Note: As an added
inconvenience, I just found a two-part series by the Extra Credits team about designing game mechanics with meaning. Check them out! PART 1 and PART 2. My argument here relies on the idea that mechanics have meaning too, not just the story part of the game. The Extra Credits team does a great job of explaining this in the above two videos.
“I think my philosophy towards game development is first, set a certain game system, and then apply a world view that matches that.”
-Hidataka Miyazaki – Game Director/President of From Software – April 2016 – Wired Interview
“[Miyazaki] doesn’t just see this red bar as a simple health gauge, he sees it as a power of will when they embark on something, they want to go forward…That represents the power of will. As you take damage you plunge deeper into despair, but every time you attack you have this chance of regaining hope. Despair and hope is the emotional connection he wants to make when people play [Bloodborne].”
-Masaaki Yamagiwa – Japan Studio Producer –Gamescom 2014
When interpreting a work, at least in a traditional literary sense, it is important to take into account the author, or auteur, and it is no secret that as game director and acting president of From Software, Hidetaka Miyazaki takes a hands-on approach to developing games. He is well-known for being a perfectionist and intensely involved in all aspects of a game’s development, barring the case of Dark Souls II, of which he let another team handle. Bloodborne undoubtedly was crafted and molded with Miyazaki’s hand , dare I say, his insight. I will take into account his design process as key to interpreting the game, valuing primarily the game system, and secondarily the lore as supplement.
The introductory quotes taken together paints a simple picture about how Bloodborne was put together. First, Miyazaki lays out the game system, then he adds the world view, it’s lore, to match it. What is unique about his game systems is that they are designed around mechanics that create a memorable emotional payoff for the player. For example, the more difficult of challenge in the game is, the greater sense of accomplishment the player feels. This has been stated by Miyazaki and team in interviews about Dark Souls. Bloodborne is no different in this aspect, but it introduces a greater sense of accomplishment the likes of the earlier Dark Souls hadn’t reached. As stated above, the life bar is no longer just a simple hit point gauge, it is representative of the player’s will-power. It’s your ‘grit bar’ and by the end of this game, you feel you have it in spades. The lore itself parallels this goal of grittiness as you become pretty much the God of Grit in the end, or at least in baby god slug form.
I interpret the final ending of Bloodborne emphasizing the aspect of the will-power Yamagiwa mentioned in the quote above. This is ending as supplement to game system. About interpretation, Miyazaki himself encourages player to do it when explaining his philosophy of environmental storytelling, so why not interpret away? In the same interview as above with Wired, he states:
“…I want to leave the interpretation of the world’s stories to the player. That’s actually my biggest reason for focusing on environmental and subtle storytelling. Rather than the game itself automatically telling the story, the player gets more value from it when they themselves find out hints of plot from items or side-characters they encounter in the world.”
If it is the elation of discovery through hard thinking that you want to impart upon your audience, then this is a brilliant design philosophy indeed. If you’re up for it, come join me on a little analysis of a meaning that I discovered in Bloodborne.
Before I get to the endings though, let me tell you a little about my experience with the game. I’ll admit that I wasn’t much of a fan of cosmic horror and in all honesty, this game ended up being the souls game that I ashamedly never completed. Until the other day of course. Chronologically, I’ve played and beat Dark Souls, Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls II, Dark Souls III and now, finally, Bloodborne.
When Bloodborne first came out back in March 2015, I was in the lines at the local game store. I was super-hyped, like any respectable adult should be over a video game. As soon as I got home, I put my Bloodborne poster on the wall and began playing. Right off the bat, I was engrossed in the Gothic horror aesthetic of the game. I was enamored in it’s beauty, but after some days of progress I started to notice some aesthetic change. It casually introduced aliens into the mix and for some reason I felt turned off by this. Gothic horror and alien at that time just didn’t mix well in my mind. Plus, the dungeons were kicking my butt. Eventually I just put it down, lamenting that Bloodborne had so much potential. What it really was is that I just did not have the will to continue playing it.
Fast-forward almost two years later to New Year’s 2017. I was thinking about the insight mechanic of Bloodborne and how unique and amazing it was, as used in a video game. Considering doing a blog post about that mechanic, I watched a few videos on Bloodborne again. Y’know, just to get the engine warmed up. To my surprise, the videos rekindled… har har…something in my black withered heart for Bloodborne. The alien lore aspect of it somehow made sense now and didn’t bother me anymore. The aesthetic now compelled me, in fact. I decided I’d do another playthrough, for blog science.
Just playing through Yharnam made me fall in love all over again with it, with it’s amazing attention to detail and it’s maze-like level design. Eventually though, I hit a wall again. It really is a tough game, with some moments that seemed less than fair. I’m looking at you Henryk and you’re insanely large health bar. However, this time I pushed through the difficulty and something overcame me. Finally the game clicked and it wasn’t so hard after all. It went from an experience of being extremely hard, to extremely fun. I flew through the rest of the game with a whole new attitude and got the third ending, no prob. I’m now convinced that this game is a masterpiece, and in fact, is a step up from Dark Souls. Not easy to admit after my last blog entry.
Now, after struggling through and beating this game, reading a ton of articles, watching countless videos on the meaning of Bloodborne (one guy even wrote a book on it) , I want to throw my two cents in. Most of the interpretations are to do with piecing together the game world. Many are trying to find a consistency in the world, and coherent narrative within the scattered pieces of lore left throughout the world like tempting little bread crumbs. Others are trying to figure out what that story might mean. Of course, I don’t think there is any definitive meaning to the game, though. My two favorite videos here linked are Vaati Vidya’s and Folding Idea’s representing both the former and latter of these approaches respectively. In fact, I highly suggest watching them before continuing to read my own interpretation, as I lean heavily on their piecing together the narrative. Thanks fellas! I myself hope to shed light on what the ending might potentially mean.
