How Vampyr takes a unique approach to vampire lore

In spring 2018, Dontnod is taking us out of the deceptively serene Arcadia Bay of Life Is Strange and plunging us into Vampyr’s 1918 London, as the Spanish flu, one of the great plagues of history, ravages the city. This time, you play Jonathan Reid, a decorated Great War doctor transformed into a vampire, forced prey upon the very citizens of London that he’s trying to save.

As a lifelong fan of games like Vampire: The Masquerade (the original tabletop RPG as well as its various digital incarnations), I’m always excited for a vampire game that forces you to explore the problematic gray morality of your own existence. Vampires are amusing as antagonists, but as dark heroes, they’re utterly captivating.

The district sleeps alone tonight (because everyone is dead)

Dontnod promises interesting mechanics around the health of different districts of London. Vampyr takes place in a “semi-open world” that emphasizes human-scale districts rather than the epic verisimilitude of say, GTA or The Witcher 3. Rather than a sandbox or playground, the districts’ citizens make up a delicate social ecology that you can attempt to protect or utterly ravage through your choices as a player.

You have the option to run through the game in the most brutally violent way, emptying the districts of its citizens. In that case, vampires will take their places, and the game will accelerate toward its end. While I doubt many players will engage with the game this way, I’m glad that the game designers respect us and their concept enough to make this an option.

That being said, there doesn’t appear to be a great deal of variety in the level design, so I hope the designers manage to make each district feel meaningfully different.

Cursed is the choice

The central mechanic of feeding is fascinating. To level up, you must feed and you must kill. But each person you kill has a backstory, family, and friends, and their deaths will be felt throughout the game.

“In most video games, the rule is: you will become the strongest, you must survive, and you must kill,” said Stephane Beauverger, narrative director at Dontnod. “Scarcely do games confront the player about the fact that they are killing individuals. What fascinates us is to put the player at the core of this duality. To say to them: you are the predator, and you will meet people who will share their problems, their life, their friends, their worries, their concerns. It is you who will decide to spare them or not. We always want them to question themselves about the fact that they are about to take a life.”

Interestingly, you don’t level up by killing enemies, only NPCs. The game encourages you to investigate the lives of the citizens of London, i.e. your potential future victims, as a sort of judge, jury, and executioner.

You can choose to kill no one, but you’ll have much less XP and the game will be significantly harder. (Enjoy, Undertale fans!) However, you can develop stealth powers such as invisibility that allows you to avoid combat and make this approach more viable.

Pictured: An Undertale fan

London calling

London in 1918, in the wake of the Great War, is a perfect setting for the brutal moral choices of Vampyr. The Great War was the “ur-catastrophe of the 20th century,” wrote George Kennan. Technology had brought warfare screaming into the twentieth century, but the tactics utilized were stuck in the nineteenth. Millions of men died en masse over a few feet of ground. Unlike WWII, which Americans remember as a triumphant victory of democracy over fascism, the Great War is remembered as a senseless, uncontrollable conflagration that engulfed the world.

Simultaneously, the Spanish flu claimed between 20 to 40 million lives - more than the number of those killed in the war itself. The sickest soldiers were transported from the front lines via crowded trains to bustling hospitals, worsening the virulence of the epidemic.

This is the closest humanity has come to apocalypse, both natural and self-inflicted. In 1918, the four horsemen rode in the streets and man’s only hope was to pray. By setting Vampyr in this time period, Dontnod has made the horror both personal and epic. What does one life matter in this charnel house? As Jonathan Reid, you must decide.

Science and the supernatural

Vampyr appears to deal equally in science and the supernatural. While Reid is capable of clearly supernatural feats, he is also dealing with the fact that the Spanish flu is mutating vampires into skals, a more aggressive, hostile, deformed kind of vampire.

“It is very interesting for us to present a character convinced science can explain everything, who suddenly beocmes a supernatural creature himself,” says Beauverger, “He must face the fact that darkness actually exists, the supernatural actually exists, forcing him to revise his whole perspective on the world.”

In this alpha trailer, Reid hunts down a skal named Sean, who is suspected of murder. While he is innocent of that charge, he has made a decision to feast upon the bodies of the dead in a warped interpretation of the transubstantiation of Christ. This presents a fascinating moral conundrum. As freaky as any form of cannibalism is, if you have to feed on people, isn’t it better to eat the bodies of the dead?

Skals are presented as a sort of undesirable sub-species of vampire in need of a cure, but what if these vampires are actually less destructive than “normal” vampires who have to kill to survive? However, I could also see a skal faction arising that wants to stop you from curing the flu in order to ensure a steady supply of fresh corpses. And if the skals start killing people to eat them, that changes the entire moral equation.

