by Stephanie Yeap
On the surface, From Software’s 2015 Action RPG Bloodborne appears to be a Gothic-inspired take on its famous Darks Souls franchise. Praised for its fast-paced gameplay, visually stunning environments, its slew of challenging bossfights, and unique mode of storytelling, it is no surprise that Bloodborne won Game of the Year in the year of its release. However, Bloodborne goes above and beyond what one would think of a hack-and-slash RPG (role-playing game): a riveting visual and, if you look hard enough, textual storytelling experience sits at the core of what makes this a cosmic-horror masterpiece.
The player arrives in Yharnam, a city known for its blood ministrations under an entity known as the Healing Church. Here, blood ministrations are known for its miraculous healing properties, and many flock to the city in search of various cures. The blood has become so addictive that its consumption has been more popular than that of alcohol. However, the night the player arrives in Yharnam is a dreadful one: beasts roam the streets, locals have turned hostile, and many are on the verge of turning into beasts themselves. It is up to the player, a hunter, to hunt these beasts, find the Healing Church and destroy the source of the scourge. Upon closer inspection, the player will find an insidious-sounding message dictating his or her true quest: “Seek Paleblood and transcend the hunt.” This premise quickly sets Bloodborne up to be a tale of Gothic horror while forcing the player to wonder what Paleblood is, and what directions the game could take in light of the message.
Central Yharnam, even in its ravaged state, is a sight to behold. The player passes through plazas surrounded by exquisite Gothic-styled buildings and churches, and wanders through mist-filled streets lined with children’s prams, Victorian carriages, and strange statues of beings curled up in foetal positions. The inclusion of such bizarre visuals in Central Yharnam hint at the possibility that this game may not embody the werewolf-filled Gothic horror tradition as we had once presumed, and instead hint that concepts that are far more alien.
Early on in the game, players simply do not have access to many areas or interactions with NPCs (non-playable characters) to provide them with any information about what has caused this outbreak, and instead would have to look at the most text-rich sources in the game in order to come to any judgment: item descriptions. Items are in abundance throughout the whole game, and their descriptions are pivotal in providing information (but never too long) about the areas they are found in, different in-game historical periods, various factions and their weapon choice, and even about areas beyond those you get to explore in the game. Most importantly though, item descriptions can very quickly subvert the idea that Bloodborne is ‘just a Gothic horror’ game; certain items, such as the Madman’s Knowledge, explicitly point to events and phenomenon that demarcate the game’s transition from a world heavily influenced by Gothic horror tradition to one heavily entrenched in Lovecraftian ideas of an eldritch truth, higher beings, human transcendence, and mankind’s descent into madness. Considering that these items can be found early into the game, it’s safe to say they foreshadow and provide information about the player’s inevitable encounter with the source of the scourge, the blood of Lovecraftian-styled higher beings called the Great Ones.
Reading the descriptions of various unique items (of which there are around 140) is an intrinsic way to piece together the sprawling narrative Bloodborne has to offer, though one does not need to accumulate all the items in order to read their descriptions. Loading screens between areas feature screenshots of various items and their descriptions; forcing the player to read (or at least notice) all these different items and their origins, thus showing how intrinsic noting seemingly small details are in unravelling the game’s entire story. While the player could easily create a superficial understanding of the Bloodborne’s story through soaking in various level designs and just playing the game, it can be said that text plays a vital role in grounding and elucidating a narrative that is so indirectly told.