Thoughts on Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines

Did computer RPGs deserve to die?

It’s a loaded question.

For starters, did CRPGs even die?

Taking the general viewpoint that there was an ‘CRPG Dark Age’ from the mid-2000s to the mid-2010s, it’s difficult to see how this viewpoint ever gained traction. This Dark Age covers the period where the three major CRPG developers of the 2000s (BioWare, Bethesda, Obsidian) enjoyed their greatest period of commercial and critical success, transforming RPGs from a largely niche market of games advertised in the back pages of Dragon magazine to big-budget productions that sold millions of copies and incited national controversies.

Something was definitely seen to be lost in that transition. Either through concessions made to port games for the rapidly-growing console market, the difficulties in developing the sprawling open-ended worlds and intricate quest design within the limitations of early 3D engines, or because the cinematic aspirations and overtures to Whedonesque storytelling of the era came to dominate the genre and pushed out the more novelistic writing style of the Infinity Engine games in the process, it’s clear that some intangible sense of ‘this is no longer made for me’ pervaded the discourse around CRPGs of the era and so thoroughly alienated that core RPG audience that even ten years later they were willing to spend close to $4 million on funding Obsidian’s Pillars of Eternity through Kickstarter, and more on the equally ambitious reunion tours of Torment: Tides of Numenara and Harebrained Schemes’ Shadowrun Returns trilogy.

They just didn’t make ‘em like they used to.

But these weren’t new problems for the genre to deal with. Interplay, the most prominent of the Dark Age casualties, pre-empted the entire collapse of the genre by chasing console success in the first place, ineptly commissioning console-oriented spin-off titles like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel that achieved varying degrees of commercial success but ultimately did little to stop the publisher’s terminal rot.

Embracing advancements in technology was alsot too baked into the genre for the innovations of 3D technology to be excluded from the genre in the name of maintaining a level of depth and complexity that was, if not easier to include, much more apparent in older CRPG titles. The genre had struggled with balancing its own grand ambitions with the limitations of 3D technology ever since Richard Garriott developed Akabaleth, and the isometric CRPGs of the Infinity Engine era were, themselves, an evolution of the top-down RPGs like Ultima-- an evolutionary branch that competed with the first person ‘dungeon crawlers’ like Ultima Underworld that would later evolve into the immersive sim.

And the great and lasting CRPGs that pushed storytelling possibilities forwards for the medium, like Planescape: Torment, were outliers among a sea of middle-market imitators that were infected with equally obnoxious storytelling and bland worldbuilding as anything that pervaded the ‘dark age.’ Generic storytelling will always exist and games, as a medium with a fundamental insecurity within itself, will always draw inspiration from what other, more respected mediums are doing.

So was it just nostalgia that led to the feeling that CRPGs died out in the mid-2000s? I don’t think so, but there’s definitely more to it than that.

Was it, as the minds behind the Kickstarter boom led gamers to believe, the result of major publishers interfering with creatives who still knew in their hearts how to make good video games but were beholden to the whims of the market and executives who just didn’t get the products they were trying to market?

Maybe. But that wasn’t new, either. RPGs didn’t need to be in a Dark Age for corporate greed to kill two consecutive Ultima games. The Immersive Sim sub-genre of innovative early 3D CRPGs developed by Looking Glass and their alumni navigated its own awkward transition to console-focused design methodologies before ultimately collapsing into their own ‘dark age’ under the weight of publisher consolidation (Square Enix buying out the floundering Eidos after the failure of Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness) that ultimately had very little to do with any perceived decline in quality that Deus Ex: Invisible War and Thief: Deadly Shadows suffered for being developed with the Xbox in mind.

Now that the initial wave of CRPG nostalgia that fuelled the Kickstarter boom has subsided, leaving a mass of consolidated studios and even the supposed renaissance’s originators themselves scratching their heads and wondering why Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire failed to make any kind of lasting impression despite objectively checking every box people should have wanted from a grand Infinity Engine-influenced ‘the same, but more so!’ CRPG sequel in the style of Baldur’s Gate II, it’s more important than ever to look back and wonder how we even got to this point.

How did RPGs, one of the broadest and most nebulously defined terms in gaming, come to be seen as a lost art in need of resurrecting?

I think Bloodlines is the key to understanding that.

Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is the best bad game ever made. It’s a testament to how far storytelling, voice direction, character animation, and environment design-- all these things that are ‘peripheral’ to the core experience of Playing The Video Game-- add up to carry a game that, by all objective measures, is absolute dogshit to actually try and play.

It’s a game where everything went wrong, at every level, at every stage of its development. It’s a wildly-ambitious project from a doomed team at Troika Games working on the unfinished Source engine with little direction and almost no contact with their publisher for months on end.