At the end of this scenario, you have the option to kill Sean, if you find his behavior abhorrent. But he runs a night asylum that provides for London’s poorest, and if he dies, the health and overall blood quality of the district’s citizens will decrease. Do you save Irish cannibal Bernie Sanders or kill him? These are the kinds of difficult decisions that you remember as a gamer.

Making Meals Out of Your Neighbors

Based on a teaser trailers, the game plays like a third person action RPG - sort of like blood-soaked Mass Effect, if Shepard was a vampire with a butcher knife. Combat looks a little mashy, which is unfortunate, but I’m hoping that will evolve over the course of development.

Dialogue looks like it’s dealt with through the familiar dialogue wheel. The dialogue choices are highlighted as you move your cursor over them, so folks watching let’s plays or streams can see players deliberate - a good design choice by Dontnod. 

The most interesting bit in the pre-alpha teaser happens nine minutes in when Dr. Reid happens upon Joe, a gangster, threatening a Barrett, a shopkeeper. Reid switches to “vampire vision” and can see that the shopkeeper is sick and his blood quality is extremely low, while Joe is healthy and his blood quality is three times as high. The moral choice seems clear - protect the shopkeeper, take down the gangster. And you get better blood to boot. Win-win, right?

Then the player hops to a journal screen which explains Joe’s backstory. Yes, he’s a gangster, but he tried for months to find a decent job. Violence wasn’t his first choice of profession. And he does this because he’s trying to provide for his son. Are you a good man preying on predators or are you just a monster trying to find a way to justify your monstrosity?

The player uses mind control powers on Joe and you walk him into an alley where you can feed on him. (In a nice hat-tip to Vampire: The Masquerade, the game issues the prompt “Hold Triangle to Embrace”.) Joe screams in pain and horror as you drain the life from him. In his final moments, you hear his dying thoughts, “My boy… Who’ll look after him now? I tried… Tried to be a good father.” Congratulations, you just transformed a boy into an orphan.

What’s going to happen to Joe’s son? Will he die of the flu, now that there’s no one to look out for him? Will he survive and become a street urchin? This short trailer doesn’t tell you. The game displays a HUD prompt that says that the neighborhood’s condition has changed as a result of your choices. The message is clear: this life matters, not just to you, but to the world.

Pictured: A lack of moral nuance

However, the game appears to have no qualms about Reid murdering members of the vampire hunters of the Guard of Priwen, which stands in stark contrast to how it handles poor old Joe. They try to paper it over by portraying vampire hunters as sadistic (One gleefully cackles “I like their screams when you burn ‘em alive!” right before you attack him) which is a tremendous mistake.

If a vampire is a violent monster, then a vampire hunter is someone who puts themselves at great personal risk to protect their community. Joe, on the other hand, regardless of his troubled backstory, preys on his fellow humans on behalf of organized crime. Is Joe really more worthy of moral consideration than a vampire hunter? We don’t get a HUD prompt about the neighborhood’s condition when Reid hacks a vampire hunter to death. Also, you don’t get “vampire vision” and a blood quality meter for these hunters, even though Reid takes a big old sip off of them during the game’s combat sequences. Why not?

Perhaps the deaths of these vampire hunters makes little impact on the district because they aren’t from London, which maintains verisimilitude. But is morally acceptable to kill outsiders as long as their deaths make no impact on your life or the lives of those you care about? That’s a chilling prospect indeed.

This is one of the problems with any game with a combat system that also wants to explore the moral quandary of “to kill or not to kill?” Unless it gives you a way to bypass violence all together (which, admittedly, it looks like it might), a combat system requires the inclusion of faceless, disposable henchmen. I know I’m harping on an issue from a pre-alpha trailer, but the newer trailers from E3 2017 don’t seem to improve the situation. If anything, the leader of the Guards of Priwen appears to be a threatening, sneering bully - the kind of person that game devs have training us to punch in the face since Super Mario Bros.

If the game wants to stay true to its themes, vampire hunters should be individuals with history and backstory as well. I hope that this ludonarrative dissonance doesn’t overshadow the game’s otherwise fascinating moral issues. Dontnod shouldn’t force combat gameplay into Vampyr out of a sense of obligation. It felt like Life Is Strange inserted puzzle gameplay for the same reason, and suffered for it (Let’s find all those bottles in the junkyard, guys! Every single one! And you can’t move the plot until you do!!! Wowser!). Mechanics should serve the story, never compromise it. That being said, LIS still managed to tell a story that haunts me (and my Tumblr feed) to this day, so even if Vampyr doesn’t handle all of its themes and mechanics perfectly, it can still be excellent.