The Gothic in Games

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night - One of the first truly 'Gothic' games.
The term ‘Gothic’ conjures up many images; some think Dracula or Frankenstein, gargoyles and spired buildings; for others it may mean spider’s webbing, long black coats, and heavy eye shadow. Either way there are countless examples of ‘The Gothic’ in various cultures.

Now many games often have a gothic themed level, usually set in a church or castle; many will have elements of the gothic in character or costume design. Very few titles, however, revolve entirely around a gothic theme, but a few strikingly similar titles stand out. In this article we will be looking at Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, and Bloodborne.

Apart from the obvious artistic similarities, all three Gothic titles share eerily identical gameplay elements. Exploration is a key element in Gothic games; the player is required to search around an unfamiliar and fear-inducing landscape, finding areas they can see but not fully explore. Often, as the player progresses, they will find a shortcut back to a previous area by opening a gate (locked from one side) or pushing down a ladder/climbable object. This exploration leads to puzzle solving to progress further, until the player comes across a boss room. Once the boss is defeated, the RPG-like elements become apparent; the player will receive an item, or experience, allowing them to progress further. All three titles considered follow this rough outline of: exploration - puzzle solving - boss fight - progression to new area - repeat. Most Gothic games can attribute this to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

Kojima often uses molding paste, Conté Crayon, acrylics, India ink, gloss polymer medium, stumps and finger smudging in her paintings to achieve their unique look and depth.
Although it wasn't the first in the series, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was revolutionary in terms of game design; it added role-playing and exploration elements to the traditional platforming genre. It was also the first Castlevania game to feature the art of Ayami Kojima. Symphony of the Night is the first truly Gothic game, it serves as the benchmark for what is considered Gothic in videogames.

The castle of Symphony of the Night is an intimidating, sprawling, nightmare that, as you familiarize yourself with your surroundings, eventually feels like home; it serves as a textbook example of conquering fear. Exploration and understanding are key. As the player discovers more and more of the map, the world makes more and more sense. The unreachable areas eventually become accessible, and the sense of being overwhelmed dissipates. All these things relate to real life and that is the appeal of the Gothic in games.

Elements of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night can be seen in both Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver and Bloodborne. Both titles take the Gothic formula, set out by Symphony of the Night, but focus on slightly different elements of it.

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver - The game that brought the Gothic into three dimensions.
Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver focuses on a narrative experience, but not at the expense of its puzzles or combat. It retains all the elements of a 'Gothic' game (gaining skills/items as you progress, boss rooms, puzzle solving) whilst also keeping the platforming based exploration style of Symphony of the Night.

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver's combat acts as a midway point between Symphony of the Night and Bloodborne. Soul Reaver takes the idea of different weapons having distinct styles pioneered in Symphony of the Night and translates it to three dimensions. The main difference, to Symphony of the Night and Bloodborne, is the temporary nature of Soul Reaver's arsenal. The way the combat in Soul Reaver and Bloodborne plays is eerily similar; both have dual-like quality, relying on dodging and timing, that pits the player against a small number of enemies in an environment that they must use to their advantage.

Although Soul Reaver's gameplay is extremely strong, its story and dialogue are exceptional. It takes the Gothic storytelling tradition and seamlessly integrates it with the videogame medium, with what is possibly still the greatest voice acting in a videogame. Here's an example of dialogue:

"Eternity is relentless, Raziel. When I first stole into this chamber centuries ago, I did not fathom the true power of knowledge. To know the future, Raziel. To see its paths and streams tracing out into the infinite. As a man, I could never have contained such forbidden truths. But each of us is so much more than we once were. Gazing out across the plains of possibility, do you not feel with all your soul, how we have become like gods? And as such, are we not indivisible? As long as a single one of us stands, we are legion! That is why, when I must sacrifice my children to the void, I can do so with a clear heart." - Kain

Bloodborne - The Gothic game today.
Bloodborne brings the Gothic formula to the current gaming generation.While there were Gothic elements to the other Souls games, Bloodborne takes the concept and runs with it. Where Symphony of the Night and Soul Reaver take vampires as their main monstrous inspiration, Bloodborne uses another classicly Gothic creature: the werewolf.

Vampires and werewolves both reflect the fears of the time. Bram Stoker's Dracula, for example, reflected the fears of sexuality with the obvious exchanges of bodily fluids. Both vampires and werewolves are represented as natural predators, driven by their urges, opposed to the rationality of man. As times have changed, these readings have become more complex. Soul Reaver questions morality at every turn, dealing with the idea of manipulation and free will. There are very few clear cut 'monsters' but, instead, many shades of grey. Avoiding spoilers, both Symphony of the Night and Bloodborne  also deal with similar themes, continuing the Gothic tradition.

'Gothic' as a term is almost impossible to define due to its constantly changing meaning and relevance to different mediums and sections of society. The Gothic is more like a collection of ideas and shared aesthetics crossing through literature, film and popular culture, constantly relevant to each generation. Now, with the addition of videogames to the cultural landscape, the Gothic has a new collection of ideas and aesthetics.

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