Why We Play

video games | culture | technology

(607) 279-9770

On Bloodborne’s Impenetrable Darkness: A Modernist Aesthetic

I was terrified of Bloodborne before I ever began playing it. The lore that accompanies the release of a From Software game, established through both the Demon Souls and Dark Souls franchises, serves as warning to any player new to their particular brand of obfuscation and difficulty. But I didn’t understand just how uncanny the experience would be until I had died nearly 30 times during my first hour of gameplay.[i] Luckily, I had been given a token of advice, something of a creed among Souls players––“Don’t give up”––to help me weather the maelstrom of enemy hoards. Still, there was no place for me to hide (even if the enemy seemed to leap from crevices carved into the Victorian Gothic landscape). So I ran….fast.

Once I began unlocking shortcuts that would allow me to bypass difficult enemies, I began to feel a sense of progress. But this sense of progress wasn’t achieved by simply unlocking a gate. The map of Central Yahrnan began to make sense in my mind because I had run its course dozens of times. By failing again and again I eventually found the most efficient path through the labyrinthine streets, used doorways to shelter myself from simultaneous attacks by multiple beasts, and even began pitting enemies against one another.[ii] As the game became easier, through my understanding of the combat mechanics, specialization of the map, and skill and weapon upgrades, I found myself missing the physical dread that accompanied the first few hours of play. It was a dread that I hadn’t experienced since playing Resident Evil on PS1 in 1996. But at that time I was 15, and just about everything scared me.

Bloodborne, of course, didn’t disappoint. As soon as I had become complacent the Blood Moon rises and to quote the Modern Irish poet W.B. Yeats, “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty [was] born.”[iii] Somehow H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu descends upon Yahrnam to blast you with laser-beams. And, as if this weren’t enough, those goddamn bell-ringing women––resurrecting beasts and summoning malevolent hunters into your game. I could learn the mechanics of the computer-controlled enemies, but other player-controlled hunters intent upon earning blood echoes by slaying me was a whole different story. These characters moved and planned, reacted and healed just like me. Of course, I could have played the game in an offline mode and not had to worry about PVP encounters. But the literary modernist in me wouldn’t allow the easy fix. The rest of this piece explains why I played Bloodborne online.

In his 1923 essay, “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” T.S. Eliot identifies James Joyce’s use of a ‘mythic method’ in his novel Ulysses (1922): “In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him....It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” In Finnegans Wake (1939), James Joyce’s final novel, all myths collapse into one, producing what he described as “a nocturnal state...what goes on in a dream, during a dream.” I would like to suggest, here, that Joyce’s infamous book of the night looks beyond its present mid-century moment, revising models inherited from the past, and (perhaps more importantly) anticipating future forms of literary expression. In particular, I’d like to focus our attention on From Software’s gothic Action RPG, Bloodborne (2015).

It is a strange [game], a compound of fable, symphony, and nightmare––a monstrous enigma beckoning imperiously from the shadowy pits of sleep. Its mechanics resemble those of a dream….”[iv] Thus Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson describe Joyce’s book in the introduction to their Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944). I’ve replaced the word ‘book’ with ‘game’ in order to show how eerily similar the two texts really are. Of course, a formidable Irish novel does seem like a peculiar influence on a contemporary Japanese video game’s mythology, structure, and themes. However unlikely direct influence may seem, though, it is my intention to suggest that these texts nonetheless haunt one another.[v] And further, that recognizing their similarities offers us––readers and gamers alike––both a better understanding of modern life, and the existential fortitude to endure it.

Modern and contemporary Irish literature has consistently been distinguished by its movement “beyond the pale.” The Pale was originally the fenced-in territory established around Dublin by the invading English in the medieval period, a border between English civilization and Celtic foreignness. In later usage, the phrase, “beyond the pale” came to have a purely metaphoric meaning; to stand outside the conventional boundaries of law, behavior, or social class. Additionally, literary influence has always moved “beyond the pale” of high-brow art, but only recently has the academy acknowledged the worth of studying multimodal fiction such as films and video games. Yet games as thematically rich and structurally complex as Blooborne can offer us insight into the literary texts that preceded them.

