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The Messiness of Vampyr Doesn't Weaken Its Bite

June 07,2018 23:42

Dontnod Entertainment, the development studio behind the newly released Vampyr, has a habit of creating messy games. But don't let that stop you from playing them. Dr. Jonathan E. Reid's office, which he only leaves when the sun sets, has two doors.and more »


Dontnod Entertainment, the development studio behind the newly released Vampyr, has a habit of creating messy games. But don't let that stop you from playing them.
Dr. Jonathan E. Reid's office, which he only leaves when the sun sets, has two doors. One opens to Pembroke Hospital, where he works as a surgeon and blood transfusion expert. The other leads out, to the back streets of Victorian London, where the good physician can go about his more private business. That business is hinted at by the constant bloodshot fog of his eyes, by the tendency he has to disappear into the shadows, and by his strange ability to get people to confess secrets to him. Reid, as the title of the game implies, is a vampire; he's your vampire.
Vampyr opens in a wild fugue, as Reid's bloodlust forces him to murder his own sister, and then finds himself on the run from vampire hunters out for revenge. Only slowly does the game slide the narrative pieces into place. As Reid, you're home from World War I, fighting the ravages of the Spanish flu while at nights, another plague rolls through London's streets. After getting sick and dying, you wake up. Turned. Your sister is dead because of your thirst, and you need to figure out what's going on and who to blame—all while trying to maintain a semblance of a normal life, caring for the city's sick as one of the only bulwarks between an ailing city and a total plague-ridden collapse.

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Dontnod Entertainment has spent its entire career making games about choice. In the gaming industry, this is usually a cliché—player agency and its expression is considered an essential part of what's marketable about games, and as such mainstream gaming has a tendency to talk up the power of games to let players be, and do, whatever they want. But Dontnod's interest is deeper, and more complicated. The studio is engaged in the various ways agency is expressed as a game mechanic, and in finding ways to complicate or short-circuit that expression, making it more honest or just stranger.
In Dontnod's first game, Remember Me, it did this with memory, letting the player move back and forth between remembered realities, changing them to actively reshape the experiences and identities of characters around them. In its next game, Life is Strange, the trick was time—the introduction of at-will time rewinding turned the Telltale-style choose-your-own-adventure narrative into a more playful, more expansive version of itself.
In Vampyr, the trick is done with blood. Specifically, your need for it, and the possibility that you can take it from anyone you meet. Blood isn't strictly necessary in Vampyr; you can survive scrounging from rats and hostile enemies just fine. But blood translates to experience points, providing empowerment for each body drained dry. These points can be used to make various parts of the game much easier, and they also have use in certain narrative moments, where the power of blood can be used to aid those around you.
As you grow in power over the course of the game, your ability to mesmerize people grows, allowing you to quietly lead away various non-player characters to suck their blood, empowering yourself at the cost of their lives. By the end of the game, you can kill anyone—an option available during every single in-game conversation with just a press of a button.
This one mechanic has far-reaching, though sometimes clumsy, effects on the play experience. While the actual systems at play are often opaque, from my experience, killing people in Vampyr has a cost, leading to the population getting sicker, derailing the main plot, and making the world broadly more dangerous. And yet it's also the only efficient means to power. It functionally mechanizes something that role-playing games have broadly been terrible at: ulterior motives.

While playing, I found my intentions constantly shifting and fluid, caught between mercy and hunger, expediency and decency. Games rarely so involve me in their roleplaying.

This is a common thing in real-life conversations. Maybe you're asking Pam about her day not because you're terribly fond of her, but because you're hoping she'll drop some gossip about your boss. Maybe your politeness is fake, masking your woundedness that the barista butchered your name. Maybe you're just a sociopath. But in games, conversation systems have rarely reflected this sort of complexity. The surface-level dialogue options available represented the entirety of possible interactions—subtle or contradictory motivations were impossible.
Vampyr's best trick is complicating those sorts of conversations. By learning more about a character, you can increase the amount of experience you get from drinking their blood–same with healing them. Your every act of goodwill, then, is potentially teeming with wrath. Are you helping the sick just to feed on them? Do you really care about your colleagues, or are they just potential targets? While playing, I found my intentions constantly shifting and fluid, caught between mercy and hunger, expediency and decency. Games rarely so involve me in their roleplaying.
Around these ideas are a game that is often a mess. Movement and combat are both clunky, and there are a myriad of technical problems. Like all of Dontnod's games, Vampyr's insight is surrounded by half-baked ideas and the clear marks of a budget that doesn't reach to the ambition or scale of the project.
Vampyr, as I said, a mess. But don't let that put you off. There's blood in those veins.
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