Bloodborne: A New Lovecraftian Narrative
“Children will always be afraid of the dark, and men with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars, or press hideously upon our own globe in unholy dimensions which only the dead and the moonstruck can glimpse.”
– H.P. Lovecraft.
The inimitable H.P. Lovecraft was notoriously interested in cosmicism, which is a philosophy “stating that there is no recognizable divine presence, such as God, in the universe, and that humans are particularly insignificant in the larger scheme of intergalactic existence.” Interestingly, FromSoftware’s Bloodborne, which released in 2015, abides by a similar philosophy. However, in Bloodborne, the insignificance of humanity has been realized, and the fabric of reality as we know it has been torn to shreds by vicious beasts.
The Insignificance of Mankind
As per Lovecraft’s mentioning of a “divine presence, such as God,” the language in Bloodborne is specifically derivative of religious terminology: “Healing Church,” “Choir,” “Cleric,” etc. This is obviously done to emphatically present a parallel with institutions in reality; however, where does the actual power lie in Bloodborne?
Clerics become hideous beasts. The blood transfusions administered by the Healing Church are part of what unleashed the Scourge in the first place. Men, and their religion (cult) for that matter, failed. Badly. And for what? A pursuit of knowledge, of Lovecraft’s Eldritch truth? What good is knowledge to the dead? What good is knowledge to a beast? If knowledge is power, then, by that logic, what good is power in the above instances? Not with any God, or Church, or indeed mankind. Not with anything insignificant.
People have pointed out on many occasions that the optional boss, Ebrietas, bears a strong resemblance to popular depictions of Cthulhu. Ebrietas, The “Daughter of the Cosmos,” hidden away in the Upper Cathedral Ward; this “Great One,” who was discovered and subsequently subjected to blood transfusions for who knows how long—for what else would the parasite man do after discovering something of this nature? Ebrietas, the docile creature who is facing away from the door, mourning what looks like the corpse of a fellow “Great One”—such a sheer presence. However, the Daughter of the Cosmos has no wish to fight. The hunter must make the first move. Do you leave this incredible creature from the unknown be, or do you attack? What would man do?
The game rewards you with a trophy for slaughtering Ebrietas, so the answer is clear—man kills. Man does not seek to understand. Despite all of the years in which Ebrietas had been abused through the farming of her blood, the “good hunter,” who is tasked with ending the Scourge of the Beast, is expected to destroy this awesome being. However, this is just one being. Its existence necessarily implies not only the possibility, but the inevitability, that extraterrestrial life exists, and that mankind is “particularly insignificant in the larger scheme of intergalactic existence.” The existence of this Great One, along with the others featured in Bloodborne, displays the insignificance of humans within a universe of “hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars.” Oh good hunter, you are among the moonstruck.
Lost in the Nightmare
Throughout the entire game, we hear of desires to be granted eyes. Indeed, the students of Byrgenwerth are now entirely covered—as is Rom, the Vacuous Spider, the Great One that they protect. It is only after Rom is slaughtered by the hunter that true sight can be gained—not through an abundance of physical eyes, but through the revelation of the “Blood Moon.” The Blood Moon reveals things as they really are, completely and utterly changing the world. Rom held the veil over this reality, disguising the true horrors of the universe from human eyes. It is only by gaining insight that men can experience the Eldritch truth, which overwhelms the incapable, turning them into madmen before making their heads literally explode. The knowledge of what is truly real can prove fatal to eyes and brains that simply cannot comprehend the unveiled horror of our universe’s reality.
In this respect, power gained ultimately equates to powerlessness, as those who gain knowledge lose it in death, or, for those who withstand, to bestiality. The hunters Gascogine and Henryk, known for their incredible skill, ultimately were defeated by bestiality, having succumbed to the bloodlust that results from mindless violence. Although it is probable that they had seen sights similar to the hunter, they were defeated by another enemy. They existed in the Nightmare, were reborn in the Dream, again, and again, and yet, they were still unable to withstand. Even the most significant humans are insignificant, as greater powers operate silently from beyond.
Indeed, the whole world is the Nightmare, but what does that imply? The narrative necessitates ambiguity in this respect, as the cycle of life and death exists in perpetuity. You are killed, and then reawakened, over and over again, forever, until you are no longer needed. The Nightmare ends, but do you wake up?
Of course you do.
You wake up at the beginning.
Not in reality.
Not in the Dream.
In the Nightmare.
What is time?
Has time happened, in its entirety, already?
Is this real?
These are the questions one must ask in Bloodborne. Is it pointless to go on, if the end is the beginning, and time is one infinite loop? Will the Nightmare ever end? Is the hunter dead, or moonstruck?
