The Cosmic Horror I Never Asked For
Inland Empire is David McNeill’s column about world building, CRPG’s, love, loss and many other kinds of literary vulnerability.
My love (read as semi-obsession) for the Dark Souls video game franchise by From Software is well-televised, well-reported, and I somehow mention Dark Souls on every podcast I appear on.
So it’s weird that I never got into Bloodborne, not really.
When the game released, I watched my friend play through ten hours or so on our now defunct Let’s Play Youtube channel, but I never really played myself. I tried a few hours but it didn’t stick.
Until last week.
Now I wake up and all I can think about is injecting dangerous amounts of chemical and blood as I carve through swathes of eldritch creatures, hell-bent on suffocating the beasts of Yharnam with nothing but a giant hammer and a god damn shotgun.
It’s hard to tell why I wasn’t interested in Bloodborne initially.
In large part, I suspect it’s due to my investment in Dark Souls.
There’s a particular flavour and aesthetic to the Souls series, a sort of pseudo-low fantasy grit, a sense of empty, strange desperation where the world is doomed to forever repeat the cycle of flame and the dark sign, of hollows and about-to-be-hollow.
The world building and deep, esoteric lore aside, there is a simplicity to the Souls aesthetic. I can pick up any entry in the series and be certain of how the world will feel, and the sense I’ll have while playing.
Patience, a big sword, high ADP and the will to battle on are all I need. That and snacks.
But Bloodborne is different.
The trailer was weird.
The Victorian, steam-punk vibes, the bizarre woodlands-esque areas that call on Dracula by way of inspiration… it’s all a little strange.
But having dusted off Dark Souls 3 again (this time on the Playstation) I downloaded Bloodborne, expecting to glance off it, like cling-wrap so tight over a bowl that you don’t notice it’s there at all until you go to dig in and your spoon bounces off it.
And I very nearly did.
I was enjoying the parrying mechanic but the game wasn’t really gripping me. I wasn’t terribly interested in the lore, and the item descriptions in the early game didn’t give me the same sense of wonder and discovery as they had in Dark Souls.
I wasn’t bored, I just wasn’t interested.
Until I rounded a corner, and stepped through a wide, dark steel gate, and into a graveyard.
Hunched over, his back to me, was a man in a broad hat with a frayed scarf.
His robes were filthy. Stained.
“Beasts all over the shop,” he muttered, turning. A regular boss fight it looked like, he had a gun and a blade.
“You’ll be one of them, sooner or later…”
Then he faced me, and tilted his head up to reveal he was, in fact, blind.
The fight started and Father Gascoigne rushed me, blade ready.
I dodged through his attack, got in one good hit, and panicked as he drew back, ready to smack the crap out of me.
I parried, then gave him a face full of shotgun slug, and he staggered. The organismic pseudo-diegetic BWAAAAMP played, and I stepped forward, put my hand into his chest, and ripped him into a bloody mess.
He got up, slowly, and fired his gun.
I dodged through the bullets, and he uncoiled, launching forward, hoping to catch me off guard.
I dodged aside, hesitated, and drove in a flurry of blows. He reached back and knocked the absolute crap out of me, taking away half of my health in a single blow.
On pure instinct, I dodged forward, and mashed his face in with my saw cleaver, rallying my health back, and as he prepared to punish me again, my gun roared, and I gouged his chest open once more. As he recovered, I stabbed a vial of blood into my chest, bringing me back to full health.
He howled like a maniac, and transformed into a blood-hungry beast.
Good, I thought, I’m here to kill beasts.
I rushed into the terrifying creature, head-on, and started to carve it up. I was soaked in its blood and my own, and my gun crackled and hissed as I forced the beast to its knees, again and again, and punished it for having the nerve to even try to strike me.
I beat Father Gascoigne on my first encounter with him.
By the time he faded into the very graveyard he was protecting, my clothes were drenched in crimson and ichor, and I am in.
I left Cascoigne’s graveyard and pressed ahead, further into danger, heart hammering, ready for more. Hungry for it.
Something about the fight changed my gameplay style, but more than that, it changed my attitude, my feelings, the way I approach the game.
The next boss I felled, the Cleric Beast, left me literally cackling (ask my partner, she is still a little worried). I brought it to the ground in a dance of lead and blood.
The game swallowed me whole.
And as my partner crawled into bed, I sat awake in the dark, drunk on hunting down the aberrations of the unholy streets, keenly intent on discovering where the beasts had come from, who had started this, and to get to the bottom of the church, to ascend to Odeon Cathedral and to cleanse the blight from Yharnam.
When I eventually went to bed, half-drunk on rum, half-dizzy with power, my partner rolled over and asked if I liked the game, how it compared to Dark Souls, I nodded and said nothing, not trusting the manic rant I could feel bubbling in the back of my throat.
