RPG Autopsy #1: Vampyr (Part One – Death Pending)

(Welcome to part one of RPG Autopsy. If you’re not sure what that is, where you are, or exactly how you got here, check out our introduction to RPG Autopsy here. In a sentence, though: RPG Autopsy is a series about playing through role-playing games, and examining their game design successes and failures. This is the first part of our mini-series on the exceedingly overlooked Vampyr – a 2018 Action-RPG by Dontnod Entertainment where you play a spooky vampire in spooky 1918 London. Let’s get right into it, then.) 

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Vampyr is not one for slow RPG openings. After a brief, sinister, mysterious, 100% highfalutin bit of introductory narration covering such varied topics as ‘the countdown to oblivion for the once proud city of London’ and how being dead is good actually, our protagonist Jonathan Reid wakes up at the bottom of a mass grave.

I should mention at this point just how much Vampyr does with what it’s got. It doesn’t have the enormous budget or state-of-the-art motion capture of a AAA studio, but through skillful use of lighting and sound design (not to mention that holy grail of video game storytellers – a working understanding of cinematography), Vampyr makes this section work incredibly well.

A suitably appalled Reid climbs up over the bodies, and we stumble through a black-and-white industrial estate while an ominous choir sings at us. I say black-and-white, but the scenery is punctuated by bright red streaks of blood (think the girl in Schindler’s List, only with vampires).

The outline of a woman comes onto the screen. Reid complains groggily of being really very thirsty. The woman’s form is indistinct, except for the enticing red outlines of her veins and fast-beating heart. She seems to know Reid, and goes to embrace him, but before he knows what he’s doing Reid sinks his fangs into her neck, and drains her of life.

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Think that episode of Seinfeld where a hungry Newman hallucinates Kramer as a giant roast turkey, only with vampires.

Reid, now sated by his first taste of blood, comes back to his senses. Colour and sound return to the world, and he sees that the woman he’s just murdered is in fact his own sister.

This scene, happening about four minutes into the game as it does, works far better than it has any right to. The aforementioned lighting, sound design, and cinematography come together to whip up the drama, and Reid’s voice actor Anthony Howell does great work here. The moment where Reid’s face changes from inhuman bloodlust to haunted recognition of his dying sister is also just an exceptional piece of filmmaking.

Before he has too much time to mourn, however, Reid is confronted and shot by what appear to be vampire hunters. Curiously shrugging off a bullet to the shoulder (hint: there’s a chance he might be a vampire), he flees the scene, and we’re given control once again.

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Spoiler alert: it’s not.

I want to stop and take stock for a moment here. In the first five minutes of this game we’ve woken up in a mass grave, become a vampire apparently, killed our sister, and gotten shot by a vampire hunter. Also, we’re a vampire.

This is a million miles from the grave sins of 99% of RPG openings. In fact, it might be the best openings to any RPG I’ve ever played. No meandering hometown introductory sequences, no numbers-waterboarding character creation screens, and no overly earnest lectures about fantasy lore the player couldn’t possibly bring themselves to care about yet. Instead, the opening of Vampyr is (a) full of drama, (b) personal, yet high-stakes, and (c) mysterious as hell.

This is how you do an opening. It’s so good I’m going to make it this week’s INSIGHTFUL GAME DESIGN LESSON:

Don’t be afraid to throw your players right into the thick of things. 

Just because RPGs tend to be slow, story-driven games doesn’t mean they don’t need a sense of drama. Every piece of art needs to grab its audience, and no amount of ‘here are some stats, please choose your playstyle for the next 90 hours (no you can’t change your mind later)’ or ‘3000 years ago there was a dragon’ RPG nonsense is going to do that.

You don’t need to go straight into character creation (assuming your game has it). Throw your players into the thick of the drama. Make that drama high-stakes, and personal. Also make sure to include a (high-stakes, personal) mystery in there too. I don’t care about the fate of this fantasy kingdom you’ve just told me about. I do care about why the hell I’m a vampire now, and just who these guys trying to kill me are.

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Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.

What follows is an introduction to the game’s combat system. Reid finds a frankly enormous machete, and we cut our way through some vampire hunters. It’s standard lock-on, dodge, and attack third-person combat. We’ll probably talk about that combat in more detail in a later post, but for now suffice to say that due to atmosphere everything feels pretty tense.

