Frankenstein and the anatomy of story in Bloodborne

From the moment the giant, snarling werewolf emerges from the floor, you can see where From Software’s Bloodborne takes its inspiration.

The game’s first half is straight out of Bram Stoker’s imagination. The player must ingest vials of blood in order to heal themselves. Visiting Castle Cainhurst – with its crumbling statues, bat-winged monsters, and bloodsucking covenant of Vilebloods – feels like the Count himself is lurking around every corner. Even the rarely seen Queen Yharnam bears remarkable resemblance to the Lucy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Later, the game’s Lovecraftian sensibilities begin to emerge. DLC The Old Hunters plays out a version of The Shadow Over Innsmouth featuring a cast of crazed villagers, an orphaned god, and those goddamn shark giants.

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These are the obvious influences, having provoked endless discussion on forums, inspired fan art, and created a new legion of Stoker and Lovecraft readers. Yet it seems that the influence of one particular text has been overlooked. Frankenstein might not manifest as overtly as Stoker’s bloodthirsty beasts and Lovecraft’s cephalopodic gods, but taking a closer look at some of the game’s more subtle storytelling elements, it seems there might be more than a trace of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece haunting Hidetaka Myazaki’s most disturbing and complex game.

“Do the gods love their creations?”

The theme of reproductive anxiety is a common thread found throughout Frankenstein’s critical history. For readers aware of the novel’s context, the tale reflects Shelley’s memories of losing her own young children. Victor Frankenstein’s desire to create life is, for many critics, a form of “male womb envy”. The toll his scientific work takes on his health recalls that experienced during pregnancy, and his work is often conveyed through the language of conception (“the consummation of my labour”). The creature’s referral to Victor as “my creator”, among other things, portrays Victor as a father refusing to take responsibility for “the spark of existence […] so wantonly bestowed!”

The wider story of Bloodborne often evokes these same parental apprehensions. The game is populated with characters and creatures driven by a yearning for either children or parents of their own. According to the item description for a strange umbilical cord, “every Great One loses its child, and then yearns for a surrogate.” A lonely child asks you to find her mother, a quest leading to the aptly named boss Father Gascoigne. In a dark parody of the Immaculate Conception, several female characters become mysteriously pregnant as the game progresses, supposedly at the hands of the Great One Oedon. The eerie and terrifying Moon Presence takes on a maternal role in relation to Gehrman, determined to preserve her control over him and the player in spite of the damage wrought by her Hunter’s Dream. The Orphan of Kos comes writhing from his mother’s corpse, weeping as he lashes out at the player like a furious child (notably recalling Frankenstein’s unending grief at the loss of his mother, which spurs on his experiments). In each case, the parent-child relationship is distorted, largely by the existential disparity between the parent and their offspring. And as the game progresses one gets the sense, the horrible, ghoulish sense, that the blood on which your survival is dependent, might in fact be menstrual blood.

Here, one can’t help but think of Frankenstein and his longing to create life entirely of his own volition. Both stories feature the idea of conception divorced from its sexual component, attempting to explore what happens when the act of creation becomes no more than an expression of raw power devoid of emotional attachment or responsibility. Like Frankenstein, this aspect of Bloodborne seems to deify the ability to produce life even as it expresses horror at the possible outcome.

“Fear the Old Blood…”

Starting Bloodborne, it isn’t truly clear what the player is trying to accomplish. Much of the first half is spent uncovering the secrets of Yharnam and its sinister Healing Church, and trying to figure out what the game wants you to do next.

Thus Bloodborne masterfully puts the player in their avatar’s shoes. Both are on a quest for knowledge, to discover what Yharnam and its inhabitants are really about. Much like Frankenstein’s abandoned creature, the player quite literally wakes up on the operating table, emerging from a dormant state with no knowledge about this new world. In Bloodborne you can learn only through exploration, action, and listening in through people’s windows, just like Frankenstein’s monster: forever on the outside looking in, knowing you’re missing something but not quite knowing what it is. You are a composite being, made up of the choices you make and the horrors you encounter.

A striking similarity between these stories is the way they gender the hunt for forbidden knowledge. Many of the game’s male characters recall aspects of Victor Frankenstein and other Faustian heroes. Laurence who founded the Healing Church on the previously forbidden consumption of the Old Blood; Micolash, whose desire to commune with the Great Ones leads to the slaughter of an entire city; and Willem, whose teachings at Byrgenwerth College fuel the ambitions of both his students. Walking through the Lecture Halls later in the game, it takes little effort to envisage these as the rooms where Frankenstein first conceived his visions of divine creation. Micolash, Willem, Laurence, and Victor are all characters who attempt to forge their own path towards godhood. In the (almost) deserted Lecture Halls of Byrgenwerth College, the player, too, finds themselves following in their predecessor’s footsteps.

Simultaneously, the most significant moments of discovery in the game are preceded by confrontations with female figures. Rom concealing the Blood Moon, Lady Maria’s attempt to bar you from the horrors of the Fishing Hamlet, the Moon Presence’s control over the Dream. Just like in Shelley’s novel – when Justine’s conviction overshadows the truth about William’s death, when Victor destroys the unborn female monster rather than come to know her true nature, when nature herself is “pursued to her hiding places” so Victor may achieve his goals – the knowledge is characterised as masculine, the concealing, “forbidden” component is feminised. And just like Victor, as the player progresses and gains “Insight”, they may discover that an excess of knowledge can perhaps do more harm than good…

“Only an honest death will cure you now.”

Who’s the real villain of Bloodborne? Is it Laurence, the Vicar who did not fear the Old Blood? Micolash, for the destruction wrought by his ambition? Or Gehrman, the misguided child who fathered the Hunter’s Dream?

None of these answers are wrong, but alone, none of them can paint the full picture. Because even though Laurence, Micolash, and Gehrman pave the way, it’s the player who wreaks the most destruction in-game. It’s the player character who kills simply because they wish to advance their position, because they want to know more about the world they inhabit, because that is what is demanded in order to beat the game. Confronting the hunter Djura reminds the player that the beasts they hunt were once human beings. Killing the boss Ebrietas seems like the next task when you reach her, yet her unnecessary death yields little more than a game trophy.

Like Victor and the creature, it’s the player who begins as the villain of their story: the inquisitive, self-interested hero whose lofty ambitions carry them to the edge of humanity itself. Only by making certain choices might they liberate themselves from the nightmare they’ve uncovered. In a final echo of Frankenstein and his “abortive creation”, it seems the thing standing between the protagonist and salvation might just be death itself. And what is death, in stories such as these, but merely a different kind of birth?

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