Game Wonder: On FromSoftware’s “Bloodborne” and H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Haunter of the Dark”
By Nathan WainsteinFebruary 11, 2023
What should we call the feeling evoked by this impressive 3D vista? Steven Poole would likely call it wonder. “The jewel in the crown of what videogames offer,” Poole writes in Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution (2000), “is the aesthetic emotion of wonder,” and he suggests that this emotion stems largely from the gaming medium’s ability to represent space, and more specifically, architecture. “[A game] is a way to experience architecture […] If architecture is frozen music, then a videogame is liquid architecture.” In the time since Poole wrote this, such environmental splendor has only become more common in games, as rapid advances in graphics technology have allowed designers to present ever larger and more detailed virtual worlds. Yet the precise nature of this “aesthetic emotion” remains just as ambiguous and underexamined as it was at the dawn of the 3D era. If wonder, following Poole, secures the artistic value of games as a medium, it is nevertheless a paradoxical kind of aesthetic experience.
Consider, to start, its technological basis. Although Poole frames wonder as a signature effect of video games in general, his remarks really seem to concern only a small if prominent subset of them, namely 3D games that represent traversable space in a graphically impressive way. This last specification, moreover, implies a further limitation. The reliance of such games on cutting-edge rendering technology means that what is liable to seem impressive will often be historically bound to an extreme degree. In comparison to any modern release, Poole’s main example of architectural wonder, Tomb Raider II (1997), now appears — at least to those with no understanding of the technical limitations by which its creators were constrained — quite primitive, if not pathetic. Video game wonder is historical, and even to conceive of it — which is of course different from the irrecoverable experience of actually feeling it — often requires a rigorous act of scholarly imagination, akin to envisioning the awe evoked by Renaissance artists’ first achievements in perspective painting. 
Game wonder thus depends in every case on an awareness of technical constraint. In this respect, it resembles the formalist awe of the specialist even when it’s experienced by an amateur. This is also why it’s hard to share with someone who doesn’t play games. Not only does the outsider, accustomed to the tightly controlled visual languages of painting and film, lack a basic understanding of the limitations imposed on visual style and mimetic fidelity by the medium’s interactivity, but they also lack the more specialized comparative knowledge that would allow one to judge a given representation in its relation to other possible forms. The nonplayer judges games solely on their visual resemblance to the authorized forms of film and painting. Thus, photorealism may elicit a reaction, as will the studied imitation of recognizable painterly or filmic styles, but even these resemblances merely reveal the games’ ultimate inferiority to their visual models, since games (as Poole notes) are largely antithetical to composition — that is, to visual form itself. By contrast, the wonder felt by the specialist-amateur always derives from the understanding that any visual experience of virtual space is embedded within an interactive system that necessarily restricts the appearance and meaning of that space.
This system may be nothing more than spatial interactivity as such — the ability to move around, to look at things from different directions, to exist inside the represented world — but it can also attain a complexity and dynamism that makes it productive of wonder in its own right. Graphically, the cartoonishly miniaturized planets and moons visible in the sky in the sci-fi adventure game Outer Wilds (2019) are laughably primitive when compared to the genuinely ravishing vistas of a game like Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016). Yet, the fact that the player can, at any moment, board their ship, fly seamlessly into space, land on any of these celestial bodies, and explore diverse biomes ruled by exaggerated ecological phenomena (sandstorms, cyclones, tectonic upheavals) that, miraculously, may continue to run within the game’s clockwork system even as the planets wheel distantly overhead, makes Outer Wilds’s toy cosmos just as generative of wonder as Uncharted’s essentially static backgrounds.
I must stress again the acute historical boundedness of this feeling — its dependence on the technological possibilities of the present — as well as the more or less zero-sum relation between sheer graphical splendor and systemic complexity that this technological dependency produces. Indeed, perhaps nothing is so wondrous as a game like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2015), which offers visually impressive spaces that are fully integrated into complex gameplay systems. An epitome of game wonder: Landing by chopper on a nighttime desert commando mission, one watches the gunship’s winking lights recede over distant cliffs, only to radio for pickup and watch the same chopper actually turn around and begin a second approach.