Soon enough we tussle with a vampire hunter, and get burned by a ray of sunlight. Here we learn our first piece of vampire lore – sun = bad. In a few moments a tooltip will teach us our second piece of vampire lore – fire = also bad. In mechanical terms this means that we can’t go outside at daytime, and that fire-based attacks deal us ‘aggravated damage’, which lowers our maximum health.

We escape, and find an abandoned house to hole up in. Once safely hidden inside, Reid sees some flashbacks, including his time as a field surgeon in a war we later learn to be the First World War. He also finds a dead woman, and then does the first thing anyone would do in such a desperate situation: he start rooting about in cupboards for crafting supplies.

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Amazingly for a video game story, this life-defining moment of character development isn’t dropped soon after and then never spoken of again.

Here we also find our first ‘collectible’ – a letter written by the leader of something called ‘Priwen’ (more on that later), which goes into more detail about vampires, sunlight, and fire.

These lore tidbit collectibles, like the writing in Vampyr in general, are very good. They’re short, full of interesting flavour, and they tend to be written with a specific voice, from a specific perspective. They’re also helped (as with the story in general) by the game’s vampire setting. Everyone knows the basic vampire rules – blood, sunlight, wooden stakes, an eternity of hellish damnation, etc. – so when Vampyr plays with those rules, it makes us sit up and pay attention. 

We all know, for instance, that vampires are killed by sunlight. But here we learn that no, they actually aren’t. Instead, while sunlight gradually burns them down to a charred husk, they’ll start slowly regenerating the moment the sun sets. Which is incredibly metal. And it makes us start to wonder: ‘what are the rules of vampires in this world?’.

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Enjoy reading the text on this, a letter written for ants.

By introducing this mystery, then gradually drip-feeding us answers, Vampyr makes us feel like we’re a sleuthing, blood-drinking Sherlock Holmes, even though all we’re really doing is reading a piece of text handed to us. This isn’t lore and worldbuilding as nerdy codex filler, this is lore and worldbuilding as answers to pressing mysteries. This is how you do it.

In the next post we’ll get to the bleeding heart of Vampyr – the chats with its various NPCs around London, and there too (due to a combination of accomplished writing, leveraging of mystery, and some clever gameplay-story interactions) we’ll feel like detectives when all we’re actually doing is clicking on all the options in a fairly simplistic dialogue tree.

Getting back to Reid, though: we find a dead man, and take his gun. However, not cottoning onto the fact that he’s a vampire just yet, Reid is convinced he’s hallucinating, or having some kind of terrible nightmare.

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Also, we keep having visions of this mysterious figure, who I figure is probably our sire (i.e. vampire dad).Rational thinking only.

We’ll hear again and again later on that Reid is a rational man – a man of science. So naturally he does the most rational thing one can do in this moment of doubt: he lies down in a bed and shoots himself in the chest.

It’s a bit silly, but as always its shot and acted well enough that it works, and I do like how you have to pull the trigger yourself. I thought that maybe I could avoid shooting myself if I waited long enough, but you have to do it. You pull the trigger. Reid shoots himself.

And that’s Vampyr. The. End. Kind of a short mini-series, I know, but you play the hand you’re dealt. Next week we’ll be starting a new mini-series about our next game…

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Rational thinking only.

No, not really. We cut to the title sequence, and Reid (being a vampire, which is what he is (he’s a vampire)) obviously doesn’t die. Instead he wakes up in a pool of his own blood, treated to eternal, nocturnal, cannibalistic life.

And we’re treated to a level up screen. One that’s actually really cool – at first you only have a few options, but you can look at the whole unlock tree right now if you want. Our first (mandatory) unlock is ‘autophagy’ – a nice ability where we consume our own blood to heal our wounds. Then we can choose between a close-range claw attack, a long-range attack called BLOODSPEAR, for god’s sake, and an area-of-effect attack called Shadow Mist.

It’s all very stylish, and very enticing- much more so than standard ‘make a ball of fire, or make a ball of ice, or make a ball of lightning’ RPG fare. Each ability’s unlock tree also has a nice bit of flavour text attached, which, as always with Vampyr, is well-written and evocative.

