It’s no secret that horror writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft had bigoted attitudes to race and class. Duy Le examines how these aspects of Lovecraft’s writing are critiqued in FromSoftware’s Bloodborne.
This post was first published May 23, 2018.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that many of HP Lovecraft’s works are subtly underpinned by his bigotry; his letters made his views all but transparent. In the 90 years since his death that hasn’t affected the popularity of his horror fiction, which has proven timeless in its relevance and relatability. Video games in particular owe a large debt to Lovecraft’s influence. FromSoftware’s Bloodborne (2015) was one of video gaming’s most prominent adaptations of Lovecraftian horror; its uniquely oppressive atmosphere and bleakly nihilistic conclusion led to wide critical acclaim. That’s a remarkable feat in itself – but even more remarkable was its active subversion and subtle indictment of Lovecraft’s bigotry.
In Bloodborne a player-created protagonist travels to the xenophobic city of Yharnam in search of a cure for an unspecified ailment, arriving on the night of ‘the hunt’ – a regular purge of the grotesque beasts that terrorise the city. Yharnam, fashioned after a ruined Victorian Gothic London, serves as the centre of the game’s narrative. So far, so Lovecraftian. A distinguished, Anglo-Saxon protagonist travelling into the rural, the wild, or the savage, is often the setup for a Lovecraft story. What generally follows is the discovery of unspeakable horror or imminent cataclysm, usually wrought the simple, the ignorant, or the foreign. You know – classic Lovecraft.
Bloodborne twists this premise by tasking the foreigner – the outsider – with learning the machinations behind Yharnam’s collapse. It’s no coincidence that Yharnam is fashioned after London: its citizens shun and mock the foreigner, blaming them for their state of affairs while steadfastly trusting the propaganda of the establishment. In fact, the only friendly NPCs in the first area of the game – Gilbert and Eileen – speak with a Scottish and Irish accent respectively, denoting their own outsider status among the predominantly London-accented citizenry.
The main driving force of Bloodborne’s narrative is the mystery behind the beastly scourge; a sickness that plagues Yharnam, transforming those afflicted into monstrous beasts and leading to Yharnam’s ruin. It is revealed that Byrgenwerth, an elite educational institute (modelled on Lovecraft’s own Miskatonic University), and the Healing Church, an ideological offshoot of Byrgenwerth, are the culprits behind the spread of the scourge through their meddling in eldritch matters beyond human understanding. It’s yet another subversion of a common Lovecraftian trope: the sycophantic worship of institution and heritage.
This pattern of embracing Lovecraftian tropes while also subverting and critiquing them continues with Castle Cainhurst, an offshore citadel of medieval antiquity which houses the immortal Queen Annalise. Despite her lineage, Annalise was reviled because of her supposed corrupted blood, becoming the target of a genocidal crusade lead by the Healing Church’s militia force, who are oxymoronically dubbed the Executioners. She then becomes the sworn enemy of the church and embraces the position of Vileblood, her dignified comportment belying her reputation. The moral lines are further blurred if the player reveals her location to Alfred, one of the few sane and friendly characters in the game who also happens to be an Executioner. Do so, and you’ll be met with Annalise’s pulverised organs and Alfred’s maniacal cackles.
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The release of The Old Hunters expansion several months after the game’s initial release included perhaps the most compelling critique of Lovecraft’s work. The Fishing Hamlet’s connection to Innsmouth from Lovecraft’s novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth is immediately apparent: both are dilapidated seaport towns infested with human-fish hybrids. Both towns also share an involvement with eldritch gods (Dagon in Innsmouth and Kos in the hamlet) that bestowed boons upon the townsfolk. The divergence lies in the way their inhabitants are portrayed. Innsmouth is largely a metaphor for Lovecraft’s own misgivings about miscegenation, framing the townsfolk as ghastly and amoral, willing to participate in human sacrifice for material wealth. In contrast, The Old Hunters‘ hamlet suggests a humble and almost symbiotic life under the shadow of their benefactor. The tragedy that befell the hamlet was not incited by their dealings with their god; rather it was Byrgenwerth’s thirst for knowledge that drove a massacre upon the townsfolk after incurring the wrath of Kos. The post-colonial subtext is made more apparent by the fate of the participant hunters in the invasion, doomed to suffer a Sisyphean nightmare of endless hunting.
To successfully incorporate the oppressive and hopeless atmosphere of HP Lovecraft’s books into video gaming – a medium that is inherently structured in a way that is antithetical to those themes – is a remarkable feat. But the acknowledgement and indictment of Lovecraftian ideologies makes Bloodborne relevant to a contemporary audience in a way that is rarely found in other spinoff works. The influence of Lovecraft is still widespread in pop culture (in movies, TV, books and even children’s toys) so it’s important to acknowledge and critique the bigotry that lies beneath it. Bloodborne’s willingness to consider critically its inspirations, rather than simply recycling them into mere pastiche, is what makes it such a compellingly written game, and a landmark in the genre.
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