The force of this seemingly quotidian moment will likely be lost on anyone who doesn’t play games, since it depends both on the knowledge that such distant objects in open-world video games are usually “fake” — behaving essentially as cardboard cutouts with no interactive potential — and on a certain skepticism about object permanence born from contemporary design norms. In many games, summoning an entity from afar simply causes it to materialize anew out of thin air, even if its former self exists somewhere else in the game world. Yet, the wonder evoked by Metal Gear Solid V’s helicopter is not simply an abstract appreciation of a rare systemic and hence existential consistency (a defining feature of all of Hideo Kojima’s games), for what makes it wonder in the true sense is the additional element of space. Game wonder arises from a dialectical fusion of systems and spatiality: here, it stems precisely from the realization that such a vast space — distant sky and desert — is completely and consistently incorporated into the system, completely and consistently “alive,” even when the player isn’t looking.
Game wonder is thus at once technological and mimetic. Strictly speaking, it is an awe at the power of a technologically produced representation of spatial experience. Both of these qualities, however, may also cast doubt on the emotion’s true artistic value. For on the one hand, this mimetic emphasis links game wonder to other forms of illusionism that normally make no claim to art, such as special effects in film or the recreation of those same set-piece scenes in a theme park. While Poole celebrates game wonder as an “aesthetic emotion” without qualification, this sheer pleasure in illusion threatens to cast the wondering player as a credulous dupe of the culture industry.
At the same time, game wonder’s technological basis raises further questions about its true object and meaning. So far, I have stressed how this feature makes game wonder an essentially “formalist” mode of appreciation, insofar as one marvels at an achievement of pure craft in the face of technical constraints. But this formalism also has a limit: for many players, the ultimate source of the spatial illusion is locked away in incomprehensible lines of code. As Eugenie Shinkle has noted, such digital complexity can induce an experience of imaginative failure that links video games to the aesthetic category of the sublime. For Kant, the sublime denoted an emotional state evoked by phenomena whose extraordinary power or size defeats our capacity for mental representation. (Mountains, hurricanes, oceans, stars, and Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome are all classic examples of the Kantian sublime.) Although games are often no more than mere toys, their absurdly complex digital makeup may produce a similar breakdown of mental representation that hangs over the experience of game wonder like a shadow.
One might therefore speak of game wonder as a variety of what Fredric Jameson calls the technological sublime — a uniquely modern experience of unthinkable complexity that, within Jameson’s Marxist framework, always refers back to the inconceivably complex global market that produced the technological artifact. Shinkle elaborates further on this connection, arguing that video games produce an effect akin to what Sianne Ngai calls stuplimity, a combination of sublime emotions and irritation, boredom, or banality that is characteristic of aesthetic experience in late capitalism. From a Marxist angle, then, the true object of game wonder becomes the technology industry (if not the entirety of postmodern global capitalism) itself, and thereby implicates the player in the vast systems of domination and exploitation that fuel it. Indeed, the sheer amount of human labor now required to produce the average AAA game — often involving teams numbering in the hundreds forced to work extended hours for months or even years at a time — means that game wonder, like the awe evoked by the pyramids, often bears an especially close relation to collective human suffering.
Still, one can acknowledge these strikes against game wonder while observing that they do not sufficiently account for the precise texture of its experience. It’s important to note, for instance, that Shinkle’s analysis of stuplimity concerns not game wonder in particular but the larger embodied experience of gameplay in general. Video games may indeed be stuplime as a medium — with their frequent combination of awe-inspiring sights and mind-numbing repetition, their extraordinary feats of technical artistry marshaled to the inanest ends — but the experience of game wonder has nothing tedious or banal about it. On the contrary, it is solemn and even, at times, ecstatic. More, it tends to unfold at a pace that troubles any easy equation with the hyperactive rush of ephemeral stimuli often used to characterize postmodern forms of entertainment. Game wonder is static and contemplative: like the hiker in the Alps or the visitor at Saint Peter’s, the wondering player stops and gapes. Indeed, such a player may sometimes behave almost as if they were actually in the presence of the traditionally sublime objects (mountains, cathedrals) that games often represent.
