While the madness of Dark Souls comes from gods and their kin, the madness of Bloodborne comes more from within. The destruction that has been wrought upon this world was done more by the humans who inhabit it. The gods – such as they are – play a pivotal role. But it would perhaps be unfair to directly credit them for much of what has gone wrong.
One of the game’s most memorable areas is Yahar’gul, the Unseen Village: a lower, somewhat detached section from Yharnam itself. The player’s first encounter comes when dragged to an underground jail (Hypogean Gaol) by what is essentially a boogey man carrying a sackcloth. But it’s really in later encounters in this area that more startling truths are revealed.
Access to the upper quadrants of the Village comes only after defeat of Rom in Byrgenwerth (Rom himself just one of the many prominent figures in the game driven to madness). Whereupon much of the game’s reality is truly revealed: the sky turns purple, the moon is blood-red, and there are monstrous, spider-like creatures hanging off almost every building. But this isn’t a transition so much as it is an unveiling: it’s not the state of the world that has changed, so much as the player’s perception of it. Your Hunter has gained enough Insight to truly start to see the world for what it actually is.
In the Unseen Village, these Amygdala creatures are quite literally everywhere, a cancer attached to every building within your view. And they are openly hostile. From what is learned just within this Village, it’s most likely that the human race brought the presence and hostility of these creatures upon themselves.
Spread throughout the area, the player will encounter a corpse sitting in a chair, a Mensis Cage on their head, as though they died in the process of some ritual. The question could initially be asked if this was a voluntary deed – or if it was thrust upon unwilling participants. But a confrontation near the end of the game with Micolash – head of the School of Mensis – suggests otherwise.
Micolash wears the same Mensis Cage on his head; and as you pursue him through the halls of the school, he calls out a ritualistic prayer, almost pleading, almost taunting in his demands. “As you once did for the Vacuous Rom, grant us eyes, grant us eyes.” This mantra is repeated with a disturbing level of calm.
Receipt of the Mensis cage upon his death, the item description states:
“The School of Mensis controls the Unseen Village.
This hexagonal iron cage suggests their strange ways. The cage is a device that restrains the will of the self, allowing one to see the profane world for what it is.
It also serves as an antenna that facilitates contact with the Great Ones of the dream.”
The Great Ones are essentially the gods of this world – the very same that so many among the church sects have spent years struggling to understand. And more importantly, striving to eventually become.
This concept of understanding is further echoed in the game’s use of Insight – a quantifiable, with the amount available to the player shown numerically on-screen. Like Humanity in Dark Souls, it is quantifying an abstract; and like Humanity, it is key to interacting with other players, and has particular effects upon the gameplay.
Should one gain enough Insight before the defeat of Rom, they can see the Amygdalas and the true state of the sky and moon. One of the most common sources of Insight comes from Madman’s Knowledge – a consumable with an item description that states it comes from one who was “touched by the wisdom of the Great Ones” and that they make contact with “eldritch wisdom.” It is described as a blessing, one that drove the person mad – which in turn “allows one to serve a grander purpose.”
At the base of the Unseen Village, amidst the remnants of death and ritual, the player finds one of the most striking and terrifying visages in the entire game. Moving down the streets, traversing ever closer to the looming boss fight, exploration exposes a truly starting sight: hundreds upon hundreds of people who were literally petrified in the process of trying to flee something in the street below. Their stone corpses are perfectly in-tact, hanging off stairwells and walls, arms reaching out in a last desperate attempt to escape. It’s a powerful image – one that emphasizes the enormous cost enacted by those committing the rituals.
In the back half of Bloodborne, the purpose and origin of the madness becomes more clear. Early enemies from the game were victims of forces greater than themselves; individuals driven into madness by the actions of others. This stands in stark contrast to Dark Souls – in Bloodborne, the human race has been doing it to each other, largely for selfish gain. The Healing Church and its sects are to be held most accountable for the bestial nature now being forced upon so many.
But that the madness comes about in attempts to understand – to touch, even to become – divinity is what suggests the correlation between the two. Dark Souls is about the relationship between madness and beauty. Bloodborne instead considers the relationship between madness and deity. There’s a co-existence for these concepts, a suggestion that they bear much in common: that one could very well beget the other. This then forces the player to consider their own state of mind. As someone interacting with the game, does the fact that I find Darkroot Garden to be beautiful make me mad?
In Bloodborne it is rather emphasized that trying to understand deity is to court madness – likely because the gods themselves are truly quite mad. And the madness – as well as our inability to understand – is what makes all these considerations so central to the experience. Perhaps all of us are truly mad for ever courting deity.
In both Dark Souls and Bloodborne, the player character’s brush with divinity comes at the very end. As the Chosen Undead, you have the choice to take over for Lord Gwyn, becoming the new Mad Lord of Lordran. It means extending the slowly diminishing Age of Fire, one that it is fated to fail – putting off for a time an end to the gods. In this, you inherit the madness of Lord Gwyn, as that is all that is left of him. But then, after all you have accomplished and enacted upon this world, the deity state of madness is a mantle you have rightfully earned.
But the Hunter can take things in rather the opposite direction. If you have the means and find the right tools, you may become the very thing that so many in this world have been striving for – deity and human alike. The Hunter may become nascent divinity – and just as likely go mad in the process, at least in so far as the Great Ones can be described in such terms. Perhaps that’s what godhood is all about in the end; perhaps that’s why we can’t understand them, and why brief glimpses of these larger truths all eventually end in the purveyor inheriting a smart part of that madness. Perhaps that’s why trying to comprehend even the barest of indiscernible truths inevitably turns us all mad.
Because in the end, that’s what makes it so poignant. We strive for godhood, find madness, and though we may destroy the world in the process, for a moment there, we could still stand back and say that it was all so beautiful.