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Spoiler Warning: This essay is very obviously going to spoil key parts of the game’s narrative. I won’t necessarily urge a person to play Blasphemous, but I would at least recommend taking a look into the game and deciding whether you’d like to try the game for yourself before continuing.
I’ve been replaying a game called Blasphemous recently. It’s a 2019 game made by a Spanish developer called The Game Kitchen. The game is a Metroidvania, meaning that you navigate a character through a 2D world, exploring different zones, gathering powers, defeating bosses, and backtracking to open up new routes and find new items. It’s also commonly described as a soulslike, which…kinda maybe? Depending on how we define the term, it may or may not be reminiscent of a FromSoftware game in its design. Certainly its storytelling is – there is a focus on having very little direct narrative, and instead conveying the story through visual design and lore, allowing the player to get a broad sense of what is going on but hiding the deeper meaning from them.
Insofar as it is inspired by the various FromSoft games, I feel it’s one of the better titles to do so. Where so many games just try to rip off something like Dark Souls’s mechanical or narrative concepts without really bothering with doing something different or interesting, Blasphemous is a game that tries to be its own thing. I won’t say it’s a great game. There are definitely issues with it. If I were to recommend a Metroidvania that captures a sense of difficulty and mysterious storytelling, I’d choose Hollow Knight over Blasphemous. But nevertheless I find Blasphemous incredibly interesting, enough so that I am willing to push past those flaws.
Blasphemous has a theme built out of Catholicism. Or perhaps more specifically, built out of Catholic imagery. Basic concepts that people would at least be familiar with from the outside, such as the importance of a deity and miracles performed by various persons, the treatment of those persons as especially holy and worthy of respect (i.e. being revered as saints), the emphasis on guilt and atonement, etc.. These are things that many people who are not themselves Catholic but would know of Catholicism would identify as core components. It may well be that from an internal viewpoint – that of someone steeped in Catholicism – these trappings are merely superficial. I would argue that the superficiality is ultimately irrelevant. Blasphemous isn’t really about Catholicism per se. Insofar as the game is looking at religion, Catholicism is its lens because it is useful, not because it is the target.
The religious imagery, which is borrowed from and reminiscent of Catholicism without actually being Catholic, makes for a sort of haunting beauty. Twisted and grotesque creatures populate the world, whether they are humans undergoing rituals of penance or monsters created by divine punishment. The game’s emphasis on blood helps to sell this darker undertone – one of the first images in the game, after you kill your first boss, is of your character removing his helmet, filling it up with the blood gushing from the boss’s wounds, and then placing the helmet back on his head.
And so having played through it a while back, and upon revisiting it now, I began to ponder what the story was about. What is the major theme that Blasphemous is exploring, and what does it do in that exploration? I had originally been unsure, until starting yet another game, when it became rather clear.
To be guilty means a few different things. It’s perhaps best to separate guilt into two components. The first is “responsibility,” that is, the fact that someone is the cause of something. This is what we mean when we say that someone is “guilty of” hurting somebody else, or committing a crime. The second is an internal feeling of moral wrongness. This feeling may or may not be tied to a harm we’ve caused. Thus, we can feel guilty for hurting another person, or we can feel guilty for eating an extra piece of candy.
The idea of the second form of guilt is that we establish some set of rules for what we should not do, and then use the feeling of guilt to keep us in line. The “we” here is not specific: sometimes it is society as a whole that draws the lines (e.g. crimes and social mores), and sometimes it is us individually (e.g. following a diet). But whenever we cross those lines, we invoke this internal feeling that we have done something wrong, and thus punish ourselves for it.
The issue with guilt is that guilt is both helpful and harmful. Sometimes guilt can be a way to drive us to improve and become better: to recognize our moral failings. Sometimes guilt can be a way to merely make ourselves (or others) feel bad.
The problem is that in order for guilt to really work in a good way, you need an alignment of the two components. People should feel guilty when they do something wrong, and “doing something wrong” means they are actually responsible for something. When a person is responsible for harm but does not feel guilty, then generally they do not seek to improve. And when a person isn’t responsible but feels guilty, they are generally attacking themselves over…nothing.
So from a moral perspective, guilt is hard to deal with. It’s both good and bad, and getting everything in place requires a lot of care. It is ultimately a question of when people should feel guilty, and how much guilt they should feel. Which is tough to measure.
Which brings us to Blasphemous, which is fundamentally about guilt and the question about whether the guilt people feel is appropriate.
Let’s look at the premise of the game’s world before digging into the story itself. You are wandering around a somewhat fantastical world that otherwise would be reminiscent of an old European town. People live in this world for a long time, doing various things, but then one day things massively change.
A young man sits on a log, and begins to pray for a divine punishment in recompense for some evil that he has done. The evil is never known nor specified, but the man prays nonetheless. And after some time, the log he sat on began sprouting roots that twisted the man’s arms and legs. It was the first time anyone had seen such a strange thing happen, and the phenomenon was referred to as “the Miracle.” The man himself ultimately expired, but is referred to as either the Father or as the Twisted One, and his final words are remembered as “My Great Guilt.”
From there, the Miracle basically becomes an embodiment of punishment, visiting strange cruelties upon people. Although sometimes people are uncertain what they are being punished for. And people pray to the Miracle, wishing for punishment in recompense for their sins. Indeed, the opening cinematic to the game is a woman pounding herself in the chest with a statue of the Twisted One, asking for pain because of her guilt. After several attempts, the statue transforms into a sword, stabbing her through the chest. This helps give you a sense of how the Miracle works.
