The following is an essay originally written and submitted for grading in November of 2015. Nothing has been changed.
Video games rarely deviate from traditional modes of storytelling. Contemporary video games tend to follow a cutscene-gameplay-cutscene method to deliver their stories, with the occasional, yet far less important, story being added during gameplay segments. These narrative devices are far from new or unique, but occasionally a video game will release that challenges storytelling in the medium. One such video game isFrom Software’s Bloodborne.Bloodborne is an offshoot of From Software’s Souls franchise, which pioneered the narrative devices and storytelling means found in Bloodborne, which uses player agency to tell its story.Bloodborne and the Souls franchise may be formulaic, but Bloodborne continues the Souls franchise’s narrative innovation in the medium of video games through its visual storytelling, which is, again, entirely reliant on player choice.
Few video games have acted on evolving the narrative devices and storytelling mechanics that exist in the medium. Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid franchise pioneered the narrative formula found in almost every video game since stories became part of the experience, which is gameplay, cutscene, repeat, but there has been little change since then. Bloodborne follows this formula, but at the same time makes it mean almost nothing to the player. For example, the introduction cutscene is viewed from the first-person, in which a decrepit old man is talking to, as well as performing a blood transfusion, on the player-character, whose eyes the player sees from. The old man talks to the player about “pale blood” and once the transfusion starts assures the player that, “Whatever happens… You may think it all a mere bad dream.” Once the player awakens, a wolf-like creature materializes from a pool of blood, only to be ignited in flames. Following this, small ghastly creatures climb onto the player, the screen fades to black, and the game begins in the room in which this cutscene takes place. Following the cutscene, players will, as video games have trained them for decades, attempt to make sense of the events, but will be unable to. The delivery of this cutscene is very typical of videogames, but the delivery in this instance is not important. What is important is the details of the event, which do not become clear to the player until much later in the game, if ever, as the narrative is only apparent to the most astute players. Bloodborne continues to provide cutscenes similar in nature to the player throughout the game. The cutscenes are seemingly unrelated to one another, and ultimately build up to nothing, if they are the only narrative followed by the player. This characteristic is what makes Bloodborne unique. The cutscenes, which have become a staple of video game narratives, are nothing more than an aid to the true narrative of the game hidden in the game’s menus.
Like all narratives, Bloodborne is open to interpretation, especially since what is on the surface seems so lacking. Bloodborne is one of the first video games that can be classified as a hypertext fiction. To understand the world of Yharnam, the world in which the player navigates, the descriptions of items must be read in the game. Different weapons will tell you about those that wielded them prior to the player. Armor sets detail which factions used them and why. Players must step outside of the game world, and into the menus of Bloodborne to begin to grasp what is happening in Yharnam. Bloodborne is not the first video game to make use of hypertext to enrich the world that the players explore, but it is the first to make the hypertext a necessity to fully understand the story. Upon reading item descriptions in the game players may finally start to piece together the manic narrative found in the game’s cutscenes. But upon doing this players will still find gaps present throughout Bloodborne’s narrative, and that is for good reason, as Bloodborne’s story is found in more than just cutscenes and the hypertext of item descriptions.
Bloodborne possesses a silent narrator that can only exist in video games. The world of Yharnam tells as much of Bloodborne’s story as any item description or cutscene. The reason it is said that this can only exist in video games is because of player agency. The player has direct control of the camera, and to a lesser degree, where they can or cannot go. In film the director chooses what the audience sees, in music the musician chooses what the audience hears, in literature the author chooses what the reader reads. Video games grant their audience unparalleled freedom. As the player progresses through Bloodborne they will come across notes that give insight to the characters mentioned in the hypertext and found in the cutscenes. The more astute players will also progress the narrative by paying careful attention to their surroundings. The buildings, locations, statues, and debris that litter the world of Yharnam serve as more than where the player currently is, as they fill in many of the gaps left from the hypertext and cutscenes. As previously mentioned, other works of fiction limit the audience to what the creator wants them to see. Bloodborne allows its players to see as much or as little as they’d like, which has a direct correlation with the presentation of the narrative, and this is what sets Bloodborne apart in video games narratives. This function is wholly unique to video games, and is due entirely to player agency.
Player agency as a narrative device is interesting within Bloodborne for a few particular reasons. Players have the choice to explore as much of Bloodborne’s narrative as they wish, as well as change it at times. The final gap in Bloodborne’s narrative is found in the game’s optional, somewhat hidden “Chalice Dungeons.” The Chalice Dungeons are dungeons that are not connected to the games main quest, but are necessary in understanding the game’s entire narrative. This play on agency can leave many players finding the games ending unsatisfying or incomplete, only to realize the optional side dungeons were crucial to the game’s narrative. On the subject of player agency and the game’s ending, Bloodborne presents the player with a choice at the end of the game. However, it should be noted that the player has many choices during the game that affect the narrative, including but not limiting to killing non-player characters or rescuing them. The final sequence of the game players have two choices: Submit their life or refuse. This is another play on player agency, as what the player chooses determines the outcome of the narrative, similar to that of a choose-your-own-adventure book.
Bloodborne relies on narrative devices that can only exist in video games to tell its story. The overarching theme that is prevalent throughout Bloodborne is agency. It is up to the players how much of the narrative they receive. Players decide if they read the hypertext, they decide if they explore the Chalice Dungeons, players decide how much of Yharnam they actually look at, and players even decide if they watch the cutscenes or not. Everything in Bloodborne is optional, but crucial. Like any good narrative, Bloodborne will require a few playthroughs to really understand and appreciate the narrative that is presented.
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