One Mechanic Defines The Game
Alexander Pope once said that "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Nowhere is this truer than the world of From Software's 2015 masterpiece Bloodborne. In the city of Yharnam, knowledge is at once an extremely valuable resource, a source of immeasurable power, and the cause of the city's downfall. While knowledge provides characters like Laurence and Ludwig with incredible strength and endurance, many of Yharnam's most prominent figures (including these two) are brought low by knowing things they shouldn't.
Warning: spoilers for many of Bloodborne's surprises follow.
This shouldn't come as a surprise when one considers that Bloodborne's chief influence is the work of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, whose work concerned man's insignificance in a universe full of creatures more great and terrible than we ever could be. Lovecraft's work, though, was not in video games (obviously), and this theme is a lot harder to communicate when the person consuming the media is given agency over their actions.
For Bloodborne, From Software needed to find a way to integrate knowledge and its effects into gameplay, otherwise the theme might feel flat and rote. What the team came up with is at once apropos, elegant, and subtly terrifying. The "Insight" mechanic is one of the most mechanically apt, narratively fascinating, and satisfying gameplay features in video games.
Insight effectively functions as both a progress meter and a form of currency at first. Most players will probably die against the werewolf-like creature in the sick room at the game's beginning; it's a hugely tough encounter that is a real slog without weapons, so it's not ridiculous to assume From Software wanted this to be the case. Upon dying, players are transported to an ethereal dream realm called the Hunter's Dream, which will serve as a hub for exploration and powering up the player character throughout the game.
After a bit of wandering about and getting repeatedly killed (if it goes like it did for me), players will eventually come across their first scrap of Insight. There are two ways in which this can be accomplished. Players will likely either come across one of the game's two "first bosses," the Cleric Beast and Father Gascoigne, both of which grant a single point of Insight for finding them. It's also possible to find an item called "Madman's Knowledge" on a corpse early on in the game. Madman's Knowledge (along with its more powerful version, Great One's Wisdom) is a sort of consumable Insight item (rather like Humanity in Dark Souls). Insight is represented in-game by an eye, significant because it literally affects what the player sees in the game world.
Once Insight has been obtained, the game begins to change in both obvious and subtle ways. The Doll, who is the player's only means of improving their stats, awakens within the dream and can be interacted with once the player has one or more Insight points. This is the way in which Bloodborne communicates the nature of its world: what's around you can literally change as you gain more knowledge, sometimes in good ways, sometimes in bad.
The extent to which Insight affects the game's world doesn't become apparent until a little later on, though, when enemies begin to use different attacks and approach the player in different ways depending on their current Insight level. The Church Doctor, for example, carries a glowing lantern that shoots arcane bolts at the player if they have enough Insight. Similarly, the Church Doctors outside Vicar Amelia's boss room, who wield giant crucifixes, gain a Frenzy-inducing blood aura if the player has a high Insight score. The theme of "forbidden knowledge" is thus reinforced by the ways in which enemies try to punish the player for literally knowing too much.
The Insight mechanic is also a great way to encourage players not to hold on to their currency for too long. Although Blood Echoes don't have any effect on enemies and the player's interaction with the world, Insight does, and it's a good way to procure a lot of items that can't be obtained through normal means. Insight is also the resource players use to summon co-op helpers a la Dark Souls, so the increased hostility of enemies and the world could be seen as From Software encouraging players to use this mechanic less sparingly (Bloodborne and its predecessors are arguably built around co-op in many areas). It's also possible to buy armor and other equipment through Insight, and it's the only way that armor can be bought.
Insight also governs two of Bloodborne's status effects: Beasthood and Frenzy. Beasthood determines the player's physical attack power when using the Beast Claw weapon or Beast Blood Pellet item. Spending Insight increases the Beasthood stat, making the player more deadly. Hanging on to Insight reduces Beasthood, so "losing" knowledge makes the character stronger. This chimes perfectly with the madness Insight is said to bring; the Madman's Knowledge item description states that the "eldritch wisdom" conferred by the item "drives one mad."
Each additional point of Insight also reduces the player's Frenzy resistance. Certain enemies inflict Frenzy, which is Bloodborne's version of the Bleed effect from Dark Souls. A bar builds up on-screen, and once it's full, the player takes a huge amount of HP damage. In Bloodborne, though, Frenzy is far more thematically relevant than Dark Souls' Bleed. Simply put, knowing more makes one mad. The more Insight the player carries, the more susceptible they are to Frenzy. This is a theme right out of the works of H.P. Lovecraft; in Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, simply looking at the Great Old Ones is enough to drive one insane, and Bloodborne takes this concept and ingeniously applies it to gameplay. Spending Insight increases one's Frenzy resistance, too, which is a desirable effect; a low Frenzy resistance makes certain sections of the game nigh-impossible.
Why, then, would a high Insight score be desirable? Well, it's ... sort of not. Knowledge is, after all, forbidden in Bloodborne's universe, and is literally the ruin of more than one of its pivotal characters. Ludwig, Laurence, and Master Willem were all effectively destroyed by knowledge; in the Old Hunters DLC, we see Ludwig and Laurence reduced to tragic monstrosities, while Willem's experiments with the knowledge of the Great Ones has rendered him an incoherent mess who can only point to the lake that contains the culmination of his experimental failures (Rom, the Vacuous Spider). As such, Bloodborne literally does not want you to know anything. It does not want you to carry a lot of Insight around with you, as it will make the game significantly harder.
With Insight, though, the player starts to see and hear things. Winter Lanterns, the horrifying "brain head" enemies in the Nightmare areas, begin to sing off-key if enough Insight is gathered. A baby can be heard crying throughout Yharnam (this happens naturally anyway on reaching the Mergo's Loft area, but if 99 Insight is gathered beforehand, the baby can be heard everywhere except the Hunter's Dream). Huge, horrifying Amygdala abominations are visible, clinging to Yharnam's buildings as though sucking the life out of them. Gehrman, the old hunter in the Dream, can be heard muttering to himself, spouting broken fragments of the game's plot.
Insight might make the game harder, but it also makes the world of Yharnam a dozen times more intriguing. Here, then, is the central gameplay and narrative loop of not only Bloodborne but the entire Souls series in a nutshell: to discover more, we must face increasingly difficult challenges. Insight takes that idea as a microcos (or some say microcosm) and applies it to a gameplay mechanic. Knowing more makes the game harder, but also makes the world much more interesting to navigate. The horror of Bloodborne operates on not only human revulsion but also the natural instinct for curiosity. Just what is that thing in the distance? With Insight, you'll find out, but you'll probably wish you hadn't.
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