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Bloodborne and the economy of art} ?> Bloodborne, FromSoftware’s hit PlayStation 4 game, nearly defies description. It is bleak, macabre, grisly, and haunting; it will gross you out, creep into your soul, and send shivers down your spine.
In the game, townspeople driven to insanity lurk in the dim, torch-lit alleys of Yharnam, a labyrinthine, Victorian-era city. Werewolves sniff and snort as they prowl abandoned mansions and overgrown graveyards. Hideous creatures, masses of eyes, teeth, and tentacles, that literally frighten the player to death, lie in wait. And the game is as mysterious as it is menacing; as the story evolves, a black well of secrets, deeper than any could imagine, is revealed.
I think the game is bloody brilliant, if you’ll forgive the pun. Though it’s not just the unnerving aesthetic that makes Bloodborne amazing; I love it because it adheres to a principle espoused by C.S. Lewis: “Whatever in a work of art is not used, is doing harm” (“On Science Fiction”).
A quick word on Lewis—some readers may be surprised to learn that Clive Staples wasn’t simply an author of fantastical children’s books. Indeed, The Chronicles of Narnia came relatively late in his life, after years of distinguished work as an Oxford scholar of medieval literature. His non-fiction bibliography is voluminous, and his writings as a literary critic are particularly prolific. The Allegory of Love was, for years, a standard text in the study of medieval literature and An Experiment in Criticism is still widely read today. Agree or disagree with the man’s philosophy, when it comes to interpreting art, Lewis is a force to be reckoned with.
By the way, Lewis allegedly disliked film; if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say he would be aghast at video games. I’m not after his opinions on the medium, though, only his theory of art. Which brings us back to Bloodborne, a video game where you brandish a cane that is also a whip against baleful wheelchair-bound men with rifles and top hats. As bizarre and outlandish as its concept is, however, Bloodborne’s strength is in its conservative design. Bloodborne takes a minimalist tact in its narrative and design, and the experience is all the more riveting for it.
There is no mini map, no checklist of objectives, no arrow to point the way. There is only the player, alone in a horrible land with terrifying foes around every corner. The absence of typical player aids reinforces the hostility and opaqueness of the world. The only choice is to plunge blindly into the dark mystery, and the consequence is Nietzschean; as the player stares into the abyss, the abyss turns its gaze on the player.
The player must seek out Bloodborne’s story in all its parts, piece it together, and reflect on what has been gathered. This is not Final Fantasy or Mass Effect; there are no long cutscenes of heavy-handed exposition, no in-game libraries or indexes that summarize the plot. The game only takes control of the camera from the player on a mere handful of occasions, usually to reveal a boss, and then only briefly. There are two exceptions: the introductory and concluding cutscenes. These scenes, however, obscure as much as they reveal. A handful of letters and notes scattered around levels offer clues to the story of the game world, and much is learned by reading the descriptions of items in the player’s inventory.
The real genius of it all lies in how Bloodborne shows rather than tells. At the start of the game, I was convinced Bloodborne was an old cliché of horror, with villagers waving pitchforks and werewolves stalking the night. Gradually, the scenery shifted, night fell, and the real monsters came out to play. The developers deftly subvert the Victorian monster aesthetic, swapping out lycanthropes partway through the game for tentacled beasts and starry Martians. It is revealed we are not playing a game based on Mary Shelley or Bram Stoker’s worlds, but a work reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft, the master of transcendent, cosmic horror. As the game progresses, the player’s ability to perceive truth is challenged—is what I’m seeing real? Did the world where a gigantic spider doesn’t drape across an entire city ever exist?—and our infinitesimal, brief existence in the face of a vast, cold universe is laid bare.
Bloodborne terrifies on a fundamentally existential level, and it does so in lean and muscular form. There is no fat here, no gristle.
I doubt the man who gave us Narnia, Aslan, and Mr. Tummus would have played video games, particularly a grim oddity such as Bloodborne. However, given its starkly minimalist exposition and nigh esoteric story-by-aesthetics design, FromSoftware’s adventure heeds well Lewis’s rule. The horror may be gratuitous, but the design is anything but.
Art, it must be remembered, is communication; it is expression, the conveying of feelings in symbolic form. Every element—every word, every brush stroke, every waypoint arrow—is a part of that form. And whether the creator intends it or not, these disparate elements will affect how the player experiences and interprets the game. Superfluous design and excess trappings are like heavy static in a radio transmission; they obscure the message and force the receiver to strain to hear. In today’s 24/7 bombardment of media noise from television, tablets, smart phones, and whatever gadgets are coming next, art serves a clarifying purpose. Good art cuts through the noise and speaks to us without pretense.
Ultimately, I’m grateful Bloodborne is such a clear and effective communicator, even if what it wants to say is very, very scary.