“Bear in mind.
Some places are better left untouched, and some secrets are better left alone.
…Only fools do brazenly roam.”
After the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and countless other Black people at the hands of police in 2020 alone, a trend emerged among new outlets. As protests revived the age-old phrase “All Cops Are Bastards” (ACAB), publications and stations, particularly local news, responded with an uptick in the number of stories about police officers helping people.
“They’re not like that here,” they seemed to say. “We have the good ones.” An officer kneeling with protesters. “Don’t worry.” Officers helping children get home. “Don’t riot.” An officer explaining why a young Black child doesn’t need to be scared while their hand never leaves their service pistol, just in case.
Buried among these stories were a series of officers leaving the force, willingly or forcibly.
On May 29th, 2020, Florissa Fuentes posted to her personal Instagram a supportive photo of her niece at a Black Lives Matter protest in Atlanta. At the time Feuntes made the post, she was a recently-promoted, off-duty police officer in Springfield, Massachusetts.
The single Latina mother of three began to immediately receive concerned, agitated, and outright angry calls from her co-workers, culminating in a message from her Captain saying that Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood was upset and wanted to meet with her.
On June 19th, Fuentes and the rest of the Springfield Police Department posed for a “police unity” photograph. The Commissioner reportedly drove by and waved in support. Later that day, president of the police union Joseph Gentile let Fuentes know that she would be fired if she did not resign.
She was fired.
“Let the hunter be safe, Let [them] find comfort.
And let this Dream, [their] captor, foretell a pleasant awakening
And be, one day, a fond, distant memory”
A player’s first encounter with so many games is to violently flail against an enemy, expecting to fail because no one has told you how to play the game yet. In the case of Bloodborne (2015), you try to kill a giant werewolf with only your fists.
And, like so many games by Japanese development team FromSoftware, you have next to no information about what is happening, why it is happening, and why you had to die so unceremoniously. But violence is the only way a player can progress.
By design, the game limits your options of interaction: You can read about the items of the world, you can sometimes give people some of these items, you can talk to people with a very limited set of dialogue prompts, or you can kill them. Only the last one of these is necessary to progress the game. Most of the time, violence is the only method of interaction you have.
In Bloodborne, you kill and you get better at killing, or you quit.
Thankfully, the players are given impossible power and impunity. There is next to no penalty for dying in the game thanks to a force called the Hunter’s Dream.
When the player first encounters that giant, injured werewolf, they are meant to fail, to die by its hand, and in doing so, learn about one of the game’s core mechanics: A pocket dimension where a doll and an old Hunter can provide the player support. More importantly, perhaps, is that it provides a functional immortality. The player can die any number of times and all they lose are the in-game currency that they collected in that life.
Much like Emily Blunt to Tom Cruise, the Plain Doll in the Dream serves primarily to help the player get better at killing (though Emily Blunt is much more capable and active in her role). This combination of mechanics and initial story means that Bloodborne reinforces the player only engaging through violence.
All you have to do is fight. All you have to do is win. All you have to do is kill. That’s all the game asks of you.
“Hunt your beasts, and think no more on the secrets of the night.
That is the very best a hunter can do.
Just don’t let the blood intoxicate you.”
However, The Hunter’s Dream, like any dream, can so easily turn to Nightmare. With the Old Hunters DLC, Bloodborne introduced a new set of areas, including a dramatically altered (but still recognizable) version of Yarnham, the game’s primary location. This “Nightmare Yarnham” looks like someone poured an impossible amount of dirt and stone over it, changing the Victorian-era-styled streets of brick and iron into a kind of concrete desert. The second most immediately noticeable difference between this Nightmare Yarnham and the one that players have come to know and love is that in the Nightmare, there are other Hunters. A lot of them. And they are strong and they are terrifying and they are merciless.
The Yarnham the player is introduced to has Hunters as well, but they are sparse, tough fights, like mini-bosses. Importantly, too, when another Hunter is defeated, they are gone forever. Additionally, these Hunters rarely interact with the world around them. They mostly serve to inconvenience the player in a unique way from other enemies they may face.
None of this is true in the Hunter’s Nightmare. These Hunters cut down hordes of beasts that cower before them and then turn to you, the witness of their crimes. They come back when they die. They wield loud, flashy weapons that cause explosions or strike powerful blows, much unlike the deft, trick weapons you have access to in the rest of the game. They are meant to terrify you. They are meant to look like it’s all a game to them.
They are meant to look like you.
If you make it through these Hunters, you are rewarded with one of the hardest boss fights in the game and the beginning of a relationship with one of the most elucidating characters you can talk to.
“A Hunter must hunt.”
Everyone in the Nightmare is trapped here. Unlike the player, they can’t simply turn off their PlayStation and take a break. So the Hunters and their victims must play through this cycle of violence. Fight, kill, Become a better Hunter. It’s all the Hunters need to know.
