Symposium

Fan labor, speculative fiction, and video game lore in the Bloodborne community

Kevin D. Ball

Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan, United States

[0.1] Abstract—This essay engages fans of the PlayStation 4 video game Bloodborne (FromSoftware, 2015), focusing on the ways in which fans of the game craft its abstract lore into new threads of narrative via online texts and videos, and a related controversy pertaining to the originality and authorship of those media texts that fans share as records of their lore hunts.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan community; FromSoftware; Lore hunt; Paratext; PlayStation 4; PS4

Ball, Kevin D. 2017. "Fan Labor, Speculative Fiction, and Video Game Lore in the Bloodborne Community." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 25. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2017.1156.

1. Introduction

[1.1] This essay explores the video game Bloodborne (FromSoftware, 2015) and the range of relevant paratextual and transformative acts that its fans have termed "lore hunting." It investigates the interweaving of game play and narrative in the video game's design and provides an account of a plagiarism controversy in the Bloodborne community that centers the economic and authorial dimensions of the lore hunt among fans. Bloodborne is a PlayStation 4–exclusive video game developed by FromSoftware, a Japanese studio that also produced the cult classic Demon's Souls (2009), followed by Dark Souls (2011), Dark Souls 2 (2014), and Dark Souls 3 (2016). Bloodborne is a Lovecraftian take on the Souls series' fantasy medieval settings and action role-playing style. In both Souls and Bloodborne, players implement an arsenal of melee and long-range weaponry and heavy and light attacks, and they make use of status upgrades to combat hordes of enemies often bound by mechanics similar to that of the player character.

[1.2] Bloodborne continues the cryptic and diffuse approach to narrative—or lore—familiar to fans of the Souls series. This sparse style of narration reveals sprawling fictional histories full of ambiguities that rely on players' interstitial and imaginative efforts for further elaboration. Close readings of item descriptions, environmental designs, and locations of objects in the game world yield a confounding tangle of mythology for dedicated fans to unravel. A robust fan discourse engaged in these lore hunts has emerged in which fans, across various Internet platforms, collate in-game and intertextual resources to theorize Bloodborne's story (note 1). These conversations often take the shape of speculative fiction; at times they generate conflicting territories of authorship and agency within the fan community.

2. Identification, depth, and narrative

Color image of a castle, seen from a distance through gnarled, foreboding trees, under a dark, cloudy night sky.

Figure 1. Image of Hemwick Charnel Lane, a location in Bloodborne. [View larger image.]

[2.1] In the spaces of gaming journalism and online discussion boards, the SoulsBorne (Dark Souls and Bloodborne) series is known for its considerable difficulty, a trait that holds a distinction among fans in a landscape that they think is cluttered with easier, more transparent games. The SoulsBorne games lack adjustable difficulty settings, and slight miscalculations are frequently punished with death, to the degree that their fail-state message—a bleakly centered, pithily stated "You Died" in crimson type—has become a popular fixture in the series' iconography. Players must time their dodge-roll maneuvers with precision, and the study of enemy animations and environmental details is necessary to avoid the loss of large swaths of health points (HP) at the hands of relentless enemies and hidden traps. Shuhei Yoshida, president of Sony Computer Entertainment when it published Bloodborne, used the intense challenge of FromSoftware's games to invoke nostalgia for retro games in a promotional "Making Of…" video for Bloodborne: "Games used to be challenging…back in the days. But over time, games have become kind of easier and more 'hand-holding' for consumers. That's great for [attracting] casual players, but there are always the consumers who remember the time we spent trying to understand the more challenging games" (note 2). This bifurcation of casual and hard-core players often resonates in fans' identification with the series, where completion indicates dedication and skill. As I will show, the unyielding nature of Bloodborne's game play and its reception in the fan community extends to the identificatory and affective play of the lore hunt in the narrative space.

