Bloodborne, Transhumanism and Cosmic Cyberpunk
This article was originally published by Kotaku UK on August 18 2017.
With all its morbid decadence, the richly-layered Gothic imagination and cosmic horror of Bloodborne tends to overshadow some of its more (post)modern influences. Bloodborne isn’t a traditionalist, after all, but a punk: or to be more precise, a cyberpunk. It may not have sinister corporations or hackers, yet this sci-fi renegade still conjures the rebellious ghost in the machine.
Most obviously, there’s the overpowering presence of that looming megalopolis Yharnam – as dependent on monumental, almost brutalist architecture as any good futuristic urban sprawl. The social dynamics within Yharnam echo the politics of cyberpunk, the hegemonic power of the Healing Church pitted against the social outcasts roaming the grimy streets. Dangerous social experiments and unchecked technological advancements have led to a Victorian dystopia. There are even ‘cyberspaces’, simulated, subordinate worlds in the form of the Dreams, which can be accessed and even ‘hacked’ by those who are privy to secret knowledge.
Ridley Scott's Blade Runner:
And just like cyberpunk, the world of Bloodborne is held captive by the promise of transhumanism – the idea that humankind will, one day, be able to transcend its fleshly limitations and become something more. Whether it is Deus Ex or Bloodborne, the tool for this quasi-religious endeavour is cutting edge research and technology. In Deus Ex, that means body modification through nanotech or even merging consciousnesses with an omnipresent AI. In Bloodborne, it’s the Healing Church and Byrgenwerth researching into the old ones and their blood that drives this change: aiming to transform humans, in theory, into celestial beings that have entirely discarded their humanity. Not unlike in Blade Runner, the eye becomes an ubiquitous symbol of self-directed evolution and the dangerous knowledge necessary to pursue it.
However, Bloodborne is a punk that refuses to slavishly follow in the tracks of those that came before. The differences are the most fascinating thing here. The futuristic vision of transhumanism, whether it is presented as a utopian promise or a dystopian threat, is seen as an evolutionary culmination or perhaps even singularity that severs the umbilical cord that connects us to our evolutionary history. The human is a product of natural processes, distant cousin of the apes. The posthuman – the product of transhumanism – is something different (strangely, it is our human arrogance that leads to this fallacy of teleological evolution.)
Bloodborne’s idea of transhumanism is recognisable, but different. It’s still a morally complex idea, both pursued by individuals and institutions while also causing societal upheaval, but its vector is in the opposite direction. The path to transcendence doesn’t lead the inhabitants of Yharnam away from humankind’s evolutionary history, but confronts it head-on in a retrogressive journey. The first enemies our hunter encounters are beastmen, many of them recognisably human but some, like the werewolves or Vicar Amelia, almost devoid of human characteristics. They’re hairy and canine, clearly mammalian despite their deformities. So far, this is in keeping with stories like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or H.P. Lovecraft’s tales of human 'degeneracy', such as Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family, in which a British nobleman burns himself alive after discovering that one of his ancestors was an ape goddess from the Congo. These stories play with our post-Darwinian revulsion at being the offspring of ‘mere’ animals.
But as you progress through Bloodborne, the hunter descends deeper down the evolutionary ladder. Soon, enemies resemble snakes, insects, arachnids. Later, they become more alien still, strange variations of squids, snails, slugs (that is, molluscs) or even fungi. They have names like ‘Celestial Emissary’, or ‘Celestial Child’ and are closely related to the Great Ones, some of whom, like Ebrietas or Kos, share similarities with the game’s mollusc-like creatures. Bloodborne displays a special fascination with mushrooms and molluscs, as well as the creatures of the ocean (especially in The Old Hunters DLC). These creatures are associated with the primordial, the early origins of life on earth, and their strange forms, both beautiful and disturbing, gives them a semblance of otherworldliness. And since they don’t seem to belong to this world, perhaps they originally visited earth from unknown regions of the cosmos?
From this anthropocentric perspective, becoming like these creatures means getting closer to the miraculous origins of life, when the earth and the cosmos had yet to be disentangled. The transhumanism of Bloodborne thus turns the usual teleological view of human evolution on its head; the forces of evolution, whether natural or self-directed, will not bring humans closer to the gods, but have instead distanced them from the celestial spring of life. To fulfil their atavistic yearning to return to the lap of the cosmos, the inhabitants of Yharnam must regress to earlier evolutionary stages. The horror and tragedy of turning into wolf-like beasts, therefore, isn’t just due to a revulsion to our animal ancestors or the destruction they cause, but the knowledge that those beastmen didn’t regress far enough. If only they hadn’t gotten lost in this evolutionary valley, they could have emerged on the other side as transcendental beings, as kin – not of the earth, but the cosmos. At least, that’s one way of looking at the complex picture Bloodborne paints.
The beautiful thing about this is that it doesn’t just fly in the face of transhumanism as it is usually understood, but the most problematic aspects of Lovecraft’s work, too. The ugly concept of degeneracy, with all its overt racism, was an integral part of Lovecraft’s fictional worlds. The ancient and unambiguously evil powers of the Great Old Ones is tied to ‘primitives’ and ‘mongrels’, marginalised humans seen as genetically impure and degraded. They are easily manipulated by the old gods and worship them in the hidden and remote corners of the earth.
In Bloodborne, the blame of Yharnam’s ruin is dramatically shifted. The ‘hidden corners’ of worship aren’t foreign jungles or secluded villages, but the sacred spaces of a church that is the backbone and centre of a sprawling megalopolis; the mysteries of the Great Ones are still secret knowledge, but secrets of a powerful, manipulative elite (as you would expect in the conspiracy-filled worlds of cyberpunk stories). But while this elite’s endeavours clearly lead to a horrific dystopia, the moral issues of this regressive transhumanism stay ambiguous throughout. The ‘degenerate’ beastmen are hapless, unfortunate victims rather than villains. The experiment of transcendence through reverse evolution seems doomed to fail, but it is not at all clear whether that goal is inherently misguided. After all, the Great Ones seem amoral rather than evil (not unlike the people of Yharnam), and the hunter is no stranger to the allure these celestial beings exert through their disturbing kind of beauty. Perhaps their apparent darkness stems purely from the human mind’s failing to comprehend their true nature? Either way, Lovecraft’s ideas of degeneracy doesn’t entirely fit into Bloodborne’s world.
Being kin to both the Lovecraftian as well as cyberpunk, Bloodborne, too, is a kind of mongrel. But this ‘impurity’ is precisely what enables it to distinguish itself and comment meaningfully on its ancestral genres. It reshapes its influences by letting disparate ideas collide and creates something fresh from the wreckage. It’s not unique in its subversion of transhumanist idealism or Lovecraftian racist tropes, but the way it combines these separate issues in a seamless if ambiguous whole is entirely original. Bloodborne is both a cyberpunk dystopia in which the end point of self-directed evolution is not a disembodied mind, but a slug or a squid, as well as a tale of cosmic horror where that dubious ‘degeneracy’ stems not from shady outsiders or social outcasts, but squarely from within organised mainstream religion and science. It shares with cyberpunk an awareness and distaste for the unequal power dynamics in a world governed by the amoral ambitions of hegemonies, but, like Lovecraft, looks backwards to our distant origins rather than to the future. And so Bloodborne transcends its influences, and challenges us on new planes of existence.