by Rich Stanton
The Souls games and Bloodborne specialise in complex and sophisticated narratives – the only problem being that they’re so well-hidden that many players miss out. Director Hidetaka Miyazaki explains his technique as coming from a childhood spent reading and half-understanding English-language fantasy novels: because he couldn't understand every single word, he'd fill in the story's blanks with his imagination.
This is a perfect nutshell description of how Miyazaki-directed games operate. From the player's perspective it's a bit like having a lot of the pieces for a jigsaw puzzle, but not all of them, and no firm idea of what the finished picture looks like. So first thing's first – what you hear is the spoiler klaxon blaring. This article will go over much of Bloodborne's plot in detail.
A few caveats. There’s simply too much lore to go into detail on everything, so fascinating places like Cainhurst, or even an in-depth look at the first hunter Gehrman, will have to wait for another time. Though this article is long, it remains the briefest of outlines. And, naturally, I may be wrong on some points - but everything here is sourced and illustrated, and I’ve kept interpretation to the absolute minimum.
The narrative arc can be summed up as the birthing process for a godlike being called a Great One, though the game's events take place after much has already happened. The short timeframe we play through illuminates a wider context, akin to something like the Iliad (which gives the contours of the ten-year Trojan War by focusing on a two-week period). This article will look at things roughly chronologically, so we start with the discovery of the Great Ones.
The Tomb of the Gods
The chalice dungeons are where everything began for the civilisation of Yharnam. A fellow hunter, Alfred, tells us that “the tomb of the gods, carved out below Yharnam, should be familiar to every hunter.” These labyrinths are the remnants of another culture, the Pthumerians, long-gone though not quite extinct. At some point the pre-Yharnamites discovered a chalice that granted access to the Pthumerian labyrinth and began exploring. It was not empty.
Though it was filled with crazed and universally hostile beasts, and terrors even worse, the explorers pushed on regardless – and discovered remnants of what appeared to be gods. They returned with treasures, mysterious lifeforms and other strange organic debris. A great institute of learning, Byrgenwerth, was founded to explore and collate as much as it could. Here are our beginnings.
A great institute of learning, Byrgenwerth, was founded to explore and collate as much as it could. Here are our beginnings.
Alfred tells us that a group of young Byrgenwerth scholars eventually discovered a “holy medium” – a means or channel of communication – within the tomb, and that this would later lead to the founding of the Healing Church and blood ministration. The latter is what Yharnam is best-known for in the time of the game.
But one more detail. If the player explores far enough in the Chalice Dungeons s/he will discover the Pthumerian Queen. This woman is also seen at various points during Bloodborne's main storyline, and the emphasis is on her lost child.
The Pthumerians had superior knowledge of the Great Ones, and their Queen was pregnant with a child that was either stillborn or died soon after birth. Later in Bloodborne the player will obtain a third of an umbilical cord which states:
“Every Great One loses its child, and then yearns for a surrogate, and Oedon, the formless One, is no different. To think, it was corrupted blood that began this eldritch liason.”
The Pthumerian Queen bore and lost the child of formless Oedon. And so when the explorers of Byrgenwerth found the Queen, they found the blood of a Great One – a wondrous substance, or so it seemed.
The Pthumerian Queen's name was Yharnam. A city was built atop the labyrinths, and named in tribute. The eldritch liason had begun.
Byrgenwerth & the Healing Church
Byrgenwerth is where the Great Ones were studied, though in practice this seems mainly to have been a study of how to make contact with them. Among the scholars were Provost (later Master) Willem and Laurence, and given that the first hunter Gehrman knows both it's likely he, too, began here.
A schism was caused when what Alfred calls the “holy medium” was found. This could be referring to Queen Yharnam, or her dead child's blood, but it is much more likely to be the abandoned Ebrietas – a Great One that can be found in-game. The temptation of a living, breathing Great One's blood was too much for some.
Willem's motto was simple: “Fear the old blood.” He wished to probe the secrets of the cosmos, but intuited the dangers of transfusing oneself with the blood of gods. Laurence disagreed and, in what Willem termed a betrayal, left Byrgenwerth to found the Healing Church.
Blood ministration was the foundation of the Healing Church. “Blood ministration is, of course, the pursuit of communion.” Laurence believed that through infusing oneself with the blood of the Great Ones some sort of communication could be had.
Everything began well for the Healing Church, because of the miraculous properties of blood ministration. It seemed to cure all ills and grant exceptional longevity to the citizens of Yharnam, who in turn worshipped the church.
