“Bloodborne,” Lovecraft, and the Dangerous Idea.

(A word of caution:  spoilers for “Bloodborne” abound here; while I do not normally give such warnings, much of the very aesthetic that I discuss can be lost by knowing the particulars of the game prior to actually experiencing it for yourself.)

The influence of H.P. Lovecraft, modern father of horror by most accounts, transparently dominates FromSoftware’s latest work, “Bloodborne.”[1] This is not, in and of itself, a new observation – at this point, only a few months after the initial release of the game, you can throw a stone in any direction and hit a piece pointing out that the game pays due homage to Lovecraft. FromSoftware knew what they were doing with the Lovecraftian aesthetic, and they knew it to a meticulous extent. To wit: the game’s global release was organized between March 24th and March 27th, 2015; in Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” this interval at the end of March encompasses the time of madness when Cthulhu awakens from its subterranean tomb, driving sensitive minds beyond the pale of sanity. Lovecraft’s mythos radiates from “Bloodborne.”

Cthulu Rises

While I do not wish to disparage previous critics and analysts who have pointed out the Lovecraftian elements of “Bloodborne,” I must confess that I find Lovecraft-oriented analyses of the game up to this point has been largely superficial in nature. Certainly, the design and origins of the Kin mirror those of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones; certainly, the interplay between Insight and Frenzy reflect the Lovecraftian aesthetic of cosmic knowledge countervailing sanity; but to equate such features as these with the Lovecraftian motif in “Bloodborne” does justice to neither the author nor the game. To that end, I wish in this paper to defend the claim that “Bloodborne,” by virtue of being a video game instead of a novel, actually extends the notion of Lovecraftian horror beyond the domain that was available to Lovecraft himself. “Bloodborne,” I will argue, exposes the essence of Lovecraftian horror by bringing into focus the total inefficacy of agency – that is to say, it makes us question why it ought to matter at all that we seem able to make choices in our real lives.

Follow me down a rabbit hole to find the dangerous idea that sits at the heart of the Lovecraftian horror in “Bloodborne.”

The Amygdala

First, I will provide a baseline of what I mean by ‘Lovecraftian horror’ before we begin. Lovecraft was famously quoted as saying that “[the] oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” In broad strokes, Lovecraftian horror is this “fear of the unknown”; but this does not mean “unknown” merely in the sense of, say, not knowing that a serial killer is waiting to jump out at you from behind a corner. Rather, Lovecraftian horror isolates the fear-of-unknown as it relates to the outmost bounds of what it is possible for us to know. Imagine, for example, that you are a sunflower. Insofar as one can imagine this in the first place, it stands to reason that you qua sunflower would lack the faculties necessary to acknowledge or understand the existence of humans: plants lack the consciousness and complexity to comprehend (and perhaps also to apprehend) that humans exist right alongside them. Lovecraftian horror takes this argument and applies it to our position qua humans: it asks the question, “What if extremely advanced beings exist right alongside us, and we lack the perceptual faculties or sufficient complexity to comprehend their existence?” This is the inspiration for his Cthulhu and Great Old Ones, beings that lived on earth far before humans, that still exist in the earth’s recesses, and the very knowledge of which can drive humans mad. Some beings may exist just outside our door while also being far beyond the scope of our reason, Lovecraft suggests – and there may be no cause for these beings to be friendly toward us.

Besides ancient, tentacled, extra-dimensional beings, Lovecraft is also known for his usage of dreamscapes as an outer bounds on the human capacity to experience the cosmos. “Bloodborne” is also set in various levels of dreams and nightmares; but again, to offer this observation as the game’s Lovecraftian legacy does justice to neither the game nor the man. As it happens, considering the dream-state of the game is a useful path into what makes “Bloodborne” a compelling extension of Lovecraftian horror, but for reasons much subtler than the existence of “The Hunter’s Dream” as a central hub, or “Nightmares” as late-game areas. In fact, we need go no further than the game’s opening sequence to dig into what makes it interesting as a framework of dreams.

The Blood Minister

Note that the game actually begins in the first-person perspective, with the Blood Minister providing the player with a blood transfusion and prompting character creation before reassuring him that “Whatever happens, you may think it all a mere bad dream”; only then, after the player’s vision fades, does the player’s character awake, with the player adopting a third-person perspective on that character. This frames the entire story of “Bloodborne” as a dream, extending the analogy through game mechanics by making the player shift from a first-person perspective, which is how we see the world in real life, to a third-person perspective, which is how we frequently “see ourselves” in dreams.

This isn’t the only element that “Bloodborne” shares with dreams; in fact, it shares several key characteristics with lucid dreams in particular. By ‘lucid dreams’, I refer specifically to dreams of the kind in which one is fully aware of one’s dream surroundings and is able to perceive oneself as taking actions that yield consequences on the environment of the dream, without being aware that one is actually dreaming.[2] Beyond the third-person perspective and fantastical imagery that the game shares with such dreams, one crucial element unites the experience of playing “Bloodborne” with the experience of having a lucid dream: the perception of agency, on the part of the player in the former case, and on the part of the dreamer in the latter case. This sense of agency – the capacity to take actions that yield changes in one’s environment – is, I take it, the primary phenomenological reason for lucid dreams “feeling real”: as in reality, we perceive ourselves in the lucid dream as agents, rather than merely passively being part of a dream narrative, as is typically the case in non-lucid dreams.