It contorts the beloved Source engine into absolutely unrecognizable shapes, trading the refined minimalism that exemplifies Valve’s best work on the engine for a maximalist series of half-baked combat, stealth, and magic mechanics that never once add up to a particularly cohesive or enjoyable gameplay loop at any point. At its brightest points the mechanics can be described as ‘functional’, feeling like they’re designed around facilitating a Xbox port that never came to be, but the second that the game is forced to rely on its actual core gameplay for an extended period of time in the Warrens (the closest thing the game has to a traditional dungeon crawl) the game just falls the fuck apart and takes hours to recover.

We skip the Warrens. It’s the fucking Warrens, man.

Is Bloodlines an immersive sim? It appears on some of the lists that try to codify the general ‘vibe’ of Looking Glass and Arkane’s best work into a distinct subgenre, but if this game tried to be an imsim then it failed spectacularly. Events needs to be delicately triggered in specific orders for the game to prevent itself from soft-locking, or hard-crashing. The game is absolutely terrified of offering the player any kind of freedom, locking away item pickups and audio logs and resorting often to despawning characters so the player can’t accidentally complete anything out of sequence just by incidentally exploring the game’s environments. There’s an argument to be made that Bloodlines fits the imsim mold as well as Thief fits, in immersing the player into their role in the world not by offering freedom but by limiting their available options, but even at its most linear Thief offers more freedom for creative player expression than Bloodlines’ delicate balance of railroading the player lest the entire house of cards its grand ambitions are built on topples over.

Worst of all, Bloodlines arrived at the worst possible time. Notoriously, it launched on the same day as Half Life 2, because Valve blocked the team at Troika from announcing the game for eighteen months and then releasing it for a year. This was actually probably a good idea, given that this game arguably needed even more time in the oven, but it did nothing to help the game’s sales.

More damningly, that delay meant that it arrived after the death of the tabletop system it was built to promote. Bloodlines tells a story thoroughly cached in the apocalyptic portents of White Wolf’s Old World of Darkness, heavily relying upon the decades of metaplot that setting accumulated in order to entice an audience unfamiliar with the tabletop game into the vampire politics that define the social and religious anxieties of the setting.

Three months earlier, White Wolf-- in the process of going through its own death throes and trying to streamline their bloated roster of competing game-lines and intellectual property into something more marketable for prospective buyers-- released their haphazard reboot Vampire: The Requiem, which pointedly discarded the political intrigue and global conspiracy of Vampire: The Masquerade for a more horror-centric tabletop experience that still divides opinions to this day.

Like its protagonist, Bloodlines was an orphan. A product of a dead tabletop setting from a dying publisher, produced by a fracturing team trying desperately to hold their company together in spite of their own apocalyptic portents. Troika was driven by economic anxieties, rather than the religious fervour of Gehenna, but it’s hard not to read the game as its own studio’s autopsy.

Those anxieties of death and sickness do, understandably, permeate the entire game. The World of Darkness has a regrettable habit of trying to be timely and reference current events, with varying degrees of absolute tastelessness. The game never goes as far as to pin real world atrocities against queer communities on the vampires of the Camarilla like the tabletop sourcebook that ultimately led to the death of White Wolf as an independent entity, but it does engage with the psychosexual metaphors inherent to vampire mythology with the nuance of Richard Siken replying to his own twitter bot lamenting that the AIDs crisis turned the sight of blood from the fear of death into vampire fetish.

When the game’s best exploring its themes, such as when the player is tasked with investigating the outbreak of an unspecified but obviously sexually-transmitted disease spreading among the most vulnerable people (sex workers and the homeless) in Downtown LA at the behest of the local anarchist vampires, the game deftly uses its central metaphor to tackle anxieties regarding sexual health and economic precarity in queer communities in a way that feels relevant and timeless even eighteen years later. Unfortunately, this makes it all the more frustrating when the format of the game then lurches the player towards shooting zombies in a drug den to kill a vampire death cult responsible for starting the outbreak with dialogue that leans more towards a muddled riff on 80’s televangelists.

More middled are its takes on the popular culture it draws from. Ash Rivers, a self-loathing vampire who serves as an obvious portmanteau of River Phoenix and a young Johnny Depp, straddles the line between tasteful and tasteless homage to a dead celebrity and a disgraced one as he’s holding court in The Asp Hole, a pastiche of The Viper Room that Depp owned and Phoenix died in. His relationship with Isaac Abrams, an old school Hollywood mogul and his potential lover-turned-vampiric-sire in a decidedly more optimistic interpretation of a producer/actor relationship than would have been written had this game been a depiction of a post-#MeToo Hollywood, is one of the more interesting ones in the game-- albeit one that seems undercut by the limitations of the engine preventing the characters from being in the same room and a cultural disinclination towards exploring gay male relationships in CRPGs that relegates the most interesting aspects of their relationship to romantic subtext.

