Monday, May 16, 2011

Shooter-RPG Hybrids Where You Play an Insane Undead Person Dressed Like a Stripper (Or, Why You Should Play Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines)

The Golden Age

Once upon a time, there was a game development studio called Black Isle. They were a division of a company called Interplay, and they worked almost exclusively on RPGs. From 1997 to 1999, the various members of Black Isle produced Fallout 1, Fallout 2, and Planescape: Torment. Which is to say, that they made, consecutively, three of the greatest PC RPGs of all time.

Then, for whatever reason, they broke up. I like to imagine epic fights over bizarre gameplay ideas, people brandishing fake power gauntlets at each other, elaborate gambits being played out to manipulate each others minds... But it was probably just the usual conflicts with "The Suits" at Interplay.

Anyway, the Black Isle members, once the dust had settled, ended up at two companies. One of them is still alive today, the other....isn't.

But before it died, Troika Games put out a few amazing games. This piece is about their last published work, Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines (V:TMB).

If I wrote a Deus Ex game about witches, I'd call it Deus Hex

I got the idea to write this while browsing on PC Gamer today. Richard Corbett (whose Crap Shoot articles are a great read, both for nostalgia, and for his wit in ripping apart some truly bizarre design decisions) had a piece posted about great PC Games downloadable on the cheap. V:TMB was highlighted in the article (along with both the Fallouts and Planescape), and Richard caught my attention by calling it one of the only games that's earned the right to be called a successor to Deus Ex.

I'd never made the comparison before, but it's apt. Like Deus Ex, V:TMB is a first-person game that hybridizes RPG and shooter elements. Also like Deus Ex, it's a game that's fundamentally about how the player approaches a hostile situation. You can infiltrate, you can seduce, you can blast your way through. When the game fails (and, as much as I love it, it does fail in places), it is because the player has had their options stripped from them - usually in the form of unavoidable enemies or a direct boss fight. But in the missions where it gets this balance right, it feels like a supernatural take on the Deus Ex design.

The games also have similar RPG elements which affect infiltration possibilities, with V:TMB's stat points filling in for the skill experience system in Deus Ex, and clan Disciplines taking the (slightly more limited) place of Aug Canisters. These elements of choice, of making trade-offs in character build, are more pronounced in V:TMB, though - whereas in Deus Ex a character built for a certain infiltration style could usually muddle through a different method with the help of equipment, a Vampire built for silent melee kills is going to be in trouble when it's time to pull guns or talk his way through a situation.

But at its best, V:TMB actually surpasses Deus Ex by doing something its "predecessor" doesn't: building a fun, interesting world to spend time in between missions. Deus Ex is great, but it's sometimes weakened by the linearity of its levels. Sure, you can do a few little odd jobs around New York or Paris, but the game is mostly built around the big setpiece infiltration missions.

While V:TMB has setpiece missions too (including one of the best haunted houses ever presented in gaming - a long sequence in which there are no monsters or enemies, only the house itself trying to alternately scare and kill you as you unravel the mystery of its haunting), but it also has large open "hub" maps full of strange, interesting characters with sidequests to offer you.

And that speaks to the the key difference between the two, I think - Deus Ex feels like a shooter that uses RPG elements to enhance possibilities and force choices on the player. V:TMB, on the other hand, is an RPG that also happens to be a shooter. It has an RPG or adventure game's focus on plot and writing. For all of its amazing successes, Deux Ex is not a memorably well-written game. The characters are there to spout their philosophies and give you someone to shoot or save. V:TMB, on the other hand.... Well, V:TMB has the Malkavian path.

I LOVE the Malkavian path.

Bloodlines - like Character Classes, but way more gothic

For non-nerds: The Vampire: The Masquerade bit of V:TMB's title is the licensed property the game is based on. Vampire was a tabletop role-playing game published by White Wolf Publishing (the game has since been replaced with a new series, Vampire: The Requiem). In Vampire, the players play newly awakened undead coming to grips with the horror of unlife and the moral quandaries of being a predator and all sorts of other melodrama. Each Kindred (as Vampire: The Masquerade characters are called), comes from a particular vampire clan, each with their own special powers and weaknesses.

