In Hidetaka Miyazaki’s 2011 masterpiece, Dark Souls, the character who is controlled by the player is an undead warrior, who starts the game rotting away in a prison cell; and who is awakened one day by a key being dropped in beside them. From that point onward, the character is entirely defined by the actions of the player. If they desire to do so, the player will take that key and step out into the world, find the man who saved them and learn of a grand destiny which this man hopes for them to fulfill, and embark upon the land of Lordran, where everyone is undead, time is convoluted, and the fire of life is on the brink of extinction unless someone can restore it to the land. That someone can be you, the player–or, you can, like, do whatever the hell you want.
While Oskar, your savior, hopes that you will try and fulfill the prophesy of the chosen undead and link this dying age of fire into a new one; the next NPC whom you run into–the Crestfallen Warrior–expects far less of you. He’s watched dozens of other so-called chosen undead make the same pilgrimage, only to give up and go hollow along the way. All of the undead are at risk of going hollow–of losing their humanity–as soon as they give up on their journey. Undead cannot die, you see, and will continue to be resurrected until they eventually lose the will to go on.
As a player, you can avoid going hollow as long as you don’t stop playing the game. For as long as you remain determined, your character will fight on towards whichever goal you may choose. You can follow Oskar’s wishes and link the fire–or, having learned of the potential dangers of linking the fire along the course of your journey, you can chose to let it burn out, and become the ruler of a world of darkness. Or maybe you come into contact with an ancient dragon and decide that you’re going to spend your days collecting scales to give to that dragon until you eventually turn into a dragon yourself. Or maybe you meet a giant skeleton man and decide to use his powers to place curses on the worlds of other undead players at the risk of being invaded. You could even take up the mantle of a non-player character who goes hollow, by wearing all of their armor and finishing whatever they were trying to do. The world is your oyster.
Whatever it is that becomes your character’s lot in life, their existence in Lordran is continued only by the player’s interest in playing the game; and the only way to effect a change in Lordran is by beating that game. This isn’t a story which you can pause–seriously, there’s no pause button–it’s a story which just continues on forever until the day you find the ending. If you never get to the ending, then Lordran simply remains in its atemporal stasis forever; and, assumably, your character goes hollow.
Dark Souls goes out of its way to paint the actions of its characters as a struggle. For most of them, going hollow is just around the corner–and, in fact, if you play far enough into the game, then just about everyone you meet in your adventure will go hollow right before your eyes. The player character is someone who fails and is killed again and again, yet continues to rise up and go into battle once more, raging against the dying of the light.
The player strikes at their enemies with desperation, carefully managing their meager endurance as they brave an onslaught of enemy attacks. Each time the player is damaged, they stagger away from the opponent, looking for just the right moment to take one of a few precious drinks of healing elixir, before running back in for another attack. They learn a careful dance of managing distance, memorizing attacks, and knowing how to play to their strengths. When they finally bring the boss to its knees, they gain back a little bit of their humanity–putting the hollowing at bay for a day longer, and perhaps even returning to their human form.
That feeling of struggle even permeates the character’s attack animations. Players reel back with their weapons, putting all of their weight into every strike, like their life depends on it. Some play tactically and poke away at their enemies while carefully dodging and rolling around attacks; while others outfit themselves in massive armor, so that they can take a hit while in the middle of heaving up their ridiculously enormous weapons for an aimless strike. No matter the fighting style, the player always looks like David against a hulking goliath–either frantically running around; hiding behind a wall of magic or defense; or brazenly running in naked like an absolute madman.
Therein lies much of the satisfaction in conquering the challenges of Dark Souls. In the beginning, your character is just another undead warrior–one of many who have come before, and who can barely even wield their weapons against the myriad hordes of deadly enemies inhabiting their world. However, by sheer force of determination and constant struggle, that undead proves victorious against beings of godly power; ones who have shaped the very world which they are trying to save.
But if Dark Souls is a game about keeping your flame alight and striking out against the insurmountable darkness surrounding you, then its spiritual successor, Bloodborne, is all about conquering the unknowable darkness which exists inside of humans themselves.
The character controlled by the player in Bloodborne is a newly indoctrinated Hunter, who starts the game after receiving a transfusion of what the blood minister refers to as “Yharnam Blood.” The city of Yharnam, which the player will be exploring throughout the game, has been built and broken on the back of blood transfusion–a practice which had grown popular for its ability to cure any ailment, but has the unfortunate side-effect of turning men into beasts.
As a method of curbing the city’s beast population, a group of powerful fighters was organized called the Hunters–but in the time between the establishment of this group, and the time in which the player becomes a part of it, all kinds of other crazy shit has gone down in the city, giving rise to many different factions and practices which are carried out by the other characters, and causing the nosedive into the chaotic maelstrom by which the city is now defined.
To make a complex story simple, the downfall of Yharnam’s populace can be attributed to humanity’s insatiable thirst for two dangerous forms of progress: power, and knowledge. The thirst for power is symbolized by blood–a resource with which the city has become drunk, and which has regressed the evolution of man into beast. Whereas the undead in Dark Souls would lose themselves and go hollow when they couldn’t find the will to continue, the populace of Bloodborne loses themselves to over-indulgence and an incurable lust for more blood.