But the Church itself was a front. In the Upper Cathedral Ward, locked away from prying eyes, was the Orphanage, where the Great One Ebrietas was kept and abandoned children were experimented upon. The Choir, the highest-ranking echelon of the Church, would come from the Orphanage.
The Choir paid tribute to Master Willem by covering their eyes, and eventually stumbled across their most important discovery. Many believed the Great Ones were from the sky, gods in the traditional sense. The Choir realised that these beings existed in a dimension that overlapped our own. “The sky and the cosmos are one” reads a note found just outside the Upper Cathedral Ward, and this was the Church's great epiphany: the Great Ones did not need to be found in a physical sense. They were already here.
The School of Mensis was another part of the Church, operating an Unseen Village within Yharnam, and it kidnapped people to use in bloody rituals. What were these various factions trying to do? Even though the methods are bizarre and various the answer is simple: the Church and its various members wanted to create a surrogate for the Great One's child. The more ambitious wanted to be this surrogate.
Laurence, the founder of the Church, clearly partook of blood ministration himself. To this end, he and his associates were the first to beckon the nameless moon presence close to Earth, which in turn blurred the line between man and beast. This is probably when the problem of beasthood first reared its head, as people infused with the Great Ones' blood began to metamorphose into feral monsters.
As for Laurence? This is speculation rather than fact, but in the grand cathedral of Yharnam the player finds a giant beast's skull – which, when touched, plays a flashback of Laurence's last meeting with Willem.
Laurence pioneered much in the world of Bloodborne, and he may also have been Yharnam’s first beast. The skull has a huge fissure through it, interesting because a boss monster fought in the Chalice Dungeons is the Blood-Letting Beast – which has two forms. One with head intact, and one with the head split open right where the Cathedral skull has a wound.
There is also video evidence that this split-head form of the Bloodletting Beast has dialogue for when you die to it - which I haven’t been able to verify myself because I never die.
The dialogue is:
The time has come again I fear. But if the fates smile upon us, we’ll soon meet again. Farewell, dear friend.
If you had a fanciful mind, you might read this as someone pressed unwillingly into an uncontrollable danger - like turning into a beast while the moon is low - saying what he hopes won’t be a last goodbye. The addressee can only be guessed. This time, the speaker never made it back.
Speculation, of course. But perhaps a fitting end for a man who reached for the skies - and damned his civilization in the process.
It's worth briefly pausing over exactly what blood ministration is. How big a deal was it? Big enough that Yharnam produced more blood than alcohol, because it was more intoxicating, and so jealously guarded that Yharnam is more or less closed to outsiders.
But intoxication is one thing. The attraction of blood, for many scholars of Byrgenwerth, was the promise of coming closer to the Great Ones – and, perhaps, of becoming gods themselves. “It made their dream of evolution a reality.”
The problem? “Blood defines an organism,” as the Rune Workshop Tool tells us, and by using the Great Ones' blood the early Yharnamites were making themselves the Great Ones' tools. “Both Oedon, and his inadvertent worshippers, surreptitiously seek the precious blood.”
The fact that the Pthumerian civilization had been close to the Great Ones and subsequently collapsed was not lost on all. The head of Byrgenwerth, Master Willem, realised blood was not necessarily the consequence-free wonder that many of his colleagues believed. He would be proven right.
Rom is the great secret of Byrgenwerth. The Lunarium key tells us that “In the end, it is said, [Master Willem] left his secret with the lake.” Willem's wizened and mute form still bears life, of a kind, but can only point us towards the lake – and if you choose to jump in, you will find Rom.
It is worth noting that Willem as seen in the game has some sort of growths on his neck, similar to those seen on the Kin in the Orphanage, which suggest he either took his experiments too far or someone got to him. Given he is guarded by what looks like a Choir-affiliated hunter, perhaps the latter.
A note within the college tells us that “the spider hides all manner of rituals, certain to share nothing, for true enlightenment need not be shared.” Rom is known as the Vacuous Rom because, though the Great Ones granted him 'eyes,' the being he has become is essentially mindless. He transcended to become a Great One of a kind, but his purpose – which may have been Willem's last-gasp effort to avert catastrophe – seems to be to occlude the blood moon and hide the Great One's child Mergo. After killing Rom, who is not hostile before being attacked, night descends on Yharnam, the moon comes much closer, and Queen Yharnam appears.
