Apparently, writing deep dives into disability representation in various video games is something I do now, having previously covered the Mass Effect trilogy and Horizon: Forbidden West. The next game on my list is one that prominently features disabled characters throughout, yet despite having seen other people playing it, it wasn’t until playing it myself that I realised just how integral disability is to the game, that game being Bloodborne.
The events that take place in Bloodborne are kicked off long before the start of the game with the discovery of a fallen “Great One”, a Lovecraftian Eldritch mass of tentacles and eyes with Godlike power, in the ruins of a previous civilisation below the city of Yarnham. A school where the power of the great ones is studied is established, and it is discovered that the blood of a Great One can cure any and all diseases. While the head of the school urges caution, a renegade student called Lawrence establishes the Healing Church, and sick and disabled citizens from across the world flock to Victorian-esque Yarnham to consume the blood. Unfortunately, in a situation highly reminiscent of the use of Thalidomide to treat nausea and sickness during pregnancy resulting in harm to the foetuses, the consequences of consuming the Great One’s blood are dire. People are slowly but surely turned into beasts, violent creatures which are healthier, stronger, faster, and hairier than humans. Indeed, most of the bosses in the early game are such beasts, essentially being werewolves on steroids.
Of course, the answer to the problems with consuming the blood of the Great One’s is to consume more blood. The Hunters are established; people who consume blood to gain powers similar to the beasts, who use said powers to kill the beasts, ultimately succumbing to the beast-form until another newer Hunter comes along and kills them. The gates of Yarnham are sealed to the rest of the world, trapping everyone inside as they becomes beasts, and as the Healing Church crumbles while it’s leaders succumb to the blood. In comes the playable character, a new Hunter subjected to the blood therapy sent to rid the world of beasts, under the watchful eye of Gehrman, the first Hunter.
There is actually a lot more nuance and detail to the lore of Bloodborne than I can cover here, so if you want to know more I highly recommend watching this YouTube video, but for the purposes of exploring disability representation in Bloodborne, that’s all you need to know.
The opening stages of the game take place in Yarnham, a hub of Victorian-style architecture with more steps than every listed building in the entirety of Britain combined. Despite this, both occupied and empty wheelchairs are scattered throughout the streets. While it would have been easy have wheelchair-using characters as little more than set-dressings there to emphasise why so many flocked to the city in the first place, these wheelchair users can and absolutely will attack you if you get too close. In general, ranged weapons are preferred, with pistols and shotguns being the most common type of weapon wielded by these enemies. However, there are also several wheelchair users with miniguns mounted to their wheelchairs, being some of the deadliest combatants early in the game. Nor was this type of enemy any weaker than their ambulatory counter-parts, taking just as many (if not more) hits to go down. Despite having died to them many times, I still felt bad slashing them to pieces with my axe, especially when in doing so I managed to push one of them backwards over the edge of a very tall tower. Oops.
The studio that produced Bloodborne, From Software, are known for leaving traps in their games, most of which result in hilarious instant deaths (of the playable character, not the player). The most famous of these traps are the mimics, creatures which disguise themselves as treasure chests that when “looted” spring to life. Bloodborne has no mimics but has several other traps, such as the swinging log traps in the forest outside Yarnham, and this pattern continues into the expansion for the game. In a twisted version of Yarnham known as the Nightmare, you can enter a house where a wheelchair user can be seen facing away from the player, a glowing loot item at their feet. Upon looting the item they do not attack, but an odd ticking sound can be heard, and if you don’t move away quickly enough you will be blown to smithereens as the seemingly placid wheelchair user sets off the bomb they were sitting on.
These wheelchair-using enemies are surprisingly empowering. While the entire plot revolves around debilitating diseases, with some characters like Lawrence seemingly set on eradicating most disabilities altogether, it was wonderful to see that those people who had travelled to and become trapped in Yarnham did not fall into despair, instead picking up arms and fighting those who consumed the blood that was meant to cure them. They weren’t played for pity, or for laughs. It really was strangely empowering.
The standard wheelchair-using enemies are excellent, but there is still one more character to discuss; Gehrman the first Hunter. Gehrman guides you through the first half of the game, instructing you on where to go and who to kill, and is by this time very old and seemingly unable to go chasing after beasts as in days gone by. In his old age, he has taken to using a wheelchair. About mid-way through the game he disappears.
This is because Gehrman is the final, or second-to-last if you have consumed three umbilical cords (no, I’m not joking), boss of the game. The old, cranky wheelchair user is the last big obstacle you have to face. You can choose to let him kill you, you can fight him and take his place guiding new hunters through your ordeal, or if you’ve eaten some tasty umbilical cords, you can fight Gehrman and then fight the Great One known as the Moon Presence, essentially ending the nightmarish construct in which you have been held captive all along.
If you choose to fight Gehrman, he is revealed to be an ambulatory wheelchair user, something which I suspect had more impact if you were still labouring under the impression that all wheelchair users are completely paralysed from the waist down. While moving around is clearly painful for him, Gehrman makes use of his Hunter abilities to zip back and forth around the field you fight in, primarily using melee weapons to rip chunks away from your precious health bar. It’s a tough fight but a satisfying one, and I certainly felt bad dealing the final blow.
From Software games often feature disabled characters and bosses, primarily either having had limbs or eyes removed. However, Bloodborne is the only one of these games where I have seen disability feature quite so prominently, where it’s existence was integral to the plot, and where disability was depicted as being more complex and fluid than traditional depictions that focus on paralysis or limb loss as the only reasons someone would need a mobility aid. In other games, disability is often one-dimensional if it appears at all. As the credits rolled after defeating the Moon Presence, I was blown away that I had never before encountered a depiction of disability in video games that wasn’t at least 75% misrepresentations and ableism. I definitely want to see more of this in games, not just by From Software but other games as well. Disability is so often hidden away in pop culture, and it made a refreshing change to occasionally have my head blown off by someone who wasn’t stood on two legs.