Bloodborne: the Meaning of "Orphan" and the Limitations of Language
Have you ever wondered who it is that tells you what the names of bosses and items are?
Normally, we assume it to be some omniscient narrator, who straddles the frame between the fiction and our reality, and speaks to us of that which occurs in the other world so inaccessible to us. In video games, the narrator is especially important, because all the detail of the world is provided only with the guidance of the narrator. We spend much of our time in the world seeing events through the protagonist's eyes, with the same perceptual restrictions as them, but even this is ultimately facilitated by the narrator, without whom we cannot connect with the protagonist.
While you're mulling that over, let's move onto the real problem: What does "orphan" mean?
In English, "orphan" may refer to children who (a) have lost their parents to death, or (b) are simply without parents, even if their parents are alive somewhere. Things are slightly different in Japanese, though. While the common word for orphan (孤児, koji) may likewise carry either of these meanings, this is not the word used to describe the Orphan of Kos. Instead, the word used (遺子, ishi) is an archaism which refers exclusively to meaning (a). This is especially notable since the Orphanage Key is titled, as expected, 孤児院の鍵 (kojiin no kagi). Yet given the circumstances, this usage is somewhat... incorrect. Kos isn't really dead, just dead on this plane of existence, or something like that. So the Orphan is not one who has lost his parents to death in the truest sense... right?
Blame the Narrator
Given that the narrator must convey information about the fictional world to us, the readers, it stands to reason that this communication may fail at some points. We may identify three critical points of failure:
- The speaker may not understand the information. We'll leave this aside since we don't want to assume much about the narrator currently.
- The communication protocol may be incapable of representing the information. Language-based communication is necessarily incomplete, and mathematical results like Godel incompleteness may provide a basis to assert even more fundamental inabilities to make certain statements.
- The listener may not understand the information. Within the world of Bloodborne, we see this repeatedly with the problem of "not having enough Insight".
With regards to the 遺子 of Kos, we seem to have the second problem. The Eldritch conception of death was arcane enough to obliterate the minds of Mensis-- how is the narrator to put this into English or a few colored pixels? Kos is dead, but not dead; not there, but yet there. We know that Great Ones cannot simply be killed off, and we observe her curse yet linger, but it nonetheless remains true that she is definitely no longer here. Our representational systems can't hold that kind of information without absurdity and self-contradiction. So the narrator must settle for some degree of inaccuracy in telling us the story, thus choosing to use the word 遺子 instead of... well, there is no proper alternative in our languages. (Of course, if the narrator had a better representational system, then we would have the third problem.)
This is, incidentally, not the first place where the game draws attention to the inherent unrepresentability of certain ideas. The Rune system is based off the idea that the language of the Great Ones simply cannot be represented in human language, and thus must be represented by some arcane pictorial form which is no more comprehensible to us. The name Orphan (遺子) of Kos takes this idea to the level of even our comprehension of the work, declaring it impossible for us to truly understand the family dynamics of the Orphan, even as readers consuming media.
While it may seem that I’m making a fuss over nothing, the difference in word choice is quite significant. The replacement of a catch-all word for an archaism is not to be taken lightly, and I hold enough respect towards Bloodborne to treat its word choice as more significant than a third-grader using a thesaurus.
I think it worthwhile to keep an eye on Bloodborne's choice of words. In fact, you'll be hearing again from me soon about the difference between Holy Blade Ludwig, Father Gascoigne, Cleric Beast, and Vicar Amelia/Laurence, and how these terms place people on the divine ladder.
I came across this quirk while looking up some information to make an argument about the Orphan’s father. That’s right, the Orphan has a father, and I’m going to unmask him. Probably tomorrow. Look forward to it!
(Also, here’s something that’ll make good headcanon for someone. 遺子 is pronounced the same as 意志, which means “will” (the philosophical question of intent and volition). It is also pronounced the same as 遺志, which means “dying wish”. Both of these words are quite common for their meanings.)