Bloodborne and the Beast Within

By Sean McGeady on at

“Beasts all over the shop,” says Gascoigne. “You’ll be one of them, sooner or later…”

The idea that within us all lives a beast capable of terrific violence reigns supreme in popular culture. Sigmund Freud saw human existence as a battle between man’s instincts, his id, and his civilised inhibitions, his super-ego. Carl Jung, meanwhile, spoke of a sickness lurking in our unconscious. “Everyone carries a shadow,” he said, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”

Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, in which a well-to-do doctor battles his inner evil, is perhaps the most influential exploration of this concept in fiction. The conflict appears in many more modern examples of horrific fiction too. In James Herbert’s 1975 novel The Fog, for example, the titular haze turns those that come into contact with it insane, unleashing their inner animal. According to Joseph Grixti, author of Terrors of Uncertainty – a book that tries to parse varying notions of the “beast within” – Herbert presents “raw emotion” as lying “at the root of destructive violence” and that “people cease being human when this ‘raw emotion’ controls their actions without restraint.”

The struggle, then, between sin and civility is well established. In fact, Stephen King calls it the “cornerstone of Christianity”. In his 1981 horror dissection Danse Macabre, King ruminates on the appeal and functions of the genre. “Horror appeals to us,” he says, because “it offers us a chance to exercise (that’s right; not exorcise but exercise) emotions which society demands we keep closely at hand.”

The prevailing idea, then, is that engaging with horrific fiction is a form of self-therapy and allows us to release our repressed aggressions in a secure environment, lest they be unleashed in the real world. King has another, more sanguine explanation. “I like to see the most aggressive [horror movies],” he says, “as lifting a trapdoor in the civilised forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath.” Video games, like film and literature, can help us feed those alligators. Unlike other mediums, however, games also give us agency over them.

Directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki and developed under the working title Project Beast, Bloodborne is a heady cocktail of thrilling combat and oblique myth. But beneath its video-game tropes and Victorian Gothic sensibilities lies a delicious meta-narrative about catharsis, horrific violence and horror itself. Miyazaki’s masterpiece is a veritable buffet for the alligators inside.

We begin in Yharnam, a once-proud city built on a terrible secret. The metropolis – inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic novel Dracula – rose to prominence on the back of a fateful discovery: the old blood, the blood of beings that, in the tradition of HP Lovecraft, are immeasurably more powerful than ourselves. A church was founded on the basis of this gift from the gods. The blood was marketed as a sacred remedy for all ills and people came from far and wide to partake in blood ministration. But something went wrong. The blood was the root of a scourge that swept Yharnam’s streets, turning imbibers into beasts.

In an effort to counter the beastly threat, Yharnam’s rabble must rise and let loose their worst instincts. But they tread a dangerous line and as huntsmen stalk the streets it becomes clear that something is not right. The lynchers look no less beastly than their prey. Hyde has overpowered Jekyll.

According to American philosopher William James, primitive man’s survival depended on his duality and ability to commit violent acts when triggered. Our survival in Yharnam depends on this too and as we wade into the melee Bloodborne’s gameplay loop quickly reveals itself: eviscerate enemies, gain experience points, upgrade abilities, repeat. But in Bloodborne experience points are more than just numbers. In this world our currency is blood.

Each enemy slain rewards us with a small cache of Blood Echoes, which can be used to upgrade our abilities. Without Blood Echoes we cannot get stronger, so we have to keep engaging in horrific violence. Blood – and the cruelty we must mete out to get it – becomes an addiction. This idea of blood as a stimulant trickles through the game’s mechanics and narrative. The Pungent Blood Cocktail is an item that can be used to distract enemies – throw it and beasts will be attracted by its scent. Its descriptions tells us that in Yharnam “they produce more blood than alcohol, as the former is the more intoxicating.” The Eye of a Blood-Drunk Hunter item, meanwhile, says that going drunk with blood and succumbing to our beastly urges “is a fate that no Hunter can escape”. Remember, it was a want for blood that turned the people of Yharnam into beasts. So it has us too.

But in Bloodborne our beasthood is not just symbolic – it is a physical state that can be switched on and off. Beasthood can be triggered through the consumption of a Beast Blood Pellet. Its delightful description reads, “Ripping apart the flesh of one’s enemies and being rained upon by their splattering blood invigorates one’s sense of beasthood, feeding strength and euphoric feeling alike.” It’s a clear message: in Bloodborne’s world, unleashing our inner beast is a rapturous occasion.

