More Chomp, Less Chop
Since the publication of Bram Stoker’s seminal Dracula, our culture has found increasingly blatant ways to embrace our inner vampire. The first notable presentation of the vampire in 20th century popular culture was F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. Pasty-faced, pointy-eared, and heavily clawed, Nosferatu never took on a completely human form. He is as monstrous on the outside as he is on the inside. In 1931 Tod Browning gave us that most iconic of vampires, Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. Although still a monster, the vampire at least remained human in appearance. In fact, there was even a certain refinement to his personality.
When Hammer Films released their version of Dracula in 1958, the vampire was given sex appeal, the stuffy refinement replaced by animal magnetism, helped along by the casting of Christopher Lee. (This point is easier to accept if you stop picturing him as Saruman or Count Dooku.) The sensuality of the vampire was further increased in the 1970s in a series of comic books featuring the scantily-clad Vampirella, as well as by Interview with a Vampire. In this dreary but extremely popular novel, Anne Rice added a healthy dose of homoeroticism. Also: Lestat and the other vampires are not supporting characters as they are in Stoker’s Dracula; they are the protagonists, and not altogether unsympathetic ones.
In the 1990s, the vampire moved as far away from its monstrous predecessors as possible while still retaining its fundamental characteristics; Buffy the Vampire Slayer introduced Angel and Spike, two vampires who had had their souls restored and subsequently waged war against their own kind. This ultimate embrace of the vampire was given literal form when both characters became Buffy’s lovers. It also didn’t hinder cultural acceptance that Angel and Spike were played by the ridiculously attractive David Boreanaz and James Marsters.
The vampire has gone from unrepentant monster to hero and champion in a little over a hundred years. The only thing left to make the connection complete was to become the vampires ourselves.
That chance is available in Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, a role-playing computer game by recently defunct developers Troika. Based on White Wolf’s pen-and-paper game, Bloodlines gives the player a choice of seven clans from which to choose, each with their own distinct characteristics. For example, you can play a Nosferatu, creatures whose grotesque appearance makes it difficult for them to move among humans, thereby forcing them to travel through the sewer system. Or you can play a Malkavian, insane vampires whose dialogue choices often contain non-sequiturs, making communication difficult.
But despite all attempts to humanize them, vampires are still the “bad guys” (even Angel and Spike fought other vampires) and playing such a character could make those of us who care about such things uncomfortable. That’s why Troika should be given credit for not taking the morally lazy route of simply allowing players to wreak havoc without any real consequences. This is not a simple-minded game in which you run around sucking the blood out of innocent civilians. The actions of players are gauged by a humanity meter. If you drain humans of all their blood, instead of taking a limited amount and keeping them alive, your humanity decreases. If it drops far enough, you succumb more easily to Frenzy, uncontrollable outbursts in which you suddenly attack people at random. This makes the gameplay more unpredictable, your adventures more dangerous. But the player has still been given a real choice in how they role-play; Troika thankfully knows the difference between making a player deal with consequences and simply punishing the player for “incorrect” actions.
What’s also admirable about Bloodlines is its setting. It’s no secret that RPGs have been suffering from Tolkienitis for far too long… and that includes many of the AD&D-inspired games. Bloodlines contains all the basics of RPGs, like gaining experience points and spending them on skills, but it’s set in contemporary Los Angeles, so we’re spared yet another dungeon crawl with paladins, elves, crossbows, and mana.
Bloodlines puts its emphasis on character and story, but its content isn’t without flaws (some of which are common to the gaming industry as a whole). Firstly, there is the unimaginative reliance on clichés and stereotypes. When you enter Chinatown, it’s only a matter of time before somebody says “Confucius say”, you learn of a Hong Kong triad, and you enter a massage parlor (named the “Lotus Blossom”, of course). Secondly, Bloodlines perpetuates the belief that mature content simply means swearing, graphic violence, and titillation (and that mostly geared toward the male player).
However, Bloodlines’ technical flaws overshadow any discussion of its gameplay. To put it bluntly, this game is a mess. Even with the much-needed patch, Bloodlines feels clunky and awkward. Characters stand up through the roof of taxis; text doesn’t match the spoken dialogue; people get stuck in walls; and there are continuously abrupt jumps in transitions. This is especially surprising considering that Bloodlines was built using Valve’s Source technology, the same engine used for the elegant Half-Life 2. It’s as if Troika took a cheetah and cut off the poor cat’s paws.
Even worse than the myriad of glitches are the load times. One is almost hesitant to enter a building, knowing that not a vampire but a load screen waits behind the door. Excruciating load times precede even levels consisting of only one room. And yet Bloodlines does not come across as a slapdash product. Troika obviously cared about what they were creating. It makes you wonder if the load times were actually a subtle way of allowing further immersion into the world of vampires by giving us an idea of what eternity feels like.