On Storytelling: Bloodborne

Words: 3718 Approximate Reading Time: 25-30 minutes

Spoiler Warning: Very obviously, this essay contains major spoilers for Bloodborne, including how to get its endings and what those endings are.

Since I haven’t done a thematic analysis of a game in quite a while, I wanted to step back into the process with an analysis of one of my favorite games.

All of the FromSoftware Souls games and similar hold some kind of special place in my heart, regardless of my personal like or dislike or criticisms of them. And of those, Bloodborne is my favorite. Not because I think it’s the genuine best of those games. I have some serious problems with its narrative, and I find the combat fun and engaging yet simultaneously lacking in much of the freedom offered by the standard Souls repertoire. Rather, I just love the setting of the game so much, and its frenzied and fast-paced combat system, that I can’t help but love it the most.

And Bloodborne invites a great deal of analysis because it is in some ways the most mysterious of the games. The elements of cosmic horror very naturally demand a level of “unknowability” to the atmosphere – it is our inability to truly comprehend cosmic horror that makes it so horrific. And so the attempts to pick the game and its characters and enemies apart and understand them is, to some extent, an exercise in futility. And yet, there is also something freeing about that: if we aren’t necessarily supposed to “understand” these horrors, then we don’t have to worry about being “right.” We can just try.

If the Souls games were known for their minimalist narratives, in favor of focusing on worldbuilding via lore and environmental storytelling and the like, Bloodborne takes this to another level. Its narrative is not wholly absent, but is very easily lost. In one way, that can be frustrating if what you want is to be told a story. Bloodborne has a story, but it does not really attempt to tell it to you, but instead wants you to seek it out.

In another way, it encapsulates a way in which so many people engage with the games – you don’t really need to worry about the story, you can just push forward and kill challenging (and weird) monsters.

From yet another perspective, Bloodborne’s narrative is a shining example of player-driven storytelling. You are plopped into a world with only the slightest of explanations, and it is your job to decide who you are and what you’re doing.

All of these can be true, and yet no one player needs to subscribe to all of them. Any game allows us to take from it what we wish. Generally what makes many of FromSoft’s games so appealing is that it is very open about that freedom.

But before diving too deeply into Bloodborne’s narrative, it’s probably best to introduce the basic theme I’ll be using to analyze that story.


Any story, and really any piece of media, should be recognized for its ability to change us. Sometimes just in the tiniest of ways. Sometimes by causing us to alter our entire sense of being. Stories hold a tremendous power over us, and recognizing that power involves a degree of acceptance.

Games are certainly not unique, but perhaps one unique aspect of them is how they directly train us. The fact that we are interacting with games requires that the games teach us how to play them. Hence, of course, the tutorials. But more than that are all sorts of little tricks that the games pull to get us to think about how the game works beyond what we are explicitly told. I am reminded of an essay by fellow blogger MeghanPlaysGames on level design in Elden Ring, which provides several examples of how the game lays traps for you. And these patterns are not mere happenstance – their purpose is to teach you how to play these games. The game is changing you in subtle ways, and perhaps those changes may carry over beyond Elden Ring once you stop playing.

We do not need to be aware of the transformation that occurs, because it occurs regardless. Instead, we can only become conscious of it, and then through that consciousness choose what to do. But even then we’ve already given in – to even recognize and accept or reject the transformation is to itself be transformed.

I bring this all up because Bloodborne is fundamentally about transformation. At all levels. There is transformation in the world. There is transformation among the characters. There is transformation in the player character. And then there is transformation for the player. They aren’t the same transformations. But what connects all of these things is the struggle to deal with transformation – the decision about what to do with it all.

The World

Let’s begin with the world itself and the transformation it undergoes throughout the game…and before the game.

Like many a FromSoft game, Bloodborne’s story does not actually begin with the game itself, but before. Because you enter the world well after everything has fallen apart. Most of Bloodborne takes place in the city of Yharnam. When you arrive, it has succumbed to a sort of illness which has turned many of its citizens into beasts. A handful of people remain, most trying to hide and stay alive.

But well before that stage, Yharnam is simply a normal city. The change occurs when members of a local university are digging out a series of old tombs beneath the city. Eventually they discover a substance referred to as “Old Blood.” This old blood comes from entities known as “Great Ones” – cosmic beings which are inspired by the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, which are both incredibly powerful and also wholly alien in appearance. Eventually the Great Ones will be revered as godlike beings because they are perceived as existing on a much higher plane than everyday humans. This blood provides those who use it a great deal of power, and it becomes a point of obsession for the scholars at the university.