At its absolute worst, the game is the Chinatown hub, a mess of orientalist cliches and reprehensible stereotypes that feels half like a half-hearted attempt from someone who felt that the fetishisation of ‘anime’ aesthetic among early 2000s nerds (a prominent sidequest centres around Yukie, an 'anime' schoolgirl demon hunter who speaks in mistranslated Japanese and caters to the worst perceptions of Japanese culture this side of a Dragon issue from the 70’s) would help the game appeal to a broader audience and half that the designers felt morally obligated to draw at least some inspiration from the Kindred of the East sourcebook, White Wolf’s equivalent of the notorious Oriental Adventures sourcebook for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

Bloodlines is an absolute mess of a game.

I fucking love it.

Objectively, yes, the environments are tiny pastiches of the streets and districts they’re supposed to be representative of and segmented with loading screens like the worst console ports of Invisible War or Half Life 2. When the player actually gets to their destination, the result will be a coin flip between a dialogue tree with some of the most endearing characters in video games or some of the worst gameplay scenarios in the history of video games. But these urban environments and all their grime and detail combine with the music, ambient noise and the incidental dialogue to provide a unique experience of walking through rainswept streets at night that no other game has been able to replicate. Perhaps the closest is the original Pathologic, a game that similarly managed to balance lacklustre mechanics with long stretches of moody wandering through oppressive environments, but the wandering in that game carried with it very different design goals of making the player feel like there was never enough time to get to every house and save every patient. Bloodlines carries an entirely different anxiety, a game content to let you wander out all the way to the end of a pier for no gameplay benefit or associated questline other than because it’s a cool vista and you’ve got all night to kill exploring the city before you have to report back to your boss, but also one that keeps your blood meter visible at all times to remind you of the ever-present gnawing hunger that can’t ever be fully sated.

As a result of their interest in replicating the liminal spaces of urban anxiety from a first-person perspective, it’s difficult to imagine Bloodlines working as an isometric CRPG like Troika’s earlier Arcanum. That’s not to say someone won’t eventually try. With Paradox opening up the Vampire: The Masquerade license to amateur developers through the Dark Pack in recent years, a team of developers in Spain published a proof of concept demo for a Disco Elysium-inspired isometric CRPG called Heartless Lullaby that was picked up as an official project and expanded into the upcoming Heartless Symphony.

Heartless Lullaby is fine, but it’s no Bloodlines. It hews too closely to the controversial Vampire: The Masquerade Fifth Edition ruleset to take any interesting risks for the sake of the gameplay, and all its narrative moments and reveals feel like tepid fanservice more than an interesting story. The Sabbat are back!

I clapped when I saw the thing I recognized.

Bloodlines was a product of its time, an absolutely imperfect game of limitless ambition produced with little oversight that has the strengths and weaknesses a game can only achieve when a talented creative team working within an established brand discovers that a lack of oversight means ‘near-total creative freedom.’ It still feels fresh, whether you have no knowledge of the World of Darkness or are an expert on the setting, because they felt free to play with the boundaries of established lore and get to the heart of what a Vampire game should be, skulking about in the streets and hiding as a monster in plain sight.

CRPGs used to live or die on this feeling of iconoclasm, this feeling of pushing technical boundaries and doing whatever the fuck you wanted with someone else’s setting. But CRPGs developers regressed. After their experiment with appealing to mainstream tastes alienated their core audience and failed to secure lasting success, they retreated back to that niche audience for the comeback tour, working in settings with no rules but the ones they wrote and still 'playing it safe' creatively because there is very little consequence to grand events happening in a setting that nobody has any natural attachment to beyond their residual nostalgia toward older, better works.

Will there ever be another game like Bloodlines? Fuck no.

It’s impossible, even with Troika Games indirectly reunited under the same corporate umbrella now that Obsidian and InXile are both owned by Microsoft and a large proportion of the original Bloodlines team now works on The Outer Worlds, a rote retrofuturistic Firefly-meets-Rick And Morty series haphazardly marketed as a spiritual successor to Fallout: New Vegas despite having a fraction of the budget and none of the charm. Disco Elysium, heralded as the last best hope of the genre, had its original creative team dismantled by capital and the IP licensed out to Amazon. Bethesda continues to release creatively sterile works that get more attention for their technical shortcomings than their stories. BioWare, in the face of ballooning budgets and their creative process collapsing inwards and leading to mass exoduses from their various studios, has been unable to make a sequel to its popular Dragon Age series for close to ten years now.

If there was ever a CRPG Dark Age, we’re living through it right now.

That’s ultimately why I’ve made my peace with the state of Bloodlines 2, which is consigned to development hell but is, in the grand scheme of Paradox’s broader exploitation of the World of Darkness IP, an inevitability.

Bloodlines has too much goodwill to remain without a sequel in an era where corporations are desperate to mine anything with any kind of name value left in order to maximise their revenue from a shrinking number of customers to maintain an illusion of growth and progress when people have, by and large, less disposable income to spend than they did ten years ago.

We probably had a chance for a Bloodlines 2 that was in the broadest sense “respectful to the creative vision of the original” at some point. It might even still be a good video game when it eventually releases.

But it will be a product of a much different industry, one where the iconoclastic spirit of the classic CRPGs is dead and buried.