Samuel Beckett wrote of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, “Here form is content, content is form. You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read––or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something; it is that something itself. When the sense is sleep, the words go to sleep. When the sense is dancing, the words dance” (“Dante…Bruno.Vico..Joyce” 503). Of course much of Beckett’s own work also illustrates text as both sign and thing (Q.v. Molloy). Beckett insists that the relationship between thought and language is fundamental rather than superficial, and that a writer’s thoughts achieve meaning in the language decoding consciousness of an audience: “[Everywhere] form is content, content is form.” Difficulty is the point; the act of striving the real goal. I think it is in this act of striving that modern literature and contemporary games such as Bloodborne converge.

These texts contend that it is inherently good for us to practice difficult and frustrating modes of problem solving. And it’s good for us to become comfortable in states of frustration if only so that we are less lazy when someone tries to help us see things from their unique perspective, if only so that our response to such a generous act of persuasion isn’t “You’re wrong; I’m right!” In Philosophy as Fiction, Joshua Landy observes, “Rare are those who invite us to celebrate the obstacle, to love the limit, to become a fan of finitude...the human adventure is a matter of repeatedly bumping up, in increasing frustration, against the variably colored, translucent ‘barrier’ between mind and world, only to realize that the glass itself––our individual perspective––is far more interesting than any aspect of external reality, however accurately grasped, could hope to be.”[vi]

Bloodborne and Finnegans Wake are both about impurity. They celebrate the contamination of blood and language, and they revel in the overlapping of history and myth that compels readers/players to seek out and challenge moments of assumed certainty. Both texts, that is, assume that a disease afflicts not only its characters, but also us (the readers) as well. That disease is uncertainty, doubt, lack of fortitude. What these texts demand of us is a change of mind. They ask us to repeat (over and over and over again) a particular section not simply to master it or to ascribe it meaning, but so that we become comfortable with failure, abstraction, meaninglessness.

It’s no accident that Bloodborne’s aesthetic is gothic.[vii] Borrowing Jarlath Killeen’s description of Irish Gothic literature and applying it to a game such as Bloodborne, we can see how the game’s narrative structure (to say nothing of the literal landscape) “resembles actually gothic edifice, full of suggestive gaps, obscure corners, imposing promontories (the ‘great’ works), fractures, fragments.”[viii] Like Finnegans Wake, Bloodborne captures a unique simultaneity of consciousness via palimpsestuous moments in which the game employs untraditional modes of narration––for example, we must piece together the game’s history via NPC dialogue and the brief descriptions found with each item.

Even more importantly, according to Kelly Hurley, “The Gothic is rightly, if partially, understood as a cyclical genre that reemerges in times of cultural stress in order to negotiate anxieties for its readership by working through them in displaced (sometimes supernaturalized) form.”[ix] Like much modern gothic fiction, Bloodborne is difficult because it challenges previous topologies of linear time via chronological plot. The most distinctive similarity between Bloodborne and a Finnegans Wake is the cyclical nature of both book and game. Finnegans Wake famously begins and ends with the same sentence, like a Mobius Strip that one cannot escape.[x] And, upon enduring the night in Bloodborne, one does not simply wake up to the dawn of a new day, but rather re-enters the dream to live the nightmare again and again. The game never ends. We cannot escape.

With its litany of recurrent characters, themes, and narrative devices, the Gothic began and continues today as a narrative mode of responding to continual social crisis. In other words, those of John Paul Riquelme, the Gothic “is frequently a vehicle for staging and challenging ideological thinking rather than a means of furthering it.”[xi] And Bloodborne challenges ideological thinking on a number of levels. Within the context of the game’s plot, one example might be the possibility that the Healing Church was actually responsible for spreading the beastly disease that ruined Old Yahrnam in order to ‘cure’ it with blood ministrations and thereby win the favor of the people.[xii] Far more interesting, however, is the way in which the game undermines players’ expectations of easy consumption.[xiii] Rather than a standard AAA game that is fairly accessible to even causal gamers, we are greeted with near impenetrable difficulty. As readers and gamers we are given no instruction on how to navigate the texts’ opacity. So we begin collecting fragments. And the fragments that we collect, and the order in which we collect them, influences the outcomes of the game to the extent that two or even three player may have completely different experiences.[xiv] In this way, history is constantly being re-written in light of our shifting concerns. When the cycle continues anew, we have an opportunity to do things we hadn’t done earlier.

