Romps through wonderfully or horribly realized religious settings are readily available for gamers to enjoy such as “Super 3-D Noah’s Ark,” “Crusader Kings II” and some of the “Assassins Creed” games. Sadly though, the topic is rarely explored with any meaningful depth.
More often than not, religions in games that are fictitious belong to the hopeless trying to cope, the oppressive regime keeping its subordinates under its thumb or the psycho killer hunting characters down. But for every cult member trying to brand you, there is a missed world-building or storytelling opportunity.
Oddly enough, “Bloodborne” is one of the most terrifying and brutal games I’ve ever played, and also takes the deepest, most inquisitive look at the concept of religion I’ve experienced.
Gameplay alone is enough to put “Bloodborne” in my top five games. I can almost categorically recommend the title to anyone looking for a challenge, but what solidifies it as my favorite game ever goes beyond that. The beast-filled city of Yharnam, built by director Hidetaka Miyazaki, is unparalleled in its atmosphere and the internal consistency of its narrative, gameplay and world design.
The most important citizen of the city of Yharnam is not the player’s mentor, the like-minded beast hunters or even the player themself. It’s the enigmatic and often praised Healing Church.
Founded by scholars and expedition leaders, the Healing Church was intended to be a safe haven for the downtrodden and those in need. However, the church’s pursuit of knowledge overstepped numerous boundaries as its members delved deep into ruins and uncovered great eldritch horrors and gods.
Witnessing such grotesque and inexplicable sights eventually drove the church, its members and all those it had treated to madness, facilitating Yharnam’s bitter transformation into the hellhole players step into. The inhabitants of the game world have gone insane, but not because they drank the Kool-Aid.
It would have been easier and far safer for the development team to write off the Yharnamites as brainwashed religious fanatics, but they didn’t. The developers had the rare idea that religion in games doesn’t need to be derivative and one-dimensional. Instead, Miyazaki opted for a more realistic paradigm in which religion resembles a double-edged sword capable of both tremendous good and evil in equal parts.
Miyazaki took a considerable risk by crafting a world of Lovecraftian horror in such a highly anticipated, big-budget game, and an even greater risk in letting so much of it go unnoticed by so many.
The tragic story of Yharnam’s origins and inhabitants is excessively cryptic, and it’s easy for players to lose track of it as they hack their way through lycanthropes and hunters gone mad. A lot of the most vital and rewarding intricacies of the Healing Church are tucked away behind optional bosses and item descriptions. But even after stumbling across Yharnam’s secrets, the intoxicating thrill of toppling a god makes it difficult to take a break to flip through the pages of enlightening text.
However, the themes of religion, knowledge and power subtly permeate gameplay too as players gain a currency called insight whenever they encounter or slay a new boss.
Insight has a number of in-game uses and effects, but it symbolizes something more — knowledge. The more insight players gain, the more difficult enemies become, hinting at the possibility of an excess of knowledge working against them.
The same can be said of the story progression of “Bloodborne.” After earning 40 insight or defeating a very frustrating spider boss (which actually made me give my controller a nice toss for the first time ever), Yharnam takes an even greater turn for the worse. The dreary streets are overshadowed by a harrowing purple sky and blood moon as familiar enemies are mutated into far more appalling creatures. Boars sprout countless eyes, crows grow dog heads and there’s a greater sense of unease as the new darkness looms.
The world undergoes intense negative changes as a direct result of players’ actions (which mirror those of the Healing Church), reinforcing the notion that their desire to save others from creatures and disease or better understand the powers that be can ultimately be misguided and harmful.
The narrative undertones of “Bloodborne” are beautifully baked into gameplay, and its impressively cohesive world is critically acclaimed, all because one director decided to take a risk on religion.
By breaking away from the template of cultish crazies and heavy-handed churches, developer FromSoftware’s release was met with astonishing praise in 2015 that’s been maintained by an avid fanbase of dedicated hunters.
Now, this is not some emphatic soapbox sermon written to assert that all games use the frame of cosmic horror to present religion to their players. It’s simply a testament to the amazing possibilities and success that can be uncovered and achieved by approaching religion from a new angle.