RPG Autopsy #3: Vampyr (Part Three – Midnight in the Garden of Blood and Evil)

(Welcome to part three of our mini-series on Vampyr. If you want to start from the, uh, start, then you can find it here. Today we’ll be wandering around Pembroke Hospital demanding everyone tell us their life stories.) 

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After accepting Dr. Swansea’s generous job offer (and wondering why he’s so keen to give a vampire direct access to his patients – surely that’s some kind of violation of his Hippocratic Oath/Actual Crime Against Humanity), we get off the boat near our new home – Pembroke Hospital.

Taking a stroll along the canal, we arrive just in time to meet rough gang member, and all-around-dickhead Clay Cox. Clay has just killed someone in a brawl, but has ended up pretty seriously wounded in the process.

We talk to Clay, and he rudely demands we take him to a hospital. Our possible reactions to this demand are essentially: (a) “Up yours – I’m going to let you bleed to death”, (b) “Up yours – I’m going to kill you”, or (c) “Up yours – be more polite”.

I kind of love how the ONLY vaguely nice option we’re given for dealing with this dying man is to lord our position as potential saviour over him, and then give him a lesson in manners. We’re a vampire now, and as such we’re fast becoming more and more disconnected from normal humans. This isn’t explicitly stated by the game, but our dialogue choices tend towards the pushy, invasive, and downright manipulative, even if we play Reid as a doctor who genuinely cares about helping people.

The conversations in most RPGs tend towards the pushy and invasive – we meet an elf and then immediately ask them about their life history, and the history of their people (imagine meeting someone from India, and then instantly demanding they tell you about the Maratha Empire). This often feels very weird – real people don’t talk like this – but Vampyr gets around this dissonance by making us (a) a doctor, who occupies a position of trust/power, and can kind of justify asking invasive questions, and (b) a vampire, who can’t help but see ordinary humans as potential meals, regardless of how much we might fight to control these urges.

In other words, our mild case of Mild RPG Protagonist Sociopathy works here, whether we’re reading people’s private correspondence, or using our vampire mind powers to force people into answering our invasive questions.

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See that ‘500XP’ there in the top right? That means we’ll get 500XP just for ending this very mean man’s life.

Regardless of what we say to Clay, we’re near overwhelmed by our need for blood. And here we’re introduced to one of Vampyr’s most interesting systems:

Like most RPGs, we need experience points (XP) to level up. But unlike most RPGs, Vampyr is incredibly stingy – we’ll generally get a few XP for a fight, and a few hundred for finishing a major quest. We’ll need a few hundred to acquire minor bonuses, and a few thousand to acquire/level up our major abilities later in the game.

Enemies in Vampyr (especially on hard mode) also quickly out-level you, with standard enemies becoming damage sponges, and bosses becoming almost laughably powerful. So you’ll really want any XP you can get your hands on. But how do you get XP? By drinking the blood of the innocent, of course – how else?

As a vampire, Reid has the ability to mesmerise the NPCs he meets, and then lead them down a dark alleyway to drink their blood. A normal citizen might give you 1,000-2,000XP just like that, and this can be a big help in dealing with the fights Vampyr regularly throws at you.

You can also theoretically do this to almost anyone you meet, though you can only mesmerise citizens equal or lower to your ‘mesmerise level’ (i.e. strong-willed NPCs will resist your attempts to mind-control them). This level will rise as you progress through the game, opening up juicier and juicier targets, and bigger and bigger XP rewards.

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Blood Temptation is my favourite demo tape by one-man death black metal outfit Witches Moon.

This is a fascinating system, in part because getting that XP means permanently killing whichever NPC you feed on, which not only locks their storylines, but also can throw the wider district into chaos (more on that chaos in a later post).

Now, being a Grade A wet blanket, I choose not to kill Clay. I immediately decide to see if I can play a pacifist run (spoiler: you can (spoiler: I couldn’t)). One can also choose not to kill Clay now, and instead kill him later for better XP rewards, due to the game’s Blood Quality system:

Each NPC is worth a certain amount of XP, and this amount changes depending on two factors: how healthy they are, and how much you know about them. Look at the screenshot below: Clay is suffering from Fatigue, which means his blood is worth less XP. You can also see four places that say ‘HINT LOCKED’ – this means that there’s information about Clay we don’t yet know.