This is where Poole’s emphasis on architecture again becomes significant. For we might ask: if game wonder is ultimately a pleasure in illusionism, then why does Poole give prominence to architecture over any other aspect of video game mimesis? I think it’s because he means architecture as a shorthand for something broader: the digital formation of awe-inspiring spaces in general. In games, after all, a rendering of a canyon is just as much an architectural feat as a rendering of a castle, since it’s still a designed 3D space whose “natural” outer limits, in many cases, must themselves be constructed. Although Poole’s examples of wonder mostly involve buildings, their key feature seems to be the awesomeness of the virtual spaces such buildings embody, as, for instance, in Ico (2001), where he marvels at “beams of light penetrating cavernous, gloomy stone interiors” and the “distant battlements of the enormous castle appearing on the horizon in a bluish haze.” Game wonder thus seems often to depend on a certain scale that echoes traditional conceptions of sublimity.  To draw from our own examples, it may involve panoramic vistas of mountains and canyons (if not entire planets), storm-tossed oceans, or Gothic cityscapes — all canonical examples of the classical sublime.
It’s in this sense, finally, that Bloodborne is exemplary: not in the systemic complexity of its spaces, which is minimal, nor in its pure graphical accomplishment, which is impressive for its time but not extraordinary, but rather in its simple representation of classically sublime architecture. If game spaces, as Poole writes, are “cathedrals of fire,” Bloodborne doubles down on this by presenting literal cathedrals whose Gothic style expresses an explicit will to awe. As Ario Barzan observes, Yharnam’s sublime architecture is “so eager to become something absolute and grand that it threatens to collapse into nonsense,” leaving the player at once “enraptured by its obliterating massiveness and overfed on its excesses.”
Yet even this overt aspiration to sublimity doesn’t entirely explain the player’s amazement at their first view of Yharnam. For in Bloodborne, as in other open-world games, the experience of sublime scale hinges not only on giant structures but also on an awareness of their relation to the even larger spatial totality that is the game world itself. Gazing upon the Great Bridge at the game’s outset, one marvels at both its sheer size and its pure situatedness within a seamlessly traversable 3D map. Indeed, like the other games in FromSoftware’s Souls series (which includes Dark Souls, Elden Ring, and Demon’s Souls), Bloodborne repeatedly makes a spectacle of its own spatial unity, dazzling the player with “distant views” (to cite one analysis of Souls world design) of enormous landmarks that are fully integrated into the game’s spatial system. See that mountain in the distance? You can climb it. This statement has become an oft-mocked cliché of developer PR-speak, repeated ad nauseum in every new demonstration of another vapid and derivative open-world adventure. Yet, like many clichés, it contains an element of truth, and we shouldn’t let the depressing state of the multitude of games it’s used to advertise distract from the original wonder that it seeks to recapture. The cliché expresses a dream of twofold scale: not just a spatial system encompassing all that the eye can see but one that includes mountains. As a simultaneous perception of the monumental and the totality that contains it, game wonder in such cases turns on a doubled spatial extension.
A similar dream of twofold scale features in H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Haunter of the Dark” (1936), a story in which the protagonist Robert Blake becomes obsessed with a distant view. As we learn in the opening pages, Blake, a writer and painter who has recently moved to Providence, Rhode Island, gazes daily from his attic window at “the spectral hump of Federal Hill” two miles away, “bristling with huddled roofs and steeples whose remote outlines wavered mysteriously, taking fantastic forms as the smoke of the city swirled up and enmeshed them.” Like the player of Bloodborne wielding their monocular from the heights of the Cathedral Ward, Blake stares in fascination at the “shimmering, spire-crowned mound in the distance whose unknown streets and labyrinthine gables so potently provoked his fancy,” training his field glasses “on that spectral, unreachable world beyond the curling smoke; picking out individual roofs and chimneys and steeples, and speculating upon the bizarre and curious mysteries they might house.” Most of all, Blake is transfixed by a monumental structure straight out of Bloodborne, a “huge, dark church” styled in the “experimental form of Gothic revival”: “It stood out with especial distinctness at certain hours of the day, and at sunset the great tower and tapering steeple loomed blackly against the flaming sky.”