If the player, after making it through the trying Nightmare, decides to take a detour to open a door down a narrow hallway, they will meet Simon the Harrowed, who scolds the player: “Secrets are secrets for a reason,” he says, “and some do not wish to see them uncovered. Especially when the secrets are particularly unseemly.”
Though a Hunter himself, he has chosen to remain here, not out on the eternal hunt with his brethren, and he has been here for an untold amount of time. Then, the player blazes a trail forth (as video game protagonists are wont to do), and Simon finds in the player a companion.
Simon knows that the player can uncover the secret to the nature of the Hunter’s Dream and why the Hunters and everyone around them have been eternally trapped within this Nightmare. He just never had strength, help, nor hope that he needed to progress, to actually expose the Hunters and to break the cycle of violence.
He does now, but there’s a problem.
“Nothing changes, such is the nature of man… [laughs]”
The vision of hope for the future is limited by the infrastructure of the past.
The summer of 2020 exposed, through a number of catastrophic events, the cracks in American society to the majority of people. Pandemic, poverty, police brutality, racial inequality, housing insecurity, healthcare, and countless other issues brought to the forefront of American minds as we watch millions marching globally for justice and millions dying from institutional neglect.
Among these movements has re-arisen the cry “ACAB” (meaning “All Cops Are Bad/Bastards”). The responses from critics, being, “Yeah, but some are good” or “If you want to change police, become an officer” or countless other useless platitudes. The issue is infinitely more complex than any one person can solve or be held singularly accountable for, and — what’s more — those who attempt to push for change within the system, like Florissa Fuentes, however minor the change, are pushed out.
More veteran and consistent writers than me have written about both Bloodborne and police violence. Similarly, the examination of the Hunters as police allegory is far from new, and neither is the idea that Bloodborne takes a highly cynical view on police, policing, and retributive justice in particular (as mentioned in Tim Roth’s response to Mastromarino’s NPR piece).
However, thinking about Bloodborne helps me understand and verbalize my feelings about these issues because it explores the players’ and society’s relationships with violence, justice, power, and systems and powers greater than ourselves.
One vision is, of course, the challenge of working within a system to change the system itself. What’s the button I press to talk to Alfred, Vileblood Hunter, and convince him to give up his genocidal quest? What’s the button I press to give Gilbert medicine?
You can’t talk Alfred down. You can only move forward violently until you find him bloody in a throne room, endlessly smashing the immortal flesh that was once a foreign queen.
You can’t save Gilbert. You can only move forward violently until he finally succumbs to beasthood and kill him.
You can’t call for abolition and make memes of arresting the murderers of Breonna Taylor. There’s no button for that in the system, but there is, in realizing the limitations of the system, a way to think about making it better.
Which, of course, brings us back to this guy.
“Oh, you, I’m afraid, I’ve made a botch of things
I can hear the bell, now
The beast-hide assassin, he’s after me
Again and again
It never ends
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 to the horror
So our forefathers sinned?
We hunters cannot bear their weight forever
It isn’t fair, it just isn’t fair”
In the Fishing Hamlet, the player is unable to uncover the secret of the Old Hunters. It’s too complicated to get into here, but it’s bad. Like, really bad.
Unlike each other step of the journey, where the player cleared the way and Simon followed close by, Simon instead carried on ahead. Because of this, Simon met his end at the hands of Brador, the Beast-Hide Assassin, the scary antler-and-fur-clad guy I’ve been sprinkling pictures of throughout here.
The Healing Church (again, too complicated to get into here) needed to guard their secret to maintain legitimacy and power. In service of this, Brador and other Hunters were tasked with killing those attempting to expose their terrible secret. Brador killed Simon and he pursues the player, seemingly endlessly.
When the player first encounters him, Brador sits alone in a locked cell, ringing a bell that makes no noise. He encourages the player to do as Hunters do. He encourages the player to stop asking questions and return to the violent systems of the game.
But the Old Hunters DLC is structured differently from the rest of Bloodborne. You can beat Bloodborne without having learned a thing about the Hunters, the Dream, the Church, or the corruption therein. Such is not the case with the DLC.
Brador rings the bell to resonate his presence to those who have seen the fishing village and, by extension, witnessed the crimes of the Old Hunters. Once you’ve seen the village, he will appear frequently, suddenly, and aggressively until either he successfully discourages you from digging deeper or until he dies. The only language here is violence, the language of the systems of Bloodborne.
Brador is a representation of the powers that prevent those that seek to change the system or to expose its corruptions, however personal, however small.
Brador is the swarm of angry messages and calls. Brador is the Police Chief passing on a request for a meeting. Brador is the Commissioner driving by with a wave. Brador is the head of the union calling to provide an ultimatum.
The whole system is designed to maintain itself.
The infrastructure of the past is designed to limit the vision of the future.
