Introducing a World Without Hope or Meaning
What makes a masterpiece? This is a pretty vague and unhelpful question, but it almost inevitably enters your mind when thinking about the “best” of anything — be it movies, novels, or video games. A great movie, in my opinion, can be a masterpiece (a 10/10, if we were to rate it) based on three criteria: if its level of craftsmanship reaches close to objectively perfect, if it executes a certain quality exceedingly well compared to its contemporaries, and if it invokes a powerful and undeniable emotional response. These are not mutually exclusive, of course; something being expertly crafted can also stir strong emotions in the viewer/reader/player. FromSoftware’s ‘Bloodborne’, however, their 2015 follow-up to the runaway hit ‘Dark Souls’, is the kind of masterpiece that does a particular thing better than any other video game I know of: a macabre atmosphere.
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‘Bloodborne’ is not a perfect game. Much like other action-RPGs from FromSoftware, including ‘Elden Ring’, the studio’s latest release, it has some gameplay quirks that the studio has yet to adequately address. The lock-on camera, used during high-octane fights with enemies, only does its job sometimes. The game’s difficulty, while usually challenging but fair, can occasionally come off as cheap — punishing the player for what seems like unavoidable attacks from certain enemies. AI, whether enemy or friendly, is not the smartest in the world; its pathfinding ability (i.e., its ability to track the player’s whereabouts) is wonky, sometimes even resulting in an enemy or summoned ally getting stuck on level geometry. Finally, not so much a flaw as a creative decision, but people looking for an RPG with in-depth storytelling (like the ‘Final Fantasy‘ series) will be let down by ‘Bloodborne’ (like other FromSoftware games of its type) having a bare-bones plot.
For all its flaws, though, ‘Bloodborne’ taps into the writings of H. P. Lovecraft more strongly than any movie I’ve ever seen — and there have been some valiant efforts at capturing Lovecraft’s brand of cosmic horror. Of course, this raises another question: What is cosmic horror? And what makes ‘Bloodborne’ such a perfect example of it? Let’s find out.
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‘Bloodborne’ – Cosmic Horror: The Universe As the Greatest Villain
Cosmic horror, as we recognize it, preceded Lovecraft; indeed, such early writers as Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce contributed to this subspecies of horror, even if the phrase “cosmic horror” didn’t cross their minds. Cosmic horror, as its most basic, is about things beyond human comprehension being the biggest threat to us; the villain in a cosmic horror story is not a slasher like Michael Meyers, but a product of a vast and amoral universe. Fear, when you get down to it, is all about the unknown, and cosmic horror is all about fearing things we don’t or cannot know. Lovecraft codified and articulated many aspects of what makes something “cosmic horror,” introducing godlike alien lifeforms known as the Great Old Ones in stories like The Call of Cthulhu and The Dunwich Horror, not to mention stories unrelated to the so-called Cthulhu Mythos — a loosely connected cycle of stories written by many authors throughout the decades, including none other than Stephen King. The big thing to take away from Lovecraftian horror (all but used interchangeably with cosmic horror) is that the universe is fundamentally hostile to mankind — not because it is deliberately evil, but because it is so indifferent to our existence, even our ability to understand it, that it leaves our minds in ruin.
There have been some good cosmic horror movies, including the very flawed but still fascinating ‘Event Horizon’ and the criminally underrated ‘In the Mouth of Madness’ (both movies, incidentally, star Sam Neill), but due to the nature of the medium, there is always a disconnect between the characters’ experiences and the viewer’s. In a movie, you may be scared or anxious about what you’re watching, but you know you’re not experiencing any of it directly; you’re simply a pair of eyeballs taking in the action. With a video game, however, there is much potential for direct involvement, and this is where ‘Bloodborne’ comes in to show us how it’s done.
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The plot of ‘Bloodborne’ is simultaneously basic and obtuse: you, a no-name outsider, enter the doomed city of Yharnam and are given the task of killing a Great One (the game’s godlike alien race) that has been born on this night. “What a mess you’ve been caught up in,” says one of the few friendly characters you come across. “And tonight of all nights!” She’s not wrong, you know; you’re in for a world of pain. You, a perfectly reasonable person, are thrown into the middle of a hopeless battle between beast-hunters (who have lost their minds, naturally) and the beasts themselves.
