Bad Affect as Game Design, Or It Feels Good For Overwatch To Feel Bad

This was originally written as a monthly essay for my Patreon. If you like it, consider chipping in $3 a month.

There’s a lot of talk in game design about how to make people feel things.

For the Skinner Box people, the ones who are trying to psychologically dial in exactly how good it should feel to win a match of a competitive card game you play on your phone, you do it through stimulus. You click the button, and it lights up just right. When you open your box of loot that you got from winning way too many games, it shakes in just the right way. But if you hold off on that shake-y click, you might be able to upgrade that bronze box into a silver box when you collect enough doodads. It’s all about the design of making things click in your lizard brain.

While most, if not all, massively popular games are trying to go down that route for various (cough, financial) reasons, I think that lots of game designers would still say that they are going for “classic” methods of getting you to feel good about a game. They’re designing levels, skill trees, and open-world environments with those tried-and-true ideas of flow or game feel in mind.

Those theories aren’t the same, but they’re attached to each other in the belief that games are at their best when their mechanics and expectations are clearly communicated to players. Each desires an end-state of consistency, and the optimal gameplay experience is one in which the player seamlessly melds into the experience of playing a game. With that established, you can play with the model, but that initial smooth space of play is critical.

I’ve done some research at my day job on player toxicity in games, and I’ve even written about my experience of toxicity in a game that many claimed had “fixed” the problem of players being rude as hell to each other. The general belief about toxicity is that it interrupts the smooth space of play–that it generates a bad feeling in players, and that bad feelings tend to spread out into everything. Riot, the developers behind League of Legends, promotes a lot of statistics that suggest that toxic players make for a bad time in a quantifiable and repeatable way, and that if you want to have a good time in a game then you should avoid being toxic.

I’ve now put an embarrassing amount of time into Overwatch for the PS4, and I’ve come to a weird conclusion about how I think bad affects, or bad feelings, might impact a seamless state of play. I think that they help generate one. I think negative feelings might be fully incorporated into my seamless and fun experience of play. And that’s weird.

In other words, I think becoming consistently angry about particular things in Overwatch might have a calming effect that generates a smooth space of play. I’m meditative in my being angry.

To be clear, this is probably an edge case. I play a lot of Overwatch, but I never play with a headset unless I’m in a party with friends. I would say that the total percentage of games that I have played in a party with those friends is probably less than 10% of my total games played.

So when I get angry in Overwatch, it’s with that weird little radial communication system. There are no tanks and we’re dying over and over again to Hanzo headshots from across the map? I’m spamming the “Thank You” command. No healer and I’m dying over and over? Spamming the “Need Healing” command. I’ve finally bit the bullet and I’m playing Mercy, but my team is fighting way off the point and is letting every McCree who has ever played the game jump right up into my face with utmost glee? It’s me, on the couch, hitting the “Thanks!” button until I’m locked out of using it.

I’m not proud of any of that, and I’ve tried to cut it down because it helps no one, but at this point it’s automatic. I’m on autopilot when I sarcastically use these commands to signal my unhappiness, and from a personal perspective it’s an entirely neutral thing. While I’m sure that deep in my brain I am feeling some kind of anger, on the top level I am just hitting that button to signal my unhappiness.

My ability to signal that I am having a bad time allows me to process that out within the game itself. It’s rare that I put Overwatch down and have any lingering feelings of anger or frustration, even if I lose several times in a row. That radial dial of bad feelings allows me to put it all out there, and importantly, to leave it there.

It’s probably crucial that it’s (mostly) impossible to target another player with sarcasm using the communication wheel. Short of walking up to a teammate and spamming the emotion right in their face (which I guess I could do), there’s no way for me to say “THANKS!” to a particular Reinhardt after he fails to use his shield for the 50th time in a row. I can only denote that I am unhappy, and that lack of targeting means that I don’t have people messaging me on PSN asking me what my problem is (or why I am so bad at the game).

It feels weird to admit to a kind of passive haterism, but this particular anonymizing and untargetable generation of bad affects sorta works. I get to immediately divest myself of unhappiness, and other players are able to do the same. It’s a way of expressing anger in the game without anyone knowing that they’re to blame or that you’re angry at them. You’re just someone spamming a button, and you can be ignored.

