You wake up in a hospital bed. You’re not sure how you got here. Your memories are hazy at best. A man is hunched over you, feeding blood into your arm from an IV. Your vision blurs. There’s a pool of crimson soup next to you that you didn’t notice before, and from it rises a beast, forming from the congealing gelatin until it’s whole and solid. Its tongue is dangling from its jaw, swinging back-and-forth like a pendulum. Loosely. Carelessly. The beast has your scent, and it’s inching closer. It’s above you now, about to rip into your chest. It pauses. Suddenly there’s a fire and the monster burns. These are the first moments of Bloodborne, and they set the tone for the rest of your journey perfectly.
You’ll eventually travel to different locations in the city of Yharnam, combating one vile horror after another with a blade and a gun. You won’t really know why you’re doing this, but you know it’s the price for a cure, the blood miracle that you could only get here. And so you fight. Your background is unknown, the neighboring lands of this city is never revealed to you, and so you fill in the gaps yourself, something most other games don’t allow you to do. This is why Bloodborne is special.
Instead of spelling out who you are as a character, the game only presents the main conflict to you. Who you were before the blood transfusion and who you are after is a deeply personal choice that’s not reflected in the game itself. By ignoring these character details that other games and RPGs would beat you over the head with, Bloodborne ultimately lets you be whatever you want, and it all fits within the lore just fine. Let me explain by using Bloodborne’s older brother, Dark Souls, as an example.
Dark Souls lore is nuanced,deep, and complicated. It spans multiple nations, landmasses, and histories that are important to the main story. Learning about them is crucial to understanding the forces at play in this world. In Dark Souls, you read item descriptions that talk about key characters who have influenced the world of Lordran in some dramatic way due to their backgrounds from specific outside locations. At the beginning of the game, you have to choose a class with vague flavor text accompanying it, and once you do that, your storytelling options become fairly limited. If you choose a magic build, your character surely has to have some knowledge of Vinheim (it is, after all, the magic capital of the Dark Souls world). And if you don’t want to have an already knowledgeable character then good luck, because you’ll have to work around the game’s pre-determined story, and that’s not really freeing at all. It’s not really even role-playing. Well, not like Bloodborne.
Because, in Bloodborne, you’re only ever told about the city of Yharnam itself. You are an outsider with an illness that needs curing, and you’ve traveled to this city for its blood miracles. There aren’t any outside forces. There aren’t pre-established rules of the world. Simply put, it’s whatever you want it to be. The closest analogy I can come up with is something akin to Dungeons and Dragons. There’s a setting and a conflict: How do you respond?
On top of all that, the setup is great because you don’t have to construct a backstory to fit into the narrative of the world that FromSoftware has already established. You don’t have to be a wizard from a specific location because you decided to choose the magic class instead of miracles. You don’t have to be an unlucky soul who came from an ailing land because you chose a specific starting weapon or you thought an outfit looked cool. You can be someone who contracted a plague from the town of Underwear after getting bitten by your infected and drunk uncle Larry, and if that’s not role-playing at its core, I don’t know what is.
That’s just it really, because each time I go into Bloodborne, I come up with a different backstory for my character. In my most recent run, I imagined that my character was a scholar in a far-off land who had already read about Yharnam’s blood miracles. The arcane had always interested him and he was a bit of an outcast from the start, but after being hospitalized several times in his life, he finally got the push he needed to seek out this mythical medicine. He gave up on the few remaining family members and friends who stayed with him and decided to travel to Yharnam, being given incredible powers in the process to fight demons he could never have imagined. His only goal was to see the ones he left behind again, this time completely healthy and renewed (and spoiler warning, I made sure I got the ending in which he woke up to see the sunrise). His journey was finally complete.
Sure, maybe that’s a little silly, but isn’t that the point of video games? Aren’t we supposed to enjoy these products and get lost for a little bit? I know not every gamer needs to come up with an intricate backstory for their protagonists, but I know for some RPG players, coming up with additional information is just icing on the wish-fulfillment cake, and Bloodborne’s setup and various endings are perfect for that. It lets you come up with a character and it only gives you the plot at hand, letting you interpret the situation as your character rather than as a semi-confused guest or observer. Maybe what I’m describing can only be accomplished the second time through after you’ve already gotten a firm grasp on what’s happening, but I would love to see more games try and incorporate that kind of open-ended storytelling into their games. I want more games to be just interesting enough for you to want to run through it without sacrificing player agency and all the preconceived notions of who the hero avatar already is. I think storytelling in games desperately needs that breath of fresh air.