Written by George Lea
Shifting gears completely for this installment, whereas the previous entry, Jason and the Argonaut’s Talos, dealt with a cinematic creature burned into my memory since childhoood, The One Reborn is a creature from an entirely different format and whose impression is so recent, I’m still in that wonderful state of trembling inspiration at how grotesquely beautiful it is.
Bloodborne is a recent video game from the now iconic From Sofware development studio; one that has carved out a name and reputation for itself with its brand of vicious, bleak fantasy action adventures, all of which emphasise particular elements of game design (for example, the games are deliberately and notoriously difficult; the point of them is to provide a genuine intellectual challenge for the player, each encounter having the quality of a puzzle that must be experienced and failed over and over until a solution is reached).
Alongside the Darksouls series, Bloodborne is something of a sister franchise; built around the same engine and basic mechanics, but with subtle differences in dynamic and profound differences in style, aesthetic and atmosphere (whereas the “souls” series is more bleak fantasy, consisting of realms that incorporate dragons and sorcerers and wicked kings, Bloodborne has more of a gothic horror ethos, incorporating a great deal of Lovecraftian metaphysics into the bargain). A violent, sprawling, horrendously macabre adventure, the game takes the player into the city of Yharnam and its surrounding environments; a city plagued by a blood borne disease that results in its residents losing their minds, their bodies distorting and mutating into increasingly horrendous and beastly states that it is the player’s purpose to hunt and put down. Throughout the adventure, the player uncovers a dense but subtly conveyed back mythology (much of which they must engage with and piece together themselves from symbolism and implication), as well as an enormous menagerie of the most exquisitely conceived, unpleasant, disturbing monstrosities ever seen in video games.
This, more than anything, is what sets Bloodborne apart from so many of its contemporaries: almost every encounter, from the most minor to the most significant and elaborate, is infused with a degree of narrative and character, not through leaden dialogue, exposition or reams of wearisome text, but through the subtle framing and positioning of enemies and encounters. For example, early on in the game, the player encounters a small mob of diseased Yharnamites patrolling the city’s streets, whom they can attack and engage immediately or follow to a central square, where they gather around the burning carcass of an immense werewolf; clearly the result of a recent kill, that they watch burn as though mesmerised, allowing the player to bait them away or attack them piecemeal. A little later, the player will encounter an immense, swollen and bandaged brute stood outside the door of a Yharnam household, muttering to itself, weeping and uttering what sound like snatches of nursery rhyme. Though it is never made overt, it is implied through the framing of the beast that it is perhaps the son or Father of the household, swollen with disease, drawn back to his own doorstep by some lingering memory or instinct. Later still, the player will spy from a high vantage point piles of what appear to be drowned and decayed corpses in the city’s sewer systems. Descending amongst them makes them stir Night of the Living Dead style and slowly creep towards the player en masse. Again, whilst nothing is made overt, it can be inferred that these are either victims of the disease that fell to their deaths here, animated by the very sickness infesting their broken frames, or that perhaps they were dumped here by former friends, family members or allies when they started to display symptoms of the sickness. The story telling within the game is phenomenally sophisticated, relying upon the player to engage with the world and to intuit what might be happening or where certain entities or encounters derive from.
This factor is emphasised to the Nth degree when it comes to the larger or “boss” style enemies, each of which is insanely beautiful, gloriously disturbing and framed in such a manner as to imply how it fits into the wider mythology.
The One Reborn is arguably the most sincere example of how elaborately grotesque and disturbing not only the creatures in this world are, but also of how nightmarish and macabre its metaphysics is: occurring somewhat later in the game, after the player has learned that the disease afflicting Yarnham is only one of the factors relating to its current dereliction; that the town is plagued by cults and factions in league with ancient, extra-dimensionl and semi-divine entities that may be partially responsible for the disease itself, The One Reborn is summoned into Yharnam by a coven of bell-ringing witches, whose distressing summons causes the swollen red moon to billow black, as though with diseased blood, an image of distant, alien stars and constellations momentarily becoming visible before some amorphous mass blots out the vision, a rain of seeping filth and diseased body-parts sloping from the darkness like some malformed animal in the throes of birth.