Blake’s fascination with this church strikingly anticipates some of the complexities of game wonder. In the first place, it emerges out of an awareness of arbitrary, and indeed rather game-like, limitations. Like many a player, Blake at first wonders whether this awe-inspiring vista is merely an “ethereal world” that might “vanish in dream if ever he tried to seek it out and enter it in person.” Such is often literally the case in games, where backdrops that look stunning from a distance regularly devolve up close into a mess of low-resolution textures and jagged phantom surfaces. Yet, even when Blake confirms the distant neighborhood’s reality — he learns from his acquaintances that it’s a “vast Italian quarter” — he continues to think of it as an “unreachable world.” This phrase, which the narrator uses twice in the opening pages, is puzzling. We’re told that Federal Hill is only two miles away, so what prevents Blake from sating his overwhelming curiosity and actually visiting it? Strangely, it takes months for the thought of walking there even to cross his mind, and the story gives no explicit reason for this delay. Is Blake’s fascination mixed with an unconscious dread that prevents him from exploring further? Such a reading seems plausible, but the story gives no direct evidence for it, and it’s just as reasonable to assume that Lovecraft has simply suppressed the possibility of Blake making the trip until the plot requires him to do so. In game-design parlance, we might say that the hill and spire have been “gated”: made inaccessible until certain (narrative) requirements have been met.
As with game wonder, such limitations form the precondition for Blake’s amazement that Federal Hill is nevertheless real and — eventually — traversable. Yet Blake’s obsession also resembles game wonder in its ambiguous relation to the classical sublime, for the story implies that the view itself possesses a similar blend of sublimity and derivativeness. As we learn in a curious passage, Blake’s fascination with this Gothic Revival church is mediated simultaneously through the received tropes of fiction and the spectacle of modern industry: we’re told that the hill seems to him “linked to the unreal, intangible marvels of [his] own tales and pictures,” and that this feeling “would persist long after the hill had faded into the violet, lamp-starred twilight, and the court-house floodlights and the red Industrial Trust beacon had blazed up to make the night grotesque.”
This passage establishes important distinctions that immediately threaten to collapse. It states that the view from Blake’s study is similar to material from his own stories and paintings, and that this similarity is evident even when the view is marred by what, in theory, absolutely opposes it: the oppressive signs of commercial, industrial modernity. However, those signs also uncannily mirror the Gothic spectacle they blot out, a fact that dissolves the passage’s key opposition and aligns all three subjects — the distant hill, the spectacle of industrial commerce, and Blake’s art — along a spectrum of basic resemblance. Although the narrator denigrates the floodlit modern view by calling it “grotesque,” the same word (whose negative charge already seems somewhat compromised in a horror story) is later used to describe the ancient dark spirit who inhabits the church tower itself: a witness reports seeing “a grotesque and hideous mass of smoke in the air” on the night that it escapes. Likewise, the blazing red beacon of the Industrial Trust strangely replicates the pyromantic spectacle of the church spire “loom[ing] […] against the flaming sky.”
The sublime view thus isn’t antithetical to the debased, commercial view but instead stands as its mirror image. Furthermore, this sublime/commercial spectacle seems to derive part of its appeal from its resemblance to “Blake’s own tales and pictures.” It’s as if Blake, like the 18th-century enthusiasts of the Gothic who toured artificial ruins, were here transfixed by a copy of his own preexisting artistic ideal. No wonder this view shares traits with the adjacent commercial spectacle: it is itself a mere instance of his brand, and in his curiosity at the mysterious contents of those “individual roofs and chimneys and steeples,” we might sense a hint of purely professional interest.
Could there be a more apt figure for the ambiguity of game wonder? Poised between genuine sublimity and debased commercialism, between the singular aesthetic experience and a shallow simulacrum of one, between wonder at a marvelous thing and wonder at a copy of that thing, Lovecraft’s description of Blake’s distant view anticipates the aesthetic ambiguities evoked by games, like Bloodborne, that replicate precisely this kind of sublime spectacle. Poole calls video game spaces “cathedrals of fire” because they are awesome feats of architecture made out of “immaterial light.” Yet the same reverent phrase could also describe a Las Vegas casino. If Bloodborne literalizes Poole’s extravagant figure, “The Haunter of the Dark” anticipates how game wonder combines both kinds of light — flaming sky and commercial beacon — into an uncertain blend.
Nathan Wainstein is an ACLS Emerging Voices fellow at the University of Utah. He writes about video games, modernist literature, and the history of literary interpretation. He is currently writing a book on Bloodborne.
 In his 2010 book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, Tom Bissell writes that “the enabling of true, in-game, three-dimensional movement” in the early 1990s “was as climacteric a development for the medium as the discovery of perspective was for painting.”
 In his 2020 book Gaming and the Virtual Sublime: Rhetoric, Awe, Fear, and Death in Contemporary Video Games, Matthew Spokes notes how “vast or magnificent spaces” in video games can produce awe and wonder at several points. See especially his remarks on The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011), Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (2018), and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015).
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