Bloodborne, the spiritual successor of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, at its surface, might not seem a very complicated game. In fact, you might miss most of its stories and narrative design if you’re not a very good observer and a competent reader of clues.
I could talk much about how the Souls series manages to get its hidden narratives right, but recently I have played Bloodborne, and there was an explicit line of dialogue that has stuck with me.
It’s at the beginning of a boss battle with Father Gascoigne. All you need to know that your character is a hunter of beasts, and Father Gascoigne is also a hunter of beast – but he’s already infected with a disease that will turn him into a beast. It’s a very plain, almost banal standoff.
As the player approaches, a cutscene is shown. Father Gascoigne is finishing off a beast. He doesn’t turn around to face the player. He says:
“Beasts all over the shop. You’ll be one of them, sooner or later.”
Then he turns around. Under the brim of his hat, we can only see a part of his face. He’s still human, but he has already some beastly features. The fight begins shortly after this.
I couldn’t explain why, but this simple line of dialogue got stuck in my head. I just didn’t know why. Sure, it was the delivery of the voice actor that made it sound badass, but that wasn’t it.
I instinctively knew that it was good writing, but I had to deconstruct these two sentences to understand why. I had to do a more extensive research on the game’s (mostly hidden) lore. And then I realized, that this is one of the most brilliant piece of writing not only in a video game, but in any medium, really.
Let’s look at the first sentence.
- “All over the shop” is an Irish colloquialism. In itself, it’s nothing special. But most of the characters in Bloodborne speak with a British accent. In item descriptions and several other dialogues it is implied that Father Gascoigne isn’t from Yharnam (the city where the game takes place). The writing here cleverly modifies his use of words to reinforce this.
- “Beasts all over the shop” sums up the dire situation in Yharnam pretty well. It’s concise, but it says everything about the main conflict in the city. It not only implies that there are beast everywhere, but that they are also disorganized and mindless. By the time we meet Gascoigne, we came to this conclusion already, but maybe hoping that it’s not the case everywhere. Gascoigne crushes our hopes.
- Father Gascoigne says this sentence with a resigned certainty, without emotions. This clearly suggests that he’s seen much of the conflict that he’s not surprised anymore. In the game, it’s not explicitly stated that he’s a hunter, but the manner in which he delivers this line, implies that he’s not only not surprised by the presence of the beasts, he also speaks of them matter-of-factly, in a professional way. (Besides, he’s still finishing of a beast before he speaks.)
Let’s look at the second sentence.
- “You’ll be one of them, sooner or later.” This is where it gets quite brilliant. This single sentence has multiple stories in it. For one, it suggests that even the best hunters can turn into beasts. We immediately learn that Gascoigne’s affected. (He’s the first visible human character we meet, so nothing suggests that he’s hostile at first.) He suggests that the end is inevitable. He knows something we don’t, and shifts the players mindset into curiosity.
- He speaks in a future tense, and we can feel that this might be a very neat case of foreshadowing. Even without spoiling the ending (or one of the endings), it is interesting to see that even later in the game, the mechanics allow the player to turn into a beast temporarily (it’s not a secret).
- But hold on! Gascoigne doesn’t say “you’ll turn into one of them”. He says: “you’ll be one of them”. Again, no spoilers, but… coincidence? With this slight difference, a wider range of interpretations can open up.
And finally, let’s look at the two sentences together, and conclude that in this small line of dialogue Gascoigne:
- Paints his own character, tells his own story (character building)
- Comments on the situation in Yharnam (world building)
- Suggests that the future holds interesting developments (keeps the story fresh)
- Essentially sums up the whole freaking game, if we pay attention to all other environmental clues (it’s just… poetry)
- Involves and addresses the main character (Suggesting the possibility that they can become somebody like Father Gascoigne. He thinks it’s inevitable, further reinforcing the tragedy of his character – even if he’s wrong.)
As I said, I could talk for days about the narrative genius of the Souls-series, but this is a rare example of an explicit, written line that tells you much about good writing (not only for game designers, but anybody who writes in any kind of medium).