~ essay on Bloodborne (2015), the ultimate in action-horror role-playing.
Shortly after my journey through the Lands Between, I entered the nightmare world of Bloodborne (2015) due to some friendly recommendations. With it, FromSoftware’s transcendent Souls action-RPG formula shifted into the realm of gothic horror and cosmicism. Much like Elden Ring (2022), the game is a triumph — and has instantly become one of my favorites. From the twisted environment and visceral gameplay, to the music and the characters and the deep, dark l o r e—Bloodborne is a visionary masterpiece. It’s no wonder, 7 years on, the PS4 exclusive title still trends on Twitter and harbors a cult of die-hards.
Here, I have shared some thoughts on my own experience in Yharnam, no less severe in its die-hardiness.
A Viciously Ruined Realm, A Dream Turned Nightmare
At the start of Bloodborne (2015), you awake on a slab in Yharnam, a gothic metropolis shrouded in smoke and bellowing the roars of the damned. Haunting music instills this decrepit place with a sense of dread that you will not shake until the very end of the dream. Your nightmare.
Yharnam is now under eternal night, overrun with werewolves and ghouls and god knows what else. In a recursive nightmare depicting its very last days as a place of civilization, you play as a Hunter who has awoken deep within the confines of the gorgeously wrecked city. Or, just a vision of it.
Clothed in black leather armor and armed with a series of jagged blades — you cannot die and it is your task to hunt Beasts.
At some point in their life, the Hunter becomes afflicted with an unspecified disease and travels to Yharnam, an ancient city known for housing an old medical remedy which is said to cure any disease. Iosefka calls the Hunter “paleblood”, and, on a note near the clinic, mentions are made of the need to find paleblood to “transcend the hunt.”from The Hunter | Bloodborne Wiki
Clearly, Yharnam used to be a bastion of the 19th-century advancing world. In the fields of architecture and medicine, it is apparent; in the realms of the religious and miraculous, you will find out the details. The venerable place has fallen to the “scourge of the beasts.” Thus, monstrous Beasts roam; the few remaining survivors stalk the street with weapons, fearful of all outsiders, expressly violent, drunk on the blood of Beasts and soon joining their ranks.
Healed from your malady via strange blood, wielding a ‘trick’ weapon that can morph between sword and spear, your “Paleblood” Hunter must venture out into the smoky darkness in search of solving the mystery of this horrifying place. And of that life-saving blood that’s just been transfused into you…
This is the scene of Bloodborne. Miraculous medicine and impossible Victorian architecture, all spoiled and fallen. Blood and monsters, splattered and infesting. City streets and sewers, accursed woodlands and cyclopean swamps. Enemies abound in an endless frenzy, coming for you; you can handle them.
As fast and powerful — and thrillingly skilled — as your Hunter is, Bloodborne is a nightmare you don’t want to wake up from.
The viciously ruined realm of Yharnam, its dreams of healing and nightmares of Beasthood, is yours. For the next few days, an exploration into its nooks and crannies will yield a disastrous history, its current despair founded upon a hope now buried.
All through the savage saga, your Hunter will need to cut down Beasts and other Hunters and much worse, momentarily soiling their drip with the wretched Old Blood which brought down the old city.
Sisyphean Hunters and Tragic Beasts, Religious Blood vs. Scientific Insight
Something that struck me in both my Elden Ring and Bloodborne experiences is just how tragic the monsters are.
In Bloodborne, you learn Beasts were all once Men.
Hunters are tasked with hunting monsters to death because that is what their organization was created to do. A Hunter hunts, from out of the Hunter’s Dream; the work of executing Beasts is what that they are destined for. This includes the player character in their endless dream, rising and falling against Beast after Beast, boss after boss.
The great irony of the Hunter’s fate is that they must empower their blade arm with the very blood they drench their black coats in for the sake of their profession. In fact, Hunter’s transfuse the Old Blood into their bodies so much that they inevitably become Beasts themselves, wild and murderous and furry, betrayers to their order.
