To many knowledgeable gamers in the world, most predominantly of the PC persuasion, November 16th 2004 is a day ingrained into the soul. It was a day which heralded arguably one of the greatest games of all time in terms of sheer entertainment, the technological advancements it possessed upon release, its ludological storytelling, and the fact we could finally progress where many of us left off seven long, long years ago.
Of course, Half-Life 2 is a brilliant game, and certainly a first-person-shooter that has aged not one bit. However to me there was another game, a better game that came out on this day and has since been buried deep into the swamp of obscurity, overshadowed by the colossal release of Valves masterpiece.
Of course, I am talking about Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines, produced by the wonderful yet unfortunately now defunct Troika Games.
Some of you may be familiar with Vampire: The Masquerade in its RPG form, where you would perhaps sit around a table drinking and eating what you please, employing its storytelling system in the wonderfully thought-out World of Darkness, to whatever fanciful adventure the games-master would allow for you and your intrepid vampire party members to envisage. Troika as you would expect, took this world, the system of The Masquerade and crafted a game which deserves far more than just its cult status.
Truth be told, I had no idea Bloodlines existed. As my brother had left for university, we no longer had the internet as my parents werent (well, arent) tech-savvy, nor did they view it as something of any significance; they after all had seemingly no use for it. The unfortunate reality this presented to me was that playing Half-Life 2 was out of the question due to it requiring a constant internet connection for Steam. Unreal Tournament, Far Cry and Grandia II became the backdrop for my gaming days in light of this. But then December came. My brother came back down for Christmas, bringing with him a solitary DVD case amongst his laundry.
I bought it on a whim, he said to me.
As if a moth to a flame, I took to the Bloodlines case and immediately transferred the contents onto my computer. As it was installing, I remember giving the game manual a read; A tome by any video game manual's standard, it contained far more than the technical details, installation guides and troubleshooting. It was engrossing, in-depth, and utterly mesmerizing.
Thus we come to the first element which I have always found most spectacular with Bloodlines its mythology. Despite being set in Los Angeles in the 21st Century, the world is such that it feels markedly different. In the game there are four hub areas: Santa Monica, Downtown, Hollywood and Chinatown. However instead of replicating their real-life counterparts, Troika took to them as entities of inspiration, infusing them with an overtly Gothic style that subverts the typical presumptions of the look and feel of these places, turning them into fascinatingly dark, menacing yet still comforting locations for your character to explore. It boded marvellously well then to the context of the game.
Coupled with these excellent hub locations is the specific attention to detail in back-story and context for the player. Troika certainly cut no corners when ensuring that Bloodlines still included the lore found in Vampire: The Masquerade, and this decision lent itself favourably to the game. In the character creation, there was the choice of which Vampire clan you belonged to, each having their own quirks, back-stories, implied personalities, and advantages and disadvantages, which naturally provided instant re-playability, yet also depicted the Vampire world as a place with social strata. For instance, Vampires of the Toreador clan are perceived as the most human, with deep passions for aesthetics and art, whilst Ventrues are viewed as the politically powerful leaders within the upper echelons, Brujahs as anarchistic rebels, and Nosferatu as the most deplorable, condemned to a life in the shadows.
The interaction between clans is an element that subsequently provided telltale signs of a fully-realised universe in-game; there were numerous quarrels between clans, conflicts of agendas between specific characters, and expository elements that could be unearthed throughout the game completely by choice. Bloodlines employment of subtlety in exposition and storytelling is not often seen in the majority of games these days. It is an aspect which highlights the very nature of the role of the player; we find elements of the universe or plot points we're submerged in through the act of interaction with the game, rather than being spoon-fed with unnecessary cut-scenes. Bloodlines did not need to push the player into finding everything out, but rather viewed it as our prerogative to find out instead. If the player does not ascertain what's necessary through exploration of the free-roaming world, then it's our fault if we have trouble following certain plot points, or understanding specific character motivations.
Secondly, within the context of the world and of your Embrace (the term used in-game for a newly transformed vampire), you quite rightly had to confine to a code. The Camarilla, ultimately the Western vampire worlds governing body, had conditions which had to be upheld in order to maintain the secrecy of your new kin. For instance, you could not express your Vampiric powers in public, nor could you kill without reason, lest you wished to lose the last shreds of humanity you had left in you. With this came a sense of purpose and structure to the player vampires existence within the universe; its a subtle thing, and one that I certainly didnt think much of at first glance, but without the simple rules of the society, the games whole infrastructure would have been weakened.