By talking to an NPC, talking about them with other NPCs, or performing certain side quests, we can unlock more of these hints. Every hint learned increases that NPC’s blood quality, and thus the XP we gain from drinking their blood. So it pays to talk, and it pays to find things out.

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‘Social Circle: NO RELATIONSHIPS’ is a hell of a put-down.

After graciously refraining from murdering Clay (like some kind of absolute saint), we head to Pembroke hospital. Here, we can go straight to our new room and sleep the coming day away, or we can do what I actually did and spend the next two straight hours doing nothing but talking to NPCs.

I won’t get into all the characters, because there are literally sixteen of them in Pembroke Hospital, but here are some highlights:

There’s Thomas Elwood – a veteran of the Great War, who’s suffering from constant, chronic pain as a result of his disfiguring facial scars. It’s through Thomas that we learn that you can also lock yourself out of Blood Quality-improving hints by choosing the wrong dialogue options. Thomas is ashamed of his new face, to the point where he just wants to hide away for the rest of his life. If we try to console him by saying “well, looks aren’t everything, you know?” like an all-around-dickhead he’ll shut down and decide not to trust us – that’s just not what he needs to hear right now.

This sudden rebuke from the game – you messed up, and now you’ll never get that hint – feels incredibly impactful, even though at most it’s locking us out of a few hundred XP if we end up deciding to kill Thomas (and I would rather die than kill poor Thomas). This is really smart: by tying dialogue to these wider game systems, Vampyr can make your choices feel important without needing the devs to create lots of branching paths that (a) cost lots of time and money to make, and (b) will never be seen by most players.

It also bears repeating how well Vampyr handles its dialogue. Dealing with a PTSD-suffering, disfigured veteran of one of history’s bloodiest, most senseless wars in this game about being a scary vampire could descend into outright farce, but Vampyr’s writers (and Thomas’ voice actor) are incredibly deft. In a few short conversations Thomas cements himself as a deeply complex, troubled person.

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I just want Thomas to be happy. Please release DLC where I can make Thomas happy.

There’s also Gwyneth Branagan – a nurse who’s more than talented enough to be a doctor, but can’t because, well – it’s 1918. Her story really highlights how well Vampyr emphasises the relationship between various NPCs:

Some of the (exclusively male) doctors at Pembroke see Gwyneth as an invaluable asset, who should be supported as much as possible, while others are less than happy that she’s taking on the unofficial position of doctor. Talking to Dr. Tippets might unlock a hint about Gwyneth, or unlock a new conversation topic you can ask her about if you go back and talk to her again.

This is fairly simple stuff, mechanically speaking, but the fact that the game doesn’t immediately throw up a big tooltip saying ‘YOU SHOULD GO AND TALK TO GWYNETH ABOUT WHAT DR. TIPPETS SAID ABOUT HER’ means it’s all based on the player connecting the dots. So instead of just clicking through conversations, we think ‘ah, I should go back and talk to that NPC’, which starts to feel like real detective work.

This leads us into this week’s insightful game design lesson:

THIS WEEK’S INSIGHTFUL GAME DESIGN LESSON: 

Tying your dialogue into broader game systems (in this case Hints, Blood Quality (and later the District Health system)) can help make that dialogue feel more interesting and impactful. These systems make clicking through a fairly linear dialogue tree feel like collecting important information, and they don’t even need to have huge, game-changing consequences – they can feel significant without being that mechanically significant. 

Vampyr’s hint system is generally used to increase Blood Quality, and so increase the amount of XP you gain from killing citizens. But I’ve already decided there will be no citizen killing, so hints provide literally zero mechanical benefits to me as a player. They are functionally irrelevant to my experience, but yet they still manage to change the way I think about and approach the game’s many conversations (in a hugely positive way, of course).

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There’s a lot more going on at Pembroke Hospital, but this post has already gone on long enough. Next week we’ll learn a bit more about some other patients, and then take a nice trip to the morgue.

For now, though – as always,  you can follow me on Twitter by clicking here. And if you really/moderately/vaguely like what I’m doing with RPG Autopsy, why not be lovely and support me on my newly opened Patreon, out of pure human kindness? Find that Patreon here.

(Pledging above a certain level will also give you access to exclusive monthly posts of RPG Autopsy, so if not out of pure human kindness, at least consider pledging for the purpose of emotionless transaction). 

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.

 

 

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