“I am going to tell you something, little creature. You are swimming further and further out to sea, and beyond are things blind and terrible.” – Night in the Woods
Beneath the twisted, Gothic spires of cursed Yharnam, a stranger puts a signature on a mephistolian contract. A deal is struck. On a dimly lit operating table, dusty leather brushes against cold manacles. Dark blood from an unknown source lurches through the stranger’s body. “Don’t you worry”, a haggard apothecary assures the stranger “Whatever happens, you may think it all a mere bad dream”
Another time, another place, and a young college dropout wakes from a bad dream of her own. A dream of ghostly jazz musicians, of lamps flickering over the distorted landscape that was once her sleepy hometown of Possum Springs. Somewhere above it all, the cosmos shifts, the moon hangs low, and a voice from outside of time haunts her once carefree sleep. She sits up in bed, her head pounding from the keg at last night’s party. She doesn’t remember much, but she recalls losing herself. She remembers talk of horror, of loneliness and murder. She remembers that she has nightmare eyes.
Bloodborne and Night in the Woods are two very different games, but games that share a common eldritch bloodline. The works of H.P Lovecraft – much like the elder deities that writhe throughout their pages – have transcended time and space to become a cultural monolith. Howard Phillips Lovecraft died in poverty, but was there a cultist seance to dredge up his spirit today, he’d no doubt live comfortably on the royalties from Cthulu t-shirts alone. His posthumous influence has risen from pulp to pop; a tentacled touch that can be felt everywhere from the movies of Guillermo Del Toro to the writings of Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore. Both Bloodborne and Night in the Woods carry the undulating echoes of Lovecraft. One as a renovation of narrative architecture; a grand, gothic cathedral in dedication to the physical forms of unmentionable horrors. The other as personal allegory and subversion – a suggestion that, perhaps, the greatest unknowns are lurking somewhere inside of ourselves.
“I got this creeping dread thing going on, so just ignore me”, Mae tells her friends. She has a poster on her wall for a band named Witchdagger. She rents horror films at pizza parties. She plays Demon Tower, a rogue-like inhabited by stygian monsters. Mae is us. A fan of Lovecraft through cultural osmosis, if not direct experience. Mae’s fears are our fears; the passage of time not as unfathomable aeons under which civilizations die and cyclopean cities slip from memory, but as wasted days and creeping seasons that turn evergreen friendships to faded autumnal snapshots. Where Bloodborne‘s Old Ones lurk just beneath the veil of a brittle reality, grasping at the living when they stray too close, the forces in Possum Springs can be felt in every pasta place shutting shop. Every repossessed house, and every teenager with bleak prospects for the future.
“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far” – The Call of Cthulu, H.P Lovecraft
In Bloodborne, the steady erosion of Lovecraft’s ‘placid island’ is represented by the insight mechanic – a score next to an eye that increases with collectibles and notable encounters, revealing Yharnam’s eldritch truths. It’s a conceit that attempts to bring tangibility to something ethereal – revelatory madness as existential dread 1-ups; cosmic horror gold stars. An easy point of parody for Lovecraft’s fiction has always been its overuse of vague grandiosity, but how does one successfully describe the unknowable? Bloodborne combats
the limits of language with mechanics, and eventually, with the nightmarish creatures themselves. But an Elder God with a health bar is vanquishable, stripped of mystery. Bloodborne builds on the mythos’ aesthetic, but loses a fundamental part of its essence.
Night in the Woods ditches the tentacles and focuses on the terror. For Mae, the encroaching ‘black sea of infinity’ is adulthood, and Lovecraft’s ‘sleeping abnormalities’ make themselves known through small-town ennui. “What is a ghost..” Mae’s friend Angus asks her “…but that which haunts the empty space?”. Every street corner is a graveyard for Mae and her friends. New buildings are headstones for tender nostalgia. A dilemma used to mean a choice of pizza toppings. Now, as uncertain futures rear their head above the waves, like dreadful Cthulu risen from sleep, they have become trapped by circumstance. Mae and her friends are post-punk Lovecraftian protagonists, their life force sapped by the eldritch grasp of depression, both personal and economic. Bloodborne‘s Great Old Ones are beyond the scope of human comprehension. The problems faced by the all-too-human animals in Night in the Woods can be understood. But their causes are so structurally intertwined with decisions made years before they were born, or else so buried within themselves, that they may as well be cosmic gods.
What’s left to do then, on the night of the hunt, and at the end of everything, but to take the fight to them? Bloodborne‘s hunters fight with Sawcleavers and Blunderbusses, with steel and gunpowder, but mostly, they fight alone. When Mae suggests she solo the dark woods, her friends refuse to dignify her suggestion with a response. They go together, that’s just how it is. The finale of Night in the Woods brings them close to stuff of nightmares, but the real fight has already taken place. They’ve tested their friendship against all the Shoggoths and Whipoorwills of stress and depression, and they’ve already won. For Bloodborne, humanity is insignificant. A tiny cog in an uncaring universe. For Night in The Woods, we may be insignificant, but that doesn’t mean our stories aren’t worth telling.
- Nic Rueben