I’ve been a rather big fan of White Wolf’s Vampire franchise (Vampire: The Masquerade) ever since the first edition of the roleplaying game in 1991 — holy shit! That’s sixteen years already! It could be I only got in on it a year later or so, but even still, Vampire’s been a part of my life for longer than many kids potentially reading this have been alive.
Since then White Wolf’s become that other big roleplaying game publisher and even played a considerable part in the rise of the goth wave in the late 90s – no small feat for a game studio. Vampire LARPs were huge in my home city way back then. And yes, I played in a couple.
I got into Troika’s digital version of the game, Bloodlines (2004), only last week, due to not having a games PC in the house for years. Naturally I was fearing the worst, the previous Vampire digitalization (Redemption, 2000) not getting much appraisal from the RPG crowd. In ways, my fears were justified, as the interface is very clunky and the graphics stutter despite their simple appearance.
But really, I was swept off my feet during the introduction and have remained thoroughly engrossed with the game.
Oh, it delivers on my cynicism a lot. I get absolutely every Vampire cliche I could think of, from the goth nightclub and the sewers to the Asian invaders, the feral vampire Sheriff and the aristocratic vampire Prince. Mad vampires talk in funny fonts. My girl vampire dresses like a sad goth all the time.
But none of that matters, because it’s really my imagination coming to life. It is kind of embarrassing, seeing the vampire societies you first imagined as a kid on the screen – because, really, it is so cliched. But still, I was firmly gripped from the initial Embrace scene (becoming a vampire) to the first Elysium scene (vampire court) and all through the action-packed tutorial (with a Sabbat attack, of course).
Nothing could prepare me, however, for the first time I set foot outside my haven and onto the city streets. The accessible area is small, just a couple of short streets initially, and the people aren’t too life-like, but I sure felt like a predator, eyeing every single isolated character as a potential victim. And while I’d gone through this countless times in my mind’s eye, in the tabletop roleplaying game, it was a huge step to see it in first-person and actually hunt. The game adds so much to the experience, like the way you can hear the Beast growling in your head as you’re stalking.
The game’s presentation touches on the issue of realism I wrote about earlier. It doesn’t look like much, but Troika has given a lot of attention to facial animation via Valve’s Half-Life 2 engine. Seeing proper lip-synch and believable expressions (with adequate voice acting) adds immensely to the way you relate to the characters; much more so than sharper textures or softer angles ever could. It’s all about focus.
The game’s setting and story are so far Vampire cliches through and through, but it’s all written so well that I’m eating it up. Some characters say fuck a lot, and it never feels out of place. All the dialogue flows naturally and indeed, I find myself caring about all the characters. I’ve only played a couple of nights so far, but already there’s been many instantly memorable moments and characters – and that’s saying a lot, because I can’t recollect any characters at all from a great many videogames. The thin-blooded surfer is my favorite so far… damn!
So regardless of the game’s buggy build quality and choppy graphics and lousy interface, it’s the quality of writing and characterization that lift it above the mass. While I’ve heard that the quality of storytelling will drop sharply later into the game, anyone interested in interactive storytelling has to play this game. It’s even managed to alter my deep-set reservations (think 16 years!) of the mad vampire clan, the Malkavians, who I’ve mostly despised before, but now I’m finding it an absolute laugh to play as one.