The system of policing — in the United States in particular — is autocratic, internally and externally, and autocracy only functions if there is persistent, pervasive fear of speaking out against the system in any way, at any time. Autocracy requires there to be no vocal opponents. Any are pushed out, beaten down, or killed.
This is why people say that All Cops Are Bastards. This is why when people say “You just mean the bad apples. You can’t truly say that all of them are bastards, can you?” we need to reaffirm that although many like Simon or Florissa Fuentes may have good intentions, they work within a system that will push them out when or if they ever act against the system.
So when people say “All Cops are Bastards,” they mean it.
All of them. Every single one.
Because an autocracy loves a binary. “You’re with us or against us.” You’re loyal or you’re gone. There are no good cops. They all speak the same language and work within the same system of policing. There is no amount of violence we should find acceptable within the system, and there is nothing a good cop can do.
Not a good officer, not a good chief, not a good commissioner, not a good mayor, not a good city councilor, not a good governor, not a good senator, not a good president. Because no one can change the systems in which we find ourselves unless we all recognize the limitations of the systems of the past.
“Blasphemous murderers, blood-crazed fiends
Atonement for the wretches by the wrath of mother Kos
Mercy, for the poor wizened child
Mercy, oh please…
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…”
Near the end of the Hunter’s Nightmare, the player finds the Fishing Hamlet. The first “enemy” encountered is a towering, cloaked man covered in barnacles that walks out to sea. He chants the above lines. The player can kill him. He will stand back up, continue walking, and continue chanting.
For the crimes of the Old Hunters, the inhabitants of the hamlet cursed all Hunters to inevitably find their “end” here, in the Hunter’s Nightmare.
This is why no one else can escape the Nightmare, and seemingly no one else can die: The Old Hunters sought immortality at any cost so that they may do good for themselves and for their home, so now they are stuck with it. There is a side-effect to this, however.
The Hunters are not alone in the Nightmare. The beasts they hunt, the Church’s tortured experiments, and even the inhabitants of the poor hamlet, they are all doomed to live here with the Hunters because of the terrible choices of the Hunters to create this system.
You, the player, can technically choose to break this cycle. Of course, this requires beating one of the toughest bosses of the game, but when you do it, where normally you would receive a victorious “PREY SLAUGHTERED” you receive instead “NIGHTMARE SLAIN.”
So, why was this one different from the other myriad of beasts you’ve slain? Or better yet why is the Orphan of Kos different from Bloodborne’s other “final” boss, which provides the exact same prompt?
Because this battle, I like to think (with very little evidence), is the closest we can get to breaking the curse, to breaking the cycle, to breaking the system.
After beating the boss, it returns in a passive, spectral form. Assuming the player does what Hunters do (kill it), they are treated to a short video with dialog from the fishing hamlet priest explaining that the Orphan has been able to return to the ocean, to death, and, by extension, to the home and to the family they were denied.
This is the moment I fell hopelessly in love with Bloodborne and why I haven’t been able to free my mind from it. Because within this system, you can perform a violent act of compassion: You can kill a fetal god doomed to immortality by the hubris of man.
But what does that do?
You can go back to the Nightmare Yarnham and witness Hunters gleefully carving through creatures that cower in their presence and no longer pose a threat to them — or to anyone. You can go back to the Research Hall and witness the failed attempts at ascending to godhood writhing in pain and calling out for mercy to their now-dead patron saint. You can go back to Yarnham and start the cycle over once again. And again. And again. Until you get tired of playing the game.
So what actually changed?
Like everything else that happens in Bloodborne, the only permanent change is through you. Your character can die, but you know how you died. you can learn. You can get better. You can beat the game and play it again. And again. And again.
You can change individual elements of the story, but the history is the same; the outcome is slightly different. Your only choices in the game are what role you play in the perpetuation of the cycle.
Are you an officer? Are you the chief? Are you the commissioner? Are you the mayor? Are you the governor? Are you the president?
But here’s the thing: Again, you don’t have to play the game. You choose when to stop playing. You choose when to recognize that the cycle continues with or without you and regardless of what role you play in it.
So reflect on how we move forward from this crossroads in which America finds itself and if that keeps the cycle going. It’s incredibly unlikely that you are in a position of political power to attempt to drastically change something, especially since the cards are stacked against those that seek to make meaningful change. But you can change you.
It seems counter-intuitive, but don’t arrest the killers of Breonna Taylor. Don’t call for that. That’s the cycle; that’s the Nightmare. It’s pulling you in. Resist its pull.
So what should we do with them?
I don’t have an answer as a replacement for arresting them. They need to be removed from power. They need to never be in a position of deciding life-or-death again, especially for Black people. I’m a baby abolitionist, but I know punishing them for the sake of punitive justice is not the path forward.
Recognize the system and work outside of it. Build something else.