Dontnod's Vampire RPG, Vampyr, requires you to research your bloodbags
This year’s E3 theme is “Laura covering games that she covered last year and getting to see how much they’ve grown,” which is honestly a pretty entertaining theme for me. Dontnod’s Vampyr is the third game I’ve seen so far at E3 which I covered at an earlier point in its development, and the big difference between the demo I saw last year and the demo I saw this time was a focus on RPG choice-making and the investigatory, quest-solvey side of the game, not the combat.
Vampyr is a semi-open-world RPG where you play Johnathan, an extremely beardy surgeon who has recently become a vampire. He’s living in London immediately after World War One, and the city is suffering from the Spanish Flu epidemic— a real flu epidemic which compounded WW1 casualties in a very horrible and deadly way.
Because you can only efficiently level up by sucking the blood of civilians, not killing enemies in fights, Jonathan is torn between his vampire need to just totally chow down on dudes, and his desire, as a doctor, to protect and save humans from injury and disease. As a result, the main thrust of the game’s plot is Jonathan’s struggle to decide exactly which of the people living in the city are safe for him to gobble up.
And you don’t even have to eat people— if you’re OK with not leveling up very much. “So you could do the whole game without killing anyone,” lead level designer Florent Guillaume told me. “Or you could kill everyone… There are obviously gameplay consequences, but the most important consequences we want the player to feel is their own morality.”
The way to mitigate your bad feelings over all the killing you have to do in order to level up? Research. Jonathan keeps a dossier full of all the dirty facts he knows about literally everyone he knows— every single NPC in the game has a backstory and a quest associated with Jonathan’s opportunity to suck their blood. You can follow these quest lines, dig up dirt on your potential targets, and choose only to kill people who are causing other NPCs to suffer. The NCPs have relationships with one another, so killing a guy who’s a bully could improve the lives of everyone who knows him.
In the demo, we followed a questline where we learned that one person living in town was actually a serial killer. His mother, however, was protecting him, and would have been very sad if he’d died. And then there was the XP issue— the serial killer, Seymour, had a cold, which meant that his blood was less valuable to our internal vampire blood-processing systems. He was worth just over 800 XP, but his mom, Stella, was worth over 1000! The presenter from Dontnod informed us, "Whoever you decide to kill, it will have consequences on the ecosystem. Because I don't want to be weak for the rest of this demo, I decide to sacrifice the poor Ms. Stella. My apologies."
I think Dontnod also chose to show us the “bad” ending for this particular questline because they wanted to show us the consequences on the district in which Stella lives. Whenever you suck blood, you must sleep to process with XP and choose your ability upgrades. When you wake up the next morning, the fates of your victim’s friends and family will unfold, and the “health” of the district will decline. The cold eymour had? Other people can catch it, reducing the quality of their blood and the XP we’d get for killing them. Killing people can also end questlines, affect the behavior of the people they have relationships with, and change parts of the map— Stella’s apartment, for example, was trashed by Seymour the next next night, and became easily lootable for us when we returned.
World progression is gated behind your level-up system in this way throughout the game. Every time you sleep to level up, it will proceed to a new night; world elements will change based on who you’ve killed and what choices you’ve made, which will then change the story options available to you. However, this isn’t a Zelda “48 hours remain!!” day-progression system— players have full control over the pace of the days, and there aren’t deadlines to hit. The focus is on using sleep to level up and process the rewards of your hunt.
And it’s worth taking all that time to do the research on your victims, too. Guillaume told me, ”There are many intertwined stories with the citizens, and if you are not careful, if you are just a killer, just browse the streets randomly and pick your target and kill a person, you will not understand the consequences— and you will see them unfold, and you will think, ‘Oh shit!’”
The desire to make the player think “oh shit!” seems to be a driving influence on the plot. Guillaume explained that it’s actually possible to kill basically every character in the game, though some are only killable at certain moments, due to their relevance to the main questline. These NPCs are called ‘pillars of the community,’ and are linked to very specific plot branching points.
For example, the developers showed us the conclusion of a different mission, where Jonathan hunts down a priest who works in a local homeless shelter— and who has also become a flesh-eating bad vampire, known as a Skal. We could choose to spare him, because it would maintain the district’s greater morale, or to drink his blood, or to mesmerize him with our vampire powers. Each major ‘pillar of the community’ has a similar three-way choice moment associated with their ultimate fate.
One of those points is often locked behind a ‘hint’ gate— a secret fact you must have uncovered in order to know what to do about this person. Actually, every NPC, even the regular folk, have numerous hints associated with things you could persuade (in vampire terms, magically ‘mesmerize’) them to do. Knowing things about Seymour the serial killer, for example, makes it possible to convince Stella to tell you secrets or even let you into her home (where you can subsequently kill her). Unlocking a hint about someone grants you XP. People will often tell you hints about themselves, but their friends and neighbors are also a good place to go for the details. In Seymour’s case, solving a quest he asked us to help him with led us to his secret stash of serial-killed victims, which granted us a pretty killer hint.
Leveling up in Vampyr, then, is an incredibly narrative-heavy process which involves doing numerous side quests and peeking at people through windows and interrogating their kids to learn about all the skeletons in their closets. (and they apparently have a lot of skeletons in their closets, because they’re all the kind of people who are awake all night long in spooky flu London.) You could just bash away at bad guys and try to survive off of combat XP, but the amount of XP you get from fighting is apparently so poor that it’s not really an option unless you want your game to be “incredibly challenging.” The fact that you get to choose, though, is pretty damn cool— and I appreciate the integration between gameplay and narrative in this setup.
Vampyr is coming out in Q4 of this year for for PS4, Xbox One, and PC.