There are many reasons to love a video game. Maybe it has great gameplay that never ages, like Unreal Tournament. Maybe it has a great sense of humor, like Monkey Island. Maybe the settings, characters and story are so out of left field you can’t help but to love them, like Anachronox. And then there are those rare few gems that you end up loving because of the mood.
A game with mood is one you wouldn’t mind spending endless hours in, all alone, even if you end up doing nothing. It’s a game that can reach out to you, but it doesn’t grab hold, it doesn’t leave you in awe, it doesn’t saturate your sense or captivate you with action. Instead, a game with mood will embrace you gently, caress you, and slowly drown you in its world until you feel it. Until it soaks into your every pore and may as well call it home.
And it’s not because of the atmosphere. A horror game has atmosphere. A really well done level in an FPS has atmosphere, something to make the world immersive. And while atmosphere is a part of it, it’s not enough. There’s also style. The kind of style you see in something like Vice City. You just get what it’s all about from one look at the intro. But mood is more than that, it’s atmosphere, style, and something else, something I struggle to find a word for. The Germans probably have a word for it, one that’s about 9 syllables long. I could probably just call it magic, and try to get away with it, but that doesn’t really help when it comes to understanding the concept, explaining it or replicating it. It would be like saying granny’s food was so tasty because it had a secret ingredient, love, and not just lots of salty fat.
You wouldn’t fault Venus for not having arms
To that end, let’s talk a bit about Vampire The Masquerade Bloodlines. A game drenched in mood, that exudes atmosphere and style like few I’ve ever seen before. A game that I will play, again and again, even though I do next to nothing in it. I play it just to be there, just to feel it. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Bloodlines is a fine game, after you patch it with the latest community updates. If you haven’t played it before, I can sum it up simply as Deus Ex with vampires. The cool kind of vampires that wear sunglasses, long coats, use katana swords, and for the most part are gruesome monsters pretending to be human, until that lie quells the beast lurking beneath the mask.
It was developed some time ago, by the legendary studio Troika. A studio that produced only 3 games and yet managed to create something grand in each of them. I can’t help but imagine what it would have been like if the equivalent of a Kickstarter existed back then, and that exact group of people would have gone on to make more games. Bloodlines was an ordeal to finish on time, people working overtime just about non-stop for three 3 years. The scope of the game, the complexity and depth it reached required more time, more resources, and more people to get done time. Those were luxuries Troika did not have. But what it did have was people with skill, passion, and just the right amount of insanity to dream the impossible and commit to it. Some would call the result a flawed masterpiece, but that really does it a disservice, because its greatest achievement can not be overshadowed by bugs, errors, glitches or stuff that was cut out because it wasn’t up to certain standards. Oh, sure, if you actually want to play it end to end, you’ll find a bunch of flaws that can be patched out. But the core of it, the essence, is a masterpiece. You wouldn’t fault Venus for not having arms.
Bloodlines starts out as any good RPG based on a venerable Pen&Paper game would, with a lot of character creation choices. Even one that makes you unable to ever touch a duck. Maybe not as many as you’d have in the actual Vampire: The Masquerade game, but enough for a video game. I won’t get into details about rules and mechanics, that’s not the point of this article. I’ll just say that regardless of what you choose, the game mostly offers you an option to play that way. After all, it’s Deus Ex with vampires part.
You enter this world of darkness as a newly turned vampire, a child of the night. Everything you were is irrelevant, everything you know is a lie. It’s a great starting point for the player, as a bewildered and confused spawn of dead sire you must claw and fang your way, but not to greatness. This is where some of the magic of Bloodlines comes in. You’re not the savior. You’re not the hero foretold by legend. For the most part, you’re just some schmuck the Prince took pity on, because the other vampires at the town meeting were giving him the mean looks over just having executed your sire. You know the one who was also a schmuck, dumb enough to not ask permission before making a new vampire. That’s a big nono in this world.
This accomplishes two things. Firstly, it makes the story less cliché. Secondly, it grounds it a bit more into reality. Because, let’s face it, none of us are ever going to be a vampire foretold in ancient prophecy to save the world from evil. Best we can hope is to be that schmuck. And sure, you’ll always be a simpleton compared to the ancient monster that walk the earth, but compared to mortals, in this game you are already a god. It gives you this sense of a restrained power fantasy, like you’re a predator that stalks the night, a monster hiding in the open. Docile by choice, but at any moment capable of raining hell upon the foolish cattle. Until someone brings a shotgun to the party, because you’re not really Dracula material here. Start small, terrorize some hobos and sewer rats first, then move up to the big leagues.
Bloodlines is a reality that’s shifted. A world like ours, that looks like it should, smells like it should, but off by just a bit. Enough to let in all that darkness, all those monsters that hide in it. It’s a world where you’ll go home, to your “cozy” apartment, check your mailbox for letters (it’s an old game after all, they still had letters back then), you’ll log in to your e-mail account to read pages of green text on black backgrounds. You’ll even watch the news on TV, or listen to Deb on the radio. While the TV is as stale and lacking in personality as you’d expect from corporate media, the radio isn’t. Between the commercials about some good fucking chicken, the political ads, and Deb of Night, you’ve got one of the best radios ever made in a video game. It rivals with the best GTA ever had to offer, and the fact that there isn’t more of it just goes to show the world cares not for fairness and justice.
