To be able to play in a vampire game as a vampire, you need great writing.
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Why it sucks that there are so few vampire videogames

With the cancellation of World of Darkness, the chances of a second good vampire game seem small.

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.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism