RPG Autopsy #9: Vampyr (Part Nine – Whoso Eateth My Flesh)

(Welcome to part nine of our mini-series on Vampyr. If you missed part one, you can find it here. Today we’ll be heading back to the docks,  investigating a murder, and following the trail of the most Irish man in the world.)

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When we arrive back at Pembroke Hospital things are in a right bloody state. We find Dr. Swansea locked in a rather tense standoff with Geoffrey McCullum – leader of the vampire-hunting Guard of Priwen. When McCullum sees us he immediately clocks us as a vampire (or, in Guard of Priwen rude anti-vampire language: ‘a leech’), and the gears shift from ‘tense’ to ‘imminent bossfight’.

Fortunately, after a long staring contest, McCullum finally blinks. He leaves, and Dr. Swansea gives us some (more) bad news: apparently the man we saved back at the docks – the priest Sean Hampton – was infected, and has now become a skal. It seems he killed a patient – one Harriet Jones – and fled into the night. As a result, the Guard of Priwen is now convinced the hospital is harbouring vampires (which, I mean, it is).

Since Dr. Swansea’s very keen to avoid a public investigation (possibly because of all the vampires), it’s up to us to track Sean Hampton down.

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We will definitely not be seeing McCullum again, no siree. No foreshadowing here whatsoever.

This takes us back to the docks. Looking at the District menu, we see Hampton is the ‘Pillar’ of the docks – i.e. the person who keeps the whole community together in the face of the epidemic. Killing the Pillar of a district is bad news, which we saw when we (accidentally) killed Nurse Crane back in Whitechapel – the Health Status of the whole district plummeted, coming terrifyingly close to ‘Hostile’ (at which point everyone in the district disappears, you lose all their side quests, and it becomes full of high-level enemies for the rest of the game).

So I’m not super keen on killing Hampton – hopefully there’s a way to solve this grisly murder amicably.

When we arrive at the docks we’re greeted by a dead body splayed out in the street. It’s being examined by one Ichabod Throgmorton – a ‘vampire hunter’, and man who’s genuinely called ‘Ichabod Throgmorton’. While Throgmorton declares the death the work of a vampire, and acts like he’s the world’s foremost expert on vampire hunting, it’s immediately obvious that he’s either a charlatan, or an absolute idiot (possibly both).

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There are some great NPCs and side quests in the docks, but I’ll save that for another time.

 

The conversation with Throgmorton is great, because Reid is obviously having the time of his life. Throgmorton is a delightful mix of pompous and utterly clueless, and when Reid asks him about the vampire threat there’s a constant tone of barely-suppressed mockery in his voice. Throgmorton is bang on about the existence of vampires, sure, but (a) he can’t even recognise one when he’s looking right at it, and (b) he’s clearly never actually fought a vampire, and wouldn’t last two seconds if he tried.

Not getting too much useful information from Throgmorton, vampire hunter extraordinaire, we turn to the rest of the locals. Asking around, we quickly learn that Hampton is a Catholic priest, and that he runs a ‘night asylum’ for the homeless in the western part of the Docks.

We can technically go confront him right now. But I don’t want to rush things – looking at Hampton in the NPC menu, I notice there are two as-yet undiscovered Hints about him. So we ask some more NPCs about him, and learn the following:

  1. He was abandoned as a baby back in Ireland, and raised at a catholic orphanage
  2. While there, he was molested by a priest, but his faith has remained strong
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I just noticed how weird the shelves in the background look, and now I can’t unsee it.

I’ve talked before about how well Vampyr handles these kinds of Very Serious topics, and this is no different. It’s not sensationalised, and it isn’t just there for the sake of giving the game the feeling of being a grown-up game for grown-up people. These kinds of traumas are sprinkled throughout the game because this is a game about people, and these kinds of traumas are sprinkled throughout people’s lives. It’ll also prove relevant soon, as we’ll see in next week’s post.

With all of Hampton’s Hints unlocked, we head to his Night Asylum (I’m not going to mention this every time we travel somewhere, but don’t forget that whenever you move between safe zones in Vampyr you’ll constantly be interrupted by fight after tedious fight with by-now very boring enemies, and almost no reward for your troubles).

When we arrive, we find that no only is Hampton a card-carrying skal, he’s not particularly upset with that fact – or particularly interested in hiding it. While he’s not going about telling mortals he’s now a vampire, he’s more happy to talk to us about his new condition.

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The lighting in this game really works wonders at times.

 

We learn from Hampton that skal are not just crappy vampires, but that their diet is completely different – while ‘true’ vampires like us (i.e. Ekons) must drink fresh human blood, skals merely (merely!) eat human flesh. As a result, while we kill anyone we drink from, skals can – if they control their hunger sufficiently – survive on the flesh of the already-dead.

He also tells us that his status as a horrible flesh-eating night monster is actually a blessing from the lord. While my eyes immediately rolled at this, he actually makes a pretty decent point – as an immortal, he’s immune to disease, so he can help people suffering from the epidemic without fear of infecting himself. Also, while us Ekons are repelled by holy symbols, Hampton is not, and proudly wears his crucifix even now.

After getting school by Hampton on scripture, Reid accuses him of killing Harriet Jones.  Hampton is shocked by this accusation, and tells us that he didn’t, and that he can prove his innocence. He gives us a key to the sewers and tells us we’ll understand more if we go there. If we still think he’s a threat when we get back, well: “I’ll surrender myself to your judgement”

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I do slightly resent being lectured by a flesh-eating gremlin man.

He seems to be telling the truth. I mean, he certainly seems to be on the up and up, and his friendly Irish accent is incredibly disarming, but who the hell knows at this point? Guess it’s down into the sewers, where we’ll most likely find a trap the truth behind all this.

THIS WEEK’S INSIGHTFUL GAME DESIGN LESSON: 

(bit of a minor one here) Deciding whether or not you trust someone who seems on the level, but could be lying through their teeth is inherently compelling.

Something RPGs could benefit from focusing on more of is this exact kind of stripped-back human drama – sometimes being forced to answer gut-feeling questions like ‘is this person bullshitting me?’ or ‘do I think this person has really changed?’ is sd compelling as any amount of investigation and gathering of iron-clad evidence.


Next week we’ll head into the sewers and find out what happened to the apparently-murdered Harriet Jones. 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’ve read this far out of some misguided sense of hate – why not spite me by supporting me on my newly-opened Patreon? Find that Patreon here.

 

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RPG Autopsy #8: Vampyr (Part Eight – Funeral Bites)

(Welcome to part eight of our mini-series on Vampyr. If you missed part one, you can find it here. Today we’ll be learning more about vampires, attending funerals, and confessing our sins.) 

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With Nurse Crane out of the way, we’ve finally solved Lady Ashbury’s blackmail problem – no longer will she have to fear anyone spreading rumours about her feeding on the hospital’s patients. Which, I’m sure you’ll agree, was worth turning Nurse Crane’s brain to soup, and completely gutting her clinic (you know, the one that provided vital medical services for the poor and downtrodden of London).

When we walk in to tell Lady Ashbury the good news we find her…feeding on one of the hospital’s patients. Reid acts bafflingly surprised, considering (a) she’s a vampire, and (b) Nurse Crane literally told us Lady Ashbury kills patients that’s what this whole thing was about Reid.

She tells us that she only feeds on those hopeless, already-dying patients, so it’s probably all fine really. At this point I trust her about as far as I can throw her, but she’s our only contact in the vampire world, so we can’t really afford to get on her bad side (also, Reid probably fancies her, because of course that’s a thing that’s going to happen).

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Lady Ashbury, seen here drinking someone’s blood in a busy, crowded hospital, later lectures us  repeatedly on the importance of discretion.

In return for our efforts in clearing her good name, she gives us some important information about vampires, and this whole vampire situation we’ve found ourselves in. As always with Vampyr, these worldbuilding bombs are short, sharp, and genuinely interesting, and while I did sometimes feel frustrated when Reid decided not to ask some particularly obvious follow-up questions, this long conversation works well (it also helps that a lot of these points are things that we’ve seen hints of before, meaning this conversation feels less like a lore dump, and more like finding the answer to juicy mysteries).

She clarifies some things we’ve been guessing at, such as:

  • the nature of vampires (vampires as we know them = Ekons. Other species of vampires = exist. Skals = deformed offspring of ‘lesser’ vampires, that are ‘slaves to their base instincts’)
  • the Guard of Priwen (an ancient secret society dedicated to destroying all vampires, lesser now than they once were), and
  • miscellaneous vampire facts (vampires create new vampires by giving a mortal some of their vampire blood to drink, but it’s very frowned upon to sire new vampires without then showing them the vampire ropes, so Reid’s creator must be a bit of a dick).