There is a compelling case to be made that Rom was one of the good guys, and in his way the last barrier between the human world and the drive towards creating a surrogate for the Great Ones. It is also notable that later in the game when we find Ebrietas, she is mourning a spider's corpse that looks awfully like Rom. The scale is different, sure, but in Bloodborne's world of parallel dimensions, dreams and nightmares (as well as magic lakes) that doesn't seem like a deal-breaker.
The Caryll rune Stunning Deep Sea also implies that Rom's lake was a guardian of some kind, keeping either the Great Ones or their would-be servants numb to the truth. But we kill him before realising any of this. Oops!
The Hunt and Old Yharnam
The residents of Yharnam are familiar with the tradition of the hunt. When the moon comes close, the most blood-addled become beasts, and doors are closed for the night as hunters sweep the streets and slaughter their prey.
Gehrman was the first hunter, and the host of the Hunter's Dream, but we'll return to him later. What matters historically is that he inspired other hunters, some of whom followed his methods and some of whom diverged. The Healing Church had its own line of hunters, began by Ludwig, a necessity because as the most blood-addled citizens of all, clerics would turn into the most hideous beasts. It even began to create special blood gems for the task.
The hunt seems to have been a semi-regular occurrence, and accepted as such – a horrible side-effect of using blood, perhaps, but not quite enough to turn people off this miracle cure. The first time the scales tipped was when Yharnam itself was burned to the ground.
Known as Old Yharnam in the game's timeframe, the first Yharnam was afflicted with what was called 'ashen blood.' Everyone began to turn and the Church could find no cure, only mild delaying tactics. It sent in a splinter group of the hunters, the Powderkegs, known for their combustible problem-solving. The Powderkegs burned the town to cinders, stayed behind to slaughter any survivors, and in this horrific process either died or abandoned their hunter's vows. The Church, meanwhile, abandoned Old Yharnam to this fate, and sealed it off from the rest of the city.
This was a mere hint of what was to come. There is an interesting suggestion that the beasts began to overwhelm the hunters, because Ludwig started to recruit normal people to join the hunts – few of whom would survive the experience.
As this suggests, hunters have something that sets them apart from normal human beings. It is not simply fighting ability. It is the ability to absorb blood echoes, and so increase their power through the use of other beings' lifeblood. In a world where so many desire to become powerful enough that they may be the surrogate for a Great One's child, the implication is obvious.
The Hunters and the Heir
One of the Caryll runes, Heir, says: “Perhaps the 'Heir' is a hunter who bears the echoing will of those that went before him.” We've already touched on the idea of the Great Ones requiring a surrogate but what exactly does that mean? We know that every Great One loses its child and yearns for a surrogate, which implies that though these beings can impregnate humans the resulting child never survives long. This can be seen lategame when the prostitute Arianna gives birth, an event precipitated by the encroaching red moon, and the 'child' is briefly alive.
The frame of a human infant is incapable of containing or supporting a Great One's being. But despite the child's death the being's power still resides therein. And so the Great Ones and their knowing or unknowing followers strive to create a surrogate being powerful enough to play host.
This was the goal of the School of Mensis, a splinter of the Healing Church. Mensis may have been an individual, but the name also refers to the group as a collective, and they sought communion with Mergo, Queen Yharnam's child. This was achieved and they entered a nightmare – though the experience resulted in the “stillbirth of their brains.” In the Unseen Village the Mensis acolytes' withered corpses can be seen positioned at various points, with every one turned towards the moon.
The School of Mensis takes a ritual approach to creating a surrogate, believing basically that quantity equals power: so the more human blood, the better. This ritual, doubtless inspired by Laurence's insights, involved bringing the moon close and using bizarre antennae to blur the dimensions –
The School of Mensis had its own hunters, who kidnapped citizens for sacrifice, and in the Unseen Village these victims can be seen petrified as they tried to escape the ritual – men, women, children all.
The ritual killed all of them, left the braindead Mensis acolytes to rot, but also resulted in two things: the retrieval of a Great One, albeit a terribly rotten brain, and the creation in the Unseen Village of the One Reborn. The One Reborn, clearly a reference to the Formless One Oedon, is in fact nothing of the sort – it is a grotesque monster formed of body parts, kept whole only by blood and bell maidens.
After defeating this abomination the player can enter the Nightmare created by Mensis, and eventually meet the nightmare's host Micolash – clearly the most powerful acolyte. Though he uses the augur of Ebrietas, suggesting how close Mensis and the Choir are, it is an unusually easy fight – that ends in a surprising way when he laments that, following his death, he'll wake up. As we know from his body in the real world, Micolash won't be waking up anywhere.
