Games

Ugly Desires in a Beautiful World: A ‘Bloodborne’ Photo Essay

The gothic gorgeousness of From Software's horrors framed anew.

by Gareth Dutton
Jul 8 2015, 4:45pm

All screengrabs by the author.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

At any other studio, you would sob into your hands if your boss announced the intention to "put loads and loads of blood in this next game." Only From Software's Hidetaka Miyazaki could take gaming's most prevalent, oft-spilled substance and make it meaningful. Blood in Bloodborne is not just a gratuitous arterial spray—it's a deep theme that drives the game's world and everyone in it. The player grows slick with viscous, fresh blood, while that from earlier encounters darkens and dries; they are drenched, clogged, and caked with blood the deeper they progress. The stuff that flows within us all is worshipped by the church, studied by scholars, and feared by the enlightened.

The first time your own blood is spilled sees you transported to The Hunter's Dream. This hub area, like Demon's Souls' Nexus, is incorporeal and unsettling; you feel as if you are nowhere at all. It offers a sense of vague incongruousness, a suffocating, foggy existence. It reminds me of those moments in dreams where you're at home, except the light switch doesn't work, or your sofa is in the wrong place, or your front room is populated with people you don't recognize. The Hunter's Dream bears a languid, uncomfortable haze as you cautiously explore the opiatic horror unfolding in front of you. The art of the unsettling area is something Miyazaki has somewhat revived from the dead. I'm reminded of Resident Evil's typewriter rooms and, arguably most memorably, Diablo's Tristram village, steeped in gothic horror.

Miyazaki's appreciation for the gothic lies in grand, complex, intricate architecture and landscapes teeming with dread. In the 19th century, a collective of artists and architects looked to the medieval past to construct works of art, inspired by a bygone age, in an attempt to reclaim its beauty and grandeur. Bloodborne's central setting of Yharnam reflects this history of gothic, as it is a city built in honor of the blood healing artifacts discovered by tomb prospectors, named in honor of the Pthumerian Queen Yharnam; it is, in essence, a giant, habitable monument to a long-dead people. By the time the player reaches Yharnam, all has long been lost, and the night of The Hunt approaches. Yharnam towers above you, extends around you, oppressive and threatening, overburdened with ever-ascending spires and opulent, handcrafted gables. Once a wondrous, awe-inspiring sight, these edifices now suffocate the skyline, looming like terrible obstacles, colossal tombstones in a graveyard you will soon become part of.

Claustrophobia pervades as you venture down into the narrow, dank, stone streets, reminiscent of Victorian slums, littered with fearful, monstrous locals, angered by your presence. "It's all your fault!" they scream, as they wave their lit torches in an attempt to keep you back, leaving you to wonder what horrors you've brought with you. It's reminiscent of Kafka's The Trial, where Josef K is arrested for an unnamed crime, the details of which are never revealed to him or the reader.

Just like previous Souls games, the player is not the center of this universe—they are an unwelcome guest. In fact, almost everyone and everything is unhappy to see you; just like in Dark Souls, hostility seeps into every facet of the environment. Your surroundings are alive, aware of your presence, watching. The boughs of trees, swaying uncannily in the breeze, appear to faintly grasp and claw at you like sinister, sentient tendrils, seemingly closer to fauna than flora. The swirling, thick, dark clouds push down on you, willing you to fail. The moon is fat, blinding and bold, like an eye staring a hole through you. Ash falls delicately and silently over Yharnam like snow; ash from burning bodies as the townsfolk attempt to cleanse their city of the curse. This personification of the environment leaves you feeling permanently menaced as Miyazaki treads the line between gentle beauty and unspeakable horror.

The sound design marries perfectly with these oppressive environments to ensure you are never comfortable; the undergrowth of the Forbidden Woods teems with snakes, their hissing providing a deeply unnerving ambient backdrop to its labyrinthine twists and turns. Silent areas are, ironically, deafening, and even safe areas are often unpleasant: the Central Yharnam lantern is host to an unseen accomplice who has boarded himself up in his home, whose incessant, unbearable hacking cough ensures you haven't a moment's peace.

Everyone you meet is haunted by something, from an obvious physical curse to something more human and relatable. Delusions of grandeur, faith, and the blindness it brings, a desire to live on through their kin, the loss of a child or a mother, a need for company, a drive for enlightenment, or maybe veneration, at all costs. These human stories all center on weakness, ego, and vice; they are the ones who bring the curse to the world. It is a trait you see in all the Souls games: ugly people with ugly desires set to a beautiful backdrop. The beauty is in the world; the horror is in the inhabitants and what they bring.

Eventually, a crimson moon descends, revealing the final phase of the cycle, and the full Lovecraftian cosmic horror of Yharnam is revealed. The revelation that The Cosmos is not a world above our own but, in fact, a parallel one visible only to those with "eyes" further muddies the waters of clarity, and leaves us at the mercy of this nightmarish, alien universe. It's this final chapter that sees us truly spiral into madness, and the Unseen Village reveals ghastly, horrific realities never meant for human eyes. The Amygdala creatures embody this sense of gazing upon the unknowable, as they are not quite of a form that we recognize in the natural world. They appear a combination of spider and wizened old tree, with no indication of where one archetype begins and the other ends. Lovecraft described that which cannot be fathomed, and it is in creatures like this that Miyazaki has managed to depict the wide-eyed fear of the unknown.

Miyazaki is a master of creating meticulously unclear worlds, painstakingly and deliberately crafted in such a way to make you feel lost at all times. It's written into the architecture and layout of Bloodborne. As human beings, we are programmed to identify patterns; we are always searching for the delineation of a thing, for the start and end points, an outline, a keyword, a defining characteristic, anything that can give us a sense of what something is. We yearn for a home, a place we can return to time and again that is always just how we left it. Miyazaki knows how to take all of this away to ensure that, no matter where we are in his worlds, we feel very far away from home.

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