One thing is for certain: insignificance. All of the hunter’s actions, unraveled at the seams. What does one do after such an occurrence?
As Samuel Beckett wrote:
I can’t go on.
I’ll go on.
We are moonstruck. There are fathomless worlds to discover yet.
“It is absolutely necessary, for the peace and safety of mankind, that some of earth’s dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be let alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life, and blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests.”
– H.P. Lovecraft
Frenzy is a mechanic in Bloodborne that is similar to bleed or poison meters in Dark Souls. When the meter fills up, the player instantly loses the majority of their health. Unlike something like bleed, frenzy can continue to build up even after the connection to what initiated it is severed. It is perhaps the most dangerous mechanic to the player in the entire game.
So, what exactly is frenzy?
Frenzy is essentially an insanity meter. It is triggered by the player seeing things that are beyond their comprehension. It is directly influenced by a player’s Insight, in that, the higher your Insight is, the lower your resistance to frenzy is. This connection implies that the more knowledge you have of reality, the more vulnerable you are to its horrors. With low Insight, you can’t even see some of the things that inflict frenzy. As you gain Insight, these things begin to appear, and the more you gain, the more dangerous they become. Frenzy is inflicted by things of a higher order, such as anything to do with the Great Ones or Lovecraft’s Eldritch truth. Seeing things as they are can drive a person insane. Lovecraft once wrote: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”
Once these contents are correlated, the human brain succumbs to frenzy. It is driven insane, and instantaneously overloads itself, destroying both brain and person, simultaneously.
In The Shadow Over Innsmouth, when writing about about the protagonist’s first encounter with the “Deep Ones,” Lovecraft wrote: “Their form was so horrid that their mere appearance caused Robert to lose consciousness.”
This can be seen as the point of origin for Miyazaki’s incorporation of frenzy into Bloodborne. Frenzy causes the Hunter to lose consciousness or die and reawaken in the Dream. It is the “mere appearance” of blasphemously surviving nightmares in Bloodborne that drives the hunter insane. They are undone in the Nightmare by the nightmarish, and reborn in the Dream to seek undoing again. The perpetual conquest for the acquisition of knowledge parallels with the definition of insanity widely attributed to Einstein: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.
Sedate Yourself or Die Amidst Madnesss
For example, the Winter Lanterns, or Brain Trusts, inflict frenzy in two ways. The first is infliction simply through line of sight. The other is infliction through their attacks. When one examines a Winter Lantern closely (after they have been defeated), you can see that their heads seem to be composed of dead messengers. They are also wearing something that looks very similar to the Doll’s dress, but it is covered in blood. It is of great interest that these enemies cause frenzy simply via line of sight, because the hunter has seen each part of their composition before. Not only are the messengers and dress familiar; they are directly associated with two of the very few characters in Bloodborne that actually seek to help you.
However, as you get closer, you realize that these strange entities want to kill you. The hunter’s need to recognize that these are variations of the beings who have been helping them up until this point is what induces the frenzy. This frenzy can be reset by sedatives, which emphatically sedate the hunter’s enlightened mind, so that they can mindlessly slaughter these amalgamations of Dolls and messengers and continue with the Hunt.
The locations where Winter Lanterns are present are often very out of the way. The player must go off the beaten track to encounter them, and, when they can finally be seen, there are usually obstacles placed between them and the hunter. The camera angles must be adjusted to see them before confronting them, implying that the hunter does not wish to see these abominations. Usually, these areas are home to unique items, such as new trick weapons or Blood Rocks. Other than FromSoftware placing these items behind such difficult enemies simply for a high risk/high reward mechanic, one must recognize that there must be some reason as to why these variations of the Dream’s occupants are in such close proximity to the items which will help the hunter most. These weird, ambiguous horrors are the hunter’s, and subsequently the player’s, greatest fear. To quote Lovecraft: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
The Caryll rune which increases the player’s resistance to frenzy is the Deep Sea rune. The inscription of this rune reads as follows:
This rune means ‘Deep Sea’ and grants augmented resistance. Great volumes of water serve as a bulwark guarding sleep, and an augur of the Eldritch truth. Overcome this hindrance, and seek what is yours.
Besides the emphatically Lovecraftian usage of language, through words such as “bulwark,” “augur,” and “Eldritch truth,” this frenzy resistance rune can also be linked to Lovecraft in a thematic sense. In Lovecraft’s oeuvre, from early Necronomicon works to The Shadow Over Innsmouth, it is the deep seas that protect us from seeing what we dare not see. They are the bulwark that prevents us from seeing horrors that are a part of the Eldritch truth, of actual reality. In a metaphorical sense, the vastness of the universe and the cosmos can be described as great volumes of water, flowing undisturbed around our small world, albeit undisturbed until very recently. These great volumes of water are not even necessarily oceans or seas, but are merely impossible-to-traverse grounds.
