For someone who’s played his fair share of video games, I am not well versed in the intricacies of role-playing games. I suppose it’s a matter of temperament; I color inside the lines and play within the straight and narrow. When I load up a CRPG and am told I can build my character any way I like and do whatever I want, I freeze up and refuse to do anything, afraid I’ll make a mistake and ruin the game. The conventions of the genre have also left me at odds; my first-ever playthrough of the first Mass Effect was aborted after I couldn’t understand why my Commander Shepard was running around the Citadel badgering aliens for sidequests. I mean, would you ever see Jean-Luc Picard running around the Promenade on Deep Space Nine, assisting aliens resolve their marital woes? Maybe Archer, because he’s a putz, but Picard? Certainly not.
Still, the allure of open-ended gameplay minus the cash-and-time sinks of MMOs calls to me, so I’ve tried out new RPGs every so often. My latest, and thus far most successful attempt, came just a few months ago, when I took a spin with Troika Games’ 2004 swansong, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, an adaptation of the classic pen-and-paper role-playing game setting that, in spite of all its myriad flaws, was one of the most enjoyable games I’ve ever played.
Before I jump into the game proper, I’d like to briefly sketch out the background of its inspiration. Vampire: The Masquerade was a role-playing game developed by White Wolf Game Studio back in the early 1990s, based around the simple idea of an urban fantasy following the adventures of vampires who live in secret amongst us. Players would take the role of a particular variety (or “clan”) of vampire and engage in any manner of neofeudal politicking, anguished wrestling with their own inhumanity, or high-octane hunts for magical whatistses, all while hiding the truth of their existence from nosy humans. Something about the game spoke to the zeitgeist, and it became the game that put White Wolf on the map, spawning any number of spinoffs focusing on werewolves, mummies, changelings, and magic users of various stripes. In the course of events, the setting grew and became so interconnected and unwieldy that White Wolf rebooted all their games, replacing Vampire: The Masquerade with Vampire: The Requiem, a smaller-scale title that stuck to Masquerade’s initial concept of vampire politicking. Still, while it never became a household name the way Dungeons and Dragons did, Masquerade still has its devotees to this day.
Given the amount lore built up over the years, the developers of Bloodlines take the classic approach to ease the player into the world. Your story begins in the City of Angels, in late October of 2004, when a misbegotten night of passion leads to your “embrace” by a vampire. Unfortunately, “siring” new vampires without permission is verboten, so you are hauled off to meet Sebastian Lacroix, the ruling prince of the Los Angeles Camarilla, the “official” organization of vampire society that seeks to keep the existence of vampires hidden from humans. Your sire gets the chop, but protests from the crowd convince Lacroix to set you free. For the first quarter of the game, you work as a gofer for Lacroix and the various vampires of Santa Monica, learning the ropes of undead life. As you move across the city, you begin to become ensnared in the political mess of Los Angeles, currently in the midst of a four-way struggle between the Anarchs (vampire hellraisers who threw the Camarilla out of the West Coast in the 1940s and set up a community of “free states”), the Camarilla who are trying to reassert control over the city in the wake of recent Anarch setbacks, the Sabbat (longstanding enemies of the Camarilla who believe vampires should openly dominate humans), and the Kuei-jin, the East Asian equivalent to vampires, who are embarking on a campaign of aggressive imperial expansion all along the coast. Even more worrying is the arrival in town of a derelict cargo ship containing the Ankaran Sarcophagus, an ancient relic that may (or may not) contain an ancient Assyrian vampire who may (or may not) be capable of ushering in the apocalypse if awakened.
Now, I’m not going to lie. From a strictly mechanical perspective, Bloodlines is a mess. The game was build on an early prototype of Valve Software’s famed Source engine, an engine that, despite its merits, was not designed for role-playing games. Publisher Activision wasn’t terribly enamored with the project as a whole, and the game ended up being booted out the door in a notoriously buggy state. The fan community has made great strides in reworking the game into something more stable (and I would seriously recommend finding and installing Wesp’s patch before playing this game for the first time), but despite all the effort there are still signs that Troika bit off more than they could chew. There’s a lot of talk in the game about factions and allegiances, but the plot pretty much proceeds on rails up to the very end. There’s a great deal of flexibility in customizing your character as a brawler, sneaky assassin, smooth-talker or what not, but at the end of the day some manner of combat skill is essential (and preferably not in firearms, which only become useful about halfway through the game). The final quarter of the game essentially becomes a series of combat gauntlets, meaning any characters who didn’t specialize in some manner of fighting skill will have to cheat to make their way through to the end.
Yet in spite of all these problems, I found Bloodlines to be such an endearing game that I’m probably going to be playing through it again in the near future. There are a couple reasons why it resonated with me, so I’ll break them down as best I can.
