Bloodborne is not about the horror of knowledge, but the horror of unfettered knowledge.
Developer: From Software
Release date: 2015-03-24
Knowledge is a form of godhood and is used as a carrot: to control us, to control the world. Each revelation of truth brings us closer to godhood.
The story of Bloodborne begins with two men who tried to ascend to godhood and the destruction that is left in their wake. One of those men, Willem, tried to ascend through knowledge, and the other, Laurence, through blood. The path of knowledge ended in failure, and the path of blood ended in corruption, turning the citizens of Yharnam into beasts. This began The Hunt, nights during which dedicated Hunters would purge the city of these beasts. The city fell into ruin, and that ruination can be traced back to the arrogant ambitions of the two men.
In this way the game evokes classic Lovecraftian themes about the horror of knowledge, of seeking things that are beyond human comprehension. This is reflected in Bloodborne's mechanics, as well. We gain something called Insight when we see bosses for the first time or when we discover new areas, so it is something that we’ll naturally earn over the course of the game. It represents progress, how educated we are about the world. Insight should therefore be an undeniably positive thing, except that it also makes us weak to a very specific type of ailment: Frenzy.
Frenzy is mostly caused by supernatural enemies, creatures that are somehow related to the Great Ones, the elder gods of this world. The higher our Insight, the faster our Frenzy meter fills, and when it fills completely, it instantly takes 90 percent of our health (or some number in that vicinity). If our Insight is too high, some enemies can kill us by literally just looking at us. Our knowledge makes us more susceptible to this madness. The more that we learn, the heavier our burden becomes, and the more we risk shattering our mind.
Knowledge is clearly dangerous. It leads to madness, it leads to corruption, it leads to ruin, yet it’s also our central source of strength in the game.
Knowledge has always been power in the Souls games, and it's no different in Bloodborne. We explore a level, learning its layout, its nooks and crannies, its secrets, and most importantly, its enemies and their attack patterns. Foes that are at first intimidating, that scare us and then kill us, become mere cannon fodder once we learn how to move around them and stab them in the back. The same goes for the many bosses that we face. We fight, we die, and we come back to fight again, this time armed with a better sense of timing (No, you can't squeeze in another attack before he slashes your stomach open. Best to back away instead.).
Knowledge emboldens us. I walk through the game the first time I play it, always ready and watching for an ambush. I run during my second playthrough, stopping just long enough to kill that beast hiding around the corner before it has a chance to jump at me. I know it's coming, and I strike first.
Even Insight isn't as scary as it seems at first. Yes it makes us weaker to Frenzy, but it's also a currency that can be spent for items and equipment. It's as helpful as it's hurtful, if not more so. We gain Insight by seeing new things in the game, but spending Insight doesn't make us forget those things. Locations and bosses aren't suddenly locked away when we spend this currency, that knowledge remains within us. Spending Insight doesn't make us ignorant. It equips us and makes us stronger. Despite its danger, Insight provides us with a net benefit.
Bloodborne is not about the horror of knowledge, but the horror of unfettered knowledge. Willem wasn’t wrong in taking the path of knowledge to achieve transcendence, and in fact, he was even more right than he thought. According to a note that we find, Willem once said, “Evolution without courage will be the ruin of our race.” In other words, simply knowing something isn't dangerous. It's not understanding what we know that's dangerous. Insight is only hurtful when we let it accumulate, when we pursue this advancement of knowledge without understanding its consequences. Once we do understand its consequences, once we know how Insight affects the world around us, once we understand what it really is and what it really means and what we can do with it, then it can only help us.
Yharnam was destroyed because men toyed with knowledge that they didn't fully understand. As players, we can now look upon their work and interpret it. What do you see when you look upon the ruins of the city? The fallacy of science in the face of cosmic powers? Or the consequences of ambition unchecked by caution? A failure of knowledge or a failure of preparation?
The lessons we glean from Yharnam play into which of the three endings that we'll see. This connection isn't explicit. The actions and choices that the story to branch off in its final moments don't have any obvious connection to Yharnam, but those actions and choices are very much based on how much worth we place in the pursuit of knowledge. If we see that pursuit as futile, we can abandon it. If we see it as important, we can better our lot in life. If we see it as integral to existence, we can become a god.
But first, to understand each of these endings, we must also understand the Hunter’s Dream.
The Hunter’s Dream
Gehrman used to be in charge of the Hunt, but he was replaced as the times and politics of Yharnam changed. Without the Hunt, he had nothing. So, out of desperation to have a purpose, he called out to the Great Ones, and one of them answered. The Moon Presence, as it is called, created the Hunter's Dream for Gehrman, a place where Hunters are born and resurrected for a perpetual Hunt. Gehrman is our mentor here. It’s his domain. We’re just passing through.
