So, I took a day off work for mental health purposes, and began faffing around on my new laptop, something I haven’t had a whole lot of time to do, mainly because of that whole “work thing”. After a hearty breakfast of waffles, sausage, and eggs I reactivated my Steam account, curious to see what would run on my new machine. I was very pleasantly surprised to find I had purchased a copy of Vampire: The Masquerade- Bloodlines about five years prior. I booted the game up, made a new character, and then got sucked into the virtual World of Darkness until about 3 pm.
There are probably a few reasons for that. One, I’d been feeling myself go into a depressive episode over the past week or so. Two, my Xbox 360 died sometime before Thanksgiving and I’d not played an actual video game in about three months. Three, I love almost anything to do with White Wolf/ Onyx Path’s World of Darkness properties. Four? V:TM – Bloodlines is a goddamn masterpiece of video game rpgs, even thirteen years later.
Jeez, is it really thirteen years old? I suddenly feel incredibly old for just having spent about five hours playing as an immortal bloodsucker.
If you have never played or heard of Vampire, I’ll give a very brief rundown. Vampire: The Masquerade is a table top role-playing game that hit the market in the very early 1990s. 1991 if I am not mistaken. It took the gaming world by storm, and not just because it was targeted at the kind of people who’d like to pretend to be beautiful immortals, and the goth/alt crowd in general. Vampire was a new kind of rpg, one that had a huge emphasis on the character one played and the story those characters inhabited. In its earliest envisioning, the game was far less about having interesting powers, picking up weapons and fighting one’s enemies than it was about telling a harrowing and soulful tale about being one of the Damned. One initially picked from seven clans of vampires, called Kindred. Each had unique abilities and weaknesses to set them apart, but also lent tragedy and nuance to your character when wielded as storytelling tools. Perhaps your character could be a captain of finance acquired by the Ventrue clan, the blue bloods of the Kindred world. Now able to use his vampiric mien to dominate any business deal he could be a part of, only never to truly enjoy the fruits of the wealth he amasses. Maybe your character started as a beautiful socialite, turned by a cruel scion of clan Nosferatu, and cursed to never be seen by humanity again lest she tear down the fragile Masquerade the Kindred uphold with her very presence. Throw in the themes of each Kindred having to wrestle with their inner monster, called the Beast, and balance their need for blood with a fragile ideal of Humanity (as in “oh the”) and you had a game so intimate you could even spend hours examining the human condition via vampirism with just a game runner and one player.
The game also gathered an intimidating amount of lore through it’s (un)life-span, starting with its own twisting of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, and ending with multiple sects of Kindred fighting against each other, humanity, their own progenitors, you name it.
Whether the scales of the stories were small or epic, people resonated with the game and it became a smash hit that spawned four separate editions (1st, 2nd, Revised, and 20th Anniversary edition. A fifth if you count Requiem, its cousin in the now available Chronicles of Darkness line of games). A newly minted ‘Fourth Edition’ is now in the works. The game’s influence can be seen in the influx of vampire media we’ve seen over the past few years, probably starting with the Blade franchise and reaching its apex with the long running HBO show ‘True Blood’. It’s no secret that the writer of the books that show was based on is a longtime fan of Vampire, and by the shows fifth season one must wonder if the writers are holed up at their desks with bargain bin copies of Vampire: The Masquerade source books (Vicissitudes is not a common word).
You may be wondering– how the hell do you make a video game out of this? I’m not sure how they did, but they did. Vampire: The Masquerade -Bloodlines takes the core ideas of Vampire and makes a game you can sink hours into. Set in Los Angeles, you start the game out as a just Embraced (turned) vampire. Props to the game designers for going with that, as it allows them to scale both the game objectives to your relatively weak stats and get away without having to provide the V:TM core rule book with the game just to know what the heck is going on. It has a nice way of making things feel new again, even to someone who has read most of the books cover to cover.
Another beautiful point of design is just how the game is played. It rewards you for engaging in and developing other skills besides combat. Most missions have multiple ways of completion, and often, you are rewarded with more loot and more experience for NOT going into to every situation like a blood-gorged spree killer. A lot of how they accomplish this is by cleverly engaging the different Kindred Disciplines into play. Some of them buff your stats in or out of combat, making investigation, stealth, or hacking/lock picking more viable options. On an even more genius level, they allow for social Disciplines to be used as dialogue options. Need to get into the blood bank to follow up on a lead, but your attempts at persuasion fall flat? If your character has the Presence or Dominate abilities, you can buff your Persuasion skill or straight up command the NPC to let you in like the Dracula in training that you are. Even combat situations play out better with a little thought to what your Disciplines can bring to the table. I re-learned this the hard way today trying to free a plot character from a maniacal serial-killer surgeon, who lead me to Final Death with a severed arm several times before I got wise. I eventually triumphed through a combination of buffing my stats, turning invisible, and making strategic strikes. Not only did I win, but I felt damn clever to boot.
If I have one complaint about the game, it is that the graphics do not look as good as I remember, but for a game over a decade old they still hold up well. Heck, the faces of the NPCs I talk to still seem impressively expressive, even compared to some games today. The voice cast is great too (is that Bender Bending Rodriguez I hear in the tones of Smiling Jack?). The need for updated graphics is really the only pitfall and the community has some patches for that or so I hear. The environments are varied, there is a good amount of replay value as each clan has a different playstyle to experience, and I love the moody soundtrack of Lacuna Coil and Ministry echoing out of in-game sound system. If you have never experienced the World of Darkness at all, V:TM-Bloodlines would be a pretty good introduction. At $20 on Steam, it’s well worth trying out, and you don’t need a gaming group to get started! If you are a fan of White Wolf and you haven’t played Bloodlines yet… well I don’t know why. Go play it!