Contains spoilers for Bloodborne: The Old Hunters DLC
“A hunter who goes drunk with blood is said to be taken by the Nightmare, destined to wander forever, engaged in an endless hunt. It is a fate that no Hunter can escape” — Eye of the Blood-Drunk Hunter
There’s a brain loop I get stuck in. A persistent re-rehearsal of a moment in time that I can’t undo, the outcome is fixed and immutable. Over a decade old and as much as I try to hold it back, it grabs me from time to time and I’m back on the steps of my old home.
The antebellum row house, formerly stately, lies in a derelict state. The tree in the front garden pruned to literal death, the vibrant hunter green door faded and peeling like the lacquer that protected the now-tarnished brass kickplate. And my stepfather: bloated, sweaty, and jaundiced, sitting on the crumbling front porch by windows that are more grime than glass. Nothing I say to him can pull him from this place. I haven’t seen him since before I started college and moved out. Not until this moment when I felt compelled to urge him from this stasis of shame. But I try, running the lines I said then, trying new ones, overwhelmed in a disembodied simulation of my own trauma and trying to move a fixed shadow of his own.
It always ends the same: “I made choices and I have to live with them.” Months later, he was dead. And this moment, already stabbed deep inside me, became a sucking wound. Something I would have to live with.
Bloodborne, like many games bearing Hidetaka Miyazaki’s fingerprints, is a vivid evocation of trauma. It blooms like crypt moss stretching up from mycelial tendrils woven deep through every layer of the game. Both in the virtual world of Yharnam and our own, trauma exists outside of time, encoded on a cellular level, imprinted on our psyches, and buried in the spaces it occurred. Events, even far back in the past, reach out across vast distances to grab us, amygdala-like. They take hold and pull us deeply into nightmares already experienced.
From the fevered beginnings of Yharnam’s dissolution to the aftermath of a violent massacre of a fishing village, we are ostensibly tasked with putting to rest the hunters trapped in a nightmare. The horrors of the past rise up and swallow us whole.
It’s a time travel narrative, but not a resolvable one. Whether halting Skynet, or saving Marty McFly’s family from themselves, time travel is typically a fantasy of changing a present outcome by altering a previous event. But in the twisting dream simulation of Bloodborne, that isn’t even a complicated possibility.
Suffering happened—it cannot be undone or prevented.
As explicative as The Old Hunters is, this is also a narrative that is mostly concerned with exploring its own questions. A core inquiry in The Old Hunters is: how do we contend with trauma? And at what point does punishment outweigh the initial harm done? If we cannot upend the past, how do we go forward in a world built on a secreted and immense wound? Where do we even begin with forgiveness?
As with the core game, and nearly every From Software title before it, answers are elusive. Healing and forgiveness are never as straightforward or perfect as we’d like to believe or hope.
“Maria had hoped Adeline would find comfort in the faint breeze that carried the scent of flowers from the outside, but Adeline couldn’t fathom her intentions.” – Balcony Key
The NPCs we encounter in The Old Hunters (the ones who will actually speak to us) are each “living” with the burdens of historical traumas. Their failures in life, ones that created massive traumatic rifts, are now psychic dream prisons.
In the Research Hall we find the victims of horrific experimentation. People in various states of transfiguration into still-sentient brain blobs, others strapped to hospital beds in anguish and filth. It’s here where the Church explored and attempted to perfect their attempts to connect with (and control) the divine cosmic power of the Old Gods. These “patients” are the unwitting subjects of this ghoulish mission to advance power and control for the Church. When killed, they return. The tragedy of their existence endures from cycle to cycle. And it is their suffering that darkens the halls and laboratories of this nexus as much as the depravities of their captors.
In their time, we can infer that they were watched over by Lady Maria, marred by guilt for her actions as a Hunter. Whether it’s a form of Stockholm Syndrome or not, many of the subjects think fondly of her. She offered gifts to some—small measures of peace—a misunderstood gift of care, as paltry atonement for her complicity.