All of these clans are available to players in V:TMB - they're the titular Bloodlines. Clan choice, done at character creation, affects your base stats, which vampire powers you get, and what your weakness is. For some, this is fairly minor - an increase in social skills or a special set of magical powers. For others, it's a huge change to gameplay - the Nosferatu clan is hideously ugly and trigger potentially game-ending consequences when seen by humans, so playing as them makes the game a significantly more stealthy (and less fun) affair.

And then there are the Malkavians.

Depth means being able to play as a cognitively disabled person

One of the little things I always loved about Fallout was that it allowed you, on character creation, to make yourself really, really weak in certain areas in order to buff others. You could dial down your strength, or your speed, or your luck, and you'd spend the rest of the game dealing with those consequences. And if the stat you chose to lower was your Intelligence... Well, that made for a very different game. Because low-INT characters, to reflect this weakness, couldn't really communicate in English. They could mumble and mutter, but, if you built a character with an INT stat below 4, he or she would have a functional IQ of around 60. People you talked to would give up in frustration, or take advantage of you, or even give you a little charity sometimes. You could still muddle through the game, but it was a strange experience.

It wasn't in any way, shape or form a sensitive or accurate portrayal of cognitive impairment, but it was an interesting alternative to the normal way of playing. I was always impressed with all the extra work that went into the low-INT path. Sure, it was usually just a few lines of mumbling, and the NPC telling you to go away in nicer or ruder ways, but it was still a lot of extra content placed in the game to simulate this weakness.

Behold, the heading of the section, all clothed in black and white. I hope it will be my friend!

Which brings us back to the Malkavians. Because the weakness of the Malkavian bloodline is that they are, to a Kindred, insane. It can take a wide variety of forms and disorders, but every one of them is significantly deranged in some way. And so, to reflect that, Malkavian players in V:TMB have an entirely separate set of dialogue options. For every single conversation. In a game that has hours of dialogue. Hundreds of new lines written into the game. Amazing.

Most of the dialogue is re-wording of the stuff a sane character would say in the situation - "Who are you?" becomes "Who is this dark demon I see before me?" - but some of it is completely unique - playing in to the Malkavian strength, supernatural insight.

(IMPORTANT NOTE: Mental illness is not fun or funny. People with mental illnesses are not mystic sages or psychics. They are people suffering from diseases and disorders. While it is possible that such serious hindrances may lead, as a side effect, to an altered perspective giving you some kind of special insight, mostly having a mental illness is about constantly having to fight to live a normal, happy life. End note, back to the magic vampires).

The Insight comes in two forms: Whispers that play distractingly in the background, and the altered dialogue. Sometimes that means simply having extra things to ask, but the game's writers also delight in hiding information in the changed choices themselves. The Malkavian dialogue almost never refers to characters by their given name, instead using nicknames, often related to some hidden aspect of the character. A Malkavian, in asking a character of someone with a secretly duplicitous nature, might refer to them as the child of Janus - the two-faced god.
Or they might ramble incoherently without any real insight being shown... All part of the fun.

If there's one thing that makes V:TMB a GREAT game, it's this. A willingness to put in a significant amount of extra work to give the player a new way to play through the game - a macro example of the multi-path design of the individual missions. (It doesn't hurt that most of the Malkavian dialogue is wonderfully strange - conversations with stop signs, convincing a nosy questioner that you're not the person she thought you were, you're her long lost turtle.... All sorts of weirdness abounds).

It's this attention to detail that makes the game not only a worthy successor to Deus Ex, but also to the Black Isle games that preceded it. Which is to say, it's a game that blends some of the best aspects of Fallout and Deus Ex. So why aren't you playing it right now?

Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is available on Steam for $20. The game has been EXTENSIVELY patched by fans since its release - get patches that restore a ton of cut or buggy content at

Richard Corbett's round-up of cheap downloadable games is here. It's a great sampler of a lot of amazing games.

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