I started the first draft of this blog post by doing the “hey, I’m still doing a series of related blog posts even though I normally give up on my series of related blog posts really quickly” speech. Then I started writing about the first thing I liked this month and I didn’t stop writing about the first thing I liked this month. So “things I liked” for February is actually going to be one thing I liked in February in tremendous detail. If you’ve been reading this blog for more than never this should not at all surprise you.
I will go back to talk about some of the other things I liked in February at a future date, but I might talk about them in March. Because, after all, I’ll probably still like them in March. And the joy of living in the digital age is that you very, very rarely have to watch or read or play or listen to something at the same time as other people are doing it.
So, yes, the thing I like for February is probably not very good videogame about being a vampire. It’s called Vampyr. Yes, with a Y.
There’s a certain pleasure in playing, or otherwise engaging with, something generally perceived to be mediocre. I think it gives you more freedom to enjoy the fuck out of it. Vampyr is, I guess, a double-A game? Is that a thing? As in, a game by an indie developer that has good enough production values that you don’t quite think of it as an indie game, but isn’t as swanky as a triple-A game.
You’d think games about being a vampire would be more common than they are, since, y’know, being a vampire is super fun. Or maybe I just think that because I grew up right in the middle of the Interview With The (Not A) Vampire into Buffy into Twilight vampstravaganza that was the mid-90s to mid-2000s because actually they’re a bit thin on the ground, and tend to have a reputation for being flawed but interesting. Troika’s Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines being basically the poster child for flawed but interesting from the studio that was itself also a poster child for flawed but interesting. And Vampyr is no exception. You play an Edwardian doctor who, on returning from the First World War, finds London in the grip of a deadly pestilence. And then you become a vampire. Vampyr?
Anyway, it’s all just super intriguing as you have to balance your newly acquired vampire nature with the ethics and practicalities of being a doctor. This premise on its own helps the game avoid a pitfall that a lot of vampire games (both video and tabletop) stumble into, in that a really, really important part of the core vampire archetype is that you were once an ordinary person and then you get transformed into a monster driven by bloodlust, but most games pay little more than lip service to the “ordinary person” aspect of that and double down on the “now you are supernatural being who exists in a community of supernatural beings and does side quests for supernatural beings” aspect. Or to put it another way, a lot of games treat “ordinary person” as meaning just that: before you became a vampire you were some guy/girl, now you are a vampire. The protagonist of Vampyr has a specific identity, with friends and family and a history that interacts meaningfully with what follows.
I’m aware the game has flaws—the combat is not great, and there’s quite tedious sections of trying to get across London while fighting identikit enemies, the animations are adequate at best and sort of (non-deliberately) ghoulish at worst, the plot could probably have been slightly better developed, and I would have liked a bit more from some of the more significant supporting characters (especially the vampire hunter dude you have a sort of twisted foeyay with). But I found those flaws easy to overlook because the game has such strong themes and such a clear vision of what it wants to be, underscored by actually, really strong voice work from pretty much every character (especially the protagonist). I also really appreciate that it has a notable sense of place and time—it’s very specifically set in foggy, plague stricken London in the aftermath of the First World War, with all the social and political upheaval that implies. But where I find the game, or rather the wider context of the game, especially though-provoking is that some of the things that are widely regarded as flaws by the community (whatever that means – I think I mean people I’ve seen talking about the game on the internet) I tended to read as deliberate and, more importantly, effective creative choices.
So, to quote Noah Caldwell-Gervais, let’s get into it.
A lot of people don’t like that the game’s central romance is non-optional and somewhat subdued—I mean the protagonist (Jonathan Reid) will always fall head-over-heels for this random lady on the basis of three conversations, unless you actively seek more opportunities to talk to her (which I did). It still worked for me because the game has a very late 19th century / early 20th century vibe to it so you’d expect a, for want of a better word, courtship between two upper middle class people living in that world, one of whom is already centuries old, to have a certain mannered quality. There’s lots of quiet looks and tea, which I’m totally here for. I also appreciated that it felt mature in the actual sense, rather than in the “mature content” sense. You’re two adults who’ve lived full lives, and suffered a lot, who find each other in the middle of a vampire epidemic. You’re not two teenagers desperate to bone. As for the non-optionality, I think a lot of people forget that not all video game protagonists are supposed to be blank slates. Jonathan Reid is clearly a very specific person with a very specific story, and his relationship with Lady Ashbury is clearly part of that story. It’s not like a Bioware game where customising your build and picking your romantic interest are core elements of the expected experience.