Having become disgusted with the atrocities she committed, Lady Maria became caretaker of the “patients” of the ghoulish experiments the Church carried out in the Research Hall. Maria’s gifts and care provided to the victims of the Healing Church’s barbaric science are misunderstood, and these attempts at atonement through small kindnesses were seemingly unable to undo her guilt and shame. We find her, seemingly having taken her own life, at the top of the facility. When fought she viciously wounds herself, an act of self-flagellation that tragically only makes her more effective as the thing she hated herself for becoming.
“…Please, I need you to do something…
…This village is the true secret.
Testament to the old sins…
…It feeds this Hunter’s Nightmare…
…Please, bring to an end the horror…
…So our forefathers sinned?
…We hunters cannot bear their weight forever…
…It isn’t fair, it just isn’t fair…” — Simon the Harrowed
The final shift of the Nightmare takes us to a fishing hamlet, a village laid to waste by the old Hunters. Desolate, damp, and dark, it bears its wounds fully. The few remaining people have twisted into horrific marine beastmen who attack any intruders (including us). These mutations come from the Old God they worship—Kos—the one that the Hunters came here for.
When we meet Simon the Harrowed here, he is dying at the hands of a Church assassin who finally caught up to him. He begs us to end the Nightmare in his stead. He once was a Hunter too, but having learned the truth of the grotesque legacy of violence he was party to, he turned on the Church. He entered the Nightmare, much like we did, but with the purpose of ending it, and freeing his fellow hunters from their torment, only to die a failure.
“Lay the curse of blood upon them, and their children, and their children’s children, for evermore. Each wretched birth will plunge each child into a lifetime of misery. Mercy, for the poor, wizened child… Let the pungence of Kos cling, like a mother’s devotion…” — Befuddled Villager
Bloodborne, like other From Software games, sees a world of trauma through a lens of violence. We can only undo the Nightmare through slaying it. Only find a maybe-salvation for the Hunters trapped in it through killing them. Even the poor Orphan of Kos can only be returned to the sea that spawned him through murder.
When we finally ‘slay’ the Nightmare, the only indication of lasting effect is in the Hunter’s Dream, where the Doll thanks us for helping Gehrman to sleep better. We must assume that our actions in slaughtering our way through the past have at least allayed his heavy heart, that those Old Hunters are no longer being tortured. But it leaves me uncomfortable. Who are we to offer absolution to Hunters? Is it our place to say when their punishment has been enough?
Bloodborne isn’t exactly a space where one should expect restorative justice.
The Old Hunters doesn’t suppose there is any end to the suffering of the victims in the Nightmare. It would be easy enough to add in that dialogue, but it doesn’t. The ‘patients’ in the Research Hall, the surviving mutated villagers stalking these darkened landscapes (and the ones butchered by the Church)—by leaving them out of the option of release, it suggests their suffering can’t be undone.
Even if we are able to accept the notion of forgiveness for the Hunters (and I certainly struggle with the idea), forgiveness doesn’t erase that harm happened. Trauma weaves into who we are, the spaces we inhabit, and the best we can do is learn how to live with it.
In all likelihood, I will revisit that fateful day on my stepfather’s porch. It’ll come to me in dreams, when something jars loose the memory. It’s indelibly etched into who I am. And while I have forgiven my stepfather, it took years to be able to do so. And as for healing? That wound has at best become painfully-knitted scar tissue.
The Old Hunters can’t answer the questions it sets out to explore. It can present to us a complicated balance of morally compromised (but perhaps sympathetic) characters, their victims, a series of atrocities, and a hurried conclusion. But it cannot provide resolution. These aren’t puzzles to be unlocked, they’re eternal questions that everyone has to contend with, individually and collectively. It’s up to us to sit with them and our traumas, so that maybe we can find our own answers.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer, photographer, and founding editor of CapsuleCrit.com, a monthly journal dedicated to microgenre work about games. She tweets too much at @dialacina.