(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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?’.
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.
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…
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.