However, we were wrong; the bulwark has been breached. It seems that what we thought was keeping the horrors of the universe out, is actually what is keeping us in.
All Are One in Yog-Sothoth
“Someday our piecing together of knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas we shall either go mad or flee into the safety of a new dark age.”
– H.P. Lovecraft
In Lovecraft’s fiction, strange things occur when contact is made with inhuman entities. For example, in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, the Deep Ones interbreed with the village’s population. In The Dunwich Horror, Lavinia Whateley mates with Cthulhu’s grandfather, the Outer God Yog-Sothoth, yielding Wilbur Whateley and the eponymous Dunwich Horror. In Bloodborne, there are also instances of Great Ones seeking to sire part-human children. This is where the thirds of the umbilical cords come from. Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle and Cthulhu Mythos leave less to the imagination in relation to these strange occurrences than Bloodborne, so let’s look at how they appear in Bloodborne specifically.
The thirds of the umbilical cords, which the hunter comes across throughout the course of the game, seem to have came from the birth of an infant Great One. Their locations hint at which Great One they were attached to. For instance, the cord gained from Mergo’s Wet Nurse is implied to have belonged to Mergo, who was ripped from Queen Yharnam’s womb. The cord we get from Arianna near the Tomb of Oedon came from Arianna, when she gave birth to the child of Oedon. The cord found in Iosefka’s clinic, after killing the imposter, mentions Provost Willem in its description. This detail, along with the presence of Yurie at Byrgenwerth, who, like Iosefka’s imposter, was a member of the Choir, implies that the cord was taken from Byrgenwerth. Byrgenwerth’s presence at the Fishing Hamlet implies that this cord came from the Orphan of Kos. It is unclear as to why Iosefka’s imposter took the cord—perhaps to try to give birth to an infant Great One—although, whatever she was attempting to do failed. The fourth, and last, umbilical cord, found in the Abandoned Old Workshop, mentions the fact that it was used to beckon the Moon Presence in its description. The result of said beckoning was the creation of the Hunter’s Dream, occupied by Gehrman and the Doll, under the governance of the Moon Presence. In the main game, there is no information detailing the origin of this cord. However, in the official guide, we are told that this cord came from a Vileblood child. It is true that the source here is external, but it is the only source we have.
This means that the infant Great Ones we have proof of, are:
- The Orphan of Kos;
- Arianna’s child, and;
- A child of the Vilebloods (who, for all we know, is still alive).
With Arianna’s implied connections to the Vilebloods (from her dress to the paintings in Cainhurst), the unidentifiable second Great One child of the Vilebloods, and Queen Yharnam’s implied connections to the Vilebloods (made especially explicit by the Chalice Dungeon boss fight), it is only logical to assume that perhaps the Orphan of Kos was also of Vileblood descent. However, if this is the case, the reasons as to why are unclear. All that is concrete is that, like Lovecraft’s Dunwich Horror, infant Great Ones are born to humans after the exposure of the Eldritch truth.
After Rom is killed at the Moonside Lake and the Blood Moon appears, Great Ones gain the capability to permeate the boundaries of reality. As a result of said permeation, they can attempt to manifest themselves in the form of new Great Ones within this reality—a perfect example of this being Arianna’s impregnation by Oedon. Rom, who shares interesting attributes with Lovecraft’s “blind idiot god” Azathoth, essentially held up the barrier that separated the Nightmare from reality.
With her death, the horrors of the Nightmare and reality become one, and things are seen as they truly are. Inconceivable terrors gain the capability to invade reality, and the world as we know it becomes a waking Nightmare. It is easy to think “but the Great Ones were here before this,” but, they, at least mostly, existed in separate planes of the Nightmare. After Rom’s death, the Lesser Amygdalas become present in the world, and even stock enemies are seen in their horrific, true forms. Also, as made clear by the thematic concept of New Game+, it seems that all of time already exists, simultaneously, on an endless loop. Only the Great Ones seem to have any sort of ability to influence this, as even after the hunter slays prey and the Nightmare, they end the game, and reawaken anew, to sign the contract all over again, and experience nothing more than a “mere bad dream.” Humanity’s strife to regain its former glory is futile, thanks to the contact made by institutions such as Byrgenwerth, the Healing Church, and the School of Mensis. All that is left are Nightmares, which we cannot seem to wake up from. As Lovecraft wrote in The Dunwich Horror:
The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them, They walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen. Yog-Sothoth knows the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the key and guardian of the gate. Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth.