My weird play experience suggests to me that toxicity (and this is, I’m sure, considered toxic play) can be the baseline of that consistent and full game state that generates the “best” or “elegant” gameplay experiences.

[Addendum a little while after original publication:]

I don’t think this is intended behavior in that it is put there by the design team, but I do think this very limited form of button-based communication that can be spammed generates something different from being able to write text with your keyboard or yell with your mouth in voice chat. I also don’t think any of this “working” (in the sense that I’m able to leave these emotions in the game) is really a positive development. After all, for other players, it just looks like I’m being a huge jerk. And I am, to be clear, being a huge jerk. But I think all of this points to some interesting spillover effects from solutions that, at least on a theoretical level, should limit toxic play.

From my experience that I’m trying to lay out here, though, I think it might just morph into a different form that’s qualitatively different for the end user although maybe not different in kind.

I wrote this little addendum after rereading the piece and not thinking that there was a clear conclusion.

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Bernard De Koven on approaching death

If you want to do something for me or because of me, grieving is not what I need. What I need is for you to continue your play/work however you can. Play games. Play the kind of games I like to teach – you know, those “funny games” – harmlessly intimate, vaguely physical games of the semi-planned, spontaneous, just-for-fun ilk, basically without equipment, or goal, or score or reason, even.

Teach those games to everyone. Play them outside, these games. In public. With friends. And strangers. As many as want to play with you.

Make up your own games. Make them up together with the people who play them. Play. Teach. Invent. Play some more.

Hello. My Name Is Bernie. My Friends Call Me ‘Blue.’ I Have Cancer And Maybe A Year To Live. This Is What I’d Like You To Do About It.

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On Dishonored, the Inside, and the Outside

This is a quick post about Dishonored, a game I wrote a lot more about back when it came out. Spoilers abound.

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I’m playing through Dishonored again after a very long time (so that I can play the sequel, finally), and I’m struck by how often the side characters talk about the “mission area” of the game versus the “home hub” of the game. If you don’t remember, the structure of Dishonored is that the protagonist Corvo is assassinating and missioning his way through various tasks that have been set up for him by a group of conspirators. Those conspirators want to put the true heir Empress back on the throne of the Empire of the Isles, and to do their bidding Corvo hops on a boat, gets taken into the city, and then comes back again to discuss whatever he needs to that might make the plot move along.

The characters he’s speaking to are very explicit about the separation between those places. They say “the city” despite the Hounds Pits Pub (their base of operations) being located within, or at least in tight relationship to, that city. Sam, the sidekick who operates the boat for Corvo, helps maintain that, and lots of his dialogue pretends as if he isn’t a few hundred yards from Corvo’s violence/sneaking mission.

The big reveal of Dishonored is, of course, that the conspiracy you’re a part of were villainous the whole time. The Hounds Pits Pub, this place that you’ve been traversing for funsies throughout the game, gets turned into its own level. And it would have been easy for that just be a linguistic and mechanical turn (“these people are now your enemies!”), but the game’s continual statements about the content of the game taking place “out there” and “in the city” means that the reversal of the home base into the “out there” is even more distressing.

In a conspiracy, there’s only one safe harbor, and it’s who and what you trust. Through these throwaway lines, the game spends hours establishing that this place, this pub, is 100% legit. And in a moment, it’s flipped around.

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“No One Criticized Bioshock Infinite Before!”

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All week long I’ve been reading tweets that have intimated that there has been some kind of sea change opinion shift in the way that Bioshock Infinite was received by audiences. The entire conversation has had a kind of “these damn hipsters” feel, as if the HD rerelease of some blockbuster game should be met with the sanctified silence of the venerated tomb, and I just wanted to take a moment to maybe put some of these sentiments into perspective.

In my neck of the internet woods, Bioshock Infinite was put under the knife. I collected thirty pieces of criticism on the game myself, and I probably made the active choice not to put another thirty on there for content overlap reasons. It was a game that the critical community showed up for, talked about, and came to some general consensus about. People were critical, have been critical, and actually formed an opinion about this game before it was expedient to on the release of the HD remasters in TYOOL 2016.

I’m not surprised by the surprise that some people critically engaged with the game. Tevis Thompson’s post-Infinite review castigation piece neatly split “critics” and “reviewers” into two camps, and if I had to hazard a guess I would say that the people whose tweets I’ve seen were maybe more familiar with the latter than the former.

