The Weird Science of Bloodborne


When it first came out, Bloodborne passed itself off as a Gothic horror game — vampire and werewolf tropes set among Victorian spires and bleakly moonlit cathedrals. Under the surface, though, Bloodborne is squarely in the Weird Horror tradition founded by HP Lovecraft. The Victorian setting is more than just a bait-and-switch. It places the game at a moment in history crucial to the evolution of Weird Horror and of the place of science in society. In doing so, it goes to the heart of the world-shattering scientific revelations that frightened and inspired Lovecraft. It explores the early motivations of the genre and adapts its core ideas to match modern concerns.

Bloodborne follows in the narrative tradition of its predecessors, the Souls games,1 placing the player in abandoned environments and telling its story in the objects and marks left by historical figures. But unlike the Souls games, the characters in whose footsteps we follow are not soldiers and knights. They’re scientists and theologians. Instead of kingdoms of castles and wilderness, we visit lecture halls, schools, and churches. Byrgenwerth College, the School of Mensis, and the Research Hall of the Healing Church are all decorated in dark-stained wood panels, ornate but tastefully carved (strictly speaking, Jacobean Gothic — as seen in the St John’s College Old Library). They have shelves of old books and unlabeled bottles of mysterious liquids. They’re full of specimen containers, pickled organisms and body parts. It’s a very contemporary conception of what Victorian science looked like, echoed in the work of Victorian Weird sculptor Alex CF. The overall aesthetic places Bloodborne not just in a heightened Victorian Gothic setting, but in a pastiche of Victorian institutional science — specifically, Victorian biology.

A display of Victorian Weird sculptures by Alex CF.

A display of Victorian Weird sculptures by Alex CF.

Though we travel through many libraries, we only ever read a few esoteric and arcane pieces of information directly: clues like “Three third umbilical cords” or “Seek paleblood to transcend the hunt.” We can’t simply look to the work of past scholars for answers. We have to experiment on our own and find things out the same way they did: through trial and error. We have to crush umbilical cords in our fists and inject ourselves with Old Blood like they did. As players, we are scientists in two respects: as scholars standing on the shoulders of pioneering arcanologists like Willem and Laurence, and as lore-hunting archaeologists, piecing together the story hidden within the game’s esoteric item descriptions and carefully detailed environments.

At many levels, then, Bloodborne goes out of its way to put us in the shoes of Victorian scientists. That’s no coincidence. Science in the Victorian era was the locus of a profound change in Western culture: the transition from a theological worldview to an amoral, existentialist one. The tension in that transformation, the fear and reactionary anger it evoked, were the rich vein that HP Lovecraft mined in founding the Weird Horror genre. Addressing that theme at its root allows Bloodborne to contextualize and modernize the anxieties at the heart of the genre.

Evolution and Victorian Biology

The popular story of the history of science imagines it as a force of reason gradually tearing down the superstitious mythology of organized religion. But the early centuries of modern science, far from spreading atheism, brought a new rigor and orthodoxy to the late-medieval Christian worldview — a process retrospectively known as the Enlightenment. Science, it was understood, described the order of the universe created by God for the good of mankind, an order that applied to family and class structures as rigidly as the motions of the planets. The social order was perceived as unique only in the role of human reason: a unique gift given to mankind, which allowed them to choose to embrace or reject God’s all-encompassing plan.

The most important discovery for Lovecraft, for Bloodborne, and arguably for the modern worldview, was evolution. Mollusk shells, unearthed in layers of sedimentary rock assembled in a chronological series, told a story of progressive change in life over an unfathomably long time. They provided the first clue that the earth was far older than the biblical story held it to be. The discovery opened the eyes of science to the true vastness of the universe, and eventually, to the story of evolution that underpins biology today. Evolutionary biology empowered humans to understand ecology, artificial selection, and inherited diseases, and opened the door to genetic manipulation of human beings: intentional evolution.

The citizens of Yharnam, Bloodborne's metropolitan setting, in turn unearthed the mollusk-like “Phantasms” from progressively deeper layers of the Pthumerian labyrinth. Through them, they learned that they could ascend their brains to think on a higher plane, to commune with the Cosmos. But most importantly, they learned of their place in a spectrum of beings much more diverse in appearance and power than they had ever imagined. And they learned it was possible to transform themselves to explore those new forms.

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The medieval world conceived of biology in a spiritual hierarchy known as the Great Chain of Being. God sat at the top, with angels, men, mammals, birds, invertebrates, and then plants beneath them. Each rank was designed to serve those above it on the chain. The scale of the Chain has infinite gradations — texts rank Seraphim above Archangels, dogs above cats, granite above limestone — so of course it accommodated every shade of social hierarchy, from class to gender, and especially race. Humans sit in a unique place on the Chain: “‘half-angel and half beast,’ […] pulled in two directions, by reason and passion.” (Toulmin & Goodfield. 1965. The Discovery of Time, 123) Within the variety of human cultures, races, and classes can be found a range of tendencies towards ascension and beastliness.

Vicar Amelia, a beast-transformed member of the Healing Church hierarchy.

Vicar Amelia, a beast-transformed member of the Healing Church hierarchy.

The theory of evolution undermined the Chain in two ways. It removed the necessity of design, and therefore the unshakable import of ranking and service. But more importantly, it dissolved the illusion that our position on the Chain was immutable. Hence Lovecraft’s eugenicist abhorrence of miscegenation: once evolution suggested the possibility that humans might “regress” towards apes, might become beasts again, mixed race marriage posed a threat to the essence of humanity apparently legitimated by science (despite the lack of actual evidence of such degeneration).

At the time of its conception, people recognized the weight evolutionary theory brought to bear against the Enlightenment Christian worldview:

‘If current in society,’ [Adam] Sedgwick [an influential early geologist and one of Darwin's teachers] declared, such beliefs could lead to ‘nothing but ruin and confusion. . . It will undermine the whole moral and social fabric, and inevitably will bring discord and deadly mischief in its train.’ To his great sorrow, he found similar defects in Darwin’s argument, which also destroyed the ‘essential link’ between the moral and material worlds:
‘You have ignored this link; and, if I do not mistake your meaning, you have done your best in one or two pregnant cases to break it. Were it possible (which, thank God, it is not) to break it, humanity, in my mind, would suffer damage that might brutalize it, and sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history.’
(Toulmin & Goodfield, 224-225.)

Sedgwick's moral link was quite firm under the Enlightenment Christian worldview. Science described a rational order created by God and maintained by His active influence for the benefit of rational men. But this anthropocentrism, and the primacy it gave to human reason, were theological premises. Both were inexorably eroded by the accumulation of scientific evidence. Freud’s unconscious mind revealed the forces countervailing reason in individual decision-making. Materialist theories of history showed that factors beyond debates in public forums or the will of kings shaped the course of history. And the discovery of the true age of the Earth and the universe dwarfed the works of men with their scale. All these realizations undermined a system with strict rules, designed intimately to match the best interests of rational and moral men, pointing instead to an arbitrary, stochastic world governed by vast, morally neutral processes. As Lovecraft's definition of “Weird Fiction” illustrates, the eldritch gods of his Cthulhu mythos can be understood as avatars of these forces, manifestations of the horror elicited by the overthrow of an all-encompassing rational monotheism:

A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain--a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.
(H.P. Lovecraft. 1927. “Supernatural Horror in Literature”)

In the real world, the discovery of the earth’s age, the accumulation of incomprehensibly large, ancient, self-driven systems governing human lives, and the realization of humanity’s shared lineage with the rest of life on Earth were in part responsible for a transition from default Christian preeminence to an increasingly secular culture. Conspicuously, the opposite occurs in Bloodborne. Scholars and archaeologists, implicitly secular to begin with, discover and engage with a pantheon of powerful beings and begin to worship them, seeking enlightenment and ascension. Superficially, the logic of this inversion is straightforward: for us, by answering questions that before had only been answered by folktales and religious texts, science removed the hand of a benevolent God from the daily function of the world. In Bloodborne, on the other hand, real and tangible deities, with arcane motives, were found where no process had been suspected before.

