Sunday, September 3, 2017

Bloodborne and the Context of a Scare

One of the most prominent tropes in modern horror flicks is the jump-scare. Every horror movie now, it seems, attempts to have a jump-scare in one way or another. Perhaps it’s meant to jolt the audience into being awake, and being alert; or, perhaps, it’s meant as a momentary beat of pure fascination and horror at what was just seen, and not being able to comprehend it. Quite the opposite of a jump-scare is a long, winding bit of tension. Perhaps a long pan down a hallway, creeping and creeping toward something. It’s Danny riding his bike in The Shining; it’s the truck from Jeepers Creepers tailing our two young heroes. But without context, both of these elements fall flat. Something jumping out for no reason is senseless, and a long bit of nothing can be just that: nothing. The context behind a scare is often more important than the scare itself.

 Bloodborne, a 2015 survival horror game created by Hidetaka Miyazaki and produced by the now-famous From Software, exemplifies almost to a pitch-perfect degree how to get a scare right, and not often a conventional scare. It’s not the most terrifying imagery or the most horrifying sounds, but it’s the meaning behind why we’re scared, why what we’re seeing is just so scary. It’s the difference between some seemingly random person coming to kill you and your best friend coming to kill you.

One of the reasons that Bloodborne works as effectively as it does is that it is, indeed, a survival horror game. Jim Sterling, of the Jimquisition, highlighted several reasons why Bloodborne works as a survival horror game, and to go even further, why it’s one of the best survival horror games we’ve seen in a while (check out that video here). The Player is in a perilous journey through Yharnam, a beast-ridden city on the brink of total annihilation in a Victorian time period. However, all is not as it seems, and the Player must fight their way through wave after wave of mystery while uncovering the secrets of Yharnam and survive the night to live another day.

The scares of Bloodborne come from realization: the realization that what we thought this game was isn’t at all what it really is. In a clever move, the game plays to more modern horror tropes and monsters early on, to let players get comfortable. It’s men turning into beasts, it’s finding a giant werewolf at the bottom of a pit, it’s insane villagers swinging pitchforks at you. It’s all been seen, and up until we reach either the Forbidden Woods area or find our way to the Lecture Building (First Floor), it’s not scary.

The Witch of Hemwick is creepy to look at, but not entirely scary. The Cleric Beast is a giant monster—not scary. But the second you’re in the Forbidden Woods and people’s heads explode into snakes?

Um. Excuse me?

Subversion of ideas and the unsettling atmosphere of change permeates the second half of Bloodborne and makes it a petrifying experience. Yes, there are some scares that we don’t see coming, such as enemies hiding around a corner or enemies dive-bombing from the shadow of a ceiling. But what’s key about most of these enemies is that they are, for the most part, unlike anything we’ve seen before.

If we head down the path from the Grand Cathedral—away from Vicar Amelia, and head to the right we eventually find a small corridor and an opening where we can eventually meet up with Alfred. However, before that, we encounter, for the first time, a Brainsucker, a creature with a squid-like face that sucks Insight from the Player by draining it from their face. It’s completely unlike anything we’ve seen before.

To explain why this reveal, and by extension this battle, works we must first discuss the difference between horror and terror. Terror, as defined by Ann Radcliffe, is more along the lines of obscurity, or indeterminacy over potentially horrifying events; horror, then, is the climax. It’s the gore, it’s the monster. Devandra Varma equates it to smelling the rotting corpse, and then stumbling across it. Terror is the petrifying fear of what’s at the end of the hall, and horror is seeing it come right at you.

The first reveal of the Brainsucker works so well because it’s both terrifying and horrifying. It’s terrifying in our utter inability to comprehend just what the hell we’re looking at. It’s not a beast, it’s certainly not a Hunter, and before we know it, the thing is sucking away at our brain and all we can do is mash buttons to try and break away. The monster isn’t scary because it just leaps out at you. If we’d seen that thing before it wouldn’t be too scary. But the fact that we’ve never encountered it?