Knowledge at the Cost of Decay
To conclude the contact argument, it is interesting to recognize the docile nature of Rom and Ebrietas. These Kin, who exist as Great Ones within the Dream, were beckoned by Byrgenwerth and the Healing Church, respectively. They are not hostile towards the hunter, yet the infant Great Ones that we encounter or their Wet Nurses are. Also, the Great Ones that gain the capability to invade post-Rom are. This divides the various institutions’ consequence of contact, implying that the schism at Byrgenwerth, and all subsequent subdivided factions, was not only to do with “fear(ing) the old blood.“ Willem, obsessed with lining his mind with eyes, sought to protect Rom. He sealed the university off, deep within woods declared to be forbidden, and stayed there, perhaps knowing what would happen if Rom were to die. The rune you gain from killing Willem, “Eye,” boosts discovery, and can be interpreted as a last-ditch attempt to give the hunter eyes to recognize that Rom is the only thing separating the world from true horror. Of course, the hunter slaughters Rom, and horror is wrought on the world in unimaginable ways.
The members of the Healing Church have deserted their previous residence, having become horrific beasts as a result of long-abused blood-ministration. As Martyr Logarius once said: “Acts of goodness are not always wise, and acts of evil are not always foolish; but regardless, we shall always strive to be good.“
This summarizes the Healing Church’s mistakes perfectly. Despite their intentions to use blood ministration for good, it was their foolishness that ultimately unleashed the Scourge of the Beast. On the contrary, Mensis sought to collide with the cosmos without any consideration of the consequences. Neither an act of good nor of evil; not wise, nor foolish – yet, nonetheless, ultimately detrimental.
It is in this way that “contact” differs between Bloodborne and Lovecraft. There are obvious parallels between what the first part of this article discusses, from the Great Ones’ desire to manifest themselves in our reality to the births of Wilbur Whateley and the Dunwich Horror. However, in Lovecraft, discoveries of the Eldritch truth often occur in personal settings, rendering the protagonist insane. In Bloodborne, havoc is wrought on the entire world, as a direct result of institutional interference with the cosmos. Lovecraft often deals with an individual pursuing forbidden knowledge; Bloodborne deals with mankind pursuing forbidden knowledge, and clearly displays the consequences of this. Three great institutions, mentioned everywhere, yet are nowhere to be seen; all that is left are the desecrated remains of a society that is no more.
Secrets in the Dark
There are two secret bosses in Bloodborne: Great One Beast and Nightmare Moon Presence. In order to access these bosses, the player must manipulate the source code of the game. Considering that Bloodborne features the pursuit of forbidden knowledge as one of its core themes, the act of obtaining the necessary information to do this is quite meta.
The information contained within the source code is not made readily available; it must be datamined. This very process is, to a large extent, a pursuit of knowledge that is external to what you have been provided by the developers, who hold authority over what the game divulges. One must act as a Mensis scholar, or as a student of Byrgenwerth would; one must search beyond the boundaries that have been placed around them. Although the “Great One Beast” is very interesting (imagine Kalameet and Watchdog of the Old Lords had a baby), “Nightmare Moon Presence” is more in-line with Lovecraftian horror. The reason for this is that the idea that this boss has been present all along is quite unnerving, much more so when the player is actually outside the boss’ fog gate.
A Bloodborne player familiar with the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft will almost certainly recognize the uncanny resemblance that the “Nightmare Moon Presence” shares with Lovecraft’s Nyarlathotep. For those who are unfamiliar with this Outer God, he is known by many names, which include “Crawling Chaos” and the “God of a Thousand Forms”. These names in particular are applicable to the boss. The former resonates with the NMP’s movement, and chaotic attacks which uniquely extend beyond the arena’s Nightmare Fog. The latter makes sense in relation to the fact that this was supposed to be an alternate form of the Moon Presence we know from the main game. If the Moon Presence was supposed to have two forms, it requires no stretch of the imagination to assume that it could potentially have many more.
Something which is particularly interesting to note is that in Lovecraft’s work, and in the work of his contemporary Derleth, Nyarlathotep is the son of Azathoth. I previously referred to a boss in Bloodborne that shares many things in common with this “blind idiot god.” The boss in question is none other than Rom, the Vacuous Spider.
Interestingly, it is well known that Rom held up the veil that concealed the true horrors of our world, but was this our world? Nyarlathotep is one of the only cosmic deities in the work of Lovecraft who is emphatically malign, and one of the only “gods” who openly walks our world. We know that we enter the Nightmare as soon as we sign our contract. We also know that this is only one Nightmare and that it’s possible that many more could exist. Nyarlathotep, or the “Nightmare Moon Presence,” is in a different plane of reality than Rom. One must kill Rom to progress in the game, but it is important to remember that Rom is neither hostile nor sinister.