The Beast Blood Pellet, however, only grants a spurt of Beasthood. To enjoy a continual state of euphoria, the Hunter must equip the Beast Claw. As its description informs us, as we flay the flesh of our enemies “the beast within awakens, and in time, the wielder of this weapon surges with both strength and feverish reverie.” The philosophical ideals that make up Bloodborne’s vision of beasthood align with those of Freud, Jung and James: the beast lives within all men, ready to be reawakened.

Father Gascoigne knows this all too well. A man of the cloth, Gascoigne came to Yharnam from a foreign land and became a hunter before succumbing to bloodlust and slipping into beasthood. Gascoigne is a tragic-werewolf figure in the mould popularised by 1941 film The Wolf-Man. When the central figures in such stories are overcome by “raw emotion”, they cease to be human and cause harm to those closest to them. Gascoigne is no exception.

In Freud’s 1919 essay The Uncanny, he talks of “residues and traces” of the “animistic stage in primitive man” that are able to manifest themselves in us. In Bloodborne we can wield these residues as a weapon by wilfully entering into Beasthood. Gascoigne, however, is stripped of that control. His animistic traces manifest themselves unpredictably and the only way to coax him back to humanity is through the use of an object of deep sentiment: a small music box that plays a tune shared by him and his wife. Music soothes the savage beast. On this night, though, Gascoigne’s wife Viola left the trinket at home when she went looking for him – a mistake that cost her her life. If we find the item, however, and use it during our fight with Gascoigne, he is momentarily stunned by its song. But even with this advantage, Gascoigne proves tough to beat. We will almost certainly be slaughtered in the process and, when we are, Gascoigne makes it clear that he recognises the potential for depravity within us too. “Too proud to show your true face, eh?”

Perhaps Bloodborne’s clearest example of man’s propensity for horrific violence comes not from one man but from two. Willem and Laurence are two of Yharnam’s most important figures and can be seen as two parts of the same whole, a perfect manifestation of the Jekyll-Hyde polarity.

Willem is the head of a prestigious college whose expeditions led to the discovery of the Great Ones and the old blood. The revelation split the college. Laurence looked to transcend humanity by transfusing the blood into human hosts. Willem, meanwhile, warned of its dangers and instead sought to bring about human evolution by elevating the mind to a godly plane.

The characters’ divergent paths led to apt fates. When we meet Willem he is practically comatose, rendered mute and immobile by his hard search for truth. Laurence’s obsession with blood, meanwhile, doomed Yharnam and led to him becoming the first cleric beast. Willem is the super-ego; he is Apollo, rational, logical and pure. Laurence is the id; he is Dionysus, chaotic, emotional and ruled by instinct. In Danse Macabre King says that if you try to take the Apollonian and the Dionysian theory “any further than the mythic, you come damn close to splitting the body and mind altogether.” Willem and Laurence are that schism, one of the mind, another of the flesh. This narrative rift is even reinforced by Bloodborne’s mechanics: the higher our Hunter’s Insight, the lower their Beasthood. Man cannot exist as both a wizened scholar and a crazed beast.

The player finally gets the opportunity to go beast-to-beast with Laurence in The Old Hunters DLC. Slaying him rewards the player with the Beastly Embrace rune, his possession of which is telling – Laurence is the alpha. Equipping the rune lends our Hunter a more beastly appearance and, when paired with the Beast Claw, bestows on us new, more feral attacks and even alters our animation, leaving our Hunter hunched like a hungry canine. This is as close to the beast as the player can get. In Bloodborne we get to exercise our base emotions in a way that most horrific texts, video games included, don’t offer: we get to play not just as a hunter but as a wolf. In his 495 play Asinaria, Roman playwright Plautus wrote, “Man is no man, but a wolf, to a stranger” – and our Hunter is quite new to Yharnam; he doesn’t know many names yet.

From our first steps in Bloodborne, our Hunter is assailed by cries from the Yharnamite huntsmen. “Foul beast!” they shout. “Away, away!” They knew it from the start. In Bloodborne Miyazaki has built a playground in which we can let our inner beast off its leash. To survive the player must tap into primitive man’s capacity for violence again and again and again. The repetition at the game’s heart – kill, upgrade, kill – can be read as a comment on our unending need for bloodshed and horror, the ceaseless hunger of the beast within and the importance of feeding it.

Of course, all good things come to a close – and Bloodborne’s finale is particularly sweet. But why let it end there? New Game Plus lets the hunt continue unabridged, giving us a limitless opportunity to exercise our bestial nature. The ever-benevolent Miyazaki has gifted us an endless basket of meat with which to chum that subterranean river. But why feed the alligators at all? King puts it best. “Because it keeps them from getting out, man. It keeps them down there and me up here.”