You were integrated into a community, and it is one which had to be kept secret from mankind. This consequently meant you had to abide by the rules and further justified the whole games context from your perspective. You could use your Vampiric powers in public and you could kill innocent civilians, if you wanted to, but both would have grave repercussions, which in any serious play-through you would seek to avoid. Small details like these really fleshed out the Vampire world and made the games universe have some form of structure and meaning.
Context isnt everything, though, and thankfully Troika realised this. The writing in Bloodlines is tight, and it took my second serious play-through to realise this. During my first in December 2004 I was a Brujah who fought his way through everything with the predominant tactic akin to a vampire-Rambo with a melee weapon, ranging from a katana to a severed arm. Upon my slightly more cultured replay in 2012, I played as a Toreador, and this is where my eyes opened up to the magnificence of the games writing and dialogue. The dialogue is wonderfully nuanced and compelling, quite simply; characters speak as their personalities would suggest, and even different clans have different styles of speech.
Malkavians for instance, known for their craziness, arguably have some of the funniest lines of dialogue throughout any game I've played. Whats more is that depending on your Charisma, Persuasion Seduction or Intimidation skills, other options would open up for you, allowing a whole array of avenues to be potentially explored by your player-character and all through speech. Such is the focus on discourse throughout the game, it was only through my 2012 play-through that I realised just how many moments could be resolved by means outside of fighting.
For example, at the start of the game you have to retrieve some explosives from an 80s inspired drug dealer (think Lance Vance Dance of GTA: Vice City). My first play-through saw me hack and slash through everybody, which was frustrating as I died countless times before managing it. My second time however saw me waltz in, talk to the dealer and, because of my high persuasion skill, influence him to give me the explosives for free. Moments like this are saturated in Bloodlines. This is a simple example, but the fascinating fact is that there is a true sense of dynamics in the gameplay from start to finish. I could fight or I could talk my way through the game.
There is also a point (potential spoilers) where you find yourself in the middle of a sibling rivalry between two sisters that has reached fatal levels, and it is up to you to resolve it. You could potentially save both of them if youve a high enough persuasion skill, but you can also convince one to kill the other. Sounds fairly standard for an RPG, but what makes this moment stand out is that your previous conversations with the two sisters also affects this. If you were rude to one of them at a point prior to this, chances are you cant persuade them to put the gun down; likewise if you were more seductive to one and indifferent to another.
This owness on seemingly throwaway dialogue is something Ive not often come across in modern video games. Discourse is viewed as something more than just a means to progress the game's narrative; rather, its a well-established and integral gameplay mechanic that the player can use to whatever degree they wish. The only other games I can think of that use it to that extent are Deus Ex, Baldurs Gate and Planescape: Torment, bastions of the RPG genre.
Whats more though is that Bloodlines manages this with voice acting and it was actually well done, unlike other games Ive played (read: Deus Ex; though on a side-note, there is a nostalgic-fueled soft spot in my heart for JC Denton's dulcet, monotonous tones). It should be worth noting furthermore that Baldurs Gate and Planescape: Torment were not voice acted, allowing for tremendous scope and dynamics for the dialogue to matter and change conversations. The fact Bloodlines was on par with these two games, despite it being 100% voice acted is an achievement in itself, and just again reinforces the impressive detail Troika went through with its dialogue.
As youd expect, with good writing then comes a strong story, and Bloodlines is as solid as youd want it to be. Its plot is one that weaves you through the entire universe, where conspiracy, disillusionment, deceit and trust are themes that further propagates the notion of choice in you. Political unrest between the Camarilla and the Anarchs is met with the inclusion later on in the game of the Kuei-Jin, a sect of Vampires from the far-east, all converging in Los Angeles for the Ankaran Sarcophagus, rumoured in the Vampiric world to be the foremost sign of the end of days. Some factions wish to use you to open it and view its contents, whilst others wish to have it destroyed by you. The core missions may not change depending on which belief you hold, but it is an underlining narrative strand that you are constantly reminded of by all factions as you progress through the game. Do you open it, or do you leave it shut? The choice is still ultimately down to you.
Whilst my nostalgia may not account for much, I do sincerely believe its a pity this game never reached the great heights of fame it genuinely deserved. Its writing, execution and gameplay mechanics (aside from a slightly off stealth system) were elements that had me hooked as a twelve year-old, and even more so as a twenty year-old. Alas, it may have had its fair share of glitches upon release, but now that they have been resolved by the modding community there really is no reason you should not try Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines. Its on Steam now, so maybe Valve feel bad for overshadowing it massively on that November day in 2004? Its a game that Im sure Ill be revisiting countless times in the future, and its a game that you should definitely be trying out too.