We also tell her about the voice in our head, and ask if it might be the voice of our creator. She tells us to keep this a secret, as only Incredibly Powerful Vampires can telepathically speak to their progeny, and that means there’s an unknown Incredibly Powerful Vampire skulking around London (which is not good for vampire high society).

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Dr Swansea breaking the news of our sister’s death to us, our sister’s killer.

After our chat, we analyse the blood we took from Nurse Crane’s patient, and learn that while he did have the Spanish Flu, his blood also had that same unstable nature we previously saw with Skals. Which makes sense, considering the epidemic seems to be creating lots of Skals. Like, hundreds upon hundreds of Skals on the streets of this borough alone. Has no one else gone outside recently?

We report our findings to Dr. Swansea, who, while intrigued, also has some bad news for us – our sister Mary is dead. We know this, obviously, since we killed her, but in something of a dick move, we don’t tell Dr Swansea (who seems very uncomfortable being the bearer of bad news) that we already know.  Regardless, the funeral’s being held soon at the local ceremony, and Reid decides to attend.

So we head to Stonebridge Cemetery, and fight half the population of London on our way there.

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Don’t ever say this game doesn’t isn’t good at framing a shot.

I may have said it before, but this game really has a problem with this kind of thing. You’re constantly moving around the city between quests, and every time you do so you bump into dozens of enemies. Either you choose to fight each group you encounter (all of whom are incredible damage sponges on hard mode), which takes time and provides genuinely pathetic rewards (around 8xp for killing a group of enemies, in a game where the smallest upgrade costs 300xp), or you do the smart thing and just learn to run past them all.

THIS WEEK’S INSIGHTFUL GAME DESIGN LESSON: 

Every combat encounter in your game should be to a purpose. If a combat encounter is ‘give the player something to do while they’re travelling back and forth between quests’ then that combat encounter’s purpose is ‘wasting the player’s time’

Regardless of how interesting your game’s combat is (and Vampyr’s is B- for an RPG), your players will get bored of it after the fifteenth time they’re forced into combat on the way to their next quest.

By all means, fill your game with interesting, authored combat encounters, but there’s no reason to make players fight random goons over and over again. It’s not interesting, it wastes time, and it just makes your game world feel strangely small and artificial. 

After decimating the population of London’s East End, we arrive just in time to pay our respects to our dead sister Mary – making sure to watch from afar, as Reid decides this probably isn’t the best time to let our grieving mother know we’re back in London.

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Lady Ashbury tells us not to abandon our humanity, a few minutes after draining all the blood of her latest victim for her undead sustenance.

After the funeral, Reid heads to Mary’s grave and begins to half grieve, half beg his sister’s forgiveness for accidentally vampire murdering her. Almost immediately we’re interrupted by Lady Ashbury.

She warns Reid to hold onto his humanity, but she also warns us that our ‘enemies’ (!?) want us weak, and that we’re weakest when we’re consumed by guilt and grief. Continuing her attempts to tell us exactly how we should be responding to the death of our sister, she suggests we make a confession at Saint Mary’s Church (forgive me, but I think it might be a bit heavy-handed that the church shares Mary’s name).

On the way to the church we’re accosted by a frankly gigantic grey man, who introduces himself by telling us we ‘reek of guilt and pointless compassion’ (again, harsh), and talks mysteriously of ‘Ascalon’ – a name we’ve heard before, but have no real context for just yet.

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We’ll be seeing more of Big Grey Man later, don’t you worry.

After gently threatening us with a smashing if we don’t abide by Ascalon’s laws that we know nothing about and that he doesn’t explain, he vanishes into the night. Slightly shaken by our encounter with…whatever that was, we make our way to Saint Mary’s Church.

There, we talk to the vicar, and Reid kind of freaks out a little bit, immediately trying to back out of this whole confession thing. It’s a great scene, and Reid’s voice actor consistently sells his delicate, unsteady state of mind very well. It’s clear that not only is Reid struggling to deal with his sister’s death (and his own role in it), but that he also is having a really tough time throwing aside his sceptical, materialist worldview and opening up to the possibility of religious forgiveness.

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Good stuff. Good lighting. Great nose.