And it isn’t their fault. Games criticism seems to be everywhere in my internet social circles, but that’s because I’m in it, have been in it. I’ve watched a dozen sites, magazines, and personal projects centered on critical inquiry in games sink beneath the tides of no money, no attention, no time. I’ve seen other places linger on (this site might be in that lingering zone). I can’t really say that I’ve seen any site thrive, even if thriving means living on the best side of precarity, but I have seen some critics do well, which is maybe the best thing that I can ask for.

There was a time that the primary argument in the broad world of games criticism went something like this: if we can get things archived so that people have a history and if we can get people paid so they’re not scrambling all the time then we will be able to have a critical community that will raise the level of discourse around games. That seemed to be a shared goal, and many, many people have left the world of games disgusted because they came to believe that achieving the first two might not move the chains on the third in any way.

So “no one criticized Infinite before!” comes to signify two things for me.

The first is that the games criticism of three, four, five years ago wasn’t all that successful. We didn’t reach the broad audience, and that’s a bummer, but it’s also not surprising.

The second is that something has changed. If the world were the same way it was three years ago, the people finding out about these long standing critiques would still be walking around thinking everyone sees Infinite as a holy grail of achievement. And that’s heartening, in some ways, because it means the discourse has shifted that little, small amount. The words got out, somehow.

In any case, that’s just what I’ve been thinking about this week. I’ve got the long view on “games criticism” at this point, like quite a few others, and I’d say that 80% of the people doing that kind of work on the internet who predate myself and my “cohort” have gone on to other things. Maybe even higher. But there’s a weird print in the culture in the shape of their words, and well, I guess that’s something.

 

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George Orwell on Atrocities

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But unfortunately the truth about atrocities is far worse than that they are lied about and made into propaganda. The truth is that they happen. The fact often adduced as a reason for skepticism–that the same horror stories come up in war after war–merely makes it rather more likely that these stories are true. Evidently they are widespread fantasies, and war provides an opportunity for putting them into practice.

George Orwell, “Looking Back at the Spanish War

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On The Last Door: Season 2

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I’ve been sitting on the second season of The Last Door for some time now, and I can’t really explain why. It was less an avoidance and more of a saving, like I wanted to make sure that I was in the right headspace to play it. I loaded it up on a whim and played it through in one long session, and I have a few thoughts.

[I wrote about the first season here, by the way.]

1.
The Last Door has a longform plot, but since the game is episodic, that plot is kind of dropped from piece to piece. Some characters carry over, and the plotline carries it all together, but the game is fragmented in an interesting way. Imagine that most episodes of The Walking Dead game were 400 Days and you’re getting close to what The Last Door does.

The first season of the game ended on a cliffhanger. Our protagonist went missing, or went beyond the pale, and the second season is all about his doctor trying to find him. The fragmentation is important here because it keeps us from having access to too much knowledge. This is critical in horror, and it can oscillate in the thriller (Zodiac is an apex example here).

The cycle of The Last Door is based on finding something and having it snatched into the aether. There’s a lot of talk of Veils, of places beyond, and dream worlds (this ephemeral gesturing is something I am a fan of in my own work). But where my Epanalepsis differs is that I am always gesturing toward an outside–the places beyond are truly beyond the scope, scale, and environment of the game that I am making.

The Last Door Season 2 goes for it. They show you the world beyond in that Lovecraftian way, and they hold you down in that dreamspace logic for quite a long time. Wonderfully, the dreamspace logic that governs film, the novel, and basically all experienced media is perfectly suited to the adventure game. Nothing ever really makes sense in the genre, so having to pick up piano keys from a mirror universe to play for monstrous Beyond Beings makes as much sense as anything else. As I said on Twitter, these developers have clearly been in the adventure game headspace for a while, and it shows in a really positive way.

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2.
That fragmented narrative allows the end of the game to be this amazing stitching together process. Throughout both seasons of TLD I kept thinking “well, I guess this scene will be explained at some point” and I was basically wrong every time. The Last Door really trusts the player to keep up with some strange happenings, and those happenings are made even stranger if you pay attention to the “last time on…” bumpers between each episode that tell you information that would have been impossible to know when playing.

