Pleasing Terrors

According to Joseph Campbell, a universal myth weaves its way through all human storytelling. Does this monomyth extend to video games?

SolePorpoise

Hidetaka Miyazaki understands something that’s key to Lovecraft’s concepts. The horror doesn’t arise solely from the eldritch monsters and ideas—it arises from how these concepts are delivered to the audience. For Miyazaki, that means telling Lovecraft’s story through a traditional myth. And something new arises out of converging these concepts—the antimyth. By taking Lovecraftian gods that inherently make no sense to humans and combining them with the stories of gods that help humans give their lives meaning, Miyazaki crafted a story that has players feeling the terrors Lovecraft intended.

 
One of the many eldritch beasts found and fought within  Bloodborne .

One of the many eldritch beasts found and fought within Bloodborne.

 

Reading Dark Souls as a Myth

To better understand what I mean by “myth” and how Miyazaki uses it, we can look to Bloodborne’s predecessor, Dark Souls. As a guide, I’m going to rely on the help of the great popularizer of mythology, Joseph Campbell—mainly pulling from his interviews with Bill Moyers in The Power of the Myth (1988).

Dark Souls plays its mythological angle fairly straight. We need to link the flame, just as Gwyn did before us, and choose the fate of the world. In other words, the player inherits a world that was shaped by the gods, and they are now tasked with rising to their level in order to beat the game. (Basically, a more fun version of what Church tells you life’s about.)

Here’s where the Campbellian analysis comes into play, because contained in this premise of linking the fire is what Campbell refers to as a universal theme of the myth—cropping up among many cultures. And it’s the goal of the player in Dark Souls. The player makes his or her way through the world, lighting each bonfire, or as seen through the game’s mechanics, resting at each checkpoint, ultimately making the same divine journey that Gwyn did to link the flame. But Dark Souls doesn’t only contain allusions to Greek Mythology. Also apparent are the allusions to the most popular creation myth: the story of Adam and Eve.

Prometheus Carrying Fire , Jan Cossiers 1636. The carrying and relaying of fire is a well-known motif, one we watch re-enacted at the beginning of every Olympics.

Prometheus Carrying Fire, Jan Cossiers 1636. The carrying and relaying of fire is a well-known motif, one we watch re-enacted at the beginning of every Olympics.

In Campbell’s analysis, gained from eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was not only the knowledge of God, but also the understanding of the dual nature of the world. Seeing the world through the lens of Good and Evil meant we now could see the world as God does. And that’s why followers of these religions are urged to lead moral lives—it means God is working through his followers. The fire and the forbidden fruit in Garden of Eden share the same meaning in our creation because both events mark humanity’s understanding of the dual nature of the world. The only difference is Dark Souls doesn’t call it duality, but rather disparity.

This moment comes in Dark Souls’ prologue where the narrator explains the origin story of Lordran. It’s here we learn of the Age of Ancients where the everlasting dragons once ruled the land. And as the narrator goes on to say: “But then there was fire. And with fire came Disparity.” This disparity in Dark Souls is important because, just as duality gives meaning to the lives of followers of the Genesis myth, it also gives meaning to the life of the Dark Souls player. Now the player’s goal is aligned with the goal of the gods on Dark Souls—to see the world in terms of light and dark. And ultimately, this is how we interact with the world at the end of the game. We overcome Gwyn after following in his path and either rekindle the bonfire with our flesh, or usher in a new age of dark for humanity where we passively let the age of the gods pass. Whatever our decision, we make it in the same room as Gwyn did when he decided the fate of the world.

 This is the point of mythology. For the audience to realize that there was something about their humanity that can connect with the divine. It’s this reason that Bloodborne is so good at what it does. By telling Lovecraft’s story through a traditional myth, we don’t see our humanity as a key to the realm of the gods, but rather, we see it as our crucial weakness.

Bloodborne: The Inversion of the Myth

To better understand how this all fits into Bloodborne, here’s a quick recap of the events of its story. Every event that we know of started with Byrgenwerth College. A place that realized humans and the Great Ones were separate entities—and the great ones were far superior to Humanity. Willem knew this and, while he wanted to understand them better, he was disillusioned with the limitations of humanity. So he went on to line his brain with eyes. And he encouraged his followers to do the same so they could, someday, evolve beyond the confines of humanity to better understand the great ones.

Then, in the chalice dungeons, they discovered the “holy medium.” And in a schism with the college, Laurence founded the church. An organization that would not honor the adage of “fear the old blood” and would instead imbibe it. And that brings us to the most important moment in Bloodborne’s history as far as we know it. Imbibing the blood meant Yharnamites will attempt to brute a force relationship with the gods even though that relationship is forbidden. 

That’s it for the recap but in it, we learn something vital about what the story is trying to say. Laurence founds the church, not a different college with different leadership, that will split off and begin the using blood. This means Laurence’s followers won’t be content with simply studying the Great Ones like the scholars of Byrgenwerth. Instead, there’s an important reason for why imbibing the blood is so significant in the larger context of the myth.

As Vicar Amelia reveals in her prayer to the alter in the Grand Cathedral, imbibing the blood for the church means they are engaging in communion. To fully appreciate this ritual, we return to Joseph Campbell to help us understand its significance to Catholicism. As he puts it, the reason this ritual is so important to the religion is because of what it signifies. By imbibing the blood of Christ, those who engage in the ritual are becoming unified with God because they now have the blood of God pumping through their hearts.

And that’s what we see when we meet Vicar Amelia. She is holding her pendant in the same way one who takes communion by the hand holds it—with it placed in the left hand and the right hand holding the left. But engaging in communion in a Lovecraftian story takes on an entirely different meaning.

 
The player faces down with Vicar Amelia inside the Grand Cathedral in Cathedral Ward.

The player faces down with Vicar Amelia inside the Grand Cathedral in Cathedral Ward.

 

In any other myth, including the very one Bloodborne borrowed the ritual from, humanity plays a unique role in which they can become one with God. But in Bloodborne, humanity enjoys no such destiny. Instead, there’s a clear cost associated with this gesture—humans become, not invigorated, but sick and are doomed to succumb to the bestial nature that lurks inside them. And it’s from this moment that that the rest of the events of Bloodborne unfold. Yharnam is now stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of its citizens turning into beasts, and hunters who hunt them. While humans see these aliens as gods, they do not exist for humanity.

The Meaning of the Antimyth

Campbell doesn’t take any of these myths literally. To him, they’re metaphors that offer humanity a path to elevate themselves beyond their plane of existence. That’s why Bloodborne functions so well at what it does. We don’t need to have researched Campbell to feel the universal message of a myth and become elevated. In the same way, we don’t need to have researched Campbell to feel the Universal Message of Bloodborne: humans will have multiple futile attempts to see the gods in themselves—but will ultimately succumb to their animal nature. This was the point Lovecraft was trying to make.

These gods don’t exist for humanity. They exist—and with no concern for humanity.

So while this is a story about gods, and this is a story about humans, this is not a story about humans participating in a myth. Bloodborne denies us the ability to see ourselves in god and instead, offers us a story where we see ourselves for the beasts that we truly are.


SolePorpoise is a YouTuber who believes video games are literature in themselves, and one of the purest forms of art to which we have access. His longform analyses have attracted tens of thousands of viewers and hundreds of thousands of views.