In Lovecraft’s mythos, the fervor of occultism is confined to the dark, squalid corners of the world – the swamps of Louisiana, back-alleys in New York, dingy basements in Massachusetts, and the most remote Tibetan mountaintops. Belief in Cthulhu or any member of the pantheon of Old Gods is a well-kept secret, the squirming underbelly of the optimism and technological enlightenment of the Roaring ‘20s – a lingering testament to man’s inability to escape his most base natures.
Bloodborne, on the other hand, takes the eldritch cosmic horrors of Lovecraft and turns them into cornerstones of organized religion. In Yharnam, worship of the strange and terrible is not so strange. Great monuments to the venerated beasts that fell from the stars line the streets, and for good reason, for the very art of blood ministration owes much to the otherworldly gifts of the Old Gods. Faith feeds decay and degeneration, and great piety is rewarded with a greater corruption of the mind and flesh.
There is an illness in Yharnam, It can be felt in every cobblestone lining the slick, blood-splattered pavement, in the crooked spires and domes of the Healing Church, and, most of all, in the words of the Yharnamites themselves – voices that precipitate on humanity but fall woefully short. As the night of the hunt progresses, their mania begins to express itself in ever more horrific ways. Windows exuding warm light would suggest comfort and safety, but as the night progresses the denizens of Yharnam all lose themselves, wihout exception. Screams of bloodlust can be heard from windows, the sound of flesh slapping flesh, and the orgasmic grunts that suggest terrible acts have reached fruition. A young girl can be found, dead, outside her house, having taken her life after her family comes to ruin. A man of the church, dedicating his life and his blade to the service of Yharnam, loses himself when the hunger takes him. He disembowels his wife, and the player’s encounter with him leaves his daughter an orphan. There is a corruption here, and it has taken hold of every single Yharnamite, warping their minds and their flesh, turning them into subhuman epithets to moral denigration.
In this sense, Bloodborne’s mythology works perfectly with Lovecraft’s – it shows us a world where all of those addlepated, inbred cultists’ threats came true. The Earth has been claimed and the stench of decay permeates everything.
Except decay is not quite the right word. There is an untold energy to the metaphysical threat that Bloodborne presents. Whereas Lovecraft’s pantheon was more than happy to remain deep in the tombs of their forgotten cities, Bloodborne’s Gods have staged a conquest on the human soul. Humanity is not slowly withering – it is eagerly cannibalizing itself.
Bloodborne sports a greater sense of urgency than the more traditional Lovecraft tales, which always had a disaffected, lackadaisical tone. No doubt this listlessness was partly because we knew that our protagonist does not have even the slightest chance of victory against beings as old as the very idea of time.
However, what sets Bloodborne apart is its energy. Bloodborne has an altogether febrile and frenetic temperament as attacks are quick and brutal, rewarding the player with gratuitous blood-splatter and gratifying sounds of steel digging into meat and bone, telling the player know that appreciable damage is being dealt. The animations and movements of the player character as it dodges, sidesteps, and punishes enemy attacks with vicious parries and ripostes convey a confidence that From Software’s sister series Dark Souls deliberately lacks. If the Call of Cthulhu possessed a heart weak, gray and shriveled, then Bloodborne’s is muscular, hyperactive and proud, lending the game a boldness and a swagger completely uncharacteristic of Lovecraftian horror or this work’s own dire tone. Even the central notion of a conventional video game with both a win state and Lovecraft influences seems paradoxical.
Past games that drew from this wellspring of New England eldritch horror, such as 2005’s Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth have decidedly more mellow affairs, making player agency and gameplay take a backseat to the flow of the narrative and the player’s inevitable doom. The pace is slow but chilling, plodding but implacable. However, in Bloodborne, instead of running from the ancient, all-consuming evil, you run towards it. And victory is possible, albeit hard-earned. Through gameplay, Hidetaka Miyazaki and From Software sell the raw power of your otherworldly foes but the idea of even attempting attrition runs contrary to all of the reactionary pessimism that Lovecraft expressed almost 90 years ago. Upon defeat, your foes explode in a shower of blood and the screen is momentarily almost entirely obscured by text reading PREY SLAUGHTERED.
Indulgent? Absolutely. But well-deserved. There is a way out; the night can be brought to an end, and crafty players can even find a way to break the cycle of man’s subjugation, bringing about a “new childhood” for man so that we may transcend even the Great Ones.
The father of eldritch declared man’s dominion a transient period in the history of the cosmos, subject, in time, to our most carnal whims.
Bloodborne also tackles the issue of mental and physical regression. Yharnam has been ravaged by a blood-borne illness that transforms men into blood hungry beasts, trapped in an infinite cycle of predation and cannibalization. In our blood, the corruption courses through our veins, and it is not one born out of human malice but rather the imperfections of the Great Ones and their own flaws. After all, no being that can be killed is perfect. The curse of the tainted blood is emblematic not of humankind’s degeneracy but the Great Ones’ failure to realize the perfection that Lovecraft feared. Upon seeing the Great Ones that fell from the stars put to rest, we are challenged to be better, to excel where they failed and come one step closer to that elusive ideal of the ubermensche. Man’s destiny lies not in subservience, but in growth and conquest.
What makes Bloodborne marvelous is its ability to incorporate every element of quintessential Lovecraft while being an absolute antithesis to all of the fears and creeping paranoia of a world in the throes of degeneracy and regression that the progenitor of this brand of horror expressed in the original works. In this capacity Bloodborne surpasses the original texts in its sheer capacity for horror. Felling Gods lends new credence and transformed purpose to human life. This potential for growth and evolution redefines what humanity means. In initiating a “second childhood” for the species, we have become wholly other, that foreign existential force that threatens to replace all the lights in the sky. Man has a new face. We have evolved, are better, smarter. But what of that primordial humanity, rooted in imperfection?
Man has a new face. Such is a magnitude of horror that even Lovecraft could not have considered.