And this isn’t criticism. I have this real love of games that just give it all to you and let you do whatever you can with the information you have (look, my favorite novel is The Book of the New Sun, ok? I’m the person who commits).

The last episode of the two seasons does this amazing job of wrapping up several plotlines, showing the “locationless” scene spaces that dotted the rest of the games, and generally filling in the history that you knew was there but did not have access to. The developers really went for it here in order to make it a coherent, special experience at the end, and I appreciate the density of knots that they went for.

 

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The Tragedy of The Witcher 2

Spoilers for The Witcher games.

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I’ve been playing through The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings very slowly over the past few weeks, and during my time playing through the game I am continually struck by how the series sets you up for a long-term tragedy around the geopolitics of the Northern Kingdoms.

The Witcher 2 gives us a world with some hope for a free state in the north. While the various already-existing kingdoms are not going to give the Upper Aedirn up without a fight (to take it over from Stennis), it really does look like it could all happen. There might be a place for some kind of weird proto-democracy to take hold, or at least for some kind of French Revolution scenario, but then the (necessary) death of Saskia and this constant betrayal of people by other people makes sure that doesn’t happen.

The Witcher 2 really is this story of watching a wave crest and fall back again. The Witcher 3 has this feeling of “personal quest” for Geralt, but it’s also this journey through the political outcomes that the previous two games have presented us with. The idea that there was something better in the world and then is slowly slid back under the pressure of violence, intimidation, and greed is so profoundly sad. More than that, the game doesn’t flag all of this. It isn’t rubbing the ordeal in your face and talking about your personal, Spec Ops failings. Instead it is merely showing a character, his (important) place in the world, and the fallout of humanity being itself. It’s better at that than any other game, for sure, and I’m very much excited for a replay of The Wild Hunt with all of the DLC.

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Mages and Murderdads – Episode 4

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Donald Trump Is Created In Postproduction

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I just wanted to take a minute to expand on this tweet I made the other day. It is increasingly apparent that Donald Trump does not exist on the same timescale as other people in the material world. I don’t mean that as some weird knock, I mean it in a literal way: Donald Trump as an entity exists only after postproduction through other people. Every interview, statement, or wail that comes from former friends and people who have been around him exclaim shock at his inconstancy and his inability to sustain through anything.

Everything we know about Donald Trump has been edited for our consumption through other people. The Art of the Deal was cobbled together through half truths by a ghost writer. The Donald Trump of The Apprentice was manufactured for us by the producers and story editors of that show. And now, Gawker has created its own clip format through which Donald Trump can be communicated as nonsensical.

Donald Trump’s power is that he plays to the supercut; he’s giving the editor as much B-roll as possible so that they can make it all come together in a coherent way for them. The general public is used to having to cobble together narratives for themselves, whether that’s as a standard news story (only fleshed out for the public in a combination of social media commentary, cable news, and email forwarding) or conspiratorial call to action (Hilary Clinton, George Soros, or the Koch Brothers are at it again!).

There’s a lot of energy spent calling Trump’s campaign a symptom. It’s the white working class’s dissatisfaction, or it’s a lack of excitement in politics, or it’s his constant claims to being an outsider. It also seems to me that the method he’s employing, this explosive creation of infinite footage on all possible sides of an issue, is a symptom of how we all read news (and the media more generally). We’re already used to doing the brunt of the labor to make the content of the work either fit or create friction with our media narratives. Trump’s just giving us the tools to do what we would anyway.

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On Bloodborne: The Simulation and the Surrogate

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I.
The lore of the Soulsborne series is generally “solved” a few weeks after the release of the newest games. We end up with a vague consensus, and then there’s just the continual work of augmenting that in order to get to a “correct” interpretation. However, there’s a sedimentation effect that comes with the initial solving, and Bloodborne‘s lore seems relatively settled between the speculation of “The Paleblood Hunt” and Vaati’s explanation of the game’s lore. If you haven’t beaten the game, or you haven’t read and watched these, or you don’t want Bloodborne‘s lore spoiled for you, you should stop reading here.

II.
I have begun many experiments in the wake of my piece on Dark Souls and easy mode from a little while back. One of those was digging back into Bloodborne and beating it in cooperative play, and thanks to some really great anonymous hunters and Twitter friends, I finally completed it a week or so ago.