The discovery of this old blood spurs on research into the world and human perception. This becomes the origins of the famous “eyes on the inside” line – by gaining insight into the world we can see things that were there before that we simply could not grasp. By doing so, we might then transcend into a higher state of being, transforming into a new species entirely. That study creates a series of schisms within the university, as there is disagreement about exactly how to go about this transformation. Again, a famous line from the game is “fear the old blood” (often repeated in the game’s marketing), suggesting that the process needs to be done carefully.

Regardless, as part of this schism one member of the university named Laurence decides to use the “old blood” for medicinal purposes. This blood has the miraculous power to heal people of various illnesses, and so Laurence goes on to form the Healing Church, which the player hears about throughout the game. But as “blood healing” becomes more prominent, it begins to have a side effect – people slowly start transforming into hideous beasts and attacking others.

This then necessitates the creation of a group to hunt down the beasts and protect the city. Enter the hunters, which the player becomes pretty much immediately. The hunters develop various weapons and techniques to bring down the beasts, but by participating in this hunt and using blood to keep themselves alive, they too wind up slowly succumbing to beasthood. Indeed, one of the first bosses you face is meant to show this fate and illustrate the futility of the hunters.

This brings you to the beginning of the game – beasts prowl the city streets, and you have become a hunter to seek out some kind of cure through the promise of blood healing (not knowing, at this time, what blood healing is).

As you continue throughout the game, you start to gain insight into the world. This is mechanically presented through the literal “insight” currency. You gain insight by consuming certain collectibles, and by seeing bosses and a handful of other events. As you gain more insight, the world changes. Some enemies change in subtle ways – the plain lantern originally held by some enemies is now covered with eyeballs. Perhaps the biggest change are the set of gigantic creatures (“Amygdalas”) hanging on various structures – these creatures are literally invisible, but present throughout the entire game, but after your perception has changed (whether through gaining enough insight or progressing enough through the game) you can see the unseen.

And with these shifts comes the transformation of the city itself. It is no longer a mere zoo, but a nightmarish landscape, populated by all sorts of weird creatures and being infiltrated by the Great Ones. The lines of the world become blurred as you transition between different layers of reality itself, to the point that it is difficult to tell what reality even is anymore. Which of course, is part of the point of cosmic horror – to leave you feeling uncertain of everything.

The Narrative

It’s all a dream.

Well, maybe.

That is one way that the game can end, though even then it’s unclear what “waking up” means.

As I said before, the narrative is fairly slim. Your character has gone to Yharnam for blood healing. We don’t know anything more. You are greeted by a strange character who first hints that what you experience may be nothing more than a bad dream, and then you awaken in an empty clinic. From there you simply progress onwards, fighting beast after beast after weird alien creature until you are killing gods.

Why are you doing any of this? Not just you as a character, but you as a player? All you have is an enigmatic message at the start that says “Seek the Pale Blood,” but even that message holds little meaning for your journey. What is the Pale Blood? How will you know when you’ve found it? What are you going to do with it? These questions aren’t answered, at least by the story itself.

And it doesn’t matter. As you journey through Yharnam, your story transforms. The reason you started does not remain the reason you keep going. I presented a similar concept when I analyzed Dark Souls II, showing that this was tied to the theme of forgetting. In Bloodborne, this same concept is being used to illustrate the change that your journey brings about within you. You may be driven by curiosity, or the need for a challenge, or a hope to solve a mystery, or a belief that you can save Yharnam. But none of those reasons have anything to do with “seeking the Pale Blood.”

By the end of the game, you have three options.

In your journey you have only a few friends, one of whom is the old hunter Gehrman, who hangs out in the dream workshop that serves as your home base. Gehrman basically welcomes you as a new hunter, tells you to go out and kill beasts, and mostly disappears for the rest of the game. It is not until the end that you really interact with him again.

At the end, Gehrman gives you an offer. You’ve succeeded! And now, he can kill you, and in doing so you’ll wake up from the dream. The hunt will be over. If you take this option, Gehrman does as he promises. Your character kneels, he chops off your head, and then you wake up in Yharnam as the sun rises.

If you refuse, then you have to fight Gehrman. And after you’ve defeated him, another Great One known as the Moon Presence comes down and grabs you. At this point, one of two things can happen.

For most players, the Moon Presence basically takes control of your character. You then become the new “Gehrman,” sitting in the old wheelchair and prepared to welcome the next new hunters.