The first hint that I would love Bloodlines came right at the beginning of the game, as I was building my character. As someone who enjoys the occasional dip into the horrific, I find it fascinating that the concept of the vampire has evolved and taken on so many permutations in modern Western culture. I suppose the basic concept of a vampire, of a human figure who parasitically feeds off of other humans, is such a basic concept that we encounter often enough in our lives that it’s easy to imagine fantastic creatures that express the concept in different ways. I don’t think there’s any other monster – werewolves, zombies, ghosts – that can match the variety of vampires that have graced our imaginations over the centuries. As a result, Bloodlines, taking a page from Masquerade, tries its damnedest to include as many vampire archetypes as possible as playable characters. Did you see The Lost Boys and fall in love with the idea of vampires as young punk hellions? Play a Brujah. Did you read a lot of Anne Rice or watch Only Lovers Left Alive and dream of aesthete vampires mooning over the decadent beauty of the world? Toreadors may be the clan for you. Want to be a freaky Count Orlock monster who lives in a cave and has an inexplicable love of both computer hacking and fetish wear? Go Nosferatu. Each class has its particular advantages and disadvantages; as an example, the Ventrue, the embodiment of vampires-as-metaphor-for-the-aristocracy/capital/the-One-Per-Cent, have abilities that augment their powers of persuasion, but are unable to imbibe the blood of anyone who makes less than $20K a year. Most of the clans are fairly easy to play, but there are two whose traits drastically change the game. The Nosferatu, due to their hideous appearance, have to spend a fair amount of time hiding in the sewers away from humans, while the famed Malkavians, the lunatics of the vampire world, have all of their dialogue choices replaced with elliptically-worded nonsense that will leave both the player and other characters wondering what the hell the player character is talking about. Additionally, as befits the Malkavian gift of prophecy and lateral thought, a Malkavian player character’s dialogue will literally spoil every major plot point of the game…but the player will only realize it if they’ve already played the game beforehand.
(In the interests of disclosure, I feel I should mention that my own first playthrough of Bloodlines was done as a female Tremere named Charlotte. Why Tremere? Well, I liked their backstory, which has them as a cabal of medieval alchemists who discovered what they thought was the Philosopher’s Stone, quaffed it in the hopes of achieving eternal life, only to find they’d accidentally made themselves vampires instead. I liked the fact they can throw around cool blood magic, and I loved the idea of playing this gothy-as-hell game as a literal gothic princess.)
Once I actually got into the game, the second thing I fell in love with were the characters. There’s some perfect storm of writing, voice acting, and the Source engine’s prowess in modeling facial expressions (seriously, I have never seen a video game character smirk as beautifully as in Bloodlines), but you can’t play ten minutes of Bloodlines without running into some wonderful new character. I could go on all day about the characters of Bloodlines, so I will restrain myself just by mentioning Jim Ward’s snobbish yet paternal Tremere regent Maximillian Strauss, Grey Delisie’s turn as the club-owning Voerman sisters, repressed Therese and uncomfortably forward Jeanette, John DiMaggio’s straight-talking asshole biker Smilin’ Jack, Mary Elizabeth McGlynn’s Pisha, who treats her inhumanity with a nonchalant matter-of-factness, and Michael Gough’s (no, not that one) Beckett, the nomad scholar whose smugness somehow stays on the right side of charming.
As I played, the setting became another draw for me. As a neonate vampire, you are down-and-out in the City of Angels, spending your time prowling the streets with the other nighthawks. The human world is now off-limits to you, and you must make your way skulking in the alleys, breaking into warehouses, mingling in the clubs and dim-light bars, bartering for weapons off the back of a truck, carrying what you can on your back. It’s not a realistic view of street life, of course, but a gothed-up fantasy of such, but it’s appropriate for the game all the same. However, it was the time period that ended up hooking me. It’s weird to think of a game set in 2004 as a period piece, but the choice of year is an interesting one. At heart, Vampire: The Masquerade was a product of the 1990s, but was more a product of the hidden anxieties of the decade than the sunnier times we nostalgically remember. This was, after all, the decade that gave us The X-Files. The conflict between the opposing worldviews of Camarilla and Sabbat seems like the last gasp of the Cold War duology, while the fears and signs of the approaching “Gehenna,” the vampiric apocalypse, embodies the millenarian anxieties of that decade (which I honestly found far more tolerable than the survivalist barbarism we love so much these days, thank you very much). This whole worldview took a while to fade even after 9/11, and 2004 is probably about as late as you could set something as intrinsically a part of the 1990s as Bloodlines. There’s also the matter of technology. Bloodlines is set in a time just before the Internet was melted into the fabric of everyday life, so your hidden liaisons are conducted with payphones, desktop computers and laptops, and even one-on-one handoffs. There’s even a quest centered around uncovering a snuff film recorded on videotape. How old school can you get?
