An excellent example of stellar world building, Bloodborne is a real feast for the eyes (and ears) of every dark fantasy lover. It was released a few years ago, but I’ve only just finished it. Sombre, brooding, oneiric and Lovecraftian, Bloodborne takes us to a Victorian world filled with beasts, the Church and… aliens.
How does that work together? Read on!
Let me state at the outset that I won’t be allowing myself to compare Bloodborne to the Dark Souls series, simply for the sake of creating the one article on the Internet that doesn’t do it!
The plot of Bloodborne is extremely confusing and unclear, all the way through, to the point where creator Hidetaka Miyazaki is now on my ‘to-strangle’ list. Yet that very confusion allows the story to remain very much open to interpretation. Different players will draw different meaning from it; you may see it differently!
Yharnam, The City Where It All Began
Yharnam isn’t your typical holiday retreat, although to me it’s more beautiful than Paris. A maze city, full of secret passages and dark alleys, Yharnam is wrapped in thick fog and red sunset and, later in the game, moonlight. Once important and lively, the city is now broken, twisted, and has begun to live its own life, like a giant, malevolent organism.
Its story repeats that of its namesake – the ancient queen Yharnam.
Yharnam was found, along with many other secrets, in the catacombs underneath the city. A heritage of the mythical Pthumerian civilisation, the Chalice Dungeons held their great inventions and secrets – and one very dangerous revelation: the Old Blood.
You see, Pthumerians once reached the unreachable, and established communication with celestial beings: The Great Ones.
The Great Ones came to dwell among the Pthumerians. Each wishing for progeny, they selected some of the Pthumerian women to bear their children. This failed in most cases, although not in all. Queen Yharnam was one of the Mothers, whose child survived. The Blood, however, passed on and mixed with Phtumerian blood, causing an outbreak of the terrible bloodborne disease: the beast scourge that brought this ancient civilisation to an end.
Countless years later, scholars of the Byrgenwerth Academy discovered the Dungeons and found one of the Great Ones left behind:
Ebrietas, Daughter of the Cosmos.
The miraculous properties of Ebrietas’s blood were also discovered, and the race towards the evolution of humankind began. The insatiable hunger for knowledge and ascension to a higher plane of existence was the source for many experiments, which finally brought about the same beast scourge that buried the Pthumerian civilisation.
But, before that happened…
Healing Church and the Blood Ministration
Disagreement between the Byrgenwerth’s master and one of his students laid the foundation for the Healing Church. Based on the power of the Old Blood, the church is dedicated to the redemption of humankind, and the beginning of humanity’s evolution to the next level. The central focus of the Church was Blood Ministration, administering the Old Blood to the people of Yharnam through transfusion. The blood was held sacred, miraculous and – by some – dangerous. “…We are born of the blood, made men by the blood, undone by the blood. Our eyes are yet to open…” says Byrgenwerth’s Provost Willem, and he goes on to add: “Fear the old blood.” And we was right, indeed.
It’s not exactly clear, but it seems that, along with the Old Blood, human blood started to be used, or added to the treatment as well. Blood of the ‘Blood Saints’ was held in particularly high regard. The game’s lore mentions it to legitimise the Healing Church and the communion. The communion is another mysterious rite, mentioned as a form of nourishment for the Hunters.
The Healing Church also sought an audience, or communion with, The Great Ones. This was finally granted, thanks to the discovery of one of the chalices. The Church formed three sub-branches:
- The Choir (the highest ‘priests’ and scholars)
- The School of Mensis (sinister, experimental place of learning)
- The Hunter’s Workshop (warriors/crusaders).
The Church is well-developed and all-powerful, establishing the cult and the ministry of blood. Thousands would make a pilgrimage to the city, to be cured of their diseases. It is said that, in time, Yharnam started to produce more blood than alcohol. When imbibed, it was more intoxicating than alcohol.
Unfortunately, this pursuit of evolution brought about the very opposite effect to that which they desired. The blood of The Great One didn’t mix well with human blood, and the people began to change into beasts.
This was the original reason for founding the third branch of the Church: the Hunter’s Workshop.
Of Monsters and Aliens, Science and Magic
Interestingly enough, the game uses more science than pure fantasy to explain the origins of the monsters. Similar to the primal freaks in Thief, or metahuman races in Shadowrun, the Bloodborne beasts aren’t summoned from the ‘darkest planes of arcane existence’ or ‘from beyond the Veil’. Instead, they are quasi-scientifically connected to certain illnesses, mutations or experiments.
More Frankenstein than Dracula.
The monsters we come to fight as a Hunter in the game used to be human beings, but are now at different stages of mutation. Some are fully morphed, some only partially. Yet others change before our very eyes.
The most terrifying and powerful ones are those who used to be clerics of the Church.
The Great Ones, another sort of non-human beings, are alien-like creatures that have descended from the cosmos to communicate with the humans who beckoned them. All the magic and arcane items draw upon the powers of The Great Ones, which makes them more ‘cosmic’ in nature than arcane.
The story of Bloodborne is about science turning into nightmare.
Although it lacks the demonic drama so often present in horror and dark fantasy, it gives something much more in return – an atmosphere of its own: mature, rough, yet possessing a poetic aura of eeriness.
The Horror: Aesthetics, Ambience and Music
What brings the story together, and makes it so convincing and captivating, is the breathtaking ambience of the game. The architecture of Yharnam and other locations is a creatively interpreted mixture of neo-gothic and medieval styles. The churches, chapels, and cathedrals (which are numerous, considering the religious nature of the city) look like temples but, at the same time, nothing like any temple you know.
Like a bad dream, things and places that are familiar in the waking world suddenly look strange and vaguely sinister.
It’s a normal city, but something is terribly wrong.
This sensation is intensified even more by the uncanny abandonment of all the places we visit. People are rarely to be met; they’re usually just voices from behind barricaded doors. Those we do meet are often not in their right mind. The torch-lit streets are patrolled by the infected mob, who set out to ‘help’ the Hunters in the beast hunt, and ended up as half-beasts themselves.
The music is also notably good and fitting – right from the main menu through to boss battles. Not overbearing or repetitive; just a subtle emotional commentary for the story. Environment sounds are excellent, featuring pained moanings, beasts roaring, madmen raving, fire crackling and… creepy silence.
It is a game without easy comforts or obligatory humour to ‘lighten the mood’. No bubbly personalities, buzzing cities or 1000 NPCs to talk to about everything and anything. The game’s world is consistently severe. It has a rabbit hole feel to it and – as nothing is obvious, and clues are sparse and hidden – this makes the player explore the world in all its fullness.
It’s like an exotic land, or a new planet – you want to see every inch of it.
I really recommend it and invite you to explore, if you haven’t already…
A geek and gamer with a background in Cultural Anthropology, Lena loves all things that go bump in the night; apprentice of vampire lore, fan of cyberpunk, enthusiast of dark fantasy. Lena is blending in with the mortals working for an interior designer, and blogging about story analysis.