Once we get far enough into the game to kill a certain other Great One (called Mergo’s Wet Nurse) Gehrman calls us out to a field of flowers to reward us for our service. He offers to kill us, therefore releasing us from the Dream and the endless Hunt.
Accepting this death gives us the most Lovecraftian of the three endings. Our final death here represents an acceptance of ignorance and our helplessness against the cosmic forces of the Great Ones. It's a confession of our small and pathetic place in the universe.
At this point in the game, we have inevitably encountered a couple Great Ones and some of their monstrous minions. We’ve seen the most surreal levels in the game, ones that take place in other Dreams or other dimensions, populated by eldritch horrors that can kill us at a glace (the Frenzy at work). These levels represent the edge of human understanding. To question them is to question to nature of their existence, which also extends to us and to our world. What is a dream, and what is real? Is anything real, or is it all a dream? Is anything a dream, or is it all real? To ask these questions is to ask to see the man behind the curtain, the man who controls everything, the god of this universe. But that would be going too far. That would be courting cosmic knowledge beyond human understanding. So, we end our journey here with a final death and lingering mysteries.
What’s interesting is that this death isn’t literal. Sure, we’re decapitated by Gehrman in the Dream, but then we wake up in Yharnam to watch the sun rise. We’re very much alive. Our death is metaphorical. It’s the death of knowledge and continued learning. We may be alive, but we’ll never know the truth of the Great Ones and the role that we played in their games.
This is not the ending that Bloodborne wants us to choose. This is a game defined by resurrection. We live. We die. We live again. To die is to learn, and to live is to put into practice what we learn. To accept death as the final solution is a powerful statement that we have nothing else to learn or that there's nothing else worth learning. We’d be rejecting the pattern that’s come before, a pattern that has resulted in progress and knowledge and strength. We’d be giving up learning anything more, believing either that we’ve reached the pinnacle of knowledge or that the knowledge left simply isn’t for us to know.
This death is the death of knowledge.
If we reject Gehrman’s offer, he fights us, and if we win that fight, we see the Moon Presence who has been manipulating both he and us from behind the scenes. The Great One appears in the sky, floating down to us like an angel, and embraces us in a gentle hug, holding its face to our chest like a parent.
It's not angry at us for killing the host of the Hunter’s Dream. We’ve displayed an ambition and a thirst for knowledge, but not transcendence. We didn’t seek godhood, we didn’t seek to become a Great One, and in that way, we’re humble in our ambition, seeking to learn all that we can without raising our status. We seek to be educated, but only to a certain degree. We still accept that some things are not for us to know.
The Moon Presence therefore accepts us as a suitable servant, and we take Gehrman’s place. We obeyed this Great One, unknowingly perhaps, but we still acted out its desires without seeking transcendence for ourselves, and so we’re rewarded with a seat at the right hand of a god. Or to put it another way, we become a prized puppet.
The truth is that Gerhman hated the Hunter’s Dream. It was his hell, and he longed for escape. The Dream is now our prison. Our ignorance of this truth becomes our enslavement.
“One Third of Umbilical Cord” is an item in Bloodborne. There are four in the game, and they are very well hidden, difficult to acquire items. To get the third ending, we must eat three of them.
This is very specific and esoteric knowledge, unlikely to be stumbled upon at random. This knowledge must be sought, either through purposeful experimentation or by the much simpler act of looking things up in a walkthrough. Either way is fair as far as the game is concerned. It’s not the difficulty of acquiring knowledge that matters, just our willingness to acquire that knowledge and our resolve to act on it.
If we eat the three umbilical cords (items that give us more Insight, appropriately enough) then the Moon Presence rejects us during its embrace. It wraps its arms around us and then jumps back as if struck. We gained too much knowledge, then acted on that knowledge, and it senses this. We’re not just here to replace Gerhman. We’re here to replace it. If we win, then we become a Great One. We become a god.
This is the real final fight, a culmination of our trial-and-error struggles. To put it in strictly gaming terms, the other endings allow you to finish the game, but this is the only ending in which you beat the game.
Power is Selfish
The Great Ones are considered godly creatures, yet we still kill several of them over the course of the game. We defeat these bosses like any other, so clearly it’s not their strength that makes them godly. Instead, many of them are presented as guardians of a greater knowledge, and that's where they get their power. For if knowledge is truly power, then one of the ways in which that power can be wielded is by denying it to others.