Next week we’ll be continuing our investigation into the epidemic, and heading back to find out more at the docks.

For now, though – 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.

 

 

 

 

 

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Is the Indie Game Development Scene ‘Stagnant’? (and other questions whose answer is ‘No’)

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A few days ago the website gamedaily.biz published an interview with veteran indie developer Jonathan Blow (best known for (a) 2D puzzle platformer Braid, (b) 3D open-world puzzle game The Witness, and (c) saying something mildly inflammatory on Twitter every 3-4 months). In it, Blow argues that, at least in terms of creativity and innovation, the indie game development scene is largely stagnant – “There’s a small number of people who I would say actually do creative stuff, but everybody else is trying to be like a cheap AAA game.” 

This has, predictably, caused a fairly big backlash on indie dev Twitter. Many people responded to the interview by posting examples of recent creative, innovative indie games (I’ll be doing the same throughout this post). Others responded by calling Blow willfully ignorant, disconnected from the indie gaming scene, and (again, predictably) a dick.

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Heaven’s Vault (Inkle, 2019) – a game about archaeology and translation. Its way of handling and presenting information to the player, as well as turning translation of a dead language into a central game mechanic, are just about as innovative as games can get.

I should put forward right now that I disagree pretty strongly with what Blow said. But while I think he’s wrong, I don’t think what he’s saying is the result of willful ignorance, a disconnect from the indie scene, or being a dick. And while I’ve seen lots of responses to Blow’s claims, I’ve yet to see one that actually gives him the benefit of the doubt that he’s not either (a) an awful monster, or (b) an old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn.

So yeah, let’s do that.

I think Blow’s claim that indie games are largely creatively stagnant – either just trying to be follow market trends, or copying older games the developer really likes – is unfair, but I can kind of see where he’s coming from.

If you look at the vast wave of games being published on Steam nowadays, it’s hard for your eyes not to glaze over at some point. A while back I started following a Twitter account called Steam Trailers in 6s, which shows clips of the trailer for every game released on Steam. At first I was excited by the idea, but I quickly noticed that roughly 90% of all the games fell into two camps: ‘barely finished prototype; or ‘oh, it’s a RTS/deckbuilder/RPG, only the twist is that there are no twists’.

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Hypnospace Outlaw (Tendershoot, 2019) – a game about surfing the World Wide Web in your dreams, in 1999. The humour, creativity, and player freedom of its investigation-and-puzzle-driven world is really something special.

But “ninety percent of everything is crap” , so it’s hardly fair to judge all indie games by the hobbyist devs putting their first game project on Steam. What about actually finished, actually respected and (occasionally) actually financially successful indie games?

Well, again, while I disagree with Blow, I can kind of see where he’s coming from. I’ve grown increasingly wary of slick-looking indie games that slot easily into a specific, popular genre, because I often find them to be initially exiting, then deeply, deeply boring. More than once I’ve found myself playing the first hour of a 15-hour indie game, and realising: “Oh, the next 14 hours are just going to be ‘perform this same gameplay loop again and again while incrementally unlocking upgrades that marginally alter the experience’“.

A lot of indie games do chase market trends, and a lot of indie games are focused on making a fairly unoriginal gameplay loop as compelling as possible (while making sure the visuals/music/etc. are slick and enticing enough to draw attention), at the expense of doing something new or surprising. And that’s, well, fine. But there are so many games that are so much more.

There are loads of games coming out at the moment that are weird, creative, and innovative in a dozen different ways. So for Blow to make his claims that indie games are stagnant, he must either be so busy making his own game that he’s not paying attention what anyone else is making, or he’s working from a wildly esoteric definition of the terms ‘creative’ and ‘innovative’.

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Pathologic 2 (Ice-Pick Lodge, 2019) – a reimagining of cult classic Pathologic. Ice-Pick Lodge are the masters of using sadistic, player-unfriendly gameplay systems to capture an atmosphere or dread and hopelessness.

A lot of people have said that Blow is ignorant of the current indie gaming scene, and that, as a member of the indie dev Old Guard, his perception of today’s indie games is unfair and unlikely to change. But while I think there’s a grain of truth there, I think the real reason for Blow’s claims of stagnation in the face of countless innovative indie games is that he has a weird understanding of what ‘innovative’ means.

Blow comes from a scene that values game mechanics, and mechanical innovation so highly it basically sees them as the be-all and end-all of game design (and gives little more than disapproving glances towards the term ‘story’).

