It’s usually a kept secret, in the Gothic. There is something horrific hidden deep in the castle where no one will find it — the mad scientist tries to hide all evidence of his creation; the man who turns into a wolf must not go out under the full moon. There is always some mystery or obfuscation, whether through lies or elaborate secret passageways, some attempt made to muddy the lines of causation and to deny, against your blood-deep and instinctive certainty, that you are unsafe. It isn’t until they’re killing you that they give up the façade.
In typically cryptic FromSoftware fashion, Bloodborne’s story unfolds through layers of kept secrets, but they’re on the player to discover. Whether by reading small snippets of encyclopedic lore revealed in item descriptions, or as they move through the game’s terrain, the player is placed in the position of the Gothic protagonist. They make small leaps of progress and incremental bounds in awareness as they head through a level and towards whatever set-pieces, new enemy types, or discoveries await them. The idea of knowledge as progression is even built into the game’s mechanics through “Insight,” a number that increases as you discover new and horrible monstrosities or imbibe a consumable Madman’s Knowledge. As you gain Insight, the world becomes more dangerous – enemies become stronger, huge monstrous gods become visible where they weren’t before. Even built to mimic the declining sanity of a cosmic horror protagonist (the other main genre Bloodborne builds itself on), it also simulates the way a Gothic character moves closer and closer to knowledge and, inevitably, to danger. Even at a faster, more chaotic clip than a typical Gothic tale, it’s an oddly canny way of enacting the Gothic’s tension between the danger and the draw of discovery.
Bloodborne’s disorienting beginning is key to the way one moves through its spaces and uncovers its story, and ultimately to what it does with the Gothic. You play as a traveler from an unnamed foreign land visiting a clinic in the city of Yharnam, which has become famous for its miraculous “blood healing” administered by a magnificently powerful Healing Church. After receiving an infusion, you travel into the city, only to find that the famed metropolis is a wreck. The sky looks like it’s on fire; hordes of city folk are hunting each other (and you) down in attempts to purge their city. It turns out Yharnam is suffering a plague of beastliness, as in people turning into literal beasts, and they are scrambling to blame each other, and conveniently, foreigners like you. Their hunts are sanctioned and effectively commissioned by the Church, which turns out may be more at fault than its subjects believe, even as it asks them to lay waste to their own neighborhoods. The game tunnels even deeper into its mythological foundations from there, but particularly while the player explores Yharnam, a deliciously detailed Gothic wonderland, they are continually facing the problem of the Church.
And it’s in Bloodborne’s deep skepticism of the Church that its genre roots are found and flourish, because the Gothic is fundamentally a genre about power. Flourishing in particular after the French Revolution, Gothic literature was a sort of paranoid hangover for Romanticism. Fiction’s presentations of natural beauty and lush emotion curdled into claustrophobia and moral decay, presenting increasingly extravagant stories about horrifying abuse dressed in outrageous, lurid aesthetics. In light of the scientific inquiries of the Enlightenment and the sudden potential for real political upheaval, it became a genre about epistemological confusion, about the shock of questioning the unquestionable, about asking questions with world-shaking answers. (Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” famously has its young heroine, Catherine, discovering the tyranny of a rich English patriarch by mistaking his mundane, classist abuses for the extravagant murders of the Gothic books she’s reading.) The Gothic castle, where rulers or aristocrats lurk, and where winding corridors and secret passages hide sinister secrets, is a place where characters go to learn that people with authority, status, or money can and do abuse their power. It’s a place of labyrinthine corridors that inevitably conceal the hideous — a geographical metaphor for the ways that opulence masks its rotten core.
The Gothic castle, though, is traditionally an aberration. These powerful figures tend to be strange and malevolent men who have been granted power, with their own odd fixations and perversions fueling their abuses. Prince Prospero of The Masque of the Red Death (a story that presages Bloodborne, down to a red plague that strikes with “the redness and the horror of blood”) has the connections and power to host a grand masque that hides the nobility from the plague outside, but his wickedness is strange even to his friends in power. After all, he has his bizarre color-flooded rooms and hubristic denial of God, elaborated in Roger Corman’s 1964 film adaptation as an Orientalist, very racist depiction of Satanism. Dracula, the ultimate Gothic villain, is a sexualized foreign threat to the moral purity of London society, steeped in racial stereotypes about a primitive Eastern Europe. The Gothic teases and then unveils the horrors at the core of these powerful men’s homes, but it also compartmentalizes their threat through their fantastic abodes. You tempt fate by venturing into the scary castle; Dracula does not come to England without Jonathan Harker ignoring the villagers’ warnings and going inside, and when he arrives, he is an invasion and a disruption.
The quietly radical genius of Bloodborne, then, is to imagine the Gothic on a societal scale. In Yharnam, horror is not an anomaly. It comes from the city’s structures playing themselves out. Bloodborne’s use of the Gothic allows us to imagine catastrophe not only from outside, but as fundamentally from within. The foreign invader is you, the player, fighting for survival in a city where the authorities willfully expose their people to a plague, use them as experiments, and, as we see when we ignore Djura’s warnings and venture into Old Yharnam, burn them up rather than reckon with their mistakes. The monsters you face are Yharnamites who have built their city over past civilizations; it’s to you that they sling xenophobic invectives, desperate to find an explanation that doesn’t expose their society’s own rotten core. “It’s all your fault, you fidgety outsiders! Our blood’s ruined, tainted by your ilk,” berates one old woman when you knock on her door, right before asking where she can find refuge.
When I first played Bloodborne, in the fall of 2018, it felt like the right kind of eerie escapism to get me in the mood for Halloween. Now, replaying it this year in the midst of our own plague, made immeasurably more destructive by the government neglect and cruelty that has shaped our systems all along, Bloodborne feels startlingly, opulently familiar. Like Catherine in Northanger Abbey, I can recognize, in its Gothic extravagance, the real poison that throws people into death in the name of profit and that invites racists to indulge their worst xenophobic rhetoric. COVID-19 is an aberration, but it can be no kept secret; by its very nature it lays bare how much our systems are set up to fail us, to blame us for our wrong decisions while they wait for us to die. The horror isn’t some strange, foreign proclivity. It’s the most natural thing in the world, natural like capitalism, like rhetoric that thanks workers for their heroics and does nothing to protect or provide for them. Like the partygoers locked in houses lit by lanterns in Yharnam, like the attendees of Prince Prospero’s exclusive masque, those with resources can keep themselves away and sacrifice nothing, while people go into work and stand before their unmasked tirades. Mutual aid groups spring up and grow, as they have in marginalized communities for centuries, but they cannot mitigate the systemic rot that underlies it all.
When you relocate the few characters you can “save” to the haven of the Cathedral Ward, they can turn on each other, venture out and be killed by the creatures of the night. Things only go more dire as the burning sun sets, then as night comes, then as night turns into a cosmic hellscape. They accuse each other and never the Church; they insist on their rightness until they turn up dead, while the Church’s agents venture out to kidnap and kill more people, while the city burns, while they wait for a dawn that it seems will never come.