Bloodborne, while baked with the legacy of Dark Souls, has its own language.
From the way the streets snake and stack and layer, to the bizarre, cryptic items that randomly unlock entire sections of the game, the reason I was struggling to understand the game was, well, I was listening for the wrong things.
Bloodborne is frenetic, violent and totally insane. As the game goes on, you start injecting yourself with increasingly dangerous alchemical potions and substances to take on large, stranger, and more horrific nightmare-beasts.
I’m about two-thirds into Bloodborne now, and just when I thought I had the beasts tamed, that I was the hunter, and they were the prey, the game pulls an amazing Lovecraftian twist, and puts me on the back foot once again. I won’t spoil it exactly, but the cosmic horror of the hidden city is something I’ve never seen in a game before, and probably never will again.
There’s an awesome, unsettling dread to the scale of bloodborne’s third act, and I’m terrified of what might surface from the darkness next, but I’m ready to tear its legs away, and rip its heart out with my bare, bloody hands.
For all that, the game’s philosophy around its ideas and themes is far less clear than Dark Souls.
Unlike the Souls series, where everyone is a few inches away from going nutso and stabbing you if you look at them funny (and everyone manically cackles after every conversation), there are actual people you can speak with in Bloodborne.
Real, not-insane people, boarded up in their homes.
They don’t really trust you (fair enough, the streets are bustling with horrific monsters), but it’s… nice. For the first time in a From Software game I can remember, it feels like a world that’s lived in, by actual people, who might do actual activities and have actual lives in a place you might want to live in.
Dark Souls 2 probably comes a close second with Majula, where you assemble a gang of rag tag group of weirdos who hang out in this gorgeous ocean-side town.
While rendering an aspect of the world gives us something to recognise, something worth saving, it seems at odds with the game’s central themes.
The game seems to beg the question: what are you willing to become to stop something evil? How far will you go?
As the game goes on, you gain access to large, more dangerous gems, weapons, blood and even chemicals that make you like the beasts, temporarily. These items serve as the game’s consumables to help you out in a pinch or during a particularly tough boss, but they all feel dangerous. Like it’s a little too tempting to use them, that if you just crunch on the pellet to give you some extra firepower, that you might somehow be slipping further and further into madness.
The game made me into a blood-soaked hunter who jams dangerous substances into my chest to make me stronger, and I have been enjoying slicing my way through the creatures. Maybe a little too much.
And that’s kind of the point: the bosses, the other hunters (who just attack you at a glance most of the time) and cosmic dread all serve as a vehicle for these ideas, but the game is never really interested in exploring what it means.
Which is sort of missing a trick.
Little gameplay details let this down. Like the fact that other Hunters you face in the game have exceedingly more health than you ever could, and possess seemingly infinite ammunition to parry you. It doesn’t feel like a contest of wills, of facing off against someone who got to where they are via skill and hunting beasts, it just feels like they gave these dudes more health to make them a hassle to kill.
Some enemies don’t quite work in the spaces they’re in — these box-ass things in the streets of the hidden city just make zero sense and feel like an accident:
The game’s electric, cracklingly precise tone and atmosphere and blood lust haven’t quite got to a point by the unseen village, and the pacing is occasionally dragged to a crawl by these strange decisions.
It does, sometimes, glance at a deep meaning.
Take Father Gascoigne, the very same who helped me understand the game.
He attacks you with the veneer of wanting to exterminate beasts, and even says “You’ll be one of them, sooner or later…”
It makes for a great opening line, and it’s creepy as heck. But it takes on its meaning when he transforms into a beast when put in a tight spot.
The combination of being a holy person of some kind (father, of what exactly? Who knows, but the churches in this world are nuts) who seems to detest beasts, but is willing to give in to the beast-hood to kill you, a hunter, says a lot.
In two lines of dialogue, the game makes the Father Gascoigne a formidable question.
In order to kill him, most players will either need to learn how to be vicious and ruthless, or, explore the world, and seek aid from people who still live.
When exploring the streets, you can find Father Gascoigne’s daughter. she offers you a music box.
In the fight with Gascoigne, the music box causes his beast form to double over in pain, giving you the opportunity to get in a few good hits.
The box only works on his beast form.
In giving in to the beast-hood, Gascoigne exposes himself to this weakness. In becoming a beast, you expose yourself to larger danger, and in risking your humanity, you open yourself up to punishment.
It’s a less precise and evocative conversation than its counterpart in Dark Souls (the Abyss and Artorias), but it approaches exploring these themes in some more depth.
I’m certain I’ll write more on this once I’ve finished the game.
The gameplay itself is a commentary on the ideas of beast-hood, violence and life in the face of cosmic nihilism, and as I carve through the hidden city, cackling under my breath, laughing with maddening joy as I rip out hearts and cut down beast after beast, I think the game has proven its point.