To borrow once again from Samuel Beckett, who aided Joyce in his research for what would eventually become Finnegan’s Wake, we have an opportunity to ‘fail better.”[xv] For though players often feel they can’t go on, a plethora of friendly notes scattered throughout the online Yahrnam implore, “Don’t give up.” Perhaps, then, the significance of a game such as Bloodborne is akin to that of Finnegans Wake. A significance that cannot be found in the text alone, but rather in our act of reading/playing it: renewed optimism in meta-narratives that even in the face of catastrophic horror afford us the opportunity to be enchanted by ambiguity, incoherence, and unpredictability.

NOTES

[i] Freud argues that the uncanny evokes fear from individuals who are confronted by a repressed belief or memory.  His essay contains an explication of the German words heimlich and unheimlich (known/familiar; unknown/unfamiliar). These terms enjoy a dialectic relationship to the end that Freud can suggest “the uncanny is that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar,” but has become (through repression) unfamiliarly horrifying. In other words, the uncanny is an unwilled revelation of what has been concealed from both others and the Self. Fear is evoked when the hidden is exposed due to a recognition of the familiar Self in a wholly and unfamiliar Other, or vice versa. This is all to say that I had played difficult games in the past, but none had elicited physical response from me the way Bloodborne does: elevated heart-rate, perspiration, uncontrollable shaking. (Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny [New York: Penguin Classics, 2003], p. 124.)

[ii] If, on the run-up to Father Gascoigne, you approach through the sewers, an angry villager rolls a flaming barrel across a bridge that kills a group of beasts. The barrel, of course, was meant for you, had you crossed the bridge rather than traversing beneath it.

[iii] W.B. Yeats, “Easter 1916.” Michael Robartes and the Dancer. 1921.

[iv] Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2005. p. 3.

[v] The first element of the text that made me think of Finnegans Wake, in which Dublin plays the central role, was that though we play Bloodborne as a third-person hunter-of-beasts, the true protagonist of this narrative is the city of Yahrnam complete with its Gothic architecture and Lovecraftian inhabitants. The most dramatic shift (or character development) in Bloodborne occurs to the cityscape itself at about the halfway point in the game. A blood moon rises over Yahrnam, and the mysterious Phtumerian Queen exposes a ritual underway attempting to ascend humans to the level of gods. Of course, the blood moon and accompanying storm clouds recall the Thunderwords of Finnegans Wake that symbolizes the changing of an era (“Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhoun

awnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk” [3.15-17]). Following our audience with the Queen, our character is transported to an adjacent village (Yahar'gul) where we encounter Cthulhu-like creatures that seem to imbue the city and its environs with terrible danger.

[vi] Joshua Landy, Philosophy as Fiction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. p. 51.

[vii] As I’ve written before, Joyce employs gothic devices in Finnegans Wake as a critique of British Imperialism and Roman Catholic influence. Schultz, Matthew. “‘Arise, Sir Ghostus!’: Textual Spectrality and Finnegans Wake.” James Joyce Quarterly 49.2 (Winter 2012): 115-129.

[viii] Killeen, Jarlath, “Irish Gothic: A Theoretical Introduction.” The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies. 1 (October 2006), pp. 1-2.

[ix] Kelly Hurley, “British Gothic Fiction, 1885-1930” in The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Ed. Jerrold E. Hogle (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002), p.194.

[x] “A way a lone a last a loved a long the” (628) “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” (3).

[xi] Jean Paul Riquelme “Toward a history of Gothic and Modernism: Dark Modernity from Bram Stoker to Samuel Beckett.” Modern Fiction Studies 46.2 (2000), p. 588.

[xii] It should be noted that the political influence of the Healing Church in Bloodborne parallels the near unrivaled control that the Catholic Church held in Ireland until recently. Much of James Joyce’s oeuvre works to undermine this authority.

[xiii] Players unfamiliar with the Souls games, that is.

[xiv] Perhaps the most straightforward example of this would be optional side quests such as defeating the Darkbeast Paarl, or completing NPC quest lines such as Eileen the Crow (whose line I did not complete on my first play through Bloodborne, but managed to locate and complete on a subsequent campaign.

[xv]All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho (1983).