Bloodborne’s Story – The Challenge of Cryptic Storytelling

Bloodborne's story is about mystery and intrigue, all of which is exposed through gaining insight. However, does its cryptic storytelling pose a challenge? From lacking context to obscuring the lore, is the game too heavily dependent on outside guides and tutorials?

Bloodborne's Story - The Challenge of Cryptic Storytelling - Header

FromSoftware games have a tendency to show rather than tell. If you ask your average writing critic, they will cite that method as preferable. It most certainly results in breathtakingly ambitious worlds that do the heavy lifting in so far as storytelling goes. However, there is an argument to be made that it unnecessarily alienates potential fans and deserves even more. Bloodborne’s story in particular operates through a very cryptic narrative. This is not to say the story is bad, or that it’s not present, but it’s incredibly easy to miss. In making the player be a detective for the world, did the game hide its narrative a little too well?

Bloodborne - Official Story Trailer: The Hunt Begins | PS4

It’s Not Our Story

A question that will occur to a lot of players is simply “Why am I doing this?” The game thrusts the player into the scenario of the hunt with almost no context. While clues to what the hunt is are scattered throughout the world, it’s never outright clarified. NPC’s will speak in a manner befitting someone who already knows what it is, so it’s never explained for beginners. There is a solid argument to be made that this makes narrative sense. The player character entered Yharnam with their own purpose, clearly knowing what they were getting into. It makes sense that they would not be entirely ignorant of the events around them. Even so, this does not make it any easier for the oblivious player to accept.

The simple fact of the matter is that Bloodborne’s story is not the silent protagonist’s. At least, it’s certainly not the focus. The Hunter is simply a vessel by which the player can receive a tour of this grim, gothic world. While the concept of Paleblood is dangled as bait early on, it’s a MacGuffin that goes unfound. The story is instead reliant on the game’s environmental storytelling, which is varied and complex.

The issue with the player character’s almost nonexistent engagement with the story is that the player is also limited. It’s understandable for some games to expect the player to be a detective and figuring things out themselves. But at present, games will always be limited in how immersive they can be. Players are separate from the world; they can’t use all their senses to analyse it. So, when the player character also doesn’t react, it creates a divide that can’t be crossed.

The Hunter is a narrative focus, but not a character.

The Hunter is a narrative focus, but not a character.

Guess Work and Luck

While it’s common to see frustrated players claiming the game provides zero guidance, that’s not strictly true. FromSoftware doesn’t make its clues obvious, but it would be unfair to deny their existence. The game frequently expects the player to backtrack through the world to explore old areas. This is because progression through the story will often unlock new paths from previous zones. Occasionally an NPC will provide clues to these locations, though often vaguely or as riddles. However, it could be argued that these helpful characters are also frustratingly easy to overlook. Most of them are actually hidden behind doors or windows that are identified by lamps. Red lamps are easier to spot, but some are simply behind doors with no visual indicator. It’s as if the game expects players to continuously press the action button as they move between walls.

If you stumble upon new or secret areas, you will have little context as to what you should seek there. Perhaps the most infuriating area in the game is a secret entrance to the Abandoned Old Workshop. Getting there not only requires you to backtrack to the Cathedral but then platform down a deadly drop. The game is not a platformer at its core, so a lot of luck is required to fall to the right space. It’s also so dark that most players won’t see where to go until they notice it during a failed fall.

There is also the issue with helping survivors during Bloodborne’s story. You can send them to two locations, that being the Cathedral and Iosefka’s Clinc. However, one of those places will result in their death, and good luck knowing which on your first run.

The game seems almost designed with a guide requirement.

The game seems almost designed with a guide requirement.

Who or What are we Fighting?

Players might make it to the end of the game and suddenly realise they couldn’t name a single mob enemy. Not because they are unmemorable, but because they simply don’t get presented fully to the player. While bosses at least have their names displayed, average enemies are unlisted. Unlike other Souls inspired games like Nioh 2, there is no in-game codex. Unless you seek out a guide, wiki or lore video, most enemies are enigmas. However, one could argue this adds to the terror by making you feel out of your depth.

The same also applies to many of the bosses in Bloodborne’s story. While named, not all of them are provided clear backstories or reasons for fighting. Exceptions such as Father Gascoigne stand out due to his backstory being revealed in a side quest. What’s particularly annoying isn’t the lack of lore, but simply the burying of it. Even a creature like the Cleric Beast actually has a hinted-at backstory as a member of the clergy. The fights are enriched by understanding them, but the game asks an unreasonable amount for that bare minimum insight.

Optional mechanics are also woefully under-explained in the game. As a personal anecdote, I have completed the game three times. However, it wasn’t until the third playthrough that I learned about chalice dungeons and runes. The chalice rituals allow you to spawn randomly generated dungeons to grind for extra blood echoes and items. Runes are augmentations that provide special character bonuses, but you need a special item. This item is hidden behind an optional boss, and not even dropped upon beating them. The hints of the mechanics are there, but where and how to unlock them is so easily overlooked.

Vicar Amelia, we barely knew thee.

Vicar Amelia, we barely knew thee.

The Irony of Insight

Bloodborne’s story ironically fixates on the importance of eye-opening insight. So much of the world’s truth is only visible after certain encounters. Similarly, the amount of Insight possessed by the player can alter the gameplay. The game is all about discovery and understanding; seeing the unseen. In that regard, it makes sense that it rewards the most insightful players.

However, there’s also the issue of the strangely obscure true ending. To achieve the real ending, the player must have used three umbilical cords. Only one of these items is acquired naturally through the story, with the rest being off the beaten track. One requires beating a hidden optional boss, while another is found in the Abandoned Old Workshop. Even once found, many players might not realise they need to consume them. Some items in the game can be consumed or traded later. As such, players might hold onto them until the end of the game and never reap the benefits.

There is also the case of Arianna. She is a rescuable NPC who can also provide one of these cords, but only after certain conditions. First, players need to find her hidden in her house in an alleyway they would likely never explore. After sending her to the Cathedral, she must survive until the later game. This means you mustn’t send anyone to the Cathedral who would harm her. If she survives, players will need to revisit the Cathedral, notice she’s gone, and then find her in the sewer. Players then need to kill her and her Great One child to get the cord. None of this is prompted and thus almost expected to be missed without a guide.

The game does little to hint at the path to the true ending.

The game does little to hint at the path to the true ending.

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