There are three endings. The least difficult ending of which is submitting your life to Gherman, who kills you in the dream world so you can wake up ignorant and lost, the day after the hunt. The game itself resembles what would happen if The Purge, Dracula, Alien and Groundhog’s Day all had a blood orgy that produced one grotesque and horribly disobedient child.
…who was then abandoned…
After you wake up from the Groundhog’s day-esque repeating nightmare, your character is wholly ignorant of the fact that cosmic aliens, the Great Ones, according to the game lore, are the true rulers of the world. Your ignorance is due to the fact that all of your insight has been lost. Apparently in many ‘Lovecraftian’ role-playing games, there is an equivalent meter of insanity to Bloodborne’s insight mechanic. Insight in this game is a numerical counter that represents, well, how much insight you have into the painful truth about the game world. As your character –as you– experience more of the horrors of this game through playing, you get more insight. All sorts of giant tentacled alien creatures, once invisible in the early game, are now clearly hovering over your once cheery Gothic horror neighborhood of werewolves and witches. Returning without insight, it appears as just a messed up town of beasts again, sans overlord aliens.
The second ending happens if you choose not to submit to Gherman and beat him, but you didn’t collect and consume the necessary insight inducing items for the third ending. Once you beat him, the ‘true’ presence behind the hunter’s dream reveals itself, snatches you up and puts you in Gherman’s rickety old wheelchair. Then you are treated to a cut-scene showing that you are the new leader of the hunt. You are left as a slave to the Moon creature, appearing crippled and unable to fully comprehend the nightmare of the hunter’s dream and the truth that it is all a Jedi mind trick of a giant frickin alien creature that’s using the hunters in it’s war against other giant frickin aliens.
The third and bestest ending (or saddest if you are the fellow from Folding Ideas channel) is where you refuse Gherman, beat him up, but have eaten three eye-ball sequinned intestines to resist the Moon presence’s amazing charm and forthrightly beat it up too. After your one-off with the Moon alien, your character then becomes a Great One, albeit a cute slug-like one with tentacles coming out your face. Yes, you shed your human form and transcend to the level of a God.
As we know, the game system that Miyazaki creates before the story is one that emphasizes certain emotions in the player. In the case of Bloodborne’s health gauge, it represents will-power, the strength of hope overcoming despair. The insight mechanic emphasizes the will to understand, knowledge overcoming ignorance. The overall theme of the game system seems to be growing the power of the player’s will, in general, to a level of greatness. The third ending is about having enough insight to resist the Moon Presence, and then physically (dream physically?) beating it. It is your life gauge vs its life gauge, a battle of wills. If you are able to beat it, your will is proven stronger than the most powerful Great One in the game.
So let’s put this all together: by having a strong will and enough insight you, dear player, can become great. It’s almost as if the game is saying, by getting this ending, you are great, and because it’s a game you play, your experience, it actually makes you feel great. It hits you on two levels, emotionally and intellectually. You have actually accomplished something through mastery of its punishing but fair fighting mechanics, having acquired greater powers of insight, having penetrated into the mystery of it’s lore, and through overcoming the most powerful foe of the game. Congratulations!
“But is that all? I mean, I feel great for beating the game, but is there something we can learn from analyzing the story on a symbolic level?”
Well I’m glad you asked, hypothetical reader of mine! Let me take it a step further and draw some real life parallels, just for the fun of it.
In the real world, we are born somewhere, often captives to the system or ideology that we are surrounded by. Perhaps it’s a religion, or secularism, or some other such political ideology. Anyway, as we get older and gain insight and experience into life, we can see more clearly. Perhaps we can even see through certain ideologies and paradigms, just like being able to see the aliens that were once invisible in the early game.
Or you could just use wikipedia.
In real life, ideologies are like the various vying Great Ones in Bloodborne‘s story, while without having a strong will or any learnin’ we will always be slaves to their presence, unable to resist them and blind to the bigger picture. With edjucation we can see that politics and the war for hearts and minds wrought clear as a writhing violent competition of various powerful interests with communities and individuals in tow. In order to survive all this tumultuous ever-changing challenge of life one must have fortitude, an iron will and depth of understanding.
A more likely (but still unlikely) scenario is that Miyazaki might be looking more at the games industry as inspiration for the Bloodborne world, instead of the world as a whole like silly old me. He has mentioned that after becoming the president of the company, he meets other company presidents and uses them as character inspiration. From an article by The Guardian says Miyazaki: “’Now I’m president, I get to meet a lot of other company presidents. They’re such weird people. I’m fascinated by them.’ With a smile, he adds: ‘I use some of them as enemy characters in our games.'”
As for the Great Ones, there are video game design paradigms and genres that might demand that game directors design a game in a certain way, but perhaps with a strong will and insight we can resist them. The story of Bloodborne could parallel his rise to director and eventually presidency of From Software.
I won’t go on, and I’m probably not correct. He probably wouldn’t appreciate me looking into his life in such a prying way either, so I’ll stop the personal speculation and wrap this up.
The vision of the game system that Miyazaki first created, before all the lore, was one of training the player’s will power, its a game that tests your the player’s resolve. Greatness comes through determination and grit on both the real world physical twitch-play level and the intellectual levels. Or at least that’s my interpretation of it. Again, the simple reasoning behind my little interpretation is because of the design process that Miyazaki himself is quoted as using. Anyhow, I just wanted to add something to the mix, …because I really loved this game.
Whew! Glad that’s off of my chest. Let me know your thoughts 😀