Lest a monster you become
What really locked in my opinion of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines was Heather.
Heather is almost the definition of an optional character, albeit an important one. You first find her when she’s in a hospital bed barely clinging to life, obviously going to die unless you do something. Feeding her a drop of your vitae will ensure that she lives, and if you’re trying to be a halfway decent person you’ll do it without a second thought. It’s an altruistic act, a kind one, something wholly divorced from your own needs.
It’s only when she shows up again that you realize what you’ve done, but even then you can’t really object. Heather immediately sets about making herself useful to you, and it’s easy to keep being nice to her right off. After all, she makes it clear that she can help you when you’re otherwise asleep, and she doesn’t want anything in return except to be near you. You could run her off, but this happy fashion student just wants to be near you. Why would you be so cruel?
Then some time passes, and she tells you she’s dropping out of school after you’ve further bound her to your blood. And you realize that you’ve ruined her life.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is one of those games that’s going to turn a lot of people off just by looking at it, because it looks horrible. You can say that it’s a necessary facet of a decade-old game, but that falls apart when you point to dozens of decade-old games (Half-Life 2 springs to mind) and they look good. Not cutting-edge, but certainly not populated by the grotesque mannequins that make up Bloodlines. This is on top of the fact that without an unofficial fan-made patch, the game is so buggy that it is functionally nigh-unplayable. The current fan patch is on version 9, and there are still known issues in the game, including a door during the introductory tutorial that will not open unless you save, exit to the main menu, then reload.
Yet diving past all of that provides you with a solid and engrossing underlying game. You are a vampire in the World of Darkness. You are embraced against your will, thrown in the middle of a city that’s being torn apart from every angle, and your survival is wholly contingent on taking part in a multifaceted struggle which no one will explain to you in full. Everyone has an agenda, everyone has an angle, and even seeming acts of kindness have to be examined as potential political moves.
For the game’s purposes, the seven clans of the Camarilla function as character classes; much to its credit, they’re kept comfortably diverse. I made a few mistakes early on by thinking of the game as the tabletop outing, wherein you could easily pick up Disciplines like Celerity on a Ventrue to make a more potent character in battle. Here, your clan’s disciplines are all you have, and the stereotypes are the rule. The balance is still a bit skewed in some places – Toreador characters have an edge on social interactions and Celerity still makes them damn dangerous in combat, while their “drawback” is actually a benefit for conscientious players – but it works.
Where it shines is the mechanics and the storytelling that show you how a normal person becomes, well, a vampire. Heather, as mentioned above, highlights that process. Having Heather around is a mechanical benefit as well as a storytelling mechanism. She brings you things. She gives you an assured source of blood. She keeps you safer. Yet at the same time, you know that you’re ruining her life through the dialogue choices, even if all you wanted to do was save her.
Feeding is in the same category. You can feed during combat if your target is human, and if you’ve been taking damage it’s often your best option. Oh, sure, feeding until the victim dies in non-combat areas has penalties… but if you can overpower that last gunman, you can drink him dry, healing your wounds and replenishing the blood you used during combat. Because the only thing that keeps you from killing as you feed normally is the threat and how much it will cost you.
You need to feed. How will you do it? Will you subsist on homeless bums, risking illness and forcing yourself to scour for more victims for one meal? Manage rats in the sewers? Pay a hooker, escort her off to the side, and drink what you need? Entrance people in clubs into becoming your willing blood dolls? Rely on people in alleyways?
All of them are monstrous options, and even if you aim for the least horrid method possible, you will make compromises over time as the mechanics and the story demand it. And this is why people keep playing the game, updating it, creating mods that add in entirely new clans to the mix. Because no matter how fixed the game’s story may be, it’s an excellent show of how to make a player feel monstrous even when they really have no choice in the matter.
Spec Ops: The Line gives you no choice about the things you have to do in order to get through the game, nor about how you go about doing them. Most games that do offer you options basically offer a choice between being a monster or being a decent person. Mass Effect, as a series, lets you choose between being a harsh character who gets things done or an idealist, but both paths end with you being a hero on a fundamental level.