This difference between a coherent story about a developed protagonist in a developed world and a customisable blank slate in a sandbox (which is what people are very primed to want from this sort of game) becomes even more marked when you look at the game’s side stories. Throughout Vampyr, you will encounter well-realised NPCs who have shit going on that super needs to be fixed and you super won’t be able to fix it. Pretty much the only option you have for interacting with someone else’s story is to kill and eat them. Because you are a vampire. And, for many people, this represents a failure of the game to provide what the industry has long since taken to referring to as “choice and consequence.” Which I find sort of fascinating because, if you look at it in a vacuum, that makes no sense. Maybe I’m wrong but I think if you took someone who’d never played a videogame before and said to them, okay so this man has a probably clinically depressed, maybe illegitimate son who he is raising alone since his wife died, and towards whom he cannot express emotional intimacy, their first instinct probably wouldn’t be “okay, I’ll just have a five minute conversation with each of them which should fix the kid’s depression and make the father get over his emotional hangups.” But if you take someone who’s been trained by years of increasingly streamlined RPGs that are sold explicitly on “C&C” that’s exactly what they’d expect to happen. Because it’s what would happen in any other game.
I have a particularly strong memory of a random encounter in a Dragon Age game (I think it’s II?) where you meet this elf who’s on a quest to kill the man who murdered his mother and you get to talk him out of it with literally one line of dialogue (which, as I seem to recall is, “Is this what your mother would have wanted” and to which strict genre convention prohibited him from replying “Yes, our culture has a deeply held tradition of blood vengeance”). And it felt so unbelievably shallow and cheap that, since then, I’ve been pleasantly surprised every time a game has reminded me that people don’t just sit around waiting for a player character to tell them what to think about their sincerest and most profound beliefs. All of which is to say, I liked the fact that you learn about the people in Jonathan Reid’s world but, apart from giving them the occasional headache pill, you can’t fix them or change them. I mean, change them into anything other than dead people.
The final thing that people don’t like about Vampyr is the way the game handles morality, and how this feeds into the game’s endings. Basically, the ending you get depends (as far as I can tell) only on how many people you’ve killed, and not especially on what sorts of people they were and why you killed them. Some players have a particular problem with the fact that to get the “best” ending, you have to have killed literally nobody (I mean, and okay this is a classic example of what the cool kids call ludonarrative dissonance, nobody outside the combat, where you can slaughter as many randoms as you like). Once again, this strikes me as people having a negative reaction as a result of the way they’ve been trained by other games. In most games that track kills, particularly games that track kills as a negative rather than a positive (for example Dishonored and its sequel) you can get away with a small amount of murder as long as you don’t go super trigger happy. But there are two important differences here. The first is that those games are usually specifically stealth-em-ups and avoiding killing is as much a matter of mechanical skill as moral choice (and, to be fair to Dishonored, on a low chaos Dishonored playthrough you’ll probably kill fewer random mooks than you do in “no kills” Vampyr playthrough). The second difference, which sort of relates, is that kills in stealth games tend to be about leaving evidence or destabilising a city, whereas in Vampyr they’re much more specifically about whether you’re a murderer or not. And, call me old fashioned, but I do think that there’s a meaningful difference between somebody who has murdered one person and somebody who has murdered zero people. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the game to recognise that.
The other bit of video game training that Vampyr trips people up on (and, again, the mandatory combat sequences do it no favours here) is that a lot of, I might even say most, RPGs distinguish between good kills and bad kills. The karma system in the Fallout games is a classic example here: it apparently inhabits a moral universe wherein shooting one innocent shopkeeper for fun and then shooting twenty bandits for the loot makes you a good person overall. In Vampyr, by contrast, a kill is a kill is a kill. Eating the serial killer or the slum landlord or the nice girl who sells flowers all make you a murderer. And, bizarrely, a lot of people seem to feel this makes the game morally simplistic, when what it actually does is put the moral responsibility for your choices back on the player. We seem to have been habituated by decades of D&D derived alignment systems to view a moral choice as one in which you have to work out which of two options the game has pre-emptively labelled as good or bad. What’s interesting about the moral choices in Vampyr is it doesn’t give you that out. You can absolutely make the case that it is morally right to kill and eat the serial killer, because he’s making his mother’s life miserable, and also he’s a serial killer. But what makes that a choice is that it’s set against game mechanics which reinforce the reality that even so, you’re still murderin’ a dude.