‘Bloodborne’ is regarded as an action-RPG, which is to say a role-playing game with a heavy emphasis on action, but it’s also a striking example of both cosmic and body horror. Yharnam has been ravaged by the influence of the Great Ones, with humans either quite literally turning into monsters or losing their grip on human rationality. You play a hunter, and you come across quite a few fellow hunters throughout the game, but nearly all of them have become bloodthirsty maniacs; they will attack you first, and never ask questions. The beasts are no better than the crazed hunters, ranging from ghoulish humanoid figures to eldritch abominations with eyeballs covering their whole heads, tentacles sprouting from their backs, being deformed beyond recognition, among other things. John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ is an excellent example of cosmic and body horror (an alien presence deforming and assimilating human bodies), but ‘Bloodborne’ takes it a step or two further by not only putting you in the driver’s seat, but being far more grotesque than any movie you’ve ever seen.
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The Importance of Aesthetics and Mechanics
One of the most consistent points of praise critics and gamers have thrown at ‘Bloodborne’ is that while it’s undoubtedly a disgusting game, it’s also utterly stunning in its art direction. Game director Hidetaka Miyazaki and his crew put an insane amount of effort into making Yharnam and its surroundings both unnerving and enrapturing; the city may have once been a great place to live, being a mix of Gothic and 19th century British architecture, but now it’s a home for monsters. When ‘Bloodborne’ was released on the PlayStation 4 back in 2015, there was good evidence in favor of it being the best-looking game on the system — and, by extension, one of the best-looking games of all time. I’m not talking purely about graphical fidelity (the game is capped at a lousy 30 frames per second, after all), but about level design, character designs, costuming, etc. You basically pick your clothing in this game based on what you think looks best, rather than something like defensive capabilities — and there are a lot of great-looking outfits in ‘Bloodborne.’ Of course, the beauty of the costuming is juxtaposed nicely with a bloodstained and disease-ridden environment.
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Aside from how it looks, the most important horror-related aspect of ‘Bloodborne’ in terms of how it plays is the Insight system. When you defeat a boss, or use a certain item (the most common being Madman’s Knowledge), you gain Insight, which lets you interact with the world more fully, collecting items and even seeing certain enemies you would not have been able to see with the naked eye before — but also making you more susceptible to attacks. You can buy items with the game’s currency (called blood echoes), but you can also buy special items with Insight. With Insight, the world opens up, but becomes even more dangerous in the process.
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My one gripe about how this game uses Insight is that despite your player character witnessing all these horrors, they seem pretty calm and collected about everything; there are no breaking-the-fourth-wall shenanigans that would indicate your player character is losing their sanity, like in ‘Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem’ or ‘Amnesia: The Dark Descent.’ Even so, ‘Bloodborne’ is not a game for the faint of heart; it’s a trying experience, both because of its difficulty and in how it marries cosmic horror conventions with its mechanics.
The Game You Should Play (But Probably Won’t)
Despite being marketed as a killer app for the PlayStation 4, which would become one of the highest-selling game consoles of all time, not many people have played ‘Bloodborne.’ Unfortunately, due to the fact that it has remained a PlayStation 4 exclusive since launch, your options are limited; you could play ‘Bloodborne’ if you have a PlayStation 5, due to backward compatibility — but, much like the Loch Ness monster, the PlayStation 5 is a mythical creature that many claim to have seen, but whose existence is rather dubious. Despite not being as popular as ‘Dark Souls’ or ‘Elden Ring’, though, ‘Bloodborne’ enjoys a passionate cult following — one which tries to keep the game alive, even as most people don’t have the equipment needed to play it. Lovecraft’s fiction has served as the inspiration for some very good horror movies, but as it turns out, the best way to experience Lovecraft without actually reading Lovecraft is not to watch a film or TV series, but to play a particular video game.
By Brian Collins
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