His statements in the past pretty definitively put him in this camp, but we can also see it throughout this interview. Take, for example, his lauding of Stephen’s Sausage Roll as a shining example of modern game design (I’m not saying it’s not, just that it fits with the ‘a great game is a platonically perfect set of systems and mechanics’ view of games).

Also, just look at some of these quotes:

“‘…to make a game about some idea’ where ‘some idea’ is like a fiction idea, and it’s an idea that would have been better if it was a book, or film, or a song, and not a game. I think that happens a lot. For some reason nobody notices this problem or works on it. “

“Games are good at making settings, they’re good at establishing mood. What they’re not good at is plot, so why are we copying these storytelling structures that have plot?”

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The Banner Saga 3 (Stoic Studio, 2018) – The final entry of Stoic’s epic, depressing ‘the world is ending but with Vikings’ saga. The way the series handles choice and consequence is worthy of study, and the combat system is really good I swear to god I will fight you all.

“For some reason nobody notices this problem or works on it.”

This is the point where I start to get genuinely frustrated with Blow, because it’s so tiring to hear people rehash this argument over and over again. I’m 100% done with people repeatedly claiming that games cannot tell stories well, and that anyone trying to crowbar stories into games is misguided – while every passing year sees the release of more and more games that tell stories really well.

The conflation of ‘games that are trying to tell stories’ with ‘games that are just trying to ape movies’ is also incredibly tedious. Games have made so much progress over the years at telling stories in non-filmic, ways – ways that are unique to games. Yes, we have David Cage and Naughty Dog trying to make interactive movies, but we also have The Void, 80 Days, Sunless Skies, Cultist Simulator, Ultra Business Tycoon III, Cart Life, Frostpunk, The Beginner’s Guide, etc. etc. etc.  – i.e. games telling stories of one kind or another through the medium of games, using the unique possibilities of interactivity to do so.

Blow seems so preoccupied with the concept of platonically pure and perfect gameplay mechanics – seeming to view innovation of purely mechanical gameplay systems as the only true innovation – that he ignores or dismisses the countless talented studios doing amazing, creative things in other areas.

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Subnautica (Unknown Worlds Entertainment, 2018) – Subnautica captures the feeling of pushing deeper and deeper into a terrifying, unknown world better than any other game I’ve played.

Inkle’s genuine, groundbreaking innovations in UI, dialogue flow, methods of displaying text, and the handling of information the player knows and doesn’t know – these all count as innovation.

Weather Factory’s work in making Cultist Simulator a game where figuring out how to play the game is 80% of the game is also unique and innovative, by any measure.

The way Mountains play with tiny fragments of interactivity Warrio Ware-style to tell the story of young love and heartbreak in Florence is a perfect example of mechanical innovation that I expect wouldn’t get a nod from Blow.

There are so many more examples of people doing genuinely innovative things in games that at this point it’s just boring and obviously wrong to claim that indie games are stagnating. Sure, a portion of the scene is focused on making slick, shiny things that aren’t particularly new or exciting, but there’s so much great stuff going on.

Hell, even if we take the overly narrow ‘mechanics and systems and innovation in that field only’ view, Blow is still wrong. Just look at recent mechanics-minded games like Baba is You, Return of the Obra Dinn, Engare, and the like.

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A House of Many Doors (Pixel Trickery, 2017) – a Sunless Sea-style explore-and-story game set in a parasite dimension that steals things, people, and places from all over the multiverse.  Full of imagination, wonderful writing, and the best damn ending in all of games.

So, moral of the story? Some people have ultra-specific views of what games should be that can lead them to make claims that seem obviously true to them, but obviously wrong to others. If you agree with Blow, take heart in the fact that there actually are lots of modern indie games doing innovative work with game mechanics. If, like me, you disagree with him, then hey – don’t ever let somebody tell you what games should be.

Enjoy the games you enjoy. Make the games you want to make. And always remember – not engaging, and not getting angry with someone who’s wrong on the internet is a superpower we’re all blessed with, and should make use of more often.


If you’ve read this far – thanks! As always,  you can follow me on Twitter by clicking here. And if you like what I do, why not be lovely by supporting me on my newly-opened Patreon?Alternatively, if you hate what I do, why not spite me by supporting me on my newly-opened Patreon? Find that Patreon here.

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