sarina.