There Is No Bloodless Myth Will Hold

A couple of nights ago I had what I think was my first Bloodborne dream, set in the upper reaches of the castle in the Nightmare of Mensis. The content was fairly basic: enemies appeared, and had to be defeated; a glitch had left one normally formidable opponent stuck in the floorboards, head and torso above the floor, which meant they could be killed by running down to the lower level and hacking away at the legs dangling below. This may be the only dream I’ve ever had in which visible health bars featured prominently.

Aside from the gameplay, the most interesting aspect of the dream was the sense of place. Bloodborne’s level design is intricate and knotty, traversing many different kinds of space, from echoingly vast interiors and eerily vacant public squares to bogglesome mazes of corridors or forest paths, connected by systems of ramps, lifts, staircases, bridges and tunnels cut into the rock. There is a propulsive function to these connecting elements, through which the player moves insistently forward, ascending or descending: mysteries unfold in both directions. There is no place of safety.

I’ve been wondering for a while about why I find Bloodborne quite so haunting and compelling. The Old Blood in Bloodborne functions rather like oil in Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: a supernaturally powerful occult substance, drawn from the ancestral depths, to which those on the surface have become addicted. It brings potency and healing, but also destructive and accelerating transformation. Not only has almost all of Yharnam’s population succumbed to madness and lycanthropy, but the institutions of social order and progress have been pervasively corrupted: science has become the bloodthirsty hunt for exploitable human material, its research halls groaning with atrocities, and religion the idolatrous worship of terrible arcane beings, supported by a bloated hierarchy which controls the supply of the healing ichor. The player’s role in all this is multiply ambiguous. Are they chiefly a hunter, a slaughterer of beasts, endlessly battling to contain the scourge? A psychic investigator seeking to unravel the puzzle of what has gone wrong in this bad dream of a society? Or are they themselves pursuing the ultimate goal of cosmic ascension, becoming in the end a larval god?

It’s this ambiguity, together with the sense of being driven forward by an irresistible fate, that makes Bloodborne so resonant for me, I think. It’s a game “about” accelerationism, but one set in the aftermath of a fugue of techonomic acceleration which has gone catastrophically non-linear, reducing all the glories it once raised up to defunct, implausible remnants stalked by dehumanised survivors. It is far too late for the player to have any real agency with respect to what is inexorably unfolding all around them. You can’t (as hints earlier in the game suggest) put a stop to the ritual that depopulates Yahar’Gul in a devastating psychic flash, you can only advance in the dream/story to the point where its dreadful outcome is disclosed. The only real choice offered to the player is between a kind of Buddhist acceptance of the cyclic nature of the disaster — it has happened, it was always going to happen, one can only surrender to its eternal return — and a kind of supremacist levelling-up where you systematically butcher your way to apex predator status. The latter is not in any way presented as the “good” or “winning” ending, but simply as something you can accomplish — given infinite tries at it — if you’re bloody-minded enough.

The “Old Hunters” DLC (a set of extra levels released after the main game and available for separate purchase) rounds out the story by digging into the atrocities underpinning Yharnam’s accelerationist lift-off, and provides it with a missing moral linchpin: the reason everything has gone so terribly wrong is because of a curse incurred by abominable wrongdoing in the name of science. This is narratively satisfying, but it moves Bloodborne’s bleak fatalism into the realm of gothic tropes about moral contamination by hidden historical crimes. Of course from the very beginning of the game we are given to understand, even without this explanatory backstory, that Yharnam is suffering the consequences of some really bad decisions made at a societal level, but the steampunkish aesthetic frames this more as a kind of fatal comeuppance for Victorian-style hubris and hypocrisy: the whole of society is both criminal and victim, its own energies turned against itself in a spiral of corruption. But perhaps the grounding in specific crimes — the desecration of the abandoned fishing village — is needed to make the moral stick, to connect Micolash’s Promethean “grant us eyes!” with the pillaged eye-sockets of the unfortunate villagers. The story Bloodborne is telling may have been that of Frankenstein all along.