This fused together mass of rotting corpses is The One Reborn, a creature that has very little in the way of written or spoken background, but that is leant mythology by its framing, design and presentation.
Aesthetically speaking, the creature initially evokes simultaneous awe and disgust, its anatomy an asymetrical mess of fused together corpses, mismatched limbs, heads and various organs, their rough shape that of a great centaur, an immense torso atop the beast seeming to act as a controlling element, whilst the witches that acted as its midwives into the waking world constantly cast spells to invigorate the creature and hold its form together.
Given that the creature occurs at a point in the game when the player has learned about the influence of “Great Ones” in the setting (essentially extra-dimensional, Lovecraftian entities whose presence is more than a little toxic to the minds and bodies of the people of Yharnam and who seem to be acting according to their own ineffable agendas), but also the nature of the blood disease afflicting its denizens, not to mention the fact that it is called into being at the threshold of what was once a great college in the city (the College of Mensis) that sought to commune with The Great Ones and thereby transcend to higher states of being, it is fair to infer that The One is some abortive attempt to either call a Great One into the world or even create one; some failed, occult experiment on behalf of the college itself to transcend its humanity. Again, all of this is conjecture based on framing, symbolism and implication, which is how the narrative and mythology of the game work; very little is stated outright; there are no ponderous lumps of text or reams of expository dialogue; only vague clues and suggestions, many of them aesthetic or symbolic rather than written or spoken; a form of story telling that is genuinely interactive, in that it relies as much on player engagement and imagination as it does on any inherent development or detail.
This is a form of story telling that, whilst not unique to video games, is arguably most successful when deployed by the medium; in virtual arenas where the player has some degree of agency and choice over exploration; even the manner in which the story itself manifests. As an active participant and agent within the mythology, you have some say in how it is shaped and ultimately transpires.
Bloodborne acknowledges that factor of its medium and emphasises it; allowing the player to ultimately weave their own mythology and back story from the clues and visuals that the game provides. Therefore, each experience is unique; it becomes a part of the player’s own mythology and imaginative being; a phenomenally sophisticated form of story telling that is entirely welcome in these days of cinematic over-saturation and test-audience based editing.
The One Reborn embodies this arguably above and beyond any other entity in the game; a creature that drips and bleeds mythology, but without any outright statement or imposition of what that mythology consists of: from its occult and deeply distressing “birth” to its grotesquely decaying and diseased form to the sorcerous power it wields, The One is a creature that stories can and have been written about; that occupies a very particular place in most player’s personal canons (and certainly within mine).
Not only does its presence serve to swell the mythology surrounding Yharnam and its various ills, but also the state of threat the game operates under; with such vile entities being called into being in the city’s streets, the player is left with the feeling of a world unravelling at the seams; of a disease that afflicts not only flesh and biology, but reality itself.
That escalating sense of fever and madness is what lends the game its peculiarly oppressive but totally addictive atmosphere; it emulates on screen the state of a waking nightmare or schizophrenic hallucination; nothing feels quite solid or certain, yet ineluctable, whether physically real, some hideous nightmare or a state where such definitions mean very little.
One of the many theories advanced by its players is that the game is little more than a dream of one of the many mad Gods and vile divinities one encounters throughout. Seeing The One Reborn birthed into the world, flailing about in its own natal filth, one can easily believe that to be the case, but also that this is a nightmare where any distinction between it and waking are almost meaningless; a deranged fantasy that could easily seep beyond the parameters of its host mind and infect the sunlit world, reducing it to a semblance of the same kaleidoscopic Hell.
George Lea inhabits a state of being slightly removed from the standard that can occasionally be accessed via the UK Midlands (most notably the town of Tamworth). In between his work as a carer for people with mental disabilities, he spends time baking elaborate cakes and scribbling down the insanity that swills around inside his head. He’s of the opinion that if anyone got a good look at that stuff, it would be akin to when one of H.P. Lovecraft’s characters stares into the face of an Elder God. He’ currently involved with the photographer Nick Hardy in a joint project entitled “Born in Blood,” a collection of images and short fiction exploring psychological disease, on the heels of his last collection, Strange Playgrounds.