When you first hear the echoes of your character’s footsteps on the hardwood floor, a distinct tone full of dread is set. It’s a sound that remarks on your progress the more it’s heard and urges you to tread further, for those footsteps are the sound of a nightmarish adventure you have embarked on. Bloodborne is one of the few games I have started, stopped and returned to. It manages to lure us in even when we’re not playing.
When we think of exceptional games, what criteria do we use to acknowledge their worth? Are there parameters by which to say yes, that is an outstanding game based on x y and z? I’m not in a position to speak for everyone but I will say there are levels to this gaming business, and many games will never reach the dizzying heights of Bloodborne’s Yharnam.
Adding to the Mythos: Worldbuilding
“Lore, as in L O R E” – as my lecturer used to condescendingly remind me – is simply the tradition of a people’s history. All cultures have their own lore and so it seems to me that to build a world well, it’s necessary to give it lore as concrete as the cultures that exist in our reality.
Architecture and landscape arise and are shaped by our history, by how we do things in society (what we believe in and what we discover). They accompany the lore that is passed on through each generation of our ancestors. They act as an anchor or a reminder to us of where we have come from.
To walk through Yharnam is to see a world that has been built one brick at a time as though its inhabitants were the ones responsible for what we see on the screen. We sort of take it for granted, without registering Miyazaki’s attention to the things we don’t see.
Miyazaki’s vision requires the same forgotten objects I frequently ignore in my daily life: The distant spires of old-world buildings, the broken iron fencing, the cracked stone wells and what seems to be purple heather sprouting from the gaps between the cobblestones. It’s precisely because they’re not there that we don’t really acknowledge them as we play. If those details were left out, we’d surely notice a particular lack in the world without being to able put our finger on what was missing.
To reinforce the validity of his stylised Medieval-Victorian setting, the world is strewn with a trail of items. All of which can be obtained directly from enemies or various locations in Yharnam. Each item bears a description that can be read from the inventory, revealing more of the world like a jigsaw piece aids the completion of the puzzle. This rich detailing isn’t necessary to the completion of the game or to understand the gist of what’s going on, but it’s there when you want it or for those of us who wish to make Yharnam home.
As each footstep resounds we move further through Yharnam, though progress here doesn’t coincide with comfort. In Bloodborne, we are continually beset by a fresh array of stimuli that reinforces our unfamiliarity. This feeling of dread is ironically captured in the noise our character makes and is synched to the sound that seems to play through the very ground we walk on.
A Soundtrack Steeped in Tension
With each thwack, hack and chop, we accompany and are guided by a jolting soundscape that resounds as though it were a sound as atmospheric as weather; a sound as natural as nature. The darting strings are an uncanny equivalent to each of our attacks, and though not always synchronised, they are a subconscious reminder to continue, to make the most of our opportunity for life-gain via the rally mechanic.
The instrumentals wail like the beasts we fight and the strings seem to react like those of a violin beneath a bow, only the weapon is the bow. The choral chanting has a severe tone that inspires respect and gives Yharnam another layer of grandeur. The horns amplify the ever-increasing tension and force us to acknowledge the ominous.
The entirety of the soundtrack is reflected in the way we play the game and unlike the catchy pieces in Civilization VI or the on-theme tracks of an Assassin’s Creed title, Bloodborne’s sound isn’t one we hum or tells us where we are (for Yharnam is a new world), it’s the music we hear in the rattling of leaves or the crunching gravel under our shoes. Again, we often forget it’s there, especially in the midst of bosses but if it was different somehow, we’d know.
That palpable tension Bloodborne manages to build culminates at our encounters with the depraved grotesqueries we are forced to slay. The music here is a crescendo of voices, strings and horns, letting us know the dire predicament we are in. Upon besting a boss the feeling of relief floods our bodies and a very real tension is expunged. From there we usually return to The Hunter’s Dream, a place where a certain reprieve is guaranteed.
The safe harbour, Miyazaki recognised, is as essential to games as it is to life. We return home after work and retreat to the ‘set-ups’ we have designed to console and ease the weariness of the day. It is a necessary hub where we can collect ourselves, take stock before going again.
This downtime is represented by lanterns – offering us that light in a dimly lit street – and it keeps us moving through Yharnam. It got to the point where instead of saying to myself, “one more go,” I was saying, “one more lantern.” They vouchsafe for us whenever we need them; they are friends we can rely on in a world where we can’t really believe what anyone says.
