I love it when everything I think I know about writing horror gets turned on it’s head. One, it helps me to grow as a writer. Secondly, it means I got bloody well scared during the process. Bloodborne, the newest game for the Playstation 4 from From Software, did both these things.
Yet, on paper it shouldn’t have. First it’s gothic horror, which hasn’t been scary in years (but it’s the last refuge of solid atmosphere) and it’s cosmic horror, which is probably the hardest subgenre to pull off. Don’t get me wrong, I love them both, but that doesn’t change the facts.
Bloodborne uses the subtlety of it’s storytelling and a good dose of J-horror to make both terrifying again. It uses the allure of the beautifully gothic world to draw in the player and then smash their skulls with the utterly off-it’s-every-rocker level of insanity that is the cosmic horror part of the game. (There’s one creature that still makes me whimper just thinking about fighting it again.)
You see, good horror gives the reader/viewer/player enough room to scare themselves. Bloodborne uses it’s visuals and, what at first appears non-sensical, information listed in the item descriptions to dole out the story bit by bit. Like a crazy person handing you the pieces to twenty different puzzles one piece at a time.
Then slowly the pieces come together to form an image that hints at an even larger picture. Let me give an example. There’s a manor in the mid-game where a scholar held an informal school. As the player approaches the manor, he’s attacked by giant man-flies with dozens and dozens of eyes, and then the man-fly, near as I can tell, tries impregnating the player’s skull. Later on, the player finds a note that says something like ‘to transcend, we must line our brains with eyes.’ Just a few minutes later, the player fights the ‘successful’ result of their experiments. None of this is stated explicitly, it’s up to the player to piece all this together, and if you’re paying attention, it weaves perfectly into the larger story of the game.
It’s little things like that that make Bloodborne so good and terrifying, and there’s so many instances of it I can’t list them all here. But the game expects the player to pick up on all these hints and piece them together, and what would be utterly hokey if told in any other way suddenly freezes the player in fear. You know, besides the actual fear the monsters create.
Hidetaka Miyazaki, the game’s director, grew up reading American fantasy novels as a kid in Japan, but he didn’t speak English that well, so when he came across a part he didn’t understand, he made up what happened.
Is that not genius? Miyazaki uses that same approach in Bloodborne, where there’s a definite answer to the overarching story, but he leaves a lot of room for the player to write their own scares.
I want more horror like that.