Bloodlines does not offer that option. No matter what choices you make, no matter how carefully you try to game the system, you are a monster. You can choose to be kinder or crueler, better or worse, but that choice doesn’t always come from dialogue options, and there’s no path wherein you get to be good. It’s just what sort of evil you engage in.
While the game’s overall plot is largely of the standard fare – more powerful people want you to do things and are clearly leaving out information – it also allows you to go along with it in whatever manner you want. By the end of the game, you can be working for one of four factions, or you can decide you’re not working for anyone and take your own road altogether. The plot is linear, but the ending is not, and your choice of allies through the game makes each run a very different experience.
And by the time the ending does roll around, you’ve had plenty of opportunities to make use of different skills and approaches to problems. Your approaches to missions are going to be very different as a Malkavian than they are as a Tremere, and even more so depending on your character build and demeanor. It even depends on how you want the game to play out in the long run. The Prince asks you not to turn a mission into a bloodbath; do you obey him or do you just cut your way through the mission in the most efficient path? Why is that a question, first and foremost, about who you want to like you?
There are no mechanical penalties for turning stealth operations into brute-force assaults; you generally are more than powerful enough to fight through hordes of humans with guns. The only reason not to do that is, again, to avoid the wrath of someone whose favor you’re courting. What matters most isn’t what you’re doing but how it plays into your web of allegiances.
You deal with an outbreak of disease being spread by vampires, but it’s not about keeping people safe, it’s about preserving the Masquerade and gaining the affection of a faction. Dealing with an errant creature is almost entirely about whether you want his former master or the local authority to like you more. And dealing with Heather is about what makes you a more powerful vampire, regardless of the cost to her.
But what would be kind to Heather? To let her die in a hospital? To drive her away when she feels something for you that she will never be rid of no matter how long she lives? To bring her into your unlife and chain her to you, destroying any hopes she might have of being a fulfilled and independent person? There’s no “good” choice. You are a vampire, you feed on living beings to survive, and you do not get to tell yourself that you’re secretly a hero. Your only choice is what kind of monster you become.
Vampires are tricky to work with in fiction, because they’re close cousins to human beings. Fiction paints them as charming and likable while at the same time being blood-sucking abominations. They’re monsters, yes, but they’re monsters so close to human beings that it’s easy to see them as functionally human. It’s a tricky line to walk – make them too human and they lose the edge that makes them more than superheroes with fangs, but make them too monstrous and you stop realizing that vampires aren’t cautionary tales about monsters, but about ourselves.
You’ve never sucked someone’s blood, but have you never manipulated someone else’s affections for your own gain? Taken something that you needed regardless of how much it mattered to the owner? Focused on your own goals ahead of anyone else? Demolished something you were finished with when someone else could have used it? Forced someone to go along with you because you had the power and they did not?
It’s easy to justify what you have to do as the least bad option from a sea of bad choices, but people still got hurt for it.
The game doesn’t ask whether killing is wrong, but it asks you why you feel remorse in some situations but not others. Sure, you can drain someone dry and feel no shame over that death if he was shooting at you first. But what does that say about your guilt, that hurting others is acceptable as long as you had a good enough reason? Who decides if the reason is good enough? You won’t assault someone on the street, but you will drain their blood until they’re on the brink of death; is that somehow better? Does it matter if they give it willingly? How much are you hurting others?
No answers are ever offered. In the end, the game resolutely refuses to even tell you if all of your actions even made things any better than they would have been had the Prince simply destroyed you after you were embraced. You certainly took part in a convoluted series of events, but most of it was simply to save your own neck. By the time you have agency, all that’s left to decide is who gets to walk away.
That combination of freedom and restriction is heady no matter how you slice it. It’s why people play through and then do so again. Ugly graphics or no, there’s a lot to unpack, and while the story is straightforward you have space to carve out your own identity along the way. It’s just a universally monstrous identity all the same.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And when you can’t help but be a monster in a den of monsters, you either rise to the apex of monstrosity… or get devoured.
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About expostninjaI've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.
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