“Bloodborne,” then, is in many regards like a lucid dream – but, again, this insight alone invites the “So what?” question. What makes this analogy remarkable is a crucial aspect in which the game is disanalogous to lucid dreams: namely, the player of a game knows that he acts as an agent constrained within a fictional universe, whereas the lucid dreamer does not necessarily recognize the fictional, constrained nature of the dream-world in which he acts. Although both the video game and a dream are ‘fictional worlds’ in some loose sense of the term, the dreamer is actually more similar to the player’s avatar in “Bloodborne” than the player himself; for, just as the dreamer is bounded by the dream, with no knowledge of the waking world beyond it, so, too, is the avatar’s existence bounded by the dream-universe of the game. The avatar acknowledges no world beyond the game because, to the avatar, there is no world beyond the game.

What ties this framework together and turns Bloodborne into the most innovative piece of modern horror is a single line, which marks the liminality between first-person and third-person perspectives in the game, signaling the end of the game’s introduction and the beginning of the game proper:

“Ahh, you’ve found yourself a hunter.”

Consider the context of this, the first words of the Doll of the Hunter’s Dream: the first-person perspective by which the player experienced the introductory blood transfusion immediately precedes these words, and the third-person perspective by which the player engages his avatar immediately follows these words. Given this context and the overall dream framework of the game, I find the most plausible explanation of this line to be that the Doll is speaking to the player: she is remarking that the player has found a proxy by which to engage the lucid dream analogue that is “Bloodborne.” Besides intuitively tracking with the ‘you’ the Doll addresses, this explanation also has the advantage of promoting the most thoroughly Lovecraftian interpretation of the game that I have seen to date: namely, as I said at the outset, that our apparent capacity to act as agents in the real world could be entirely meaningless.

Recall that the dreamer in a lucid dream, ex hypothesi, lacks awareness that he is in a dream. Just so, if we analyze the player’s avatar not as an avatar, but merely as a character within the world of the game, it is most plausible to suppose that, like the dreamer, he has no recognition of the world external to the limits of the game. Therefore, the avatar is not aware of the player, who is ultimately responsible for the agency and choices of the avatar. The avatar may very well think that he is making his own choices, although they are all the result of the player’s exertion of control on him. This is the dangerous thought in “Bloodborne”: it is not merely that the world constantly expands and reveals new constituents in order to reveal the miniscule limitations of the avatar’s epistemology; rather, it is the subtle indication that the very source of what the avatar as his own free will is entirely outside of himself, beyond the scope of his epistemology. In other words, his actions are not his own, and he can never be in a position to apprehend this fact.

The dynamics of the video game, by which the player extends his agency into the game through a proxy (i.e., the avatar) is uniquely suited to subsume the matter of agency under the domain of the Lovecraftian unknown, thereby accomplishing something that not even Lovecraft himself could do. When one picks up a Lovecraft story, as is the case with most written works, one treats it as an artifact, an account of various agents who discovered beings far greater than themselves, and thereby suffered for it. Although the agents may be rendered impotent by this discovery, the question of whether the free will of the agents actually belonged to them was never raised – print media is not amenable to such questions in the same way as video games, which trade on matters of agency and choice.

The dangerous idea that “Bloodborne” invites you to consider, thereby extending Lovecraftian horror to new dimensions, is that there may be no way to prove that we are not utterly powerless. Not only may the world be complex in ways entirely unavailable to our epistemic apparatus, but the very sensation of free will – the capacity to choose – may be epiphenomenal – that is, our ‘actions’ are brought about by something external to ourselves, like the case of the avatar and the player, though we experience these actions as the results of our will, and will never be in a position to know otherwise. These are not new ideas philosophically, but, within the aesthetic domain, “Bloodborne” is able to break new ground by using the player’s own unique power within the story – the ability to make choices – in order to turn the tables on the player and suggest that, in their own lives, that very own power may be baseless.  Traditional Lovecraft asks the question, “What if humans are so small that our actions make no difference?”; the new Lovecraftian horror of “Bloodborne” starts here and then poses the further question, “What if humans are so small that we have no power over our own actions?”

It is in this way that “Bloodborne” steps up as the true inheritor of Lovecraft, extending his hallmark “fear of the unknown” to our very self-concept as agents in the world. For, if our capacity to act cannot ground us in reality, then on what ought we to base the “realness” of our existence? This is the lingering question that “Bloodborne” plants in your mind before leaving you, which puts a sinister, taunting spin on what is seemingly the most innocuous of the Doll’s lines:

“May you find your worth in the waking world.”

[1] This is not to say that Lovecraft is the only influence on the aesthetic of “Bloodborne” – Van Helsing and Dracula have also been cited, for example. However, such other influences, by my estimation, are far-and-away secondary to the scope and relevance of Lovecraft’s influence.

[2] While I recognize that some lucid dreamers do in fact realize that they are inside of a dream, I have in mind instead lucid dreamers who exhibit agency and awareness inside of a dream without recognizing that it is a dream. This encompasses only one subset of what are colloquially termed ‘lucid dreams’.