2020 was something else, wasn’t it? With the pandemic and so much civil unrest, there were parts of the year that seem like a bad dream to me. March marked one year of working from home and I’m one of the lucky ones to have a job that can be done from home. My main hobbies of reading and video games are also inherently solitary ones, so I don’t mind staying inside a lot. But after a year, even I’m starting to go stir crazy. Not helping is that I’ve been playing Dontnod’s Vampyr over the past few months, a game that reflects the pandemic and people’s suffering because of it in a very surreal way. It’s interesting then that the biggest threat to the characters in the game is not the pandemic they face, but the player themselves.
At first glance, Vampyr looks like just a standard pseudo-open world, action RPG. The meat and bones of the game are based around stamina focused combat and exploring London as Johnathan Reid, a doctor turned vampire, while the city is being eaten alive by the effects of the Great War and the Spanish Flu simultaneously. While the setting is fascinating, combat feels clunky and loose, especially in boss fights when it is thrown into focus, the visuals tend to be muddy and character models particularly suffer, and the story is not especially well written, leaving the body of the game feeling malnourished. But the heart of the game is still strong, pumping blood throughout the rest of it and keeping it alive—that being the NPC’s and their lives being subjected to the player’s decisions.
Nearly every NPC in the game can be interacted with and spoken to—all of them have problems they are dealing with, secrets they are keeping, fears, dreams, desires that help them and the city of London both feel alive. They can be killed by Johnathan too, used to feed his vampiric thirst for blood. Feeding on an NPC gives the player a shot of experience points, making it the fastest way to get some quick levels and improve your skills. The trade off is that the character killed is obviously dead, never to be spoken to again, merchants cannot be traded with, and the district’s overall health will suffer. You can also gain experience by completing quests for characters and beating basic mobs and bosses, but the quests and bosses are finite and the common enemies you could grind against give such a pitiful amount of experience that it’s not worth the time. The combat in the game is not complicated enough that you will be at a huge disadvantage if you are under-leveled, but to get a variety of skills and improve them, eating NPCs is by far the most effective way to level up.
The game smartly encourages the player to interact with the story and get to know every character you wish to kill before committing the crime. Every character has aspects of their personality or past that can be discovered through dialogue trees, information learned from other characters, notes and clues scattered around, even spying on them occasionally by using your powerful vampire hearing to listen to their private conversations. Slowly learning about characters through conversations feels natural and makes them feel fleshed out and able to surprise you. A character you initially distrust or dislike turns out to be a good person tried by difficult times. All the while, a character you liked at first might confess to committing some horrible act or hold some disgusting views. It’s up to you as the player to navigate the gray, foggy streets of London and its residents to decide which character is the best (most deserving, in a way) to be fed on. But Johnathan Reid is a man of two opposing ideals and it is also his desire to keep the city alive and healthy.
Before his fate sank its fangs into Johnathan’s neck, he was a doctor and compelled by the Hippocratic Oath to treat all the sick he met. While this is still the case, he is obviously conflicted by his need to feed on the blood of the living, leading to another mechanic in Vampyr. The same way you must converse with and discover all you can about a NPC, you are also incentivized to treat their illnesses. If a character is sick, then their blood is weaker when feeding on them, meaning the player gets less experience points from killing them. The sicker they are, a bigger chunk of experience is missing. So while a player is going around speaking with NPCs and learning more about them, they will also inquire about their medical needs, craft medicines, and dole them out like a health concerned Santa Claus. It’s important to diligently treat the citizens of London and think carefully about who you feed on because the foundation of any community is its citizens and they all have knock-on effects on the city’s health.
It’s easy to think of London in Vampyr as an old cottage and the NPC citizens are the stones in the walls: the more of them you take out, the weaker the house will become overall—susceptible to the outside elements like weather and predators. The city is divided into districts and the health of each is displayed in a scale ranging from sanitized to hostile. A district’s overall health determines the price that merchants will sell their wares at and the amount of enemies that will appear in the streets, along with their levels—the worst the health in a district is, the more high level enemies you will face. During my playthrough, I had only one district fall into hostile and that was due to a choice made about the fate of Aloysius Dawson.
Dawson lived in the wealthy West End district of London. He is the richest man in the city and the pillar of his community. He is terrified of death and thinks his money makes him the most powerful man in the city. A seperatist at heart, he wants to build a wall around the West End to prevent the plague from reaching into the rich homes and let the poorer neighborhoods fight for themselves instead of helping them. I hated Dawson much like I hate the real-life, mega-rich capitalists he is an analogue for. So when it was time to decide if I would turn him into a vampire or let him die, I chose the latter and convinced him to accept his death. He did so and died that night, donating medical supplies and money to the community resulting in everyone returning to a health state for a while. I took advantage of that bump to the city’s health to go on a spree of sorts, eating the NPCs on my list I didn’t like and raking in the experience. When I was finished, the West End had fallen into the critical range and I then learned that meant all NPCs I spared were killed anyways and the district was overrun by Skals and vampire hunters.
Losing all NPCs in the West End was the only real time the game had an emotional impact on me. I felt like garbage because there were characters in the district I truly liked and didn’t want to die. Like Charlotte, the love interest Lady Ashbury’s adopted daughter. I thought Charlotte’s death would have repercussions with Johnathan’s relationship to Lady Ashbury, but it was never mentioned in any future conversations. I still didn’t want her to die though. She was one of the many folks just trying to survive in the chaos of the pandemic. She wasn’t trying to profit off it or willfully ignore the suffering of others or a danger to other citizens like so many others and even Johnathan himself.
Treating patients to keep the city healthy is a great way to show Johnathan as a doctor through gameplay and allowing players to devour NPCs shows his vampiric side. However, I feel the latter is not pushed enough by the game. It would make Johnathan’s melodrama of being torn between wanting to save lives and his need to end them to survive a lot more poignant and relatable if the game really pushed players to eat folks to survive too. As stated above, the game is not difficult enough where being under leveled from abstaining to feed on NPCs is that big of a detriment. I thought it would be interesting if the game had a mechanic similar to that of Dark Souls 2 where a small chunk of your overall health is knocked off every time you die. It’s negligible at first, but after multiple deaths the player will start feeling their missing health points more and more. With this idea, the only way to get these health points back is to feed on someone, pushing players even harder to feed on the NPCs while also requiring more thought about when and who to devour.
I’m only disappointed because everyone else I’ve talked about Vampyr went with a no kill run to shoot for the good ending of the game when the mechanic of eating NPCs is such a great idea. It’s a problem not just with Vampyr, but pretty much every game with obvious good/bad endings. Players are more likely to shoot for a good ending and can miss out on mechanics and stories a game has to offer when pushed towards one goal. I knew of the multiple endings when booting up Vampyr the first time, but I didn’t care about which one I got. To me, the strength of the game and its most interesting aspect is the choice given to players about which NPCs to feed on. I wanted to interact with this mechanic, to see how it was utilized and how far it could be pushed, to see the benefits and drawbacks, and what differences it brought to my experience compared to others. When the West End fell and everyone there perished, I felt horrible, but it was thematically in tune with the game. You should expect a game named Vampyr to make you feel like a monster.