By placing religion after the downfall of secular academia, Bloodborne reverses our narrative of historical progress. But it retains the sense that that progress has unmoored society from a traditional morality. The foundation of the Healing Church by Byrgenwerth scholars marks the victory of religious zeal over scientific objectivity, but the Church brings none of the social values of the Christian church it is modeled after. In fact, the Healing Church is quite the opposite, because Bloodborne’s religion emerged after the severance of the moral and physical realities. While in a sense, Bloodborne’s Great Ones are treated as Gods, they are not conceived of as moral points of reference. They exist at higher rungs on the Chain of being, but the Chain no longer carries spiritual connotations.

Science is a Beast

It is a premise of Lovecraftian horror that humans are insignificant, specks in the cosmos with marginal power to sway the forces that control our lives. Modern environmental science has disproven that insignificance relative to the planet, if not the cosmos. Scientific knowledge has conquered our fear of the vast natural forces that determine our fates by empowering us to determine their futures. We have eradicated smallpox, exponentially increased food production, irreversibly altered the climate, and noticeably reduced the species diversity of our world. The knowledge that deeply weird things exist in the world, that humans are related to other organisms, that our lives are parts of ancient and abstract forces — all these things are mundane, even beautiful, to contemporary audiences. Institutional science, on the other hand, no longer retains the privileged objectivity Victorian scientists ascribed to it. Contemporary Weird Horror must, to avoid anachronism if not to remain relatable, take account of these changes.

Through its role in atrocities like colonialism, ‘scientific’ racism, nuclear weapons, and environmental pollution, science has gone from revealing horrifying truths about the universe to perpetrating them. Bloodborne first links this explicitly to its Victorian setting, referencing breaches of medical ethics closely associated with that period in the popular imagination. Victorian doctors infected children and prisoners with diseases like syphilis, gonorrhea, and the plague to study their effects. Similarly, in Old Yharnam, the Healing Church infected people with ashen blood disease, then burned the neighborhood as the plague spread out of control. Undeterred, the Church exposed citizens to tainted blood under the guise of a panacea cure — the namesake ministration of the Healing Church — in order to study its effects.

The story in the Old Hunters DLC is a good illustration of the way the Healing Church prized personal enlightenment at the expense of moral behavior. The scenario is a direct homage to Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”: an ocean-side village dedicates itself to serving an ocean god, and people transform into fishmen (this comparison comes from YouTuber Jerks Sans Frontieres). In the end of Lovecraft’s story, the US Navy destroys the deep-sea home of the Deep Ones and nearly eradicates them — their failure to achieve complete extinction is a terrifying twist ending. In Old Hunters, the same events play out but with a totally different spin. The authorities discover the fishpeople and raid their village, dissecting people and murdering a Great One. And in doing so, they incur a curse. The presentation feels colonialist — indigenous people with an esoteric local religion are abused by soldiers of a greedy regime interested in taking their knowledge and power by force, without crediting their achievements or contributions.

A Giant Fishman in the Old Hunters DLC.

A Giant Fishman in the Old Hunters DLC.

There is a link in Bloodborne, though perhaps a more tenuous one, to industrial pollution as well (this story was discovered and elaborated by YouTuber Redgrave). Quicksilver, or mercury, is a crucial biomaterial in the game, powering both guns and eldritch spells. It is a blood contaminant, one that seems universal and has an unexplained link to other categories of defiled blood. The pollution of bodies with mercury may be a reference to two of Japan's Four Big Pollution Diseases, representing some of the landmark industrial pollution stories in Japanese history. People in the city of Minamata, many of whom worked at a chemical factory and ate a diet rich in shellfish, fell ill with a neurological disorder called Minamata disease. It was later discovered that methylmercury discharged from the chemical plant had been routinely discharged into the ocean, where it bioaccumulated in fish and shellfish and poisoned the people of Minamata.

In Bloodborne, horror no longer comes from the break with divinely ordained rationality and the intrusion of vast, amoral processes. Rather, it is how humans react to the power of those processes, how they manipulate those forces and deploy them for good or ill, that overwhelms the audience with its disregard for human life. It is not the the Great Ones themselves, but the Healing Church, that is the main threat in Yharnam.