If, however, you have located and consumed three “umbilical cords,” you will have gained a new power which will allow you to fight off the Moon Presence. You then have another boss fight, and then…you literally come a little squid-like creature. You have been reborn as a Great One.

The three endings all reveal some element of transformation and our acceptance of that transformation.

The “awakening” ending has to do with our outright rejection of that transformation. We have seen this new world and had this new experience, and we have decided we want nothing to do with it. We wish to be done with it, and any implications that it carries. The lingering questions of what the “dream” meant or whether we are actually in the “real world” are all ignored. The sun is rising – a symbol of hope – and we can feel good about our lives.

The “puppet” ending involves our partial acceptance of the transformation. We accept that this new world exists, but we have refused the implications of that acceptance. We foolishly believe that all we need to make it in this new world is our own strength and cunning. But we are still human, and with human comes frailty in the face of beings that are stronger. Hence, when the Moon Presence comes down, we are powerless to stop them. All we can do is become the caretaker for the same cycle of hunting – we have accepted the existence of the nightmare, but have not asked how we might put a stop to it.

It is the “squid baby” ending that demands our full acceptance of the transformation that the game has offered. The only way to end the nightmare is to end the Moon Presence itself. But to do so requires a degree of insight into the world which necessarily alters our very being. To truly defeat this Great One, we must in the end become a Great One. It is a transformation in the most literal of senses.

In thinking through the implications of these transformations imposed by the game and what we do with them, we are then faced with our own rebirths. Not anything nearly as drastic as becoming some kind of squid creature. But we are asked in some ways about the nature of reality and humanity itself – what could exist beyond our mind’s ability to grasp? could we as humans transcend into something greater? Those questions demand a level of dedication that themselves change us into something new. And we are asked if we wish to accept those questions and the changes that come with them – and whether we have the actual understanding to carry out those inquiries – or if we wish to ignore them and watch the sun rise on our blissful ignorance.


Of course, what discussion of theming would be complete without a discussion of the game as a game?

In a sense, most of these points are trivially obvious when we stop to think about them. For example, combat. Your primary attack is through a choice of “trick” weapons – swords, clubs, and so on that literally have multiple “modes” that you can switch between. In almost all cases these changes are alter the appearance of the weapon, its moveset, and also the size of the weapon (i.e. changing from being a medium and therefore moderate-paced weapon to a big, heavy, and slow-moving weapon).

Or we could look to the game world and enemies changing over time. From new enemies popping up during the different “phases” of the game. Or as mentioned before, the way in which some enemies are altered in their attacks or appearance depending on the degree of insight you have. And of course, the insight mechanic itself and its impact on how you see the world.

One thing I mentioned before is that there are these gigantic creatures hanging on to various buildings in Yharnam. They start out invisible, because your mind refuses to see them. But they are revealed in one of two ways. Firstly – and most commonly – by just progressing the game enough until they are visible. Secondly, by reaching a certain threshold of insight so that they become visible. Many of the changes to enemy attacks and appearances are based around this same mechanic – if you drop your insight below that threshold, those enemies will revert back.

The various subtle shifts here and there don’t alter the gameplay that much. Obviously the weapons switching between different modes is important, but it is also something that simply blends into the background of the gameplay. It’s just there. Meanwhile, the changes to the enemies as the game progresses or you gain more insight might be interesting, but the impacts are fairly minor when you break them down. Only a small handful of enemies are affected by this. Truly the only major impact is being able to see those gigantic creatures – which is a significant reveal, to be sure.

But these alterations still help us see various little ways in which the theme of transformation pops up in Bloodborne.

The Player and FromSoft

We would be making a mistake by talking about Bloodborne as though it exists in a vacuum.

The basic style of combat and exploration presented in Bloodborne still hearkens back to the style of the Dark Souls games. FromSoft as a developer is familiar with this style of game. And we as players are very likely familiar as well – many Bloodborne players are going in having already played at least one Souls game beforehand.

Which means the various changes to the game’s systems – the faster-paced and more aggressive combat systems, the change from shields to parrying as your primary defensive options, the setting and storytelling – are all part of a transformation as well. They are transformations for FromSoft and for us as players.

And with those new changes come a series of shifts for both the developer and the player. A series of shifts that live after Bloodborne is finished.