Knowledge, meanwhile, is sought by those who wish to transcend their human nature and to enter into the realm of gods; but their thirst for knowledge leads them into destructive and amoral research–only to reach an answer which the human mind was never capable of understanding. The madmen fly too close to the sun and are burned to cinders, becoming creatures which no longer resemble their former human selves.
Like the player character in Dark Souls, the player of Bloodborne is unable to die–but unlike in Dark Souls, this power only seems to be granted to one hunter at a time. The player cannot die because they’ve been trapped inside of the Hunter’s Dream by the first hunter, Gherman, who won’t let the player go until they fulfill the goal of the one pulling Gherman’s strings, by killing one of the Great Ones. However, the player is not necessarily privy to their ambitions in this game in the way that they are in Dark Souls. This time, many of the characters are trying to hide the truth of the situation from the player, and to guide them along a path which benefits themselves. It is up to the player to uncover the truth of their situation, and to decide whether they will go along with what Gherman asks of them to the very end.
The singular focus on the player character in Bloodborne is very important to defining the key difference between this game and Dark Souls–because in Bloodborne, you are NOT just some random undead who happens to be more determined than anyone else. It is still true that, should your character fail in their journey because the player stops playing, then the hunt will go on forever, and no one will ever escape from the hunter’s dream–but the biggest difference here is that this time, the player character is the ONLY one who can possibly change the world and bring an end to this dream for good.
Whereas the undead warrior of Dark Souls was no different from any other random undead wandering its landscape, the player character of Bloodborne is already in a position above all of the beasts; because they are, in fact, a Hunter–someone who is explicitly trained in the art of dispatching said beasts.
Unlike the undead, the Hunters are powerful and vicious. The weapons that they wield are specially crafted for the task of slaying beasts, and are wicked gruesome and totally rad. Each of them transforms between a light and heavy form with a powerfully cathartic clang, and they wield these weapons with ease and confidence. Many of their weapons are capable of combo attacks, and can be charged up for an ultra-powerful strike. A hunter never seems to struggle to use their weapon–instead, they seem all too eager to rip their opponent to shreds.
Hunters never wear heavy armor–they dress in light, flowing cloths, which appear to be intended more to strike an imposing figure than to offer actual protection. Most of their attire has pieces of flowing fabric that makes them look extra-cool while artfully sidestepping around opponents and making a mockery of their attacks. Using weapons and dodges doesn’t cut nearly as far into a Hunter’s stamina, and their tactics are almost always to get in close to the enemy and to attack them with as much ferocity as possible.
When the Hunter is hit, they don’t back away to heal–instead, they strike back even more viscerally, as they can regain their health by taking it from the enemy. So blinded will the Hunter become with bloodlust, that they will keep attacking and regaining health even for a few seconds after the enemy is already dead. When the hunter does inject themselves with a vial of their blood–which is hardly in any short supply–they continue moving, positioning themselves to be ready for the next attack.
Remember, the fate of the hunter is not to lose themselves to the hollow by giving up–it is to lose themselves to the lust for the hunt, and to forget their desire to escape it. The hunters who can never stop searching for more blood become sucked into the hunter’s nightmare, where the hunt continues on eternally. A hunter doesn’t struggle against the world around them–they struggle against their own inner lust for blood.
The vital difference between the player characters of Dark Souls and Bloodborne can perhaps most prominently be observed when conquering a boss. In Dark Souls, you are granted the message, “Victory Achieved”–formerly, “You Defeated”–indicating your triumph over impossible odds, for which you regain some humanity. In Bloodborne, you are granted the message, “Prey Slaughtered”–indicating that you were the one whom the boss should have feared all along–the true overdog in the battle from the beginning. Moreover, the closest equivalent to gaining humanity from a boss fight in Dark Souls is actually gained from encountering a boss in Bloodborne. In this case, the player gains one insight–a metric of eldritch knowledge which brings the player one step closer to a truth so maddening that it could send them into a killer frenzy if they aren’t careful.
Bloodborne’s player character is someone special–a paleblooded warrior who somehow manages to fight off the beastly influence of the Yharnam blood, and is chosen by the messengers of the dream because of it; and who can potentially consume the eldritch knowledge of the great ones and devour their umbilical cords in order to transcend the hunt once and for all, and be reborn as a great one themselves; or else, find themselves escaping the dream as a human if they decide to let the dream go on, or even hosting the dream if they decide to martyr themselves after freeing the former host.
Both Dark Souls and Bloodborne are absolute masterpieces in the way that they weave the themes of their narratives so beautifully into the mechanics of their games; and in how they can use the same basic gameplay elements in such radically different ways, creating two games which feel almost opposite from one-another in tone and meaning. While Dark Souls was a lot more up-front about the way that its narrative was supposed to make the player feel, I always felt that Bloodborne treated the player like more of a badass, and was meant to convey a sense of bloodthirsty catharsis–which I felt was corroborated once I finally began to understand the narrative; and as a result, I came to love the game that much more.
I’m curious as to which of these power fantasies you find more appealing–the feeling of being an underdog who persists against all odds to conquer the gods, or the feeling of being an unstoppable killing machine who becomes drunk with the lust for more knowledge and power until they surpass even the eldritch great ones. Let me know how you feel in the comments, and stick around on my channel, as I might have more to say about these games in the future. If you want to help me in making more content like this, then consider supporting me via patreon, or simply by sharing this video to whomever you think will appreciate it. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one.