Sunday, February 18, 2018

Bloodborne - Stilled Horror

This Wednesday sees the release of Titan Comics' own Bloodborne comic, featuring major aspects of the game in terms of lore, locations, and characters. From what preview pages I've seen, it appears to be a pretty solid translation of what's onscreen to what's on the page, even though it really shouldn't work that well. How can a game that relies on fast-paced action be translated to a comic? Well, one of the biggest hooks of the game comes not from it's quick movement, but it's slow, still, silent moments that captivate and terrify the soul.
I've discussed at length already how Bloodborne masters what it means to truly be terrifying. In it, I discussed how the game uses context and singular moments to render the mind paralyzed with fear in utter realization of what is truly going on in the game. However, these moments rarely come while a player is running through a dark hallway.

Rather, it comes through the slow build-up of moving through the hallway. There are several great examples throughout the game that build upon utter dread of the unknown, and aren't revealed in an action sequence, but rather allowing the player to slowly allow the totality of what they are witnessing. These still images work well in game, as they can be paired with good sound effects, and will hopefully allow for a smooth transition over to the comic book format.

The first example of this comes to mind in the Nightmare of Mensis area, once the Player has defeated Mikolash and dropped the Brain of Mensis into the pit. They are gained entrance to see the fallen Great One by taking a lift down. The link below, with footage captured by YouTube user Wai Tsang, shows this scene.

Brain of Mensis

As the video shows, the approach up to the Brain of Mensis is pitch black. There is nothing around. The only sounds are gurgling, gross distortions. Players can sprint up, yes, but when they arrive, they reach an absolute monster of a creature; one that had, previously been obliterating their minds with just the idea of its existence.

Whenever I replay Bloodborne, even when I know this is coming, I can still barely get myself through this part of the level. It's utterly terrifying, and it has everything to do with just that still image of the Brain of Mensis and its eyes, staring me down.

This still moment does somewhat tie-in to the points I've made about subversion and expectation within Bloodborne. This creature should, by all rights, be a boss-type encounter. It's certainly on-level with other bosses that would be encountered in the game. It has an open area for combat, too. But that isn't what makes this creature terrifying.

Instead, the stillness and lack of motion with this sight is what breeds most of the horror. It's all about what this thing can do and, like most of Bloodborne and Lovecraftian horror in general, it's the fear latent within imagination that creates the true terror of this moment. The lack of any real movement allows for players to wonder what will happen next, and it allows this dread to build and build within them.

A truly stilled moment comes at the reveal of the Abandoned Old Workshop, one of the creepiest and most mystifying moments in all of not just Bloodborne, but "Soulsborne." One of the most chilling parts is how it just happens so suddenly, almost as if the Player just turned the page of a book, and is suddenly met with a mind-melting reveal of one of the biggest elements of the game.

In this way, just seeing the Abandoned Old Workshop works as a genuinely scary moment, because it tells players that all bets are off from here on out. It informs them that the nature of the world, one that was already riddled with terrors and unnatural sights, is not at all what one can expect, and the very essence of what the player wants may be something entirely different from what they are now reaching for.

Moments like this normally work best in a cutscene, allowing the scene and moment to develop naturally with camera work or some sort of effect, but Bloodborne relies on cutscenes to introduce monsters, things that players expect to be scary. There are some cutscenes used to introduce scenery, such as the one for Oedon Chapel, but there is not one for the Abandoned Old Workshop.

It comes as an interesting contrast to the cutscene used to introduce players to the Hunter's Workshop when they're first killed in the game. In that cutscene, essentially the same thing happens, but it's mechanically different, and is meant to give a different experience as such. With a cutscene, it has a structure, it has a set goal in mind: to place the character in a new situation. Most of the time, it gives them a general tone for what they are about to experience. A cutscene could very easily have been used to introduce the Abandoned Old Workshop, but it creates a far more eerie atmosphere for it not to exist.

It forces the player to make the choice to step into the unknown or not. Again, since there is no movement and all that exists is the workshop itself, it makes the player wonder just what else can be in this location. The horror once again comes with the lack of any fluid motion on-screen, much like a comic book panel, and instead the motion comes as the player experiences things at their own pace or decision-making.

The lack of any motion, too, allows them more time to immerse themselves in what is going on. They're not being bombarded with information whilst trying to fend off a boss monster. That experience can work well enough, with good examples being something like Father Gascgoine or The Orphan of Kos, but it's entirely different. It's meant not to be scary, but to be purposefully overwhelming and therefore become a test of skill to defeat the creature at hand.

One of the most effective moments of completly still horror comes just after the arrival of the Red Moon, when the curtain falls and the Great Ones are revealed. Just walking out into Yharnam for the first time and seeing that has been, but that the player has been blind to, is absolutely frightening. It works almost exclusively as something that does not move. Indeed, the beasts have little wriggling tentacles, but its difficult to see from afar.

I believe that when you first see this, if you turn around, there is one just staring you down. These are all images and moments being captured, mind you, at player's choice, making them all the more chilling. Bloodborne's horror comes almost exclusively from choice, as does most great horror. While this style of horror can often be bogged down into jump-scares, it works best when the player's curiosity gets the better of them and they just need to see what's behind them...

The picture alone does scream horror and terror, and probably can say a thousand words, but they're all so jumbled by the fear and confusion going on that it's hard to make out any thoughts. And it's at that moment that Bloodborne works at its finest. 

Much as it is a game about speed in combat and getting through some areas in a rushed manner, Bloodborne can also be a game where, if you slow down and really take a look at an environment, much more will unfurl and you'll slowly come to realize the sheer weight of what's been happening in Yharnam. It's a game that rewards focus and attention to detail, in both learning the lore to uncover what monstrosities have befallen Yharnam and what these truly things are. 

The fright that comes with the majority of its most harrowing moments does not come mostly from the shock of what is before the player, but rather that slow realization of what is before them and what could happen. It creates an air of curiosity and a quest to know more, and right there and then, the quest has failed, as it does for any Lovecraftian character. The major themes of Bloodborne come through in these silent, slowed moments. 

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