And that’s it for the prologue. Reid has lots of questions, and in next week’s post we’ll set out to find the vampire who created us. Join us, and see just how that goes.


For now, though – thanks very much for reading this far. As always,  you can follow me on Twitter by clicking here. Also, my very own (in-development) text-based monster-hunting RPG  – The Red Market – can be played online here for the low, low price of zero pounds, in case you’re interested.

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Think a spear, only with blood.

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RPG Autopsy #0: An Introduction

Welcome to the zeroeth edition of RPG Autopsy: a new series that’s half Let’s Play, half fussily-extensive dissection of role-playing game design. In this (hopefully short) introductory post I’ll explain the concept of the series, ask the (hopefully short, hopefully non-interminable) question ‘what is an role-playing game?’, and then wrap things up by letting you know what our first game will be.

If you just want to get straight into the content, here’s the elevator pitch:

RPG Autopsy is a series about playing RPGs, then cutting them open, and digging around in their soft, squishy bits to see what makes them tick. It’ll take the form of deep-dive, full-length playthroughs of all varieties of RPGs, with a focus on:

(b) which parts of the game work, and which don’t (and why)

(b) what these successes and failures can teach us about good (and bad) RPG design.

Which games will get the role-playing fame? Which will get the eternal role-playing shame? And which will get taken to role-playing small claims court? Find out every Saturday in RPG Autopsy.

 

What is RPG Autopsy?

Like many of you, I’ve been playing video games since I was a tiny, awkward child. I loved many of them (Planescape: Torment, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Final Fantasy 9), and hated others (Pillars of Eternity, Pillars of Eternity, Pillars of Eternity 2). And while I enjoyed all different genres, RPGs have always been my one true love.

As I’ve grown older that love has evolved from the innocent, childlike love of ‘this is my favourite toy and I love it and it’s the best in the world’, to a weird, reclusive uncle’s love of taking apart his 1978 Mustang and putting it together again every weekend.

In other words, over time I’ve become more and more interested in not just playing RPGs, but figuring out (1) how they’re made, (2) what makes some of them great, and (3) what makes the Pillars of Eternity franchise so incredibly bad.

RPG Autopsy is an attempt to answer these questions in a way that will hopefully make for fun reading. I’ll choose an RPG to play through to completion, and write about my experience week by week – talking about what works, as well as what doesn’t, and then rounding out each post with a game design lesson we can take away from that week’s play.

This way, we’ll have fun AND learn at the same time. What could be better?

 

What is a role-playing game?

We can’t even properly define things like ‘art’ or ‘game’, so what hope could we possibly have of rigorously defining the term ‘role-playing game’? More importantly, who cares?

No one, that’s who.

I did a degree in philosophy. I’m not going back to that place again. And I wouldn’t wish it on you, either. Instead, I’m going to give a vague overview of four things I think are generally important to most (not necessarily all) RPGs.

(1) RPGs generally involve player choice about creation and/or advancement of a player character. 

  • The player character can be a blank slate create-your-own (e.g. Dungeons and Dragons), it can be a specific person with their own personality (e.g. The Witcher), or it can be some mix of the two (e.g. Mass Effect).
  • Player characters generally advance/level up in some way – whether that be getting physically stronger (e.g. 90% of all RPGs ever), getting physically stronger but in a slightly different way (e.g. see previous parentheses), or getting better at writing esoteric poetry (see A House of Many Doors)

(2) RPGs are in some important way systems-driven games.

  • In other words, RPGs generally aren’t just choose-your-own-adventure binary choices with consequences and goblins and space lasers. Instead, they have some combination of gameplay systems (e.g. the tactical combat of Baldur’s Gate 2, or the exploration of Sunless Sea) and narrative systems (e.g. choices lowering morale and supplies in The Banner Saga, or the complex branching of the Sorcery! series)
  • In general, narrative impacts gameplay and gameplay impacts narrative in some way (or better yet, narrative and gameplay are one and the same).

(3) RPGs allow for significant player choice and expression.

  • In other words, a first-person shooter game that branches into two possible endings because of a player choice isn’t suddenly an RPG. Having basic dialogue choices, or basic level ups also don’t automatically make something an RPG (saying that, I’m not interested in genre gatekeeping – I’m painting the term ‘RPG’ with a pretty broad brush for the purposes of this series)
  • You might be asking how I define ‘significant’? Good question! Moving on:

(4) RPGs generally have a strong focus on story/world/characters

  • Some RPGs are just excuses for combat systems (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but most are at least somewhat interested in telling a story, exploring a world, or letting the player get to know compelling characters.