Rom, the Vacuous Spider, is described as "hid[ing] all manner of rituals, certain to reveal nothing, for true enlightenment need not be shared." Rom was once human, a scholar at the school of Byrgenwerth, and she achieved what so many in the game strive for: transcendence. She absorbed knowledge, and through that learning, became a Great One. She’s further proof that Willem had the right idea and that our quest for knowledge is not in vain, but she now protects the knowledge of transcendence. It gave her power, and now she keeps that power to herself. The Great Ones do not share knowledge. They do not help others.
Unless, however, they have “fallen.” Ebrietas, the Daughter of The Cosmos, is an optional boss that we find locked away in the highest parts of a grand church. According to the lore, she was discovered in an ancient labyrinth and is described as being “abandoned” and “left behind.” She is, in fact, the only Great One boss to be fought in the actual city of Yharnam. The others (Rom, the Moon Presence, the Amygdala, and Mergo’s Wet Nurse) are fought on other planes of existence, in nightmares, in Dreams. Ebrietas gave her knowledge to those who found her, thus creating and strengthening the Healing Church of Yharnam -- her knowledge used for political and social power -- and in return her founders locked her away at the top of their church. The altar room in which we fight her has no entrance or exit. She may have shared her knowledge, but inevitably, like Rom, her knowledge is hidden away. For no one wants to share power.
Note: There is another Great One boss called the Celestial Emissary that we fight in Yharnam, but I’m grouping this creature in with Ebritas considering it’s proximity to her and its title as emissary. It’s likely, or at least rational, that this creature was a go-between for Ebrietas and the Healing Church. It also gave knowledge, and its presence in Yharnam suggests that it, too, was “abandoned” and “left behind”, thus putting it in the same thematic boat as Ebrietas.
Bloodborne's Church Guard
The Amygdala isn't guarding knowledge in quite the same way, but it's very much a symbol of secrecy. These spider-like creatures hang off many buildings in Yharnam, but they remain invisible to us throughout much of the game. We first encounter one in a graveyard: A shiny item tempts us to a corner where a swirling vortex lifts us into the air, then throws us to the ground. It seems to be a very unfair trap, considering that it’s literally invisible, but if we gain 40 Insight or kill Rom, both actions that represent significant progress and gains in knowledge, then we see how obvious the trap really is. An Amygdala hangs off the church, staring down into the graveyard as if waiting for us. What was once mysterious becomes known.
Mergo's Wet Nurse is protecting, well, Mergo obviously (not like there are many infants in need of a monstrous wet nurse hanging out in these Dreams). The infant is likely the child of a Great One, a future recipient of knowledge passed down from parent to young celestial god-being. This makes the baby worthy of protection, hording knowledge for the future as well as in the present.
Finally, the Moon Presence is the final boss of the game, so it’s only appropriate that it’s also presented as the most knowledgeable of these bosses. In short, it knows what's really going on.
It's hard to pin down any concrete motivations for the Moon Presence, but one thing is clear. It wants to kill Mergo. When we kill the Wet Nurse, we can hear the cries of the infant fade away, and once the room is silent, we receive notice on the screen that the boss is dead. We might fight the Wet Nurse, but our target was Mergo.
Once the assassination is complete, we return to find the Hunter’s Dream on fire. This is when Gehrman offers to kill us. These images of death and fire suggest finality, as if our purpose and the purpose of the Hunter’s Dream have been fulfilled. This in turn suggests that our purpose was to kill the child. But this is likely a trick. If the Dream has really fulfilled its purpose, then it would cease to exist entirely, but as we know from the various endings, it will continue to exist with or without us. Thus, the Dream’s purpose is not yet fulfilled, but our purpose is.
We have been serving the Moon Presence since the beginning, even if we didn’t know it. In the beginning, we were propelled forward by curiosity, a thirst for knowledge just like Willem and Laurence had, but that thirst made us predictable and easily manipulated. Our service was always meant to be temporary for a servant who serves too long might learn too much, and an army of fools is more easily controlled. So we serve until our knowledge becomes a threat, and then we are killed. If the number of graves that surround the Hunter’s Dream are any indication, then this process has been going on for a very long time.
The Moon Presence has created a system in which it can use ignorant puppets to kill other Great Ones, a system that destroys outside knowledge. This is how it consolidates its power.
Knowledge doesn’t really lead to madness in Bloodborne, fear of knowledge does. To see the unknown and flee from it is to go mad, but to see the unknown and seek understanding is to gain power. Knowledge is dangerous only when wielded by those who don't know how to use it. It’s a weapon like any other, a curse and a blessing, something to be cautious of and something to desire. It is most certainly not something to be avoided because avoiding knowledge in Bloodborne means that you'll never truly beat the game.