When CCP cancelled their World of Darkness game it became apparent that whatever slim hope there had been for a second good vampire video game was dead. Not the good kind of dead where it would still be running around after dark biting necks in a sharp suit, the bad kind of dead with sadness and regret and a period of reflection.
There has of course been only one good vampire game in the history of video games, this would be Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. There are games with vampires in, there are games where you play as them, but nothing has ever come close to Bloodlines. The fact that Bloodlines is an amazing game isn’t news, the game was released in 2004 and though its brilliance was not immediately apparent it grew on people. Fan made patches and mods transformed a buggy and technically troubled game into something working much closer to how it was supposed to and despite retaining some fairly serious flaws it remains unmatched in many areas. There have been other games based on Vampire: The Masquerade, but none of them came close.
Vampires have never lent themselves readily to video games. A vampire is supposed to be a manipulator and a thinker, but also a romantic, a rogue, a creature of passion and desire. Count Dracula didn’t walk through a series of corridors with ten different guns each more deadly than the last on his person, even if he did have regenerating health. Unlike zombies, who could have almost been invented to cater for the itchy trigger fingers of modern gamers, vampires are a more minimalist monster. Some RPGs such as Skyrim allow you to turn into a vampire but this is not fully realised in the way that it might be in a totally vampire centred game. Action games like the Castlevania and Bloodrayne series feature vampires heavily, but mostly in the capacity of bosses and neither features a vampire as protagonist.
In order to play a vampire as a vampire ought to be played in a game you need something that most video games can’t handle at the best of times, great writing. You need writing that ties the narrative into the systems of the game to allow you more ways to approach situations. Bloodlines has this level of writing and one of the many oft remarked upon features of the game is that you can play with a huge degree of freedom and in many different ways. Though the vampire clan system in the game looks at first like choosing a class in a traditional RPG it carries much more weight than merely choosing the manner in which you’ll be fighting your enemies, it is actually in a way choosing an entire approach to the game, and the differences between the clans can be extreme. It is fair to say that no game has ever allowed for such a radical change in play style as Bloodlines demands from those who play as a Nosferatu.
For that sort of diverse approach to work the systems of the game have to be backed up by the writing and it has to be done seamlessly, and this was something that Bloodlines did. Who your character was would affect reactions from other characters and what your character could say to them. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but what it means in effect is that every encounter with every character has different ways it can play out with different consequences based on who you are playing when it happens. Games these days will consider how different branches play out based on choices, but usually this is based on a fixed character and irrespective of their abilities. Writing a game that lets the players play as the sort of vampire they want to be is a huge undertaking.
With that in mind it is not hard to see why CCP’s take on the World Of Darkness ran into trouble. In electing to go for an MMO format with thousands of players in one city CCP picked the most difficult approach possible given the source material. With so many players, each one looking to find their own path through the game, development would have been mindboggling complex. With EVE Online this was easy, here’s a universe, here’s a spaceship, fill your boots. In a city of monsters the problems of finding things for players to do without compromising the tone of the game become that much larger. For one thing given the player numbers and the size of the game world there would have inevitably been a sense that the city was in the grip of a permanent Twilight convention. How to stop that huge mob of players simply turning their vampire powers loose and creating something more akin to a gothic City of Heroes than the brooding RPG at the root of it all must have been a very difficult question.
Past that you have the problem of how to integrate the game system into that kind of scale, and make it all look good, and make it all play well. The source material from which the game was derived depicts a world in which vampires are rare, living in tiny groups, a far cry from the huge numbers of them which would have to inhabit the same spaces in World of Darkness.
While we may never find out which hurdles brought down World of Darkness it is impossible not to admire the ambition. Will there ever be another great vampire game? It is impossible to say, but it is discouraging that so few people are even trying. In a world where zombie games have become so common that it’s not unreasonable to start stockpiling ammunition and canned goods it would have been brilliant to see another monster on the scene. Alas CCPs effort has failed, but with any luck somebody else will be along soon to take a bite at it.