If you were to jump into Bloodborne right now, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking you’d stepped back into 2015.
From the bloodstained streets of Yharnam to the ghostly moors of Hemwick Charnel Lane, the phantoms of other players, all decked out in festive costumes, are roaming the world of FromSoftware’s Lovecraftian action RPG. Summon signs litter the ground, left by those eager to engage in cooperative play and take on the horrors of the night side by side. Other Hunters add their own dose of terror to the game, invading worlds to engage in tense combat against worthy prey—or to provide seemingly benevolent assistance until the time is right for a climactic betrayal.
You might have expected scenes like this during the height of Bloodborne’s popularity, but it’s surprising that they’re unfolding today, more than four years after the game first launched. This resurgence in player activity is thanks to the Return to Yharnam, a fan-made festival meant to rally the game’s dedicated fanbase to play together once more—and remember why they all love the game as much as they do.
But getting the hunting party back together has involved its fair share of challenges and growing pains. Thanks to changes in the community and the broader gaming landscape, the event has been forced to adapt and evolve since its founding, with shifting schedules and community guidelines. It’s this same willingness to change, however, that has allowed Return to Yarnham to thrive, and may allow it to enjoy longevity in the years to come, even as the console generation that brought us Bloodborne enters its twilight.
Return to the Hunter’s Dream
From the beginning, Return to Yharnam felt almost inevitable, not only for those who were fans of Bloodborne, but for those who were fans of FromSoftware games in general.
The first fan-made “Return” event—Return to the Nexus, aimed at keeping Demon’s Souls’ servers live past their intended shutdown date—kicked off a trend of showing continued support to FromSoftware games’ multiplayer components in the years after their release. Though generally hidden within the game’s mechanics and not technically integral to the games’ enjoyment, the multiplayer in FromSoftware games has always been a cornerstone of what brings the community together, keeping the game populated and lending a sense of life to them all the while.
By returning for yearly events, fans could ensure the games they loved didn’t lose an optional, but still essential, part of what made them fun, and allowed the community to interact with each other in-game.
As such, many thought it was just a matter of time before someone from the community stepped up to ensure Bloodborne received the same treatment. Illusorywall, the organizer of the 2017 Return to Drangleic event for Dark Souls 2 and a notable member of the Soulsborne community, became that person in March of 2017.
After getting some feedback from the Bloodborne community on how it should be held, illusorywall picked the dates for the event, made flyers and got the word out across social media.
“The biggest thing in making it happen was to simply be clear and declarative,” he said. “To remove any uncertainty… Basically just trying to get the word out that this will be the biggest [Bloodborne] party all year, so you should come and invite all your friends too.”
The event kicked off on March 10th and lasted to the 24th, with a focus on PvP and playing through as much of the basic game as possible. Players aimed to be as courteous and supportive as possible, adhering to certain behaviors and community-outlined expectations. Invaders waited for both parties to bow before engaging in duels, even helping their opponents get out of hairy situations so there would be no distractions. Summoned players guided newer players to hidden treasures and did their best not to take the reins too much in boss battles to allow less experienced players to overcome and appreciate the fights for their spectacle and mechanics.
For all intents and purposes, it was a resounding success. The game saw as massive of a surge in multiplayer activity as the earlier Return events had fostered, with the community interacting even more than usual both inside the game and across social media.
There were still flaws to work out—namely that players found fewer and fewer summon signs the further they went into the game, since participants weren’t able to sink in the time required to reach the later areas—but overall, the Bloodborne community was excited to have their own event to, well, return to every year.
Return to Yharnam made a more resounding impact in 2018. Once again organized by illusorywall, the event coincided with Sony offering Bloodborne as a free game through PlayStation Plus, a happy convergence that led to an even larger influx of players. That year, some players also decided to put a larger focus on cooperating in later stages of the game as well as the DLC, further fleshing out the experience and coming closer to recapturing the feel of what the game was like at launch.
Overall though, the event remained largely the same: Hunters communicated with one another, gathered and engaged in bloody hunts throughout the world, revitalizing the game and providing a glimpse of the experience the game was intended to provide. Small in scope or no, it was exactly what the community needed to dive back into the game and relive some of the title’s best elements.
Beasts roam the streets
Fast forward to today, and the event has largely maintained its popularity—at least, it has after a few setbacks.
Due to the release of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice during the event’s usual month, the 2019 Return to Yharnam was postponed, giving fans of FromSoftware a chance to enjoy the company’s latest offering and avoid burnout from devoting too much time to their growing catalog of titles. This was in addition to the event conflicting with other Return gatherings, a common issue the community has faced over the years.
“Demon’s Souls‘ Return to the Nexus kicked things off with a proximity to Halloween, but following that, there was a general expectation for Dark Souls 1 and on to use these games’ anniversaries as a ballpark for when to do their annual ‘Return’ event,” illusorywall said. “But that lumped Dark Souls 1 (late September launch) and Demon’s Souls closely together (October event), and it lumped literally everything else—Dark Souls 2, Bloodborne, and Dark Souls 3—closely together in March.”
This left community members with an odd conundrum: They could keep doing the event in March, risking burnout due to the overlap of Dark Souls 2 and 3’s Return events, or move it to a later date, avoiding an overlap but losing the significance of the anniversary.