In that easy mode piece, part of my argument hinged on the lore. I find Bloodborne fascinating in a narrative and conceptual sense, but the act of playing it can be a real chore. I called for (and still want) an easy mode that would allow me to get the former without the friction of the latter. All of that aside, I got what I wanted–I got all that lore! Steeped in it and more than halfway through a replay, I now have Opinions About The Lore of Bloodborne (As Is My Right).

III.
The conclusion that the Vaati lore video comes to about the grand plot of Bloodborne is this: the Hunter’s Dream and the paleblood hunt that it enables is a longform method in order to facilitate you killing Mergo’s Wet Nurse to assert the dominance of the Moon Presence in some kind of cosmic game. That’s mostly fueled by the action funnel at the end of the game: when you kill the Wet Nurse, the Hunter’s Dream catches fire and Gehrman tells you that your job is over. Whatever the purpose of this iteration of the Hunter’s Dream was for, it is fulfilled, and the “dawn” ending has you coming out unscathed (the second ending has you taking over as guardian of the Hunter’s Dream, and the third has you wriggling into the position of an infant Great One. More on that in a bit.)

I think that most of that is true, and I wanted to take a few minutes here to do some speculation about a well-loved and important fulcrum of lore from the game in order to construct a different narrative about what is happening with the hunt, the Hunter’s Dream, and the relationship between the player, the Moon Presence, Mergo, and Oedon.

The Moon Presence, Oedon, and Mergo are all Great Ones. They’re Lovecraftian entities that are coextensive with the material world, the world of dreams, and the cosmos itself. They seem to have rankings in power, and they seem to have age. Much like humans, they are all unique beings, and despite all being Great Ones they are not unified in their desires.

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Oedon is the formless Great One who exists only in speech (the creator of the Caryll Runes is the only one to have contacted it) and in blood.

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Mergo is Oedon’s child that it had via impregnating Queen Yharnam, the Pthumerian Queen who can be seen after the fight with Rom and before the fight with Mergo’s Wet Nurse.

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The Moon Presence is the being that created the Hunter’s Dream and, as I will try to demonstrate, the Yharnam that we experience.

IV.
I do not believe that the Yharnam we play the game in is the Yharnam of the “waking world” that the Doll mentions so often and that we received our initial blood ministration in. While it’s pretty clear that there’s a layering and interconnectedness to the dream world that we access throughout the game, I find it really hard to accept or understand how the Yharnam that we play in could remotely be one in the material world, and it all has to do with a timeline.

It is impossible for all of the events that take place in the game to occur in the timeframe that they would have to if the Yharnam we play most of the game in is materially real. There just isn’t enough time for dungeons to be excavated, Great Ones to be talked to, Old Yharnam to be lived in and burned while the Healing Church and Byrgenwerth duke it out for methodological supremacy. Then you still have the experiments of the Choir, the complete creation of all of the grand gothic architecture in “new” Yharnam that is crafted around the Healing Church’s political supremacy, and the timeline of Old Hunters.

For some characters, like the Vilebloods and Martyr Logarius, it seems like the plot has taken hundreds of years. For others, like Father Gascoigne, it seems like a couple decades at the most.

I think that the Yharnam that we play the game in is a composite version of Yharnam created by the Moon Presence that “borrows” from the material world in the same way that the nightmare and dream world “borrows” from the dreams of characters. It seems fairly certain that the relationship the Gehrman and the Moon Presence have is based on some kind of deal around the Doll (replicating his former apprentice Maria) and the Hunter’s Dream. Yharnam is a “snapshot” of the world at the moment that deal was struck (with some augmentations since its initial creation) in the same way that the Hunter’s Dream is a “snapshot” of the Old Workshop (with some augmentations).

I think this interpretation is useful and helps smooth out some timeline problems, but it brings another question with it: why would the Moon Presence want this? We know that there have been Hunter’s Dreams in the past and that the graves that line the HD are those of previous hunters who have done the same thing the player is doing over the course of the dream. If they succeed in the mission given to them by the Moon Presence, they’re let go back into the material world; if they fail, by which we can assume they will never develop the skill to continue, they get dumped back into Yharnam (Eileen the Crow might be of this type).

