Theologians have long known that the happier a soul is, the more experience points it gives you when you feed on it. It’s in Leviticus, or something. But vampire games often lack that idea in any meaningful sense. Characters may talk about strong souls and weak souls but, as a player, it has little bearing on how you play. Dontnod, in its new game Vampyr (which is being developed by a different team than its breakout hit Life is Strange), aims to change that.
“You are a predator, you are a monster,” Vampyr’s writer, Stéphane Beauverger, told me at an event in Paris last month. “In fact, in our team, we know that you are playing the monster.” Which is why they’ve worked to let you be as monstrous as you want when you play.
Set in post-First World War London, with Spanish Flu killing off the city’s citizens far faster than the war ever did, Vampyr puts you into the shoes of surgeon Jonathan Reid. Shortly after the game begins, Reid is bitten and turned into a vampire by a night-creature using the confusion of the plague to feed on the vulnerable.
In your search to find out what you’ve become, you travel through different areas of London. Each hub has groups of characters to meet and interact with. Unlike other RPGs, where NPCs stand and wait for you and have little relation to the other NPCs around them, in Vampyr the characters in each hub are linked—they’re friends, enemies, family members. In the demo I was shown, Reid comes across two men arguing in the street. The older of the two pulls a gun, fires on the younger, and runs off into the night. The demo-er talked to the boy, who was tight-lipped about the argument, except to say ‘He’s not been the same since he came back.’ The demo-er had Reid track the older man in the dark streets and feed on him—as the older man died we were privy to his final thought: ‘It’s okay, I died a long time ago in France.’
It’s a neat touch from Dontnod, using death as a means of exposition. Still, the suicidal man didn’t give up that much in the way of experience. Beauverger explained to me how you could have gone about getting more—it’s pretty grim.
It turns out the man and the boy are father and son. The father has been in a deep depression since returning from fighting in France and this has driven a wedge between the two of them, leaving them both morose. If, instead of feeding on them right off the bat, you were to reconcile the two, bringing them back together by talking to them both you would make them both much happier, more fulfilled. The experience you’d then get for draining them would be greatly increased.
The final word from the victims would change, too. The father wouldn’t see what you’re doing as a release but as a theft of his time with his reconciled son.
This simple mechanical emphasis gives a dark twist to your actions in Vampyr.
I also admire that this isn’t a game about choosing the good option and the bad one. “There is no karmic balance—you can’t get good karma points, you can only get damnation points,” Beauverger explains. “You can only go down deeper into darkness, the player just controls the speed of their descent.” You aren’t rewarded for not killing people in Vampyr. There is no mechanical pressure to do so either: you don’t get hungry if you avoid killing humans, you just miss out on the experience that will let you level up your skills for an easier time against your enemies.
To take the example of Bioshock’s Little Sisters: you could kill them for a big glut of plasmids that you could use to upgrade your character, but freeing them – doing the good thing – also gave you a modest amount of plasmids. It was easy to do the ‘good’ thing. Vampyr doesn’t have that ‘good’ choice to balance out the scale. Hunger may not be a mechanic in the game, but it exists within you as a player, if you want to have access to more and better skills.
And, if you kill someone, it will have ramifications for all the people in a district. It may crush them, ruin their lives—it may make things better. Your actions have consequences.
There are heroes in Vampyr, but you aren’t one of them, Beauverger tells me: “The true heroes are the vampire hunter that you will face,” he says. They are the ones killing monsters and protecting the weak. You are just deciding to be a little less evil than you could be – or as evil as you want.