In the violent silence of a dream within a dream
Deb’s sweet voice is the only one you hear out of thin air, unless you’re insane, in which case you’ve got other problems to deal with, like arguing with stop signs and having all your dialogue be the insane ramblings of a shattered mind, peeking through the veil of time . What I mean is that you’ve got nothing to take you out of it. There are no inexplicable audio logs found in a random dumpster that somehow belongs to the grand architect of an underwater city, or logbooks. Sure, there’s e-mail, but that’s e-mail does. Everything is how it should be, how you feel it should be. Even if there are vampires and werewolves, the world feels real. It takes much effort on the part of the developer to make it so. More magic.
The game takes place in a few semi-open locations, like Santa Monica, downtown Los Angeles, Hollywood, and China Town. And beyond them, many mission specific locations, filled with so much details. This isn’t a big game, in terms of sheer size. It’s not Skyrim. Most hub areas are quite small, but in them you’ll find so many wonderful things, little touches that make everything better, like a shadow following you which you can only see if you use your vampiric powers. You’ll find such things even in the missions. Take the museum, for example. You walk in, and just as you’re about turn a corner, you’re nose to nose with a giant raptor. That actually startled me the first time. There’s even a note attached to it, one of the employees put it there as a joke, to scare their friend. It even works on vampires. The detail is fantastic, because the detail makes sense. You’ve got hospitals with patience yearning for life and blood banks. There are night clubs where you can dance and feed and ogle at Jeanette for hours, all while listening to great music. Music that just makes you… feel this world, understand it. Music that sets the tone for their society. Music that has lyrics like: “In the violent silence of a dream within a dream”. How can you not love that? That commitment to a style. The ambient soundtrack is great as well. Just about everything about the audio-visuals is top-notch. Or was, in 2004. Source has aged a bit.
All these places are filled with people. I wouldn’t call them characters. The random NPC that gives you a quest to get 10 rat tails for his cat in a poorly made MMO is a character. These are people. They have lives, they have a certain level of independence that makes you feel like they don’t stop existing when you turn the corner. They don’t stand there just waiting for you to show up and validate their lives. I’d say it’s the other way around. You’ve got people like: Jack, the biker-pirate vampire that may have once been Black Beard, the Vorman twins, the weaselly Prince and his sheriff, heck, even the guard at his door has personality. They’re very well written, very well acted, memorable. And, for the most part, they don’t fall into stereotypes. Interacting with them is always a pleasure. Having them send you on missions to explore haunted hotels that scare the crap out of even the undead is a bonus.
And then there’s the last bit. The one that makes the spell complete. A sense of apocalyptic dread. What times must these be when even the smaller gods fear the night? Gehenna, is what they call it. The end times. An age when the ancients will rise, devour their children, and slaughter the world. An age when the father himself, Cain, will return. There is power in this, in the concept. It’s probably more noticeable for people who remember the end of something else. The end of the last millennium, the end of the Cold War, the last days before the wall fell. It’s a sense of impending change or imminent destruction, uncertainty of the future embedded into the heart of every bit of this world, etched upon the walls, scrawled on the faces of each vampire. Dread. Unease. Fear. You may have felt something similar if you’ve played the fantastic Broken Sword, or even Mass Effect 3, which in spite of other faults, dealt with the end of days well enough. Or if you haven’t played those, think about Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, the end of the third age.
Put everything together, and you’ve got mood. A world that feels real to you, and feels itself at you… if that makes any sense. Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines is a wonder to behold. A non-linear adventure where you’re not the hero, not the villain, you’re barely a catalyst for change. More of a pawn, actually. Considering almost every other character has been around for centuries, accumulating wealth and power, you wouldn’t expect to be much more. The gameplay is great too. Combat may not be all there, as an action game, but it’s still good enough. And making that took effort, the kind of hard work and conscious a planning you rarely see today, where a game characters tell you to push buttons on your keyboard or have written diaries of people turning into monsters that somehow have time to write “Grr, groul” and so on. What I’m getting at is that Diablo 3 was crap at setting up any sort of mood.
You can find Bloodlines on Steam. If you’re reading this after the Halloween sale, it’s still expensive as shit, being an Activision game. None of that money goes to the people that made it, or even to supporting a Steam forum for it. You’d think they’d at least care enough integrate some of the community updates in the standard version. But they don’t. Activision is, after all, the honey badger of the gaming industry, they just don’t care. Apart from being one of the finest games ever made, this is also the best Vampire game you’ll ever play. Especially since CCP/White Wolf were incapable of doing anything with the franchise. A World of Darkness MMO was in the works, but it got staked in the heart. Yet things are not without hope. Paradox Interactive now owns White Wolf and the entire World of Darnkess. And if you can’t trust the company, that has a CEO who dresses like a vampire at fan gatherings that aren’t on Halloween, to make a good Vampire game, then whom can you trust?
I urge you to try this game. You need to understand it, you need to see it, experience it, feel it for yourself. Maybe then you will understand how good a game can be. How well a game can be made. How much we’re missing out on by taking shortcuts and not thinking things through.