The “Nightmare Moon Presence” is arguably the most hostile boss in the game, as it attacks through the fog gate. It is not seen in the main game, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t supposed to be there. It has been present for as long as it has been in the code. It was unseen, not absent. It simply holds dominion over a plane that is not influenced by Rom.
So is the “Nightmare Moon Presence” actually cut content? Or, is the place it inhabits a way out of the Nightmare? There are no lamps, so there is no way back to the Dream. The Nightmare Fog has different properties to any gates we have previously encountered. Has the real world become just another Nightmare? Is this what the hunter wakes up to?
This entire section seems glitched, which makes perfect sense—this is, after all, content that was cut from the main game. However, it is very Lovecraftian for these glitches to be in place. A dream world with little or no explanation as to how its mechanics function; a mysterious hostile Great One who is hostile from the moment it senses you; and a place of great significance that deprives you of all knowledge and drops a fog of ambiguity all around you, leaving you without anywhere to go or any clarity as what to do.
Has the good hunter simply gone mad? Is this entire section a mere figment of their imagination, corrupted by the cosmos and left insane? After potentially several NG+ cycles, has the hunter become even more entwined with the Hunt, the Nightmare and the world of Bloodborne itself?
So many possibilities, with so few elements of certainty. One thing is clear: this boss remained within, or was implemented into, the source code for a reason. This is more than “cut content.” It epitomizes Bloodborne itself. This was intentionally left to be discovered. It is not an extension of the game – it is part of the game.
“That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die”
– H.P. Lovecraft
Shrouded in ambiguity, Bloodborne is an enigma that can only be understood by committing to the logic it proposes. Death after death, the player reawakens in the Hunter’s Dream, but what is the point of this cycle of life, death, and reincarnation?
Throughout the game, the fog of ambiguity slowly spreads and grows more dense, more encapsulating. As T.S. Eliot wrote in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening
The entire idea of traversing ambiguous darkness to arrive at a sense of meaning can only be described with a singular adjective: Lovecraftian. Similarly to Lovecraft’s short stories, with which Miyazaki was enamored, Bloodborne does not hold its consumer’s hand. The story becomes complicated before it becomes clear, and clarity itself is a mere illusion. Everything is down to interpretation, and to interpret is to confront horror. That is why the successes of Lovecraft and Miyazaki run parallel in terms of the horror genre; it is only horrific when you are willing to engage, and once you’ve engaged, there is no going back. There is a compulsion to search for knowledge, and every unsuccessful search makes the hunger more intense.
The lack of difficulty settings in Bloodborne is necessary. One must earn narrative progression through great effort. One must die, be punished, learn, and then progress. As Beckett once wrote:
Through failure, one gradually learns perfection. Bloodborne is a story that, even at its end, is fragmentary. However, by the time one finishes the game, they will have spent enough time learning and observing to have drawn their own conclusions. Some things will remain forever ambiguous, and that’s okay. It’s the same with the scourge-free world that we inhabit in reality. However, at its core, Bloodborne truly offers a disturbing account of humanity, as decay breeds bestiality. By addressing the toxicity spread by influential institutional powers, Bloodborne ties a fantastical horror dystopia to a parallel possibility; it is the sheer ambiguity of origin and process that makes ideas rooted in fantasy tangible and sourly palatable.
Bloodborne is a work of art. It features affordances unique to the medium of video games, such as malleable narrative structures, and utilizes said features to communicate in three dimensions, as opposed to two. It is either a story that you love, or at least one you can’t fault. This is because, interestingly, a dislike of the story isn’t a failure on the developer’s part. Every misunderstanding is a success, regardless of whether it be rooted in positivity or negativity. The game skews meaning, unravels truth. All that is left is fear and awe. Dissatisfaction can be tied to the former, disillusionment the latter.
Bloodborne may be fantastical, but its sentiment is real. The world is dark and difficult, and failure exists in perpetuity. Things get worse before they get better. However, in the end (whatever “the end” may be in reality), one can find comfort in the chaos. The world is a terrifying place, but it’s the place we are tied to. Every spark in the circuit of chaos has the potential to achieve any outcome. Every reawakening in the Dream is another chance to accomplish what could not be accomplished before. Bloodborne is dark and horrific, yet it is enchanting and inspiring. Most of all, Bloodborne is a worthy homage to the oeuvre of the inimitable H.P. Lovecraft.