Insight is a precious commodity in and around the city of Yharnam. An amusingly literal interpretation of the word leads to some grotesque ideas about “eyes on the inside” being the path to transcending humanity. This obsession drives The Healing Church (the scientific-religious power structure of the city), their grisly labs stocked with jars of eyes for invasive experimental procedures, pursuing communion with the gods by literally putting eyes inside of heads. Signs that this practice may have been harvested from folk traditions lie in the hamlet on the outskirts, populated now by women appearing to harvest parts of corpses for use in rituals of communion. Further still there are the haggard witch-like, dressed in cloaks festooned with eyeballs dotted through the game attempt to literally steal the player’s eyes.
As a game mechanic Insight serves as a sort of arcane currency tracked on your interface, a distinct visual and audio cue plays every time the the player acquires more of it. The effect is a constant reminder of your role as an arcane investigator, the uncovering of knowledge punctuated by sinister murmurs that bestow an eldritch quality to the piecemeal anthropological study through which the “Souls” series presents their worlds. Insight is gained upon discovering a boss enemy for the first time, upon defeating them and upon the discovery of secret areas such as the corporeal (arguably) non-dream version of the hunter workshop. The collection of Insight then is the collection of otherworldly knowledge, seeing the face of reality underneath its common facades.
The interpretation presented by The Healing Church’s surgical sciences has more layers to it than a simple comical statement. It reflects the organisation’s invasive nature, their obsession with physical form and the desire to transcend it, their failures ironically lying in their inability to move past defining a perfection of form and into more philosophical approaches. It reflects their self-obsession, literally attempting to line their own brain with eyes to gaze upon their own intellects. In turn though this interpretation demonstrates visually a hidden aspect of Insight, that despite being taken in from the outside it can be understood by looking inward.
Gaining insight impacts the world of Bloodborne in various ways: gaining enough early on will enable you to see the gigantic monsters known as Amygdala (sharing a name with the part of the brain responsible for processing emotional reactions such as fear) long before the narrative reveals them to you. These hulking twisted humanoid figures manifest from the fevered dream worlds overlaying the reality of Yharnam, eventually coming to emerge in great numbers, visible to all as fear and violence take total hold of the city. A lack of insight will prevent enemies from casting spells or summoning otherworldly creatures to fight you; seemingly only the Insightful can use or be affected by these things.
To gain Insight is to come closer to seeing the world for what it truly is and in turn brings one closer into contact with the gods. Through this communion The School of Mensis disappears to roam nightmares disconnected from reality, The Healing Church become arcane spell-casters, even eldritch brainsuckers roam the back-alleys for Insight to suck from the skulls of their victims. The process of gaining Insight then reflects the descent into “madness” of Lovecraftian protagonists, the more one becomes aware of what is really going on in reality the more power that hidden reality is able to exercise over them, the more of its influence they see everywhere.
Bloodborne takes many cues from Lovecraft but utterly turns the structure on its head, the villainous forces in league with arcane horrors are the state-scientific-religious complex and not distant peasant cults and racist tales of scary occult foreigners. The horrors you uncover as an investigator in Bloodborne are the crimes of the state and the ideology that motivates them. Amongst the beasts and eldritch horrors lies the evidence of the true nature of the state, laid out in remnants of the brutality their goals and the obfuscation of their natures demanded. The process of accumulation of Insight reflects the real life experience of oppression and historical study: by becoming more and more aware of the crimes the structures we live in are founded on and remain dependent on, the more divorced you begin to feel from the beliefs that society holds dear. The more aware you become of oppressive structures the more “crazy” it can feel to try to and explain them to people without the same perspective, leaving you to see examples everywhere of an ideology many refuse to believe exists.
Through the persecution of activists and the stress of holding these papered-over knowledges about our shared history, society reduces the “Insightful” to “Madmen” preferring criticism be removed from counting as legitimate thought entirely. This is helped greatly by the foundations of bigotry that already establishes the ones most likely to have first-hand experience with the brutal side of society as somehow compromised and unreasonable.
This economy of madness is present in the gameplay structure of Bloodborne too, items literally called “Madman’s Knowledge” can be found on corpses throughout the world, small glimpses of the nature of reality grown out of the experiences of a suffering class of people. Upon the rescue of a kidnapped Healing Church nun you are offered one of these knowledge filled skulls as a reward “sure to please an upstanding member of the church.” As bodies are harvested for ritual parts in the hamlet outside Yharnam the nature of the Church’s measures to maintain its power also harvest the Insight born of those aware of their crimes: by defining their victims raving madmen they are able literally to use them as sacrificial proxies to increase the legitimacy of their station, suppressing knowledge and gaining more in one fell swoop.
State power in Yharnam is able not only to suppress dissent but it is able to justify doing so by the positioning of it as inherently “mad” and bestial. In doing so they gain more prisoners for their medical wards full of grisly human experimentation to increase their own power, a system of psychological warfare turned to the maintenance of biological hierarchy. As real life minorities are murdered and their defenders pathologised, threats to state power are made incarcerated patients, in this they too become a resource. If opposition is “mad” then experimentation to find out from where this “madness” arises is not only justifiable but necessary. Power can be found in making mental illness the enemy of society, a drain, a threat to be excised. A convenient truth when the power of diagnosis lies in the hands of the elite and the infliction of symptoms flows from their misdeeds.
Just as the defense of the populace from “beasts” justifies the actions of the Hunters, The Healing Church is able again to generate power through harvesting the dire consequences of their own actions. Devouring the resources and the sanity of their subjects to fuel their experimentation with appeasing fickle unknowable god figures, The Church orients all of society to their ideological pursuits, replacing all community with their own fraudulent doctrine of worship, defining societal enemies, rallying pitchfork wielding mobs against “outsiders”. The curious and the victimised become commodities, the incurious and comfortable become murderers. The miraculous Healing Church has created a society of colonisation and theft in pursuit of appeasing, through human sacrifice, forces who exist beyond human motivations. They disappear further and further behind the walls of their universities and cathedrals, scientists posing as clergymen, clergymen posing as scientists ever fearful of the populace and ever ready to harvest anything and everything they produce.
You enter Yharnam a bewildered outsider seeing a grand city in decline, angry men roaming the streets for people to drag from their homes, howling about the insidious work of foreigners. You come to learn the city has ended up in this state under the strict ideological direction of the ruling class hidden now in their own gated community. Finally once you reach the heart of where it all began, the university of Byrgenwerth, the last fragment of the old order holding back the tide fails and what was once known only to frightful “madmen” becomes the new normal.
No, we shall not abandon the dream! No one can catch us! No one can stop us now!