As it turned out, the eventual resurrection of Return to Yarnham wasn’t the byproduct of any reasoned, pragmatic decision among the organizers. Instead, it came down to a single Hunter who spoke up and rallied the community to bring the event back. That player was Whodey226.
A newer addition to the Bloodborne fandom, Whodey wished to reinvigorate the game’s multiplayer activity with an October event, taking full advantage of the game’s spookier themes and horror aesthetic to draw in a bigger audience. He also wanted to get the same experience he and others had gotten out of the game in its earlier, more active years.
“That is part of what drove me to try and get others to play,” he said. “I wanted to have a fully authentic experience with the game again.”
Whodey made a post to the official Bloodborne subreddit calling for participants and input. Before long, it had exploded with activity. The community was buzzing with anticipation and excitement at the idea of gathering in Yarnham once more, tossing out new ideas inspired by its October timing like wearing community-designed costumes using the armor available in the game.
“I think people generally enjoy the idea of the event being during the ‘spooky’ time of year. It adds another layer of interest because now you have people wanting to cosplay and dress their characters up for their playthroughs,” Whodey said. “My only regret is that I don’t have more time to devote to it and take into account all the people that messaged me costume and rule ideas.”
Before long, the community ironed out its plans for the rescheduled 2019 Return to Yharnam, slating it to run for a month starting October 5th. In addition to the usual PvP and cooperative festivities, players would also don costumes created and voted on by the community, further lending a Halloween feel to the festivities.
As the plans fell into place, the role of head organizer shifted from illusorywall to Whodey226. The transition was less an official passing of the torch and more a natural development caused by the sudden resurgence of interest in the event.
For illusorywall though, the handover came as little surprise. The development, he felt, was well in line with past Return gatherings.
“These events have a sort of life of their own, and the reality is that literally anyone could step in to create such an event,” illusorywall said. “Which is great; it’s an event for the community, by the community.”
Revel as babes
While the timing and key players may have changed, the celebration has stayed true to its initial goal of bringing the fandom back together for a revitalized experience. Folkdeath95, a Return to Yharnam participant since the event’s inception, has found no end of enjoyment and camaraderie during each year’s festivities.
“The ‘Return to Yharnam’ events have always been fantastic,” they said. “The first one I took part in I did the classic ‘start a new character, get halfway through the game while doing a ton of co-op along the way.’ The next was mastering the DLC bosses with Hunters on /r/huntersbell, and the most recent has been a bunch of tomb prospecting with players in the Discord.”
All the while, Folkdeath has uncovered new elements of the game that they wouldn’t have caught without going back to the game. “It’s incredible the amount of content we have to discover as players—even though I platinumed the game years ago, I’m still learning the more I play.”
Fellow participant A_Good_Hunter, meanwhile, has had similarly worthwhile experiences over the past two years. “My experience has been overwhelming positive,” they said. “Normally, it takes up to 20 minutes to get a cooperator, either as a beckoner, summon, or invader, whereas I didn’t have to wait for more than a minute to get paired during the events.”
Best of all, though, has been an unintended side effect of the events: new Hunters, eager to join the ranks of the community.
“I think one of the coolest parts is that new players who have never experienced [Bloodborne], are playing through for the first time,” Whodey said. “Can’t think of a better way to experience an older game.”
The night grows long
As this year’s event approaches its end though, a question looms: What lies ahead for Return to Yharnam?
With the next wave of consoles on the horizon, Bloodborne—and Return to Yharnam along with it—faces the same challenges as other FromSoftware games: a potential decline in playerbase, the reality of a shortening server lifespan, and, with the announcement of Elden Ring, another impending FromSoftware title it’ll have to compete with.
As it stands though, the community is largely optimistic about what’s to come and willing to adapt to keep the fan-made event going.
Whodey, already excited about the possibilities of another event next year, believes the dedication of FromSoftware fans and the quality of Bloodborne will keep the events lively and successful.
“FromSoftware games will always have a cult following,” Whodey said. “I believe there will be people playing this game together online until they decide to shut down the servers. There is so much depth and lore to this game that I think the interest will remain.”
For illusorywall, the solution lies in timing and relying on the dedication of the community.
“Participation is bound to decrease over time,” he said. “I think the biggest hope for ‘Return’ events in the future is to recognize that an annual event may dilute interest. While it was novel the first or second time, someone may not be as interested the fourth time around. It’s not that an annual event shouldn’t happen, but instead, that people should perhaps start looking to major anniversaries to plan the biggest events they can.”
Yet more look to past FromSoftware games’ longevity as proof that the event will live on—at least in some way, shape or form. Folkdeath, having been involved in the Demon’s Souls fandom and the organizer of the 2017 Return to the Nexus, has seen firsthand how dedicated Soulsborne fans can be. Even after Demon’s Souls official servers were shut down, fans came together to keep the game alive, with community member Yuvi now hosting a fan server players still frequent to this day.
“We’ll see the same dedication to Bloodborne, maybe more,” Folkdeath said. “Nothing stops Souls fans!”
Header image credit: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Keenan McCall is a freelance video game journalist and has been for the past two years. He has a penchant for diving into the different communities and odd tales found throughout gaming’s past and present, and has striven to share what he finds through pieces for sites like Game Informer, Cliqist and New Normative. He currently writes for Twinfinite while acting as a member of the gaming podcast Playing With Perspective, and can be found sharing pet memes on Twitter @KEeNanMcCall525.