This post contains some spoilers.
Video games are a frequent hobby of mine but something I talk about very infrequently on this blog, especially over the last couple of years. Nevertheless, every once in a while I play a game that really grabs me with its story. Not simply in how well it tells this story, but the ways the story is integrated with the video game medium itself.
In Bloodborne, developed by From Software, you play as a foreigner who has come to Yharnam, a labyrinthine city of Gothic/Victorian architecture, seeking the miraculous blood healing of their Healing Church to cure an unspecified malady. Your character also seeks something known as “paleblood,” though what this is isn’t explained. Upon signing a contract and receiving a transfusion of strange blood your character becomes a Hunter—people made exceptional by “blood ministration.” When you awaken after the transfusion you are alone at dusk on the night of a hunt, when Hunters and citizens alike take to the streets to hunt the Beasts that plague Yharnam. You have no choice. A Hunter must hunt.
From there the player is at the mercy of Yharnam and its harsh denizens. There are few friendly non-player characters (NPCs) and everything from crazed mobs, bloated carrion crows, to lycanthropic beasts assail you around every corner; and those are just the regular enemies. Very little about the gameplay is directly explained to the player without them having to seek the answers on their own, and even then, some other things can only be noticed by a keen-eyed observer. It was this layer of the game that made its integration with story so interesting to me, because if you choose to you could easily wander through the game from point to point paying minimal attention to what little plot is being presented to you. There’s so much else to command your attention.
I’ve heard tell that many people believe Bloodborne doesn’t really have a story at all. What makes this so understandable is how merciless it is purely from a gameplay standpoint. There are a lot of stats and systems in place to learn, maintain, and balance, actions and weapons to familiarize yourself with, and paths through the environment to discover and memorize. It presents robust challenges so frequently that it’s very easy for the player to put blinders on, focusing more on learning how to take down the latest boss that has killed them for the 27th time than anything else going on. Never before have I encountered a game that has such an antagonistic attitude toward the player. If you’re not on your toes even the lowliest of enemies can stop you in your tracks or overcrowd you. Not to mention the horrific visual style of the game too. More than once an encounter with a boss monster has ended badly for me purely because of how intimidating it was to confront for the first time.
While these factors dominate your priorities, the game itself really doesn’t go out of its way to make sure you’re making mental notes, observations, or following along with the story—and it’s certainly not hand-feeding it too you with a lot of dialogue or cinematic scenes either.
A friend and I have likened it to trying to piece together a puzzle with no reference picture and some pieces missing. There is a deeper story at play in Bloodborne, but it has to be teased out by a persistent player. Its narrative details are weaved into the background in a way that rewards the player’s curiosity and observational skills. A lot of it is rather easy to miss, much of it buried in the flavour text of the items, weapons, and even clothing you acquire throughout the game. It’s all right there waiting for you, but you have to know to look for it and go out of your way to read it for yourself. The same goes for finding NPCs, notes in the environment, the architecture and setting around you, and even where certain enemies tend to congregate. Much of it means something, hinting at a greater context just beneath the surface.
I had the benefit going in of being told that it drew heavily from the works of H.P. Lovecraft, but the initial monsters were mostly violent mobs and werewolves. It was difficult to see where Lovecraft came into it. Yet despite the blood-drenched hunting of Beasts that kicked things off, there are deeper forces at work behind the scenes that gradually become apparent as you progress. “Beasts” are the unfortunate residents of Yharnam turned into horrific monsters by a plague that ravages their city. The game never pointed this out to me, but at a point I realized that the boss monsters I was combatting were no longer Beasts. It was at this revelation that I stopped simply scratching the surface and started to dig.
The concept of “insight” comes into the game and story in an interesting way. Technically speaking it is both a stat and a currency for your character, allowing you to purchase certain items if you have a high enough number, as well as give you weakness or resistance to certain effects in the world. However, it also determines how much you can see behind the veil of reality and the outside forces interacting with it. Certain enemies and effects will not take place if your insight is too low, and if it is high enough early on you can glimpse things before the natural progression allows it.
I love the way this can be reflected in experience of the player. With little to no desire for any real insight into the game’s story, the player can master controlling their Hunter, level up their stats to their play style, and go on a gloriously challenging killing spree, slaughtering their prey and reveling in their triumph. They could do this without a second thought and it does no tangible harm to the game as a piece of interactive art. Its technical depth alone is enough to marvel at.
But if you so choose, you can probe a little deeper, seeking the truth of what is going on in Yharnam. You can piece together who the human forces at work are, what they have done, what they are trying to do, and start to uncover the nature of the Great Ones they aspire to be. And in the fashion of true cosmic horror, no matter how much you probe for the truth, how many revelations you uncover, the complete picture is maddeningly fleeting, obscured, and out of reach. I wouldn’t want it any other way.