It’s a refrain that pounds inside my head, driving me onward far past my normal limits of difficulty and sleep deprivation.
Bloodborne’s Chalice Dungeons are an infinite labyrinth, a procedurally generated jigsaw puzzle full of poison swamps, guillotines, and failed adventurers like me. I can progress or I can die, but those victories and defeats have almost exactly the same outcome- more hallways to run down, more creatures to slay. And yet I can’t shake the Chalice Dungeons. They dominate my thoughts at work, they interfere with my enjoyment of other games at home. The dungeons are always there. And they want me to go
Those dungeons, the winding paths and endless corridors beneath the earth, are primeval. They’re manmade, probably, but old to an extent that the definition of ‘man’ starts to get shaky. The dungeons are so old that their first architects had no hierarchy when they began. They barely grasped written language.
And yet, they discovered something far more powerful and more terrible. “The unfathomable eldritch truth,” or the “knowledge of the great ones:” whatever romantic framing fits best for the knowledge that drove them forever insane. These dungeons and this knowledge make up the foundation for Yharnam and Cainhurst and every other civilization in Bloodborne. It’s the bedrock upon which everything is built. Literally and figuratively, the towers and ruins and forests of the world rest on something ancient and unknowable and
Bloodborne was always a note of shame for me, a black mark on my otherwise spotless record of From Software’s notoriously difficult Souls series. Demon’s Souls I played first and blindly, Dark Souls I devoured, Dark Souls II I defended, Dark Souls III I embraced. Bloodborne I… couldn’t grasp.
I beat it, of course. But I didn’t feel like I did it correctly. I slogged through the game, angry and bearing the expectations of all those previous titles. Reaching the end, I surrendered myself to Gehrman with relief. I had no desire left to fight another hunter, no desire to be slain another dozen times. I awoke in the sunrise of a new day, aware that the sun was likely an illusion but too exhausted to seek the truth beyond it. And then, more than a year later, Bloodborne pulled me back in.
It started with guilt. The guilt of never having beaten the Old Hunters expansion. The guilt of not fully completing the main game. The guilt of somehow not appreciating this title which everyone loved and regularly featured on lists of ‘the best games of all time’. And so I dove back in. I immersed myself and started to understand Bloodborne in a way I never had. But, dozens of hours later with every beast dead and every corner explored, I still felt like there was more to discover, still felt like I had to go
The Chalice Dungeons are entirely optional. There’s no new dialogue to be found within them, no secret ending to achieve. But inside the Chalice Dungeons, there are creatures I never saw in the outside game.
There are great and fallen warriors, slowly decomposing until I disturbed their slumber. There’s the bloodletting beast, a monstrous hulking animal with its back split open so deeply that I can see its ribs stretched across the torn flesh. As it nears death, a parasite bursts forth from its skull. Was the body dead all along? Was this worm responsible for its thrashing? I kill it all the same.
The dungeons start to toy with me. One cuts my health in half, causing me to crumple under virtually every blow. Another clouds the chambers with starlight; I die again and again, blinded by the whirling cosmos.
On the surface, blood echoes – a currency gained by killing foes – were more precious than gold to me. Without those echoes I couldn’t level up, couldn’t improve my weapons, couldn’t buy more vials of the bottled blood that kept me alive. Under the world, in the dungeons, blood echoes are a joke. The game rewarded me to absurd levels, although I felt like I was barely accomplishing anything. I regularly cleared floors with my echoes numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
“Go ahead,” the dungeons seem to say. “Have all the resources you want. It won’t help you down here.”
More than three years after Bloodborne’s release, people still discover new things hiding beneath the earth. Giant slugs writhe in long-forgotten tunnels. Dual-wielding descendants of the original dungeon’s architects stalk the halls, perhaps enraged that they’ve been denied the opportunity to kill for so long. It’s easy to refer to these enemies as glitches, cut content that somehow remained on disc. But they were found by players who simply had to go
Ask any player what inspired Bloodborne and the answer is the same: Lovecraft. Of course it’s Lovecraft. Not since BioShock ripped the ideology, architecture, and naming conventions from Ayn Rand has a mainstream game been so obviously influenced by a single author. But the creatures and gothic world always appeared disappointingly surface-level to me. What does it matter if I understand a god if I can stick my blade inside it regardless?
For me, the most Lovecraftian piece of art was authored long after the man himself died. It’s The Enigma of Amigara Fault, a Japanese horror manga by Junji Ito. In it, an earthquake reveals a previously-buried faultline, perforated with the outlines of dozens of human bodies. The story’s protagonist, inexorably drawn to the fault, finds many others who felt the same urge. Frightened but obsessed with the silhouettes, people find “their” hole: one that calls to them and fits them perfectly. And, ashamed, terrified, they lose themselves inside.
This is what I found in the chalice dungeons. A bottomless pit of gameplay, an irresistible fixation with the unknown. Bloodborne, in every conceivable way, has been conquered. I’ve destroyed every boss, I’ve obtained every trophy.
But those dungeons are still there. And they want me to go
Jacob Geller can be found on his twitter @yacobg42, slowly spiraling into cosmic madness