[2.2] Yoshida's account of the temporality of "challenging games," in which a commitment of hours yields buried features, positions Bloodborne as a game that contains a substantial amount of depth—that is, the game is "difficult to master" and requires that "players…continually expand their repertoire of skills in order to progress" (Juul 2012, 41). Skill acquisition, however, does not fully account for the way in which FromSoftware obfuscates game mechanics to encourage speculative play. Daniel Vella (2015) argues that the Souls series—and by extension Bloodborne—weaves a certain precariousness into its game play as key mechanics are tucked away and intentionally withheld from the player's immediate grasp. All games, Vella notes, are complex in the sense that no single experience can encapsulate all of the dynamism they offer. The SoulsBorne games, however, work "to actively remind the player of the limits and the inadequacy of her perceptual opening onto the milieu of the game world, the computational systems underlying it, and the space of possibilities they structure." For instance, Vella identifies the "Peculiar Doll" item from Dark Souls as an "undefined entity" that intentionally omits its purpose and function from the text description associated with it. Concerning Bloodborne, there are optional areas locked behind nebulous conditions, well-hidden secret endings, and items like the Yharnam Stone, which, apart from their implications in the lore, appear to lack any ludic utility.

[2.3] Bloodborne's extension of the ludic text beyond the contours of mastery is consistent with the laconic and elusive style of its narrative. For fans of the series, the dense game play is commensurate with the narrative's dearth of exposition and its concomitant appeal to player agency. The appeal of this marriage of ludonarrative depth is clear in this fan's assessment of the overall attraction of the series:

[2.4] The SoulsBorne games [force] you to reevaluate your expectations of gaming. If you go in expecting exposition heavy cut scenes explaining the plot to you and big white arrows explaining how to have fun, you're shit out of luck…You are thrust into worlds full of mystery that you—the player—have to solve for yourself. (note 3)

[2.5] Cut scenes (prerendered cinematics inserted to communicate story information) are read here as a distraction from autonomous play. Similarly, "big white arrows" (most likely in reference to waypoint indicators that guide players to important objectives) in other games are criticized as didactic elements that imply a distrust of the player's ability to parse the game. Bloodborne's story and game play are framed here as parts of a broader mystery that the player must solve, which suggests that the two share a certain latticed integrity that is unlike other exposition-heavy games in which story content is divested of interpretive trespassing. The lore hunt is the work of solving the narrative half of this puzzle: an effort that manifests as a network of creative acts put forth by devoted fans.

3. Plagiarism and celebrity fans

[3.1] Hidetaka Miyazaki, Bloodborne's lead developer and respected auteur of the SoulsBorne series, supports the idea that the SoulsBorne games' stories and mechanics are designed in a way that embraces innovation from players: "I try to make a game that has beautiful open spaces, gaps, room for players to enjoy it in ways that were not authored" (Blain 2015). Many fans of the series express an appreciation of this point, but there is also a tendency to view the lore hunt as a recovery effort through which Miyazaki's original vision is laid bare. The latter characterization, however, is at odds with lore hunters' claims to authorship as they pursue audiences and funding for their individual projects.

[3.2] Redgrave, a Redditor and noted SoulsBorne fan, is celebrated for having written a 120-page speculative fiction/lore hunt of Bloodborne entitled The Paleblood Hunt (2015). The text was released for free as a Google document and was announced on Reddit as a deeper elaboration of the sporadic posts Redgrave had written there. Paleblood is an expansion of Bloodborne that draws from H. P. Lovecraft's mythos to fill the gaps in the lore. In the book's preface, Redgrave positions the work as an evolving open-source text that offers theories that will later be revised as the fannish episteme evolves:

[3.3] I don't think I've found [all of] the answers…I find it very likely that some, if not all, of my theories will be supplanted with better [theories]…I write this…to show what an evolving process our understanding of Bloodborne's lore has become…There is a truth out there…a real, singular truth that we can find. We just have to put the pieces of the puzzle together. (note 4)

[3.4] On the one hand, this statement modestly submits Paleblood to its community, framing the lore hunt as an almost altruistic and myopic pursuit of an official canon extrinsic to that community: the lore is Miyazaki's "puzzle," and it can be put together. On the other hand, it becomes clear that individual lore hunts hold their own authorial charge within the Bloodborne fan community when another highly visible lore hunter is accused of borrowing aspects of The Paleblood Hunt.