The Ethical Blood Consumer

It might be tempting to conclude that Bloodborne simply reflects an anti-science perspective. Jaded after a century of scientific complicity in some of the worst moral crimes, Weird Horror now knows that Lovecraft was naive. That the White, rationalist, imperialist power structure he identified with was in fact far more frightening than the things that seemed to threaten its central place in history. That the real monsters in Bloodborne are very clearly the people in power, not the Great Ones they invoke.

But this is FROM Software. The moral of this story is not to demonize science for its mistakes, nor is it to make a trite point about the responsibilities that come with power. The game spends as much time developing the evils of the Healing Church as it does bringing us to identify with their story. Like Willem and Laurence, we find ourselves suddenly immersed in a world full of terrifying eldritch monsters, a world that offers the promise of power and insight alongside the specters of death and suffering at unfathomable scales.

Patches the Spider, who has achieved some sort of enlightenment.

Patches the Spider, who has achieved some sort of enlightenment.

As we follow the footsteps of scholars from Byrgenwerth and the Healing Church, we make some inferences and learn some troubling things. But the game's tight-lipped narrative style leaves us constantly wondering, desperately looking for more concrete answers. Simon the Harrowed mocks us: “You sense a secret within the Nightmare, and cannot bear to leave it be.” And while the game occasionally implies that the player is undoing damage caused by the indiscretions of past scholars, it more frequently points out that in our curiosity, our lust for objects that will make us more powerful fighters or grant us greater understanding of the world, we are no different from the scholars who made those mistakes in the first place. As Simon puts it, it's “as if the spirit of Byrgenwerth lives on within you!”

Even as we may imagine ourselves to be dismantling the evil edifices of the Healing Church, we become complicit in the systems of exploitation they assembled. At the very outset, we are symbolically and biologically inducted into the Church's blood cult by an infusion of tainted blood. As we proceed, we use the Church's hunting equipment to kill innocent creatures— hunter Djura tells us that “the things you hunt, they're not beasts. They're people.” We take blood from “saints” and immerse ourselves in the web of mercy-contaminated blood to supply our killing. The beasts themselves, aware of our implication in the web of blood and quicksilver, retort, as we kill them: “you're a beast!” The discovery of Minamata disease (eventually) ended methylmercury pollution in the area, but it didn't remove its victims from the legacy of contamination, and it didn't end the system of chemical production and pollution that science, not to mention everyone else, still relies on. The brutal exploitation of the Fishing Hamlet enables our own ascendance to become a Kin of the Cosmos. Modern medicine is irrevocably linked to unethical research, but that doesn't keep us from relying on its tools or furthering its goals.

Bloodborne's Victorian science setting invokes the discoveries that undermined the rationalist worldview and opened the door for Lovecraft's eldritch deities. But it paints a complex and nuanced picture of our relationship with those deities, mediated by science and enmeshed in systems of exploitation, a picture that rings true as a modern take on science. It acknowledges that we are still specks among potent and ancient forces. It remembers the traumatic missteps irrevocably baked into the history of our attempts to understand those forces. It explores the devastating suffering unleashed by their clumsy misuse. It knows that there is horror in all of these things, that they can confront us unexpectedly with their brutality and bloodiness. This is collectively the purview of Weird Horror now, and the best examplars — like Bloodborne, but also Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy — treat them in their messy interactions with a nuance that feels mature, or at least contemporary. Because Bloodborne also understands that all of these nightmares are part of what we are facing now, and we cannot turn our backs on them. There is no path forward without that horror. We can do nothing but go deeper, try to learn the past and gain insight from it, and continue to do better — knowing that we will fail, that pain is inevitable, that we will repeat the mistakes of the past despite our best intentions.

Sources

  • Jerks Sans Frontieres. “The Old Hunters Impressions Part 3/3: The Fishing Hamlet” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 2 Feb., 2016. Web. 6 Mar. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-INt7cjakg&feature=youtu.be&t=488
  • Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. "The Shadow over Innsmouth." 1931. The Dunwich Horror and Others: 303-367.
  • Redgrave. “The Little Things in Yharnam: Oedon” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 20 Jan. 2016. Web. 27 May 2016. https://youtu.be/wjpcKIQyK5I?t=1063
  • Toulmin, Stephen and June Goodfield. The Discovery of Time. University of Chicago Press, 1965.

 

Notes:
  1. Demon's Souls and Dark Souls I & II []