The Moon Presence is running a simulation, over and over again, in order to find an agent that will kill Mergo in the “unsimulated” layer of the Nightmare of Mensis. It’s unclear what makes this time important–Mergo is the child of Queen Yharnam and Oedon hundreds or thousands of years ago. The question of Bloodborne really is “why now?” for these cosmic beings, and my assumption is centered on the School of Mensis. Only now, with the huge amount of power given over Mergo in the Nightmare of Mensis, is Mergo able to make the transition from baby Great One to a full-fledged one.

Maybe the Moon Presence is jealous. Maybe there’s only room for so many beings of this sort in the universe, and the elevation of one is a cataclysmic event for that species. It’s unclear what the reasoning behind the Moon Presence’s simulation-running is. But it’s success does have effects.

V.

Every Great One loses its child, and then yearns for a surrogate.

From a lore perspective, this line might do more work than any other in the game, and it’s hard to find an interpretation of the game that doesn’t build itself out from some reading of this line.

Mine is no different, but I take a less literal approach. Many interpreters of Bloodborne go to great pains to take this line as literally as possible: Mergo must have been stillborn and yet still present, the coming of the blood moon is an attempt to find a surrogate mother to either bring Mergo into the Yharnam or to create another child, and so on.

I read it a different way, and with all of the preamble I have given here, I’m just going to lay out what I think has happened over the course of the game assuming that one has used the three umbilical cords in order to create a “whole” umbilical cord that allows one to fight and defeat the Moon Presence. So here it goes.

Bygenwerth, the Healing Church, and the School of Mensis are all very deep in their respective channels of research into the Great Ones. Byrgenwerth are the stereotypes of scholars, and they’re totally enrapt in learning the Truth and growing eyes on the inside. The Healing Church is consolidating power, experimenting, and trying to manage the beast plague that they’ve accidentally seeded into their city. Neither of those organizations are paying much attention to the School of Mensis, who has not only successfully contacted an Great One in Mergo, but have partially constructed a fully-fledged research nightmare alongside a strange half-Great One in the Brain of Mensis.

During this moment of crisis, alone and replaced completely by the apparatus of the Church, Gehrman builds a doll to replace his student Maria. Using a third umbilical cord secreted away (perhaps from the corpse of Kos), he attempts to call out to an Great One to help with animating his doll into Maria. The Moon Presence hears this call, and it takes stock of the situation in Yharnam. It sees others of its species engaged in sympathetic acts, and for reasons unknown to us (and appropriately unknowable to us), it binds Gehrman in a pact. It creates its self-interested Mergo Murder Simulator, and it puts Gehrman in charge of it. By giving the old hunter exactly what he wanted, it damns him for a very, very long time (the rare voice clip from Gehrman confirms–he’s shackled to the dream).

Gehrman becomes the manager of the Yharnam simulation. He and the doll will live in the Hunter’s Dream funneling hunters toward Mergo in the hope that some hunter, at some point, will kill it.

Oedon knows that this process is happening. It knows that it will lose its child, and it knows that it will desire a surrogate. Being a Great One outside of our understanding of time and space, it sees what the Moon Presence has done in order to cut off Mergo’s sustenance from the School of Mensis. Oedon knows that it will lose its child just like all Great Ones do.

And so it creates its surrogate in the player. In a cosmic political maneuver, Oedon deploys his formless essence to create his surrogate child. The pregnancies at Oedon Chapel and Iosefka’s Clinic are not, as many have read them, yet more lost children, but rather they are means of creating more umbilical cords for the real surrogate to gain access to the power they would need in order to truly ascend.

The process of playing Bloodborne is one of playing through the Moon Presence’s simulation designed to facilitate the death of Mergo while also accumulating so much of Oedon’s essence that you become the child that Oedon wanted all along. When the Doll tells you that she can hear the ancient echoes in you, she really means that she can sense the bioaccumulation of Oedon’s essence in the player’s body. The Doll knows what is happening even if the absent Moon Presence does not.

This interpretation squares with 90% of other interpretations of the game, but this is the kind of grand, metaphysical battle that gives justification of Bloodborne‘s mechanical loop (in the same way that Dark Souls‘ Chosen Undead and the collapse of time and space justify its mechanics) and allows us to keep all of the other narrative pieces.

 

And those are my thoughts about the lore of Bloodborne.

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