But what does Bloodlines have to say about the vampiric experience? It’s a matter that even Masquerade had problems depicting. In the original conception, the vampires characters of Masquerade were tortured things, given great powers but burdened with terrible flaws, forever set apart from human society and eternally wrestling with the ravenous “Beast” within. In practice, most people played them as superheroes with fangs. For the most part, Bloodlines sticks with this latter conception. The player has a ten-point “humanity” meter, but unless you deliberately play as a scumbag vampire it’s fairly easy to keep your humanity in high standing all through the game. The problem stems from the game handles the concept of “the masquerade,” the subterfuge practiced by vampires to hide their existence from humans. The major hub maps of the game are designated as masquerade zones, where any use of vampiric powers or assaults on humans will incure a masquerade violation, with five violations resulting in an instant death sentence. However, most missions occur in specially designated combat zones, where a vampire can rip a gangbanger’s spine out on closed-circuit TV and no one will care.
As a result, vampires in Bloodlines are a power fantasy. Indeed, with the full spectrum of vampiric abilities at their command, they are a most enthralling fantasy. There’s nothing like shrugging off a half-magazine of Uzi fire then using thaumaturgy to make the shooter barf out two pints of his own blood. When you’re trying to break into a cabinet full of drugs in a clinic to sell to a strung-out pawnshop owner and you’re caught by security, it’s a joy to command the guard to hand over his keys and forget he ever saw you. Everyone talks about action-movie moments in games, but it is was only ever this game that made me feel that I was in one of those moments. The mission in question was one in the latter part of the game, where I was tasked with rescuing a Chinatown businessman’s daughter from Triad kidnappers. To do so, I, as Charlotte in her shades and big feathered trenchcoat, walked in the front door of the massage parlor she was stashed in, put the receptionist to sleep, and worked my way through the building room by room, taking bullet after bullet, working my way through gangster after gangster with blood magic and a fire axe. I was Wrath Incarnate, and it was glorious.
And yet, the game knows that vampires are not superheroes, but monsters of hunger and obsession. There are little moments, small episodes in missions and basic mechanics that remind the player of what they have become. Take the concept of feeding, for example. A vampire may have a bunch of cool powers, but using them requires blood. In combat maps blood is as close as the next enemy, but between missions blood becomes a concern. When I first played as Charlotte, I spent my time lurking in alleys and in wayward corners of the map, waiting for coast to clear before I swooped down on some homeless bum or wayward pedestrian and drained them to the brink of death. On another aborted run as a male Toreador, I decided that I wouldn’t attack random passersby for blood. To compensate, I upped my stats in seduction, prowled for particular women in night clubs dubbed “blood dolls,” and fed them lines until I could suck on them in peace. The implications, suffice to say, are crystal clear. Truth be told, while I would say that the game’s handling of sexuality is juvenile and heavy with the male gaze (true to the source material, alas), but at the same time I am glad that feeding was handled in this manner, that there is something discomforting and unpleasantly carnal about the whole thing, that reminds you of what you have become.
For another example, consider the case of Heather Poe. You first meet Ms. Poe in a clinic in Santa Monica, mortally wounded after a serious accident. With the only physician in the building focused on another patient, Heather is fated to bleed out on a clinic bed and die alone and afraid. However, if you chat with the friendly man outside the clinic about the recuperative powers of vampire blood, you can open a vein, save her life, and be on your way with none the wiser. A few hours later, when you’ve probably forgotten all about her, who should appear in front you but Heather. She explains that she tracked you down because she wanted to thank you for saving her life, because she can’t get you out of her mind and…and can she, like, touch your hair, man? In Masquerade terms, Heather has become a “ghoul,” a human who has become enthralled to a vampire by drinking their blood. When this happened to me when I played Bloodlines, I was shocked, of course. But when I started thinking about it as a vampire, my reaction changed dramatically. After all, as a creature of the night, I can’t exactly hold down a 9-to-5 anymore or get a passport, now can I? It might be good to have a gofer to get a bit of a cashflow going and keep a signature handy. Indeed, this whole thing could be really good for Heather too. I mean, what does she have to look forward to? Slaving away in a mind-numbing busywork job for fifty years where she gets no respect, marries some lowlife because she’s afraid of dying alone, and pumps out a bunch of ungrateful kids? But if she stuck around with me, she could stay young and pretty forever, get to meet all sorts of exciting and interesting people and sort-of people, and best of all, she could be best friends with me! It could be a real opportunity for her.
After I thought this, I had to take a little break for a moment, because I realized I had managed to elaborately justify slavery to myself. That’s the sort of thing Bloodlines does to you, and it’s why I love it. It’s honestly been the best experience I’ve ever had with a roleplaying game, and I heartily look forward to tackling more in the future. Preferably with less slavery, of course.