Incidentally, the presence of the bell maidens here emphasises the importance of 'echoing' as a theme and explains the reasoning behind multiplayer. The original bells were discovered in the labyrinth and their chimes echo across worlds, allowing hunters to cross dimensions, albeit briefly, and aid each other in different dreams.
The Home Stretch
It is worth taking stock. At this point our hunter has entered the alternate dimension created by the School of Mensis, killed the host, and in the 'real world' destroyed their failed surrogate. From here the path leads to Mergo, child of Queen Yharnam and Oedon.
There is much to be said about the area itself, named Mergo's Loft, not least the presence of a giant brain lined with eyes that drives your character crazy, but for the sake of brevity we'll focus on Mergo itself. You do not hunt Mergo, who is seen in a cradle, but Mergo's Wet Nurse – a creature that scoops 'him' up. A wet nurse, incidentally, is specifically a woman who breastfeeds the child of another – this thing is how Mergo is sustained, and so when you kill it Mergo is also presumed dead. The game is not explicit about this but I presume this is because, having made a narrative where infanticide and stillbirth are big themes, From didn't want to go quite as far as having a boss fight where you kill a baby (and I for one am glad!)
After the apparent death of Mergo you return to the Hunter's Dream ablaze, and the first hunter Gehrman awaits you. He asks that you submit to him, and he will 'kill' you such that you awaken permanently from the dream into the 'real' Yharnam.
Or you can choose to fight. The setting for the final battle between the player and Gehrman is an unmistakeable visual echo of Metal Gear Solid 3's showdown between Naked Snake and the Boss. The latter battle is the ultimate expression of Kojima's idea that we are defined by our circumstances rather than our actions: and so the student must, against his will, murder his teacher. By re-using this setting Bloodborne is emphasising that, while we may have choice, the context has already decided what those choices will be.
You can be freed from the dream by submitting to Gehrman, or strike him down – at which point the nameless Moon Presence descends, embraces you and sucks away your blood echoes – placing you in Gehrman's role as the new protector of the dream.
But there is a third way, hinted at in the most oblique fashion.
There are four partial umbilical cords to be found in Bloodborne's world and, by finding and consuming three of them before defeating Gehrman, your hunter becomes too strong to be overwhelmed by the Moon Presence. In an easy boss fight, you strike it down – and seem to become some sort of small slug. As the achievement for doing so makes clear, this shows you becoming a Great One.
Your hunter has, through acquiring such power through blood echoes and such Insight through those that have come before, become a surrogate for a Great One's child.
The Great Ones come from a reality beyond mortal ken, and this is why the presiding mechanic of Bloodborne is Insight – only those with the perception to acknowledge there are things beyond human understanding can even see them, and the mere fact of this more often than not drives them mad. The Great Ones are not good or evil, they just don't care about humanity and will use our species to their own ends because to them we are as ants. What are the madman's skulls scattered throughout Yharnam? Note how the smoke whisps form sluglike shapes. They are the heads of hunters and scholars who, comprehending some aspect of the truth but unable to cope with it, lost their sanity. Your predecessors.
If Dark Souls' central theme is entropy, and our raging against the dying of the light, Bloodborne revolves around the nature of being alive in a wider sense – but only to emphasise what self-obsession and selfishness can lead to. The 'secret' ending may seem like a good thing, but even if so it is surely only a good thing for our hunter: Yharnam is screwed regardless.
At the core of every environment in the Souls games is ruin, whether that be the slow crumbling of time's friction or the conflagration and disease rampant in Yharnam, and this is because such worlds emphasise the insignificance of the individual. We are all our heroes in our own inner morality play but, in the grander scheme of our planet, nothing any of us do will last or matter: achieving immortality through one's works is an old conceit, and a powerful one, but a conceit is all it is.
It is clear that Miyazaki enjoys upsetting expectations, and one of the most common is that you should be able to 'win' in a video game. The Bloodborne community has already decided that certain endings are good or bad, falling into the same trap as the humans in the game did when they decided certain types of blood were good or bad. No action or thing is inherently moral, but we choose to label them as such. Such is the basis of society.
Yharnam was doomed from the moment it was founded, because it was built on a thirst for power. The game's title has multiple meanings. Bloodborne refers to a disease carried by the blood. Bloodborne hints at how the child of a Great One will eventually be given life through a surrogate. Bloodborne also refers to a society held aloft by its reliance on the Great Ones' blood, an intoxicating draught that was discovered all-too-late to be a parasitic poison. As Master Willem said to deaf ears: “fear the old blood.” And as he could have added, be careful what you wish for.