In Praise Of BLOODBORNE’s Lovecraftian Horrors

From Software left fantasy for horror, and the results are mind-blowing.

Warning: Moderate spoilers for Bloodborne to follow.

Bloodborne arrived on the PS4 last Tuesday, and I've been caught in its feverish grip ever since. Every gaming site you visit right now is singing From's praises (the game's got a 93% on Metacritic, which puts it only behind The Last Of Us and Grand Theft Auto V in terms of the PS4's most critically acclaimed titles), and virtually every gaming aficionado I know* is gleefully bulldozing their way through it. I was beyond excited to play the game - I am a die-hard fan of From's Souls series - and I'm enormously impressed with the game thus far. It's everything I'd hoped it would be, and then some.

That "and then some" is what we're here to talk about today. See, Bloodborne's working an angle that I absolutely didn't see coming, and, had I known about it, I think my excitement levels would have been such that I wouldn't have been sleeping in the days prior to its release. Prior to launch, I knew that Bloodborne was going to be a change in gears from the Souls series, genre-wise. The trailers alone indicated that From Software was moving out of the fantasy realm, that they were aiming for something more explicitly "horror." Great! Good news! I'm in. When I plugged the game into my PS4, horror was what I expected.

What I did not expect was Lovecraft.

Yes: as it turns out, Bloodborne is basically a Dark Souls game wearing an H.P. Lovecraft skin suit.

The clues arrive early on. Your character finds himself trapped in the sprawling nightmare city of Yarnham, where townspeople have either locked themselves in their homes or are out in the streets, scouring their neighborhoods with pitchforks and cleavers. These hunters look insane - greasy hair falling over wild eyes, dirty clothes splashed with blood - but the people who've locked themselves inside their homes sound even crazier. Hysterical laughter rings from the windows at one house, while knocking on the door of another will get you screamed at for neglecting the elderly. The overall sense here is a town overrun with madness; the very walls seem to sweat and tremble as you fight through one narrow, cobblestoned alley after another. All this paranoia and insanity. All this inexplicable violence.

What's happening here?

Over the course of the next (however many hours it takes you to work through the front half of the game), things get weirder and weirder. You leave behind the city for a series of cathedrals and crumbling buildings where a number of highly unsavory activities are occurring. Walk into one, and you might find a line of inhuman statues overlooking a floor smeared with entrails. Sneak into another, and you might interrupt a cadre of robed figures performing...well, some sort of dark ritual. Bodies hang burning from stakes, strange white-faced priests wander around holding purple lanterns and moaning. In one courtyard, a dark portal opened up and I found myself yanked high into the air by a giant, unseen hand. At the last second, I caught a glimpse of whatever had grabbed me, and...were those tentacles?

My suspicions mounted as the game progressed, and then Bloodborne met the Lovecraft thing head on. After fighting my way through a manor house surrounded by utterly repulsive insectoid-creatures and slaughtering a giant, stone-faced spider god, a cutscene transported me to another area of the game entirely. I was standing on a stone pedestal inside a great chamber, a doorway ahead of me. From the top of the screen, I could see enormous fingers and a handful of tentacles dangling from the ceiling above. I looked up, and that's when this happened:

This, I learned, is one of Bloodborne's Eldritch Horrors (yup, that's what they call 'em). It turns out that these massive creatures are all over Yarnham, and are somehow causing the madness that's infected the populace. At least, I think that's what's happening. To be perfectly frank, much of Bloodborne's plot remains complete gibberish to me**; my understanding of events is changing constantly. At present, my theory is that Yarnham was attacked by some sort of Elder God(s), and that the townspeople began conducting experiments with their blood/were infected when these Gods arrived. This led to the spreading madness, the mutated creatures in the woods, and the general apocalyptic air of the whole game world***. Or something like that. It's hard to tell where the game's going with all this.

Wherever it's going, it's using a lot of Lovecraft beats along the way. For instance: the game's exploration of "cosmic horror" is straight out of the Lovecraft playbook, particularly the idea that madness strikes when human beings are given insight into the horrors of the universe. Bloodborne plays with this concept in a few different ways: for one, the player must gain "Insight" in order to perform a variety of the game's best functions, and raising one's Insight level above 40 will reveal that things are even worse than they seem in Yarnham (hint: you'll see things you didn't see before); for another, direct contact with some of the game's most hideous creatures can raise your character's "Frenzy" levels, basically driving you into a state of terminal madness.

Then there's the creatures. From Software has always excelled when it comes to creature design, but they've really outdone themselves with Bloodborne. There's no official "look" to the various creatures found in Lovecraft's work, but the few descriptors we are given are absolutely present in the designs introduced here: monsters are often shapeless and many-eyed, have tentacles and radiate light from the gaping wounds dotting their bodies. Oversized beasts roam alleyways, and the vast majority of "people" you come across are quite obviously insane (and violently so). Around every corner in Bloodborne is another thing you won't want to get within ten feet of, and yet you'll be tasked with doing so over and over again.

All of this is fantastic. Speaking as a Lovecraft fan, I can't tell you how excited I am to discover that one of my most anticipated games of the year has turned out to be both excellent and a not-so-subtle love letter to the work of H.P. Lovecraft. If you're a horror fan who's on the fence about delving into Bloodborne, I strongly recommend you give the game a whirl. And if you're a Lovecraft fan who's been waiting for a game that'd capture all the insanity, paranoia, violence and horror of an H.P. Lovecraft story, I'd strongly recommend you invest in a PS4: Bloodborne was obviously made with you in mind.

* = Notable exception: BAD's own gaming editor, Andrew Todd, who hasn't had a chance to start yet. Pray for him.

** = As anyone who's played a Souls game will tell you, this is just how From Software does: the plot unfolds across surreal conversations, baffling item descriptions, and environmental cues. Story-wise, almost nothing is delivered straight. It's up to you whether to put all these fragments together or ignore them completely.

*** = And as crazy as this sounds, I'm also wondering if extraterrestrials (or, at the very least, cosmic horrors) aren't involved. In a moment that scared the bejeezus out of me, I broke into an abandoned clinic and discovered what looked a lot like a classic "Grey" alien (sans giant eyes) standing in the corner of a darkened room. To be fair, I didn't get a great look at it - fear took over, I slashed the thing to ribbons, and then I ran - but that's how it seemed at the time.