Color book cover of a tower, with a dark helmed figure holding weapons in both hands in the foreground, with clouds above and mist below. Title reads: Bloodborne. Subtitle reads: An Essay Analysis of the Eldrich Truth. Author line reads: By RedGrave.

Figure 2. Cover image of Redgrave's The Paleblood Hunt (Goodreads).

[3.5] On May 22, 2015, VaatiVidya, a SoulsBorne celebrity fan on YouTube, released a 30-minute video entitled "Bloodborne's Story Explained!" a month after Redgrave's The Paleblood Hunt was released. Consistent with VaatiVidya's style, the video uses composed game play footage to animate its voice-over narration as Bloodborne lore is dissected. Like Redgrave's Paleblood Hunt, "Story Explained!" begins with an epigraph from Lovecraft: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." This was apparently the red flag that led Redgrave to suspect that features of his work had directly and problematically influenced the video. On May 23, Redgrave started a new thread on the Reddit hub for Bloodborne discourse, r/bloodborne, entitled "VaatiVidya's lore analysis and my Paleblood Hunt thesis, am I justified in being upset or simply being paranoid?" The original post and most of Redgrave's responses have since been deleted, but this thread was the first of several to accuse VaatiVidya of appropriating elements of The Paleblood Hunt.

[3.6] Some of the interlocutors in Redgrave's thread defended VaatiVidya, contending that the redundancies in their interpretations were coincidental to the fact that they were lore hunts of the same object. One user wrote, "Lore is lore, mate. If you get it right, and VaatiVidya decided the same thing at the end of his lore hunt, you both just interpreted the same story the same way" (note 5). Other users pointed to previous instances in which similar grievances had come up against VaatiVidya to lend credence to Redgrave's suspicions. The allegations took the form of a grassroots uprising on Reddit in the sense that VaatiVidya's unimpeachable position in the SoulsBorne hierarchy was under threat. Furthermore, the assertion of Paleblood's originality elucidates the personal and professional stakes lore hunters have in their work beyond the dialogical norms of the discourse writ large.

[3.7] Complicating matters is the fact that VaatiVidya's YouTube platform has many subscribers and he receives monthly remuneration via Patreon. As a result, to say that VaatiVidya plagiarized The Paleblood Hunt is to suggest that one fan's free labor was monetized by a fan with celebrity status. VaatiVidya owns a Patreon account that pays $5,166 a month based on regular contributions from 1,132 patrons. His YouTube account has 926,112 subscribers, with over 127 million views in total. Aegon of Astora, another lore hunter and Redgrave collaborator, published the thread "VaatiVidya: Patreon-supported plagiarist? An investigative analysis" on July 7, 2015, reenergizing the plagiarism controversy. The thread linked to a video that analyzed the linguistic and conceptual similarities between Paleblood and "Story Explained!" Crucially, Aegon indicts VaatiVidya's celebrity status in the fan community, identifying it as a mode of difference that he leverages to aggressively overrepresent his contributions to the lore hunt: "VaatiVidya represents himself as existing outside of or apart from the community, and he represents [our] understanding of [these games] as beginning and ending with himself" (note 6). This line of attack highlights what is at stake in the dilemma: that VaatiVidya's vast influence and resources could reify and/or diminish the resonance of Redgrave's work, as has allegedly been the case elsewhere.

