Bloodborne, Transhumanism and Cosmic Cyberpunk – Kotaku UK (blog)

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 isnt a traditionalist, after all, but a punk: or to be more precise, a cyberpunk. It may not havesinister corporations or hackers, yet this sci-fi renegade still conjures the rebellious ghost in the machine.

Most obviously, theres 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'sBlade 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 our fleshlylimitations 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, its 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 omnipresent symbol of self-directed evolution and the dangerous knowledge necessary to pursue it.

However, Bloodborneisa 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.)

Blade Runner

Eye of a Blood-Drunk Hunter

Bloodbornes idea of transhumanism is recognisable, but different. Its 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 doesnt lead the inhabitants of Yharnam away from humankinds 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. Theyre hairy and canine, clearly mammalian despite their deformities. So far, this is in keeping with stories like Robert Louis Stevensons The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or H.P. Lovecrafts 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 games 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 dont seem to belong to this world, perhaps they originally visited earth from unknown regions of the cosmos?


Ebrietas, Daughter of the Cosmos

Celestial Child

Nudibranch, Nembrotha Kubaryana. Photo by Nick Hobgood

Nudibranch, Nembrotha Cristata. Photo by Chriswan Sungkono.

Nudibranch, Tritoniopsis Elegans. Photo by Sean Murray.

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, isnt just due to a revulsion to our animal ancestors or the destruction they cause, but the knowledge that those beastmen didnt regress far enough. If only they hadnt 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, thats one way of looking at the complex picture Bloodborne paints.

The transcended hunter as slug-like Great One in Bloodbornes true ending

The beautiful thing about this is that it doesnt just fly in the face of transhumanism as it is usually understood, but the most problematic aspects of Lovecrafts work, too. The ugly concept of degeneracy, with all its overt racism, was an integral part of Lovecrafts 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 Yharnams ruin is dramatically shifted. The hidden corners of worship arent 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 elites 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 minds failing to comprehend their true nature? Either way, Lovecrafts ideas of degeneracy doesnt entirely fit into Bloodbornes 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. Its 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 soBloodborne transcends its influences, and challenges us on new planes of existence.

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Bloodborne, Transhumanism and Cosmic Cyberpunk - Kotaku UK (blog)

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