The key to understanding the Miracle is that it isn’t really a thing that you see, so much as something that is always referenced. It effectively is a presence that can do things here and there, but is not an enemy you fight.
But also key is that the Miracle is responsible for observing the people and, in a way, keeping them in check. Those presumably who are not devout enough, or who do something wrong, are punished. People also pray to the Miracle, but in doing so are usually visited with something horrific. The Miracle’s blessings generally seem to be as bad as its curses.
There are a lot of little things going on in the lore, but I don’t want to go too deep into that. Instead, this should provide a sort of basic working knowledge for how the game’s world works.
The story follows a character named the Penitent One. Note already that “penitence” is related to the concept of guilt: one undergoes penance for some wrong that they have committed.
The Penitent One’s mission is to use the sword described earlier – named Mea Culpa (Latin for “through my fault”) – to kill the holy figure of the land (essentially, kill the game’s pope). The Penitent One remains silent throughout the entire journey, and so you learn about the world through your encounters with other characters.
The basic idea is that the Penitent One’s mission is itself a transgression against the Miracle. Although even that bit is unclear: sometimes there is a suggestion that the Penitent One’s journey is itself an act of atonement. The original ending to the game was especially uncertain: the Penitent One ascends a giant mountain of ash to sit upon a throne. After doing so, he plunges his sword into his chest, and his body transforms into bark. He is worshipped and paraded around almost like a saint, until eventually another character (a boss from earlier in the game) removes the sword.
It’s not until the most recent update to the game, which added an ending, that we get a better idea of what might be going on. The Penitent One is attempting to end the connection between the world and the actual gods of the realm, known as the High Wills. The High Wills were the ones who created the Miracle, and so of course any issues with the world are ultimately their fault.
The new ending to the game essentially involves killing those gods, thus eliminating the Miracle from the world and freeing the people. Although even this victory is presumably short-lived, since the after credits scene suggests that something is coming to take its place.
But the basic narrative, and especially the new ending, suggest that the game is about overcoming guilt.
That is, we can see the Miracle as a manifestation of guilt itself, in both senses. It not only decides that people are responsible and punishes them, but it also serves as a conduit for people to reflect on their own actions and feel at fault.
The problem, though, is that the Miracle seems to be both cruel and capricious. One of the first characters you meet, a medic named Tirso, will mention that he and the people of his village live at the mercy of the Miracle. That is, they live because the Miracle allows them to, not because the Miracle thinks they deserve to live. Likewise, you’ll encounter other characters who will reference how they are being punished, but don’t know why. They will profess that there must be something that they did wrong, but won’t be able to point to anything that justifies the punishment they are receiving.
These are not supposed to be taken as “good things.” The Miracle is praised and worshipped, and yet it seems to be based mostly on fear. And that fear is a fear not for righteous vengeance because people have done something wrong, but because the Miracle has taken notice of them. This all means that the people of the world can have something horrible visited upon them for any reason at any moment.
The premise, then, of overcoming the Miracle and especially of killing the High Wills is to suggest that people should not live this way. Guilt is not something that should be determined entirely and at the whim of some other power. Because that power is unreliable: it can judge incorrectly, it can go too far in its judgment, it can fail to accomplish the goals of guilt.
If guilt is going to work properly, it needs to begin from oneself. We must be the starting point for determining when guilt is appropriate, how guilty we should feel, and importantly, when we should stop feeling guilty.
The premise feeds back into broader ideas of taking control of one’s own fate. It’s a fairly common idea in the face of religious or metaphysical concepts, such as gods or destiny or what have you. But we can even attune this concept to things like social institutions. Society can err in various ways. We need to be careful how much trust we put in these institutions to “get it right,” as we are continually handing all of these social and political institutions a lot of power to essentially dictate when we should feel good or bad for our actions. While we cannot ignore these institutions – just as others can be mistaken, we can be mistaken as well – we cannot give everything over to them, either.
It may seem like ending here is a bit premature. What about all of the other aspects to the game, like its exploration or gameplay or characters? Well, I don’t think those other aspects do as much to sell this theme of guilt. While the story and lore and dialogue really push home the concept of guilt and continually remind the player of the theme, everything else is a bit…disjointed. Not in the sense that those components are bad, just that they don’t really do as much to communicate the theme of guilt. You never really fight enemies that make you feel guilty for killing them. You don’t ever feel guilty for exploring the world. Perhaps a few of the side quests that can be completed or missed might make you feel guilty for making something happen or missing something…but those feelings would be too few and too ephemeral to really drive home the theme.
Nevertheless, the core theme of guilt is still interesting as it is explored in Blasphemous. Themes can be communicated and explored in a wide variety of ways. And while ideally you want a piece of media to make complete use of its functions – for a novel to make full use of what the written word can do; for a movie to make full use of visuals and sound; for a video game to make full use of interaction – you can still explore themes merely through the basic tools of storytelling common to all media.
And I find the theme of guilt extremely compelling as a moral theorist. The complexities of guilt – when we should and should not feel it, when other people do something wrong by trying to make us feel guilt, when we should be forgiven or forgive ourselves – all of these questions and more are core problems of moral philosophy.