Every Hunter is faced with becoming that which they hunt. And yet — they hunt. Theirs is a harshly poetic, Sisyphean fate. This is the foreground duality within Bloodborne’s tragic saga — that of Hunters and Beasts in violent conflict, fighting one another toward extinction while they simultaneously merge into the very same monstrous being.
“Without fear in our hearts, we’re little different from the beasts themselves.”~ Eileen, the Crow, a specialist, Hunter of Hunters.
What of the lore, how did this bloody battle for Yharnam originate?
The Healing Church is the impetus of Yharnam’s status as a destination for those in need of healing, and the culprit behind its fall to ruin. Founded by Laurence, the First Vicar, a religious zealot and former student of Master Willem at Byrgenwerth, the church is the great communicator and administrator of the “Old Blood” — the source that proves able to cure any disease in the world.
Part of a triad of The Healing Church’s primary institutions, The Workshop’s “Hunters” were originally recruited and trained to keep order in Yharnam, while The Choir prayed to the “Great Ones” and The School of Mensis experimented with outer planes.
Old Hunter legends like Ludwig, Logarius, Lady Maria, and Gehrman, “The First Hunter” helped found the church through protection, via violent skill with a blade of one kind or another. Originally a security force, Hunters would later become like a secret police, rooting out those infected or defiant to the Church.
As you enter the employ of Gehrman in this eleventh hour, all organization is lost. You are a lone wolf on the trail of the Beasts infesting the city. Any Hunter comrades you encounter are as likely to be hunting you as they are to ally to your cause. The once noble profession has fallen to the same madness that seized the rest of the city – the outcome their blades were violently trying to prevent.
Yharnam’s rise relates to a scientific discovery that soon became spiritually significant. The body of a Great One was found in a labyrinthian crypt beneath the city, in tombs time forgot. A massive alien creature, Great Ones range in size and biology but we can assume it was covered in eyes, winged, slimy, sprouting tentacles… Studied by scholars at the principal university, Byrgenwerth, and soon revered with religious fervor by sects of the tomb’s prospectors — the ministration of the fallen Great One’s blood seems to heal humanity of any known ailment.
The miraculous blood affirms the nascent faith suddenly being borne in the populace’s hearts and minds. Yharnam’s state, past and present, is birthed by this marriage of science and spirit.
Of course, this magic alien blood transfusing comes at a cost that the Yharnam religious and scientific elite fail to realize before it is too late. This cost is the aforementioned “scourge of the beast”; it both heals and destroys Yharnam’s people by slowly but surely turning them into monsters.
In this world, before the primary, bloody conflict of Hunters and Beasts — there was the ideological battle of religion vs. science, faith and knowledge.
Within the game’s mechanics, the Hunter collects blood from fallen foes and insight from the sight of novel creatures, regions, and… the skulls of madmen. Each of these principal resources grows your Hunter in power. Blood echoes increase attributes while insight allows for special sights unseen throughout the twists and turns of Yharnam’s towers.
“…some knowledge can only be obtained by exposing oneself to sickness.”
From Yharnam’s past, the clash between religious belief and scientific study is represented with Laurence, the young and passionate student, and Willem, the wizened and cautious master. The discovery of the existence of alien Great One(s) and the strange utility of the Old Blood split professor and student along ingrained ideological lines; Laurence wished to use the blood to evolve mankind and Willem feared its transformational properties in lieu of further research.
While Willem proves to be right in his fear of the Old Blood’s danger, he does not seem to harbor any of the compassion that Laurence does for his fellow man. Laurence wishes to save the world, in the classic sense (at the price of some bad trips and a few Beasts), while Willem wants to know it ALL, all for his own private designs (and grow new eyes for himself).
The catch comes in the realization that worshipping the Great Ones as Gods — or charting their true biology and origins throughout the stars — is utter folly. Their power is incomprehensible and pure corruption unto human bodies and minds. Everything to do with the alien Old Blood leads to madness and death.
Laurence’s church followers — along with himself — end up transforming into bloodthirsty Beasts (and great bosses); Willem’s university students indeed grow eyes, and bigger heads, and wings, and a hunger for the brain fluids of human beings…
In either case, Bloodborne’s horror show is borne of two learned men irresponsibly seeking greater power than Man was ever fit for.
