There once was a developer called Troika. Created from the spirit of old Interplay by three prominent Fallout designers (Tim Cain, Leonard Boyarsky and Jason Anderson), they went on to make three of the most technically troubled but brilliantly designed RPGs of the early ‘00s: Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, The Temple of Elemental Evil and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.
Seeing as we’re just on the heels of the release of a certain major Vampire-themed romance movie/Mormon propaganda piece, I think it’s only fitting we discuss the latter of those three games in this month’s For the Love of the Games, the monthly column in which I advise — nay — implore you to play a certain overlooked, forgotten, or (on occasion, as is my wont) just plain bad game.
But first, some (more) history: Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is a PC RPG set in White Wolf’s World of Darkness, an old-timey analog (aka pen-and-paper) RPG system wherein vampires, werewolves, spirits and other monsters vie for power. As a freshly-sired vampire of your making, you have to navigate the murky waters of LA’s vampire underworld as various factions compete for possession of a recently unearthed sarcophagus that may spell doom for vampire kind. Really serious stuff.
Bloodlines is notable for being one half stellar RPG following the tragically discarded Deus Ex formula, and one half boring, punishing hack-and-slasher bristling with glitches and pacing issues. And those would be the first and second halves of the game, respectively. Hey, at least the good half is first, so you could just play that and look up the multiple endings on YouTube if you really want.
But I’m not here to tell you why not to play the game. (Or, in this case, how to play some of the game and avoid the rest of it….) Just the opposite, in fact. Let’s begin with something any nerd born after 1990 probably doesn’t remember.
Vampires Used to be Cool
F**k Twilight. Not because of its popularity, not because of its obsessed fans, not because of its twisted themes, not even because of its shitty writing. F**k Twilight for turning blood-sucking, shape-shifting, people-killing, lots-of-sex-having monsters into sparkling Abercrombie and Fitch models.
Bloodlines’ entire cast are badasses. Hear me? Bad–asses! The Sherrif is a hulk of a bloodsucker who can transform into a man-bat the size of a cessna. Nines Rodriguez, the local leader of a faction of vampire anarchists, decapitates a werewolf with his bear hands. And this is no Twilight werewolf that just looks like a normal wolf; this thing is more like a Kodiak bear on two feet. Or Beckett, the vampire scholar who always seems to turn up in the heart of hostile territory, having passed effortlessly and unnoticed through the scores of enemies you just exhausted yourself killing (you amateur).
Then there’s Smiling Jack — that bearded bro up there — mentor to the player, professional ass-kicker, infamous anarchist, the stuff of vampire legend, may or may not have been the pirate Blackbeard in his mortal life.
But all of the characters are great, not just the vampires. Describing their personalities doesn’t really do them justice. Most of what makes these characters so memorable is in their actions, the ways they interact with the player. There’s no better example of this than the deranged conclusion to the war of mind games waged between twin sisters Jeanette and Therese Voerman. But I suppose you’ll have to play it to see it.
I’ve never been as scared playing a game as I was in Bloodlines’ Ocean House — a haunted hotel whose restless spirits you have to put to rest. And guess what — there are no enemies in the Ocean House. Aside from some poltergeisting dishware, there’s almost no risk of death at all.
But you don’t know that your first time through. Your first time through, you hear the footsteps, the screams, the creaks, catch the glimpses of the ghostly killer and his victims, find the newspapers, photos and scrawled messages that tell the tale of the hotel’s violent past. The building is reliving its memories and you’re an unwitting bystander caught in its nightmare, lost and confused in a time and place that is not your own.
In games like Dead Space or Silent Hill — games with enemies — you at least have some control. A scary thing might jump out but you can (usually) kill it. In the Ocean House, you have no control. Ghosts from the past are f**king with your worldview and you can’t do anything about it.
But the haunted hotel is just one example of the rich atmosphere that makes up Bloodlines’ seedy take on downtown LA. Until recently, most open-world games couldn’t pack the detail into their sprawling cities that Bloodlines manages in just a few blocks of Santa Monica or Downtown LA. Almost every building serves a purpose, almost every locked door is a threshold to a different quest. It’s a tiny world but it’s also huge and alive and packed with information and story.
If you’re like me, there comes a point in Bloodlines where you realize that you probably specced your character wrong, and now you’re screwed, and you have to start over, and now — you know what, f**k this game. That’s because, if you’re like me, you play role-playing games more for the role-playing and less for the shooting/stabbing of dudes. And if that’s how you’re playing Bloodlines, then you’ll have a grand time in the game’s first half.
The clan you choose for your vampire and the way you spec him will alter entire trees of dialogue; people treat you differently; the tactics you employ to complete a quest vary wildly; whole new worlds are opened to you. As a male Toreador, I smooth-talked and seduced my way through anyone who stood in it. With my high investigation skill and moderate ability in guns, I was like some kind of intensely charismatic private detective.
Had I chosen to play a Nosferatu I wouldn’t even be interacting with hardly anyone — at least, not anyone human. My natural hideousness would have relegated me to skulking through shadows and traveling by sewer to avoid human contact, lest I demonstrate the existence of vampires with no more than my monstrous appearance. And if I’d chosen to play as one of the insane Malkavians… well… let’s just say there’s nothing quite like it….
Then the fun comes to an abrupt and punishing end. Then you enter the sewers.
Most RPGs — most video games, in fact — feature an obligatory sewer level. The sewer level is a way for developers to easily fill space — a series of dank tunnels that all look alike, filled with rats of varying sizes and (if you’re lucky) slimes. They are THE WORST. But Bloodlines takes the obligatory sewer level to a whole new plane of f**k-you by making it the size of a small country and populating it with an army of toothy fleshbeasts waiting patiently in monster closets so they can jump out and rip you to pieces. And if you haven’t specced a combat-heavy character, then just go look up the endings on Youtube because the game is basically over for you.
The first half of Bloodlines is the best roleplaying you’ll get outside of the pen and paper world. The rich characters and cohesive atmosphere I mentioned before are buildings blocks with which you can build your personal narrative. And the world responds in kind, simply by opening up so many possibilities.
Too bad it all goes away during the damn sewer level. If you do take my advice and buy the game, you might want to look up a guide for building the kind of character you want to play… or at least the closest thing to it that can still survive.
Originally written for Digital Hippos