This works best if we journey into the backdoor of Iosefka’s Clinic from the Forbidden Woods, one of the hardest places to find but it is so worth the payoff. In terms of an actual area this might be the one that I considered the scariest in the game. It relies solely on whatever it is we could find, based on our previous assumptions of what we’ve seen in the clinic before: a giant beast-like werewolf munching on some corpse (possibly the true Iosefka).

The building is dark, quiet. Our footsteps echo while the wood paneling squeaks beneath us. The Player activates their torch, maybe their Hand Lantern, and when we turn to the left (or right) we hear pitter-pattering. We’re not alone. But that’s probably Iosefka coming to greet us, or perhaps it’s one of the people we sent here! Bear in mind, this place is a safe-haven for us. Iosefka told us so. It’s just like Oedon Chapel, so it must be—

The thing isn’t even hostile but it’s one of the freakiest things in the entire game. In broad daylight this monster wouldn’t be scary—in fact we eventually fight a whole horde of them before fighting Cthulu’s daughter. Here, though, it’s all about context—or, rather, a lack thereof. Once again we’re converted with the subversion of our expectations. We know something’s up with Iosefka based on dialogue but it can’t be too weird.
I imagine that, if we’d instead found some foul beast like the first creature we fight at the start of the game, it wouldn’t be as scary. It’d be a jump-scare, yes, but it wouldn’t strike us like seeing some weird blue alien thing wandering our way. Again, there is no reason for this to be here, and that is all the reason it needs to be there.
Iosefka’s Clinic is one of two major areas that never ceases to terrify me in concept alone, even prior to execution on the part of the narrative. The other is, of course, the much talked about Abandoned Old Workshop, which is arguably the second hardest area to reach, only to Forsaken Castle Cainhurst.
Abandoned Old Workshop masterfully demonstrates the reasons that scares need context by having no scares, no enemies, nothing about it other than all of the million thoughts racing through the Player’s heads as they approach that familiar workshop that we’ve seen before. If timed right, this is the first nod that Player’s receive that something is afoot—we’re not just dealing with a scourge of beasts, this is something that goes back years, something that’s been afoot for a while.
Bloodborne is all about the lore, and how hidden it is, and the Abandoned Old Workshop is no exception to that, providing excellent lore notes throughout while never abandoning the idea that something is here with you. There is something wrong. Going into the workshop only furthers that, as we see the Doll, lifeless, just lying there.
Now what makes this so scary is that we have yet to uncover the secrets of this world, and we’re uncertain about what we’ll find next. Keep in mind that we can get to the Abandoned Old Workshop far before the Red Moon descends, so we can have some sort of strange, cosmic context to all of this before all the Amygdalas fully appear.
While I do love the reveal of the Abandoned Old Workshop, I do think that this idea is superseded in From’s follow-up entry, Dark Souls III, and in particular, the Untended Graves. The area never ceases to send shivers down my spine, and it’s one of the most unforgettable video-gaming experiences I’ve had when wandering around it. This area relies mostly on terror, not so much horror, as the monsters we fight here are all essentially the same as before, if not exactly the same (see: Gundyr). While Dark Souls III as a whole focused more on action than horror, this area brought it back the most to what Bloodborne was like, and play around with the ideas of space and time for the Players, as well as give them creepy, unsettling imagery.
Of all the recent From Software games, in this little “Souls” era that they’ve built, I believe it’s safe to say that Bloodborne plays the most to the horror aspect of the games. Dark Souls has elements of horror, but it’s mostly character designs and areas, not so much ideas or moments. Nito is scary—he’s a giant skeletal god. Blighttown is scary because it’s just a nightmare to deal with. But Bloodborne has myriad areas that dwarf Dark Souls in terms of horror themes. Abandoned Old Workshop, Forbidden Woods, Forsaken Castle Cainhurst, Hypogean Gaol, and Iosefka’s Clinic in Central Yharnam to name a few.
Let’s look at Cainhurst for a bit, as this is the area that balances traditional scary-ideas and monsters with the more subversive themes of Bloodborne. Essentially, this is our Vampire level. We’re dealing with a massive Gothic castle with a bunch of dead women having been drained of their life force by some strong immortal foe and there is the idea of blood EVERYWHERE. Vileblood this, drinking blood that.
