January 20, 2008

Sexy Vampiregameland

Playing games quite often means you have to go places you don't want to go. If you like the idea of RPGs, but you're not a general fan of fantasy fiction or science fiction, then too bad -- because not only are they the best games, they're the only games. The end result is that I have a game collection that looks alarmingly incomplete not bookended by the canons of Frank Herbert and Douglas Adams. My resistances are down. I accept that I have to buy the latest epic fantasy RPG because such is the state of the industry that it's probably the best game I'll play all year. Even so, there are games belonging to weirder niches that I have less trouble ignoring. Unless critics and fans swear up and down that this is an amazing experience, the best written game of the year, comparable to Deus Ex and Fallout. Fine. You win.

This month marks the one-year anniversary of me playing Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines and stopping. I might have played it earlier if its technical issues hadn't been made so prominent or if I was a completely different person, one who didn't find the whole erotic goth vampire scene -- sorry -- kind of stupid. This could have the greatest writing in the world and I'd still be embarrassed if anyone caught me playing it. Seriously, having to walk into a store and hand over money for this:

That's a humbling experience.

Bloodlines lasted five hours on my hard drive, which was enough to tell me two very important things: one, that the theme music was criminally similar to "Angel" by Massive Attack; and two, it was the kind of game that I theoretically would enjoy but this time it wasn't going to happen. It's an open-ended RPG with some clever side-quests, interesting writing and in an urban setting devoid of any "good and evil" nonsense. I think I was the target audience for this game. I'm not part of the actual audience, though, which loudly extolled its virtues and convinced me to try it.

That audience is manly the hardcore RPG set who are dying for games like this and Neverwinter Nights 2. It seems to me that these people have a very high threshold for technical problems, and will suffer through pretty much anything to get at the core game contained somewhere within. They are the Magnificent Ambersons cluck-clucking at the new multiplatform RPGs and how much better everything was in the difficult, isometric, stat-heavy, turn-based point-and-click days, and are desperate for anything vaguely reminiscent of that "hardcore" experience. I apologise for generalising. I know you read that Fallout post I wrote. If it makes you feel any better I think the other audience for this game are people who go to nightclubs in vampire costumes.

I didn't have much trouble with bugs. I did have trouble with the fundamentally clunky and awkward mechanics that characterise the entire game. The combat, the UI, the level design -- all the fan-patches in the world can't disguise the fact that this is fundamentally a poorly-constructed game. Technically, it's a mess.

I'd be happy to look past all that. In fact, I think I did. This is not a diamond in the rough. Yes, that certainly was a creepy hotel. Yes, that Therese/Jeanette scene was a bit dark. Yes, these characters are all as edgy as promised. And I'm sure this is the kind of game where