The Marriage of Gothic and Cosmic Horror
What better way to describe Yharnam and all its problems?
A former beacon in the fields of medical research and scientific examination, the city’s grand towers now house lonely, unfathomable horrors. Racist residents shut their giant oaken doors and shoo away everyone with a sickly cackle. Students morph into bugs, priests become Beasts. Werewolves patrol bridges and ravenously leap through the stained glass of cathedrals. Wailing ghosts haunt old castles. Blood-drunk Hunters await you in regal graveyards, ready to duel. Dragon-sized “Great Ones” crawl like insects along the skyline, only visible under the blood moon or with the earned insight of a madman…
Bloodborne not only marries the gothic and the cosmic to a singular story, its saga permits an integral connection between them, an evolution from one to the other.
Whether from out of a sheer desire for power, control, advancing position — or due to a true-hearted compassion for Mankind — Yharnam’s ruling class delved the tomb of the gods beneath their city and used what they found. They imbued themselves with the Old Blood and the cosmic knowledge of its discovery, founded a church espousing its miraculous qualities, and gifted the blood to all the people of their land.
The success of The Healing Church meant Yharnam became a destination for those in need of a miracle. Along with this came a rise in personal prominence for all the scholars of Byrgenwerth responsible for the Old Blood’s discovery, such as Laurence, Willem, and Gehrman. The rising tide lifted all, and a seeming elitism was borne in its populace, across upper and lower class alike.
Ironically, the people of Yharnam maintain their xenophobia for outsiders — who may have come to help — even as their town mutates into a freak show of monsters and aliens. Most every house and NPC the player comes across sneers in fear, many are silent and some just laugh in your face. They no longer show their faces at all, perhaps because they’ve begun to transform.
A rise and fall has taken place within this city’s decadent history, now firmly abandoned to a dark fate.
An article at Horror Obsessive posits that Bloodborne is a grand alien invasion story. The scourge of beasts and the flow of the Old Blood through the people of Yharnam is, in fact, an opening salvo for the Great Ones’ conscious invasion of humanity. The nightmarish takeover of this once great city is the first step in Mankind’s enslavement or extinction. This seems more than plausible.
Cosmic, or Lovecraftian, horror deals in the realm of an indifferent and overwhelmingly powerful universe of outer worlds and elder gods. With power far beyond humanity’s imagination, these alien beings resemble daemonically oversized insects or octopi and they either play with us for their own amusement, ignore us, or cast us easily into multiversal oblivion. Common themes to cosmic horror fiction include human hubris in the face of such powers and their unknowably godlike consciousness. Ambitiously neurotic Lovecraftian protagonists set to learn of and venture into great alien dimensions are doomed to death or madness, or worse — irreversible and monstrous transformations.
In Bloodborne, Yharnam’s elite and their quest for power end up dooming their people to such fates worse than death. Your Hunter’s investigations reveal that the Old Blood not only turns the people into Beasts, but invites cosmic rituals and enables the birth of new Great Ones within Yharnam’s confines. Gothic horror comes from all your monstrous enemies, living as ghostly scars from a decadent and careless past. Cosmic horror arrives when you consider what Yharnam’s fall means, the source being the alien Old Blood acting as an all-encompassing corrupting agent, perhaps with a will of its own.
By the denouement of this saga, you learn that your job as Hunter has been to slay a Great One, preventing the birth of “Mergo” — the child of alien Oedon and Yharnam, Pthumerian Queen, a human spirit.
In the gameplay experience, there’s an escalating three-act structure to the Hunter’s journey — from sunset > to midnight > to the pall of a bright blood moon being cast over the city. As you defeat master Hunter-turned-Beast Father Gascoigne, then former Healing Church cleric Vicar Amelia, then Rom, the Vacuous Spider, and proceed into the depths of Yharnam’s winding chasms, the world around you continuously transforms — along with the danger your enemies pose.
Your Hunter’s blade goes from gothic Beasts to cosmic Gods, naturally so.
Bloodborne’s high art horror never lets up until the very end. A singular and disquieting vision, it is a nightmare worth dreaming about for a long time. ~