Bloodborne: At Home in an Ugly World
Submitted by John Wiswell
It’s early in Bloodborne and your Hunter is exploring one of the first houses in the game. There are a few hidden enemies lurking, but you already know how to spot and dispatch them. You come downstairs and take out the last enemy with a thunderous backstab. You’ve mastered backstabbing. You’re getting the hang of this game.
A stray item glows in the center of the room, next to a man slumping in a wheelchair. He’s unresponsive as you approach, so you blow past him to scoop up the item. That’s when he sits up and shoots you in the back.
That gunman surprises so many players because they expect people in wheelchairs to be passive. They don’t even expect to see disabled characters in action games at all. Too often, disabled gamers don’t expect to see ourselves represented. That’s why getting shot in the back is refreshing. It’s the start of something.
The man is the poster child for something welcoming in this gross setting. In Yharnam, disabled citizens are as dirty and maniacal as abled-bodied citizens. They’re part of a culture that is descending into violence. That means they are also some of the enemies you’ll be farming to level up, which could have been repugnant. But what would actually be repugnant would be if disabled characters were unusually horrible and monstrous, as they are in too many other games.
Mobs roam the streets and will attack you on sight in fear that you’re a cursed beast. Most of these mobs are abled people, but among them are characters with noticeable spinal problems and bodily dysmorphias. They carry similar weapons and aren’t treated as any less capable. In this world, they’re just part of the mobs.
Deeper into the city you’ll face Hunters with dwarfism, armed just like your own Hunter character, and they will absolutely shred you if you aren’t careful. There’s no text log explaining when Little People were introduced to the Hunters. It’s not an aberration or a big deal here. As far as we know, Little People have always been part of the order.
It goes on – one of the first elevators is guarded by another wheelchair user – and this one uses a Gatling gun. Some dungeons are patrolled by giant amputees with saber prosthetics. They’ve adapted to this violent society. They belong in this gross space as much as anybody does.
Now there is some lovable rep. The Oedon Chapel Dweller has multiple health issues and is the most heartwarming character in the game. He gives sanctuary to other survivors you find. Any player who doesn’t cherish him is the real monster in this world.
For the most part, Bloodborne isn’t interested in aspirational fantasy. We don’t look to it for disabled role models. Instead, it says that disability is part of the norm, and decays like anything else. That’s an essential message in a story that turns out to be about a world that was promised a cure that was actually poisoning it. All of this menace is the meddling of Fantasy’s answer to Big Pharma.
The largest disability theme here is mental illness. We know something is wrong with the mobs, and hope there’s something more than another “crazy is evil” story. Then we notice the Insight stat. Insight goes up when you experience uncanny plot events, or defeat particularly nightmarish monsters, or consume specific items. Once Insight rises high enough your character can see eldritch beings that were in the environment all along but weren’t visible to normal minds. That weird halo that tried to grab you in the early game? Now you know that was a great beast reaching through from another dimension to grab you.
Insight t is not mental illness. It’s about being able to see the world differently, and process overwhelming knowledge. Madman’s Knowledge is an item that lets you absorb the experience of people who directly experienced the gods, and even the name references that it’s the lived experience, not the condition that matters. These people weren’t “crazy,” and the mentally ill can have literal insight into the way the cosmos works that abled people should’ve heeded sooner. This theme is often brought up when talking about people with schizophrenia.
It’s funny to feel comfortable in such a dangerous place. If you’re the player character, you’ll have to fight to survive the night. But if you aren’t – if you’re just another disabled citizen – then this world might have a place for you. Even if looking at it makes me want to wash my hands, that’s unusual. It’s why I’ll vacation again in Yharnam this summer.