Illusion and Difficulty
We’ve all heard the mantra ‘Git Gud'. It’s used as a condescending reproach by those who have mastered a Souls-like. It is also used by those who desperately question how the gitting gud is done. There is a learning curve in Bloodborne, as there is with everything in life. The difficulty, however, does not lie in the combat per se. It’s an illusion and the deception is fourfold.
Our first battle with the Scourge Beast is a combat test readying us for what lies ahead. It reminds us that the game is hard and reassures us that with patience we can triumph. Unlike your average game, we have to learn how to play, we cannot expect to know how from the beginning. This experiment has a reward. If the Scourge Beast can be overcome, then so too can the rest of the game.
The difficulty of even the most mediocre of enemies can grate when first exploring Yharnam. The cosmic gothic horror design does little to help the uninitiated. Some people are unfazed by the setting. I would bet that most of us get that sinking feeling when navigating these eerie shores. Fear causes us to make mistakes and it changes our perspective; if Bloodborne was all flowers and fields, I reckon we’d all git gud a bit quicker.
Sound, like the setting, causes the same bodily disturbances. Humans mellow when they hear Philip Glass, and their heart rate increases when listening to Megadeth. Combined with the odiousness of Yharnam, the soundtrack is another ploy to destabilise us.
Damage in Souls-like games is the predominant illusion that makes us feel inferior to the world we’re trying, fruitlessly, to belong in. Enemies here hit as hard as the bosses in less difficult games. The mob's role is to frustrate us, force us into making mistakes and take everything from us when we least expect it. They’re a deterrent to button mashing and a reminder to take things slowly. That is, until we learn.
Patterns become most apparent in boss fights in Bloodborne. Since the inception of video gaming, bosses have always had a set of moves (move-sets), which the player can learn. This can make the fights easier providing the player is willing to practice.
The patience and time invested can of course be offset by the damage dealt by the boss. One mistake is quite literally fatal in Yharnam. When we experience those sudden deaths from a source we haven’t quite fathomed yet, it’s easy to become dejected. That feeling often paves the way to anger. When we see red our performances slack and ‘results’ diminish, thus giving the illusion of difficulty. We repeat a boss over and over, gradually getting worse as we’re provoked to frustration.
There’s no assistance for tackling bosses unless we ring the Beckoning Bell to call for players from other worlds to help us. The one time I used this feature, I certainly felt a profound inadequacy for not having the patience to defeat the boss myself.
Curt Dialogue and Sparing Narrative
Not much is said in Bloodborne, and that which is, isn’t what we’d class as reliable. NPCs speak a language of their own that hints at things we perhaps ought to look into. Some do their best to guide us, though they usually don’t want to talk directly about what they fear most. Others are caricatures of the world and intentionally deceive us as if to make light of everything that’s going on. And some use us as gullible tools for their twisted fantasies.
It’s a shame then that Miyazaki included three endings. This approach leaves us stranded in an ambiguity unnecessary in a plot that is already ambiguous. At least we’re allowed to use our interpretation to amalgamate the pieces of the story when there’s a single ending.
In the Witcher 3, a player’s actions throughout the game dictate the route the narrative will take; a decision has consequences, and regardless of how the endings are ranked, each of them is earned by the player. One of ten (some say 36) endings becomes uniquely yours.
Bloodborne’s endings aren’t a choice based on how we have interacted with Yharnam, they are incidental, or plain lucky. Yes, there is a literal choice to make at the end of the game. By then, it feels like we should be told what the outcome of our journey is.
The vague, enigmatic tale of Yharnam deserved a definitive ending, even if it happened to be as banal as the protagonist who simply flees from the horrors they witness. Bloodborne is uniquely Miyazaki; it is his brainchild. For a world that’s as concrete as reality, it’s strange that Miyazaki didn’t know how this shindig ended.
The relevance of Bloodborne continues to vibrate in the gaming sphere. During a time when isolation and loneliness have become as endemic as the thing we’re staying in for, it’s timely to remember how our perception of the outside has been eroded by our reduced social interaction. Whether necessary, enforced or reluctant. Cooped up with little to rely on but our imaginations. And if we’re fortunate, those closest to us, we can but wait it out until it all ends. “Whatever happens… You may think it all a mere bad dream…”
As the plague alters the blood of Yharnam’s populace and its most fervent search for those they deem immoral, are we not living in a world as skewed as the one we traverse in Bloodborne, where the frightened gather under the vault of Oedon Chapel?