Even more fascinating, Vampyr is the only vampire-based game I’ve seen that really recreates that degeneration into a killing machine that is supposed to be a constant temptation in the classic vampire archetype. And it’s exactly the much-maligned “one murder is one too many” policy that lets it do that. Normally, when you play a vampire game, you’re told your character has this hunger but you can’t really feel it, because you’re just sitting in a chair rolling dice or pressing buttons, and consequently it doesn’t really affect you or your decision-making. Vampyr, however, really doubles down on making the murdering incredibly tempting – mechanically (you get massive XP bonuses), morally (I repeat: serial killer) and emotionally (some of the NPCs are just total shits). For most of the game, I really steadfastly went for the “don’t kill anyone” ending, because I do, in fact, generally think that murdering people is wrong #unpopularopinions. But I will admit I did struggle with this for the aforesaid reasons of XP, shits and serial killers.
Then I met Carina Billows. She’s a former suffragette living on the streets of London, eating live rats because a vampire is messing with her mind, and just lucid enough to beg for death because it’s the only way to release her from her suffering. So, after angsting for a while, I ate her. But, of course, because I knew that eating her locked out the zero kills ending and that I had a little bit of flexibility on the “low kills” ending, suddenly the serial killer and the slumlord were looking way tastier. And this is a remarkable piece of structure, because essentially the game mechanics reinforce the argument behind their own design. The objection one could make to the best ending being locked behind zero kills is that it should be perfectly possible to kill one person as a vampire without particularly eroding your overall sense of the value of life. But, of course, killing one person in Vampyr literally erodes your overall sense of the value of life because your first killing is the only one that locks out the best ending and you know that you can still get a quite good ending by only killing a few people round the edges. So the game’s decision to distinguish mechanically between a player who kills one person and a player who kills zero people is reinforced by the way in which your first kill changes the game’s reward structure and your second kill doesn’t.
So anyway. Since I’d already killed Carina Billows, for what I felt were morally justifiable reasons, I killed the serial killer and justified this on the grounds that he was an actual serial killer. Then I killed Cadogan Bates, the slum landlord. And what really gets to me is that I knew it was totally personal. Don’t get me wrong he’s a terrible human being, who exploits and (it’s strongly implied) sexually abuses his tenants, but that’s clearly a wider social problem that is no way impacted by his death. Not only that, but he was only worth 1000XP. I genuinely just hated him. And that was the point where I stopped killing people because the game had actually given me the “oh my God, what have I become” moment that is such an important part of vampire fiction. If I could have looked at my bloodstained hands, I would have.
And I’m actually still thinking about the moral journey I went on even now. From a certain perspective, I find it very interesting, but slightly problematic, that the progression I had went from a killing that was basically euthanasia (which, as it happens, I do believe in) to a killing that is basically capital punishment (which, as it happens, I don’t believe in) to outright murder because I didn’t like someone’s face. There’s part of me which feels that the game artificially pushed me into a slippery slope argument because it mechanically encourages you to view every murder after the first as less significant (I think you can get away with 3-4 before you get the “I have gone too far” ending). But another, and I think larger, part of me feels like the game challenged me in good faith to interrogate my own assumptions. Because it treats all killings as equal it doesn’t feel like it’s making a specific argument for or against killing for any particular reason. I happen to believe that consensual euthanasia is categorically different from murder but I know there are plenty of people who believe the same thing about capital punishment. And what the game does, in both contexts, is essentially ask you “yeah, okay, but what if it’s not?” And that’s … pretty much the opposite of morally simplistic.
So … yeah. That’s Vampyr. Don’t get me wrong, it does have significant issues and if you’re not already a gamer, or not already really into vampires, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. But it’s been one of the best experiences I’ve had in a game for a really long time, precisely because it made me think about things I normally just take for granted.
Anyway, I’ll be back next month with an list of things I enjoyed in March, which hopefully won’t be three thousand words talking about a single video game.
As ever, feel free to tell me what you’ve been enjoying in the comments. Or don’t.