I have further thoughts on these topics. They’re not interesting. Moving on:

 

What games will I cover?

All kinds of RPGs or RPG-adjacent games. Fiddly old-school CRPGs like Fallout and Baldur’s Gate. Genre hybrids like S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and Mass Effect. JRPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest (though I’m honestly not that into the genre as a whole). Tabletop RPGs like Call of Cthulhu and Bluebeard’s Bride. Interesting, unusual indie titles like Lisa: The Painful RPG and the absolutely wonderful A House of Many Doors.

Our first series of posts will be on the exceedingly overlooked Vampyr – an Action-RPG released in 2018 by Dontnod Entertainment. It’s about eating people (or choosing not to eat them). It experiments in very interesting ways with game difficulty, moral compromise, and NPC-world interaction. It also fancies its combat system to be a successor to Bloodborne.

Will I eat people? Do Vampyr‘s experiments pay off? Is its combat system actually a successor to Bloodborne? Find out next time in RPG Autopsy!

(spoiler: yes, yes, no)

Until next time

(And remember, you can follow me on Twitter by clicking here. Also, my very own (in-development) text-based RPG  – The Red Market – can be played online here for the low, low price of zero pounds, in case you’re interested)

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The Red Market Dev Log #13: Life Finds A Way (To Get in the Way)

In today’s fortnightly dev log: slow progress, and a one-month hiatus.

This past fortnight has seen me plink away at a pile of necessary improvements to the game:

  • Revamping the game’s RPG statistics from an overly abstract, kind of boring set of four (Physical, Human, Natural, and Preternatural), to a sleek, perfect, endlessly attractive six (Observation, Subterfuge, Power, Control, Grace, and Flair).
  • Revamping the game’s Injury system, so that injuries don’t disappear at the end of an expedition, and instead stack for progressively negative effects.
  • Implementing some uninteresting but useful UI and quality of life changes.

It’s going…okay? I know what I need to do, and so far I haven’t had any problems with the nuts and bolts of development. What I have had problems with is: being an adult living in the world, walking around and doing things.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that being alive is difficult. Being alive and functioning at somewhere between 60 and 100 percent efficiency doubly so. This month, a lot of things have been thrown my way, from visa issues, to health issues, to day job issues. I won’t bore you with the details, since this isn’t LiveJournal, but suffice to say it’s been pretty full on.

This has taken a bit of a toll on the time I can devote to development. I will be quitting my job as a teacher at the end of this month, and going freelance as a translator/interpreter, which will give me a fair bit more time for game dev, but that switch has also naturally thrown up its own roadblocks.

In order to devote time to game dev I need these little things called ‘money’ and ‘money for rent’, so I’ll have to pick up work when it comes my way. Sometimes that work will be a pleasant drip feed, and other times it’ll be an awful work spigot shooting lukewarm, foamy work all over my hands and face.

This spigot has just shot three weeks of intensive interpreting work my way, and turning it down would be very silly indeed. So for the next three weeks (and the week after that, since I need to go to Tokyo and sort out the switch to a new visa) I’ll be taking a break from The Red Market.

I’ll be thinking about it a lot while I’m gone, and I’m honestly surprised by how much I’m looking to get back to it once all this is done. So it’s not goodbye, it’s just ‘see you in a bit’. In the meantime, let me tease the next major update:

The next major update for The Red Market will include all the improvements I mentioned at the top of this post (and those in dev log #12), as well a new, secret monster. I won’t say much about this monster except that you won’t find it by normal means: you’ll need to open yourself up to watery tragedy before it turns its hollow eyes your way.

I’m also hard at work on a new major series for my blog, tentatively called RPG Autopsy. In that I’ll be playing through RPGs of all kinds, and trying to figure out what makes them good (or what makes them terrible). Look for that, and the next update for The Red Market in mid-late April.

Bye for now,

Nick

(And remember, you can follow me on Twitter by clicking here. The current early version of The Red Market can be played online here, if you haven’t already.)

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