(Welcome to part five of our mini-series on Vampyr. If you missed part one, you can find it here. This week we’ll be doing some amateur chemistry, and (finally) going to the morgue. The title above is a reference to the popular movie Thelma and Louise, but with ‘bodily fluids’ in place of ‘Louise’ for the purposes of humour. You have to kind of strain the word ‘fluids’ in your mouth so it sounds a bit like ‘Louise’. I did this because Vampyr is a game about vampires, and vampires drink blood, and there’s also an NPC in it called Thelma. It’s really very clever once you think about it.)
Before we get on with the main story there’s one more sidequest I want to look at – that of Thelma Howcraft. Thelma is one of the hospital’s mental health patients, and she suffers from a form of Cotard’s Syndrome – put simply: she thinks she’s a vampire.
Once again, here’s Vampyr addressing sensitive topics most games would bungle horribly, but somehow not feeling gross or exploitative. I’m actually baffled at how well it’s handled, to be honest. Thelma is a well-written, sympathetic character – she feels very human, and her severe mental health problems are never the butt of some cheap joke.
Thelma claims she’s being pursued by vampire hunters. Just paranoia, one might think, but it turns out that, while she isn’t really a vampire, her constant claims that she is a vampire have caught the attention of the Order of Priwen – that vampire-hunting group that pursued us back in the docks. They’re now convinced she’s a real vampire (I’d never heard of Cotard’s Syndrome either, to be fair), and are keeping watch on her.
So we make our way across the district to a Priwen hideout, and take their notes on Thelma (we also kill them all for good measure). All simple stuff, but as with the sidequests we discussed last week, it’s propped up by the context of the characters, and some nice little complications along the way.
Killing all those vampire hunters has really tired us out, so we head to our new office to sleep the coming day away. Before we do so, however, it’s time to analyse the blood we retrieved from William Bishop – the skal we killed back at the docks. Unfortunately, we don’t learn much – it’s strangely mutated, and ‘unstable’, whatever that means, but it’s clearly different from our own strain of vampirism.
When we wake up the next evening we’re accosted by Nurse Crane, who tells us that the hospital is dangerously low on antiseptics. Ever resourceful, Reid suggests combining some cleaning products for use as makeshift antiseptics, and asks to see the hospital storeroom. However, it turns out that, due to lack of space, the hospital has been storing all its supplies in the Very Spooky morgue across the street, which has been sealed off for sanitary reasons, and is, did I mention – very, very spooky?
So we schlep to the abandoned morgue and root around for cleaning supplies. It’s a fairly big place to explore, but there’s not a huge amount to say about it: we fight a few skals, learn they eat flesh – not blood like us, read a couple of scattered notes, find evidence that Dr. Tippets’ medical malpractice resulted in the preventable death of a patient. You know – standard trip to the morgue.
At the end we also have a boss fight against a powerful skal who likes to teleport about and hit us in the back. He’s kind of obnoxiously difficult, at least on the game’s hardest difficulty mode, but we deal with him after a couple of tries. It’s here that our decision to not feed on the innocent citizens of London (for huge stacks of XP, remember) starts to worry me: if this guy’s giving me – famed elite pro gamer Nick Keirle – trouble this early in the game, how will we fare against the game’s tougher fights later on?
With the skal defeated, we find the rest of the supplies, and unlock the ability to make various different kinds of medicine from crafting materials. One of the cooler systems in Vampyr is the way that time passes whenever we rest/level up, and how citizens can become sick with that passing of time. A once-healthy citizen might contract flu/a cold/fatigue/etc., and the condition of already-sick citizens can deteriorate until you’re dealing with a host of more serious illnesses.
This not only lowers their Blood Quality (meaning less XP if you decide to feed on them), but it also lowers that district’s District Status – the safety of the district you’re in (the game’s divided up into four districts – Pembroke Hospital being one of them). If you don’t maintain the citizens’ health (or if you start killing the citizens willy nilly) the safety of their district will drop. Let it drop too much and the whole district will fall into chaos, people will start to go missing, and the streets will be filled with high-level enemies.
So on top of the main gameplay, we’re constantly spinning these various plates. We make and distribute medicine to sick citizens. We try not to rest/level up too often to avoid the spread of disease. And we have to be very carefully about killing and feeding on citizens, as the wrong death at the wrong time can send a district spiralling into chaos.
This system accomplishes a few great things: (a) by making you feel like a real doctor with real patients, it creates a genuine sense of connection to (and responsibility for) the game’s various NPCs, (b) it makes it feel like all your actions are significant, to the point where your inactions also matter, and (c) it makes the world feel real; independent of the player (a bit like the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise – my precious child that was too good for this cruel world).
Those are some pretty great things for any RPG to do.
THIS WEEK’S INSIGHTFUL GAME DESIGN LESSON:
RPGs are system-driven games at heart. You can make a game of various different parts – NPCs and dialogue trees, a big, open world to explore, and a deep, complex combat system – and that just might be good enough. But just by adding a few clever systems that tie these various parts of the game together, you can make it really special.
Vampyr has combat. It has talking. It has exploration. But it’s the Hints, Blood Quality, District Status, and the like that elevates it to another level – that compelling set of spinning plates makes the world and its characters feel alive, while also adding tension into otherwise ordinary situations and gameplay loops. They don’t always have profound effects on the gameplay experience, but they change the way the player thinks and feels about the game at almost every moment.
A game like Pathologic has combat. It has talking. It has exploration. But it also has illness, hunger, changes in the local economy, NPC illnesses, and so on. These various elements are compelling, too, but it’s the way they interact that makes the game what it is.
A game like Dragon Age: Inquisition has a bunch of systems – combat, an economy, a levelling system, Influence, Power, lieutenants to send out on missions, etc.. But none of them interact in interesting ways. It’s all just: ‘do quests to linearly increase Important Numbers’. None of it feels alive. And this is partly to blame for why the world never feels alive either.
Anyway, after returning to Pembroke, we give Mortimer some treatment for his ‘Fatigue’, and are summoned to see the wonderful Dr. Swansea – head of the hospital. He tells us that the hospital’s chief donors – one Lady Ashbury – is being blackmailed for something or other, and as such might not be able to continue her financial support. It’s our job as chief surgeon to deal with this now, apparently.
We go find Lady Ashbury and – oh – it’s the vampire who saved us at the docks (and then proceeded to bugger off without explaining anything). Turns out Lady Ashbury the rich benefactor is a vampire, and I’m pretty sure she’s being blackmailed because she sometimes, you know, just occasionally, drinks the blood of the hospital’s sickest patients. She asks us to find out the identity of the blackmailer, and resolve the matter appropriately.
Lady Ashbury refuses to answer any of our various questions about our new life as a vampire until we resolve her situation. So there’s nothing for it – time to sleuth our way across Pembroke Hospital until we find the blackmailer. At which point we’ll presumably just ask them nicely to stop. Which will presumably work fine, I guess.
We’ll enact this no-doubt foolproof plan next week. In the meantime – as always, you can follow me on Twitter by clicking here. And if you like RPG Autopsy – why not be lovely by supporting me on my newly-opened Patreon?Alternatively, if you hate RPG Autopsy – why not spite me by supporting me on my newly-opened Patreon? Find that Patreon here.