[3.8] In a published response to Aegon and Redgrave's claims, VaatiVidya denied plagiarizing Paleblood and rejected the idea that he presents his work as superior to the efforts of other fans. He recalled a previous incident early in his career in which he had borrowed aspects of another lore hunter's work as precedent for the thoroughness with which he has cited his inspirations since. While VaatiVidya did admit to having read parts of Paleblood before crafting "Story Explained!," he claimed that he had stopped reading the text early on to prevent it from "coloring his opinions" on the lore. On Aegon's criticism of his celebrity status in the community, VaatiVidya wrote, "I've never made myself out to be a community representative, nor this amazing artist who does an incredible service…I exist within this community just like everybody else does" (note 7). What is significant here is the competitive spaces of authorship in which these paratexts exist, and the notion that the lore hunt is not simply a collective organized holistically by shared interest. Partly as a result of FromSoftware's leaving the hermeneutics of lore to the discretion of players, luminaries in the SoulsBorne community gain a larger say in the canon as the community works to construct it; thus it becomes crucial that celebrity fans highlight the efforts of those working at the grassroots level, lest they invite similar charges of exploitation.

4. Conclusion

[4.1] Ultimately, the Redgrave-VaatiVidya controversy reached a swift and neutral, if not amicable, conclusion, with Redgrave starting a YouTube channel to address the disagreement and to continue producing lore in video form and VaatiVidya falling silent regarding the incident. Yet the controversy stands as a pivotal moment in the history of the SoulsBorne community that foregrounded questions of authorship and fan labor.

[4.2] It is not unusual to portray the instability of authorial control as an antagonism between proprietary interests and the fans who read against or subvert them. However, in the lore hunt, Miyazaki and FromSoftware have given way to fans, who are left to reconstitute the stories among themselves. In this way, the fissures and arguments within the Bloodborne community pertain not only to compensation but also to the resources that allow prominent fans to potentially marginalize the contributions of less visible fans engaged in the hunt (which is not to say that this was VaatiVidya's explicit intention). The need to celebrate the uniqueness and style of individual lore hunts means that the act itself is not derivative of an overriding vision owned by the game's developers. Rather, each lore hunt is a creative act of inspired analysis existing in a hierarchy of related, shareable, and marketable ideas.

5. Notes

1. Similar lore communities preexist Bloodborne in the Souls series' tradition. Fans derived the concept of lore hunting from the Night of the Hunt, in which Bloodborne's story takes place.

2. See IGN, "Making Bloodborne: Part 2—A PS4 Exclusive," YouTube, February 23, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oiGPTI06fn8.

3. See u/brvtus, "What makes Bloodborne so good?" Reddit, 2015, https://www.reddit.com/r/bloodborne/comments/3ew86q/what_makes_bloodborne_so_good/?st=j0yoe6if&sh=fe96c720.

4. See u/dmcredgrave, The Paleblood Hunt, Google Docs, 2015, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1JL5acskAT_2t062HILImBkV8eXAwaqOj611mSjK-vZ8/edit.

5. See u/PimpnCereal, "VaatiVidya's lore analysis and my Paleblood Hunt thesis, am I justified in being upset or simply being paranoid?" Reddit, 2015, https://www.reddit.com/r/bloodborne/comments/36xszb/vaatividyas_lore_analysis_and_my_paleblood_hunt/?st=j18%C2%B0abu2&sh=4af2d5a2.

6. Aegon of Astora, "On Community and Controversy," YouTube, July 10, 2015 (video retracted).

7. VaatiVidya, "On Plagiarism," Evernote, 2015, https://www.evernote.com/shard/s281/sh/d8d3bffc-3866-46d5-924c-d3636f59644d/7adb7cc52beb8489.

6. Works cited

Blain, Louisa. 2015. "Miyazaki Says Dark Souls 'Has Been Completed by Players,' So No More Secrets Then." Gamesradar, December 16. http://www.gamesradar.com/miyazaki-says-dark-souls-has-been-completed-players-so-no-more-secrets-then/.

Juul, Jesper. 2012. A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Vella, Daniel. 2015. "No Mastery without Mystery: Dark Souls and the Ludic Sublime." Game Studies 15 (1). http://gamestudies.org/1501/articles/vella.



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