In this talk I will discuss my paper-in-progress about the horror-influenced video game Bloodborne. I think that Bloodborne serves as a potential site to consider both the relationships between philosophy/horror and between philosophy/video games, as well as the way in which these three terms are specifically triangulated in the philosophical argument that the game itself develops. I will break the talk into three parts: (1) a description of Bloodborne and the means by which its developers overlap its world-building structure with the game’s mechanics, (2) a discussion of the link between horror and the sublime, with an emphasis on the fragmented narrative structure of Bloodborne and its relation to ideas in Romanticism/German Idealism, and (3) an elaboration of particular moments in the game that develop horror/fear in the player through the use of anxiety (in the technical, phenomenological sense).
Bloodborne, like many of From Software’s games, operates in the tradition of role-playing games opened by Dungeons and Dragons. Above all else, D&D is a game about collaborative world-building. By developing complex histories and personalities for their characters, players produce (and attempt to inhabit) invented mental states. Moreover, in the way that these characters respond to and interact with the world created by the game master, an ongoing campaign of D&D produces an imagined world with rich cultural, political, and religious histories—not merely in an abstract way, but in a phenomenologically rich shared cognitive space constructed through the act of play. Video games, from their earliest beginnings, have been inseparable from D&D. However, despite this influence, video games have rarely (if ever) succeeded in capturing this world-building element: indeed, since video games replace the human GM with a system that must be pre-programmed to account for possible outcomes in advance, it is not possible for a video game to have an entirely open world that is contingently filled out by the interpretive decisions of the players. The world of a video game, in other words, must be built prior to the action of play (rather than co-extensively alongside it). Most often, video games have been unconcerned by this limitation and have focused instead on pre-constructed worlds and pre-written narratives that the players merely perform (as opposed to determine) in the course of play. Hidetaka Miyazaki, the director of Bloodborne, has attempted to take seriously the possibility for this world-building. Miyazaki uses three formal techniques to attempt this: limited information, environmental storytelling, and player agency. Unlike many other video games, Bloodborne has almost no cutscenes and very limited dialogue: indeed, this limited narrative information (alongside the carefully crafted evocations of the information that is given) makes a demand on the player to piece together a coherent narrative out of the fragmented pieces that they receive. In fact, the main sources of information about the game’s world come from descriptions of objects found in the gameworld: much like a game of D&D, there is a world here that is suggested to the player which nonetheless relies on their engaged imagination to activate and complete it.
Bloodborne relies on a number of tropes from horror literature to fill out its world. In the early parts of the game, the clearest influences are Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The player is told that their character has come to the city of Yharnam in search of a miracle cure known as ‘pale blood.’ Upon awakening from their transfusion, the player discovers a changed Yharnam—a red moon hangs low in the sky and its citizens have transformed into monstrous beasts. The player begins attempting to piece together what has occurred but, midway through, the game pulls an incredible twist: rather than a Stokerian story about a disease transforming humans into beasts, we are in a Lovecraftian story about the awakening of Old Gods that ought to have been left alone. Slowly, the player pieces together that the Healing Church (who had discovered and produced the ‘pale blood’) received it from the discovery of these Old Gods in a tomb deep beneath the earth. Here, the game is explicit about the Lovecraftian idea of absolute knowledge: to have absolute knowledge and mastery of the world was not meant for mortals—should we go too far, we will be punished.
I argue that, by combining this Lovecraftian philosophy with its fragmented mode of world-building, the game accomplishes the Romantic idea of the sublime. The player, to unleash this horror in the world, must themselves go too far in their intellectual exploits by carefully piecing together the fragments of world-information given to them. Just as the Romantic philosophers and poets valorized the fragment (the ruined architectural space; the incomplete poem; etc.) for its ability to suggest the whole, which must be given and completed by the imagination of the reader, so too does Bloodborne emphasize the completion of the whole out of the fragments it provides. When the player completes this whole, however, they discover a horrible truth that will lead to the destruction of Yharnam: I argue that one might think of this as the Kantian sublime, which scatters our faculties and exceeds any possibility for true comprehension.
This final section is the least-developed. Given that we know the whole discovered in
the game is an excess which is devastating (and which directly produces its Horror affect), it
might be tied to the phenomenological notion of anxiety. Roughly speaking, for Heidegger (and
for others who have taken this idea in new directions, like Jean-Luc Marion or Fred Moten),
anxiety is a terror ignited not by any particular offending object, but rather by the overwhelming
fact of Being itself. I will attempt to demonstrate that the Old Gods in Bloodborne thereby
metaphorize this understanding of phenomenological anxiety: the fear or danger of thinking is
that it might put us in contact with the limit-point of our own being.