Cainhurst, though, balances these old tropes by implementing more monsters and ideas that we have yet to encounter in the game. One of the most effective jump-scares of the game occurs when traversing the upper areas to head toward the main library, when one of the winged beasts, a Lost Child of Antiquity, bursts from a series of gargoyles and sucks your brains out. Another moment is when there is just a slew of gargoyles waiting for you, and a precariously placed item on the other end of them. Obviously, we know that something is going to jump out at us; however, it’s only until we reach that item that we realize our attention should have been focused ahead, not to the side.
But we’re trained to look to the side based on the previous attack by the Lost Child of Antiquity, thus creating a completely unsafe atmosphere. All of this without the need for explanation, without the need for someone to tell us to watch out for these things. All it took was one, just one, ambush. Not to mention that it works so effectively because this moment is unique to the game. Camouflage isn’t seen as much as it is in the rest of the game as it is here. We haven’t dealt with it as much, and thus aren’t as equipped to handle it.
The ambush is so scary because we aren’t prepared for it in the context of the world we’ve been living in. Its classic horror: suddenly shifting the world and tearing the rug from under us. Cainhurst itself is a jarring place since we never go to castles in the game—the thing most like it is the Lecture Building, but that’s way different aesthetically and narratively.
It’s easy enough to design an ambush for the Player in an area where there is camouflage. I’d be disappointed if, at the end of all those gargoyles, there was no ambush. I’d be terrified to get the item, but not happy that I wasn’t attacked. However, the ambushes in Cainhurst are executed excellently in just how random they seem and how unfitting they are compared to the rest of the game. Most ambushes in the game are based around the Player getting stunned and then swarmed, not just attacked and then having to comprehend what is going on right then and there. Dark Souls does this with the Taurus Demon, having you fight the boss on the bridge without any indication that this was happening. Or, even, the Capra Demon. It’s an ambush that completely scares you due to how blindsided you were based on the context of the environment.
Bloodborne subverts modern horror tropes by playing to their counterparts. You want a jump-scare? Fine, but you’re going to wait, and when it scares you, it won’t be the monster that scares you, it’s the fact that you cannot at all comprehend what this monster is. The complete 180 of going from freaky snake-men of Forbidden Woods to the giant bug-men of Byrgenwerth is what makes that initial attack so scary. When the heap of corpses leaps from the carriage and attacks you in Ya’hargul after the Red Moon, it’s just the utter inability to describe what that is what gets you.
It’s why the Bloodborne bosses have more of a “that’s so creepy, how cool!” effect rather than a truly chilling factor. We have time to comprehend what we seen. With the exception of the Cleric Beast, the Witch of Hemwick, and the Celestial Emissary, we get a second to absorb the situation and formulate some sort of plan against the bosses. And of those three that either come out of nowhere or have a slow-build, it’s the Witch of Hemwick that has the greatest chill-factor, given, again, the context of all of this.
Hemwick Charnel Lane has thus far been the most different of all the areas we’ve encountered in the game, resembling more the Forbidden Woods than anything else. But, the enemies haven’t been so different, until we reach the Witch, whose unsettling design matches the more Eldritch abominations that we’d see after the Red Moon.
Scares are all about context. The Xenomorph in Alien is scary because it’s something we’d never seen before, HAL-9000 is quite chilling because he is the ultimate enemy and is pretty unpredictable. Jump-scares work best with build-up, suspense, and their ability to subvert what we expect. Nobody guesses that in the same scene that we see Danny riding his bike down the hallways of the Overlook Hotel that we’d see a couple of little girls’ corpses all bloodied and mangled on the ground.
Much to those extents, Bloodborne works best. By beginning as a classic horror game and ending as a Lovecraftian survival horror game where your goal goes from “kill the beasts!” to “find out just what in Holy Hell is going on here and GET OUT” it lends itself to scares that work beyond the context that one might expect. Thematically it’s a treasure trove for any kind of horror fan, and in terms of imagery and true ambushes and jump-scares it’s at the top of the food chain. Nothing is random, and everything has a reason: make you wonder what is happening before that curiosity gobbles you up. It’s classic Lovecraft: humanity’s greatest enemy is its own curiosity: “What can happen next?”

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