To this end, I want to bring up a video by YouTuber hbomberguy on Bloodborne. In that video he brings up some examples of how some people effectively “learned” to play the Souls games by way of playing Bloodborne. The impact of being forced to dodge teaches players to then play with more dodging in other games. Players who relied on shields in Dark Souls then learn to get rid of shields in favor of relying on their own situational awareness and the dodge mechanic, learning how to sense an enemy’s attack to avoid it rather than just having your shield raised at every moment.

This change is not unique to Bloodborne. There are plenty of games that can alter how you see other games, affecting your enjoyment of those other games. What Bloodborne is simply doing is drawing the player’s attention – subtly, of course – to this transformation. Truly, all games have the potential to impact you in a variety of ways, and it is how we understand and relate to those experiences that determine what the impact will be. When we accept what we’ve learned, our perception of gaming as a whole can change. Or we can reject that learning experience, keep playing the same way we’ve always played, and…well, it’s impossible to say for sure what happens next.

And of course, Bloodborne marks an important shift for FromSoft as a developer, too. FromSoft had developed numerous games before this, perhaps most notably the Armored Core series, which had enjoyed a pretty moderate success. Demon’s Souls and then Dark Souls afterwards are what propelled FromSoft into the popularity that it enjoys today. But of course, the trio of Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and Dark Souls II all form a kind of mesh that easily blends together. No matter how different those games may be, they feel fundamentally similar.

Bloodborne marks a major departure, even where so much stays the same. And in a way, it also marks a major change in how FromSoft decided to approach its own development process. It surely could have stayed with the Souls series and just continually pumped out more games. The number of people clamoring for a Dark Souls 4 is a testament to this fact. But that process can get dull and tiring after a while, and it would make sense for developers to want to try their hands at something different.

After Bloodborne, FromSoft would then go on to make Dark Souls III, which would then be followed up by two new intellectual properties: Sekiro and Elden Ring. Again, some very fundamental similarities, but also major differences. Bloodborne serves as a transformation for FromSoft away from the Souls games as its eternal golden goose and into new properties. While FromSoft could certainly keep making games within these existing properties for decades, it may well have decided to accept its transformation into a developer that aims to create new worlds and experiment with new mechanics and styles, rather than stick with the same style over and over again. Which is not to say that it will never again make a sequel, but just that the current trajectory suggests an intent to stay away from sequel after sequel after sequel.

Concluding Remarks

Bloodborne is a game that has in many ways eluded me for a long time. Because its narrative was so minimal to the point of being practically absent, it always felt tough to really wrap my head around. There has been a lot of great work by much more dedicated fans to pick apart the bits and pieces of lore and try to construct a coherent timeline of events.

But that confusion surrounding the narrative impacted my ability to see the game thematically. Without a clear storyline, it was tough to tell exactly what was going on under the surface – how do you see beneath a surface that is barely there?

And yet, that same absence can allow the player to see the game in a wider variety of ways. I’ve focused here on the idea of transformation, but we could examine Bloodborne through the lens of asking what is real, or through the lens of “sanity” and madness, or through the lens of what it means to be human. The story’s own emptiness allows it to be filled with all sorts of concepts – it is not a hollowness, but a possibility.

2 thoughts on “On Storytelling: Bloodborne

  1. Thanks for the shoutout! Similar to you, Bloodborne is easily one of my favourite FromSoft games, but I had to play through it multiple times to get a decent grasp on the story and what was actually going on. I found the multiple branches of the Church a bit confusing, and how the storyline after Rom’s boss fight progressed also used to lose me. I feel like I understand it slightly better now (especially with the extra content in the DLC) but I love viewing this game through the transformation lens. Also love that it touches upon that old Jurassic Park sentiment of “these people got so wrapped up in the fact that they COULD, they never stopped to wonder if they SHOULD.” Elevating humanity seems to mean a bunch of different things to the different groups in this game, but ultimately it’s not clear whether any of them are actually of any benefit to humanity (on a greater scale) at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m someone who never really had the time to sift through every bit of lore to piece things together, so hanging out on the Wikis or watching someone like VaatiVidya is often how I got a grasp of a lot of the nuance of the FromSoft games. And with Bloodborne that definitely feels particularly useful. You may well already be aware of it, but for this essay I definitely did some checking of “The Pale Blood Hunt,” which is an online essay that tries to break down the lore and explain the timeline of the game, to make sure I wasn’t off-base with my recollection.

      And indeed, I love the connection to Jurassic Park and the idea of whether any of these transformations are actually good. An entire analysis could probably be done just on the theme of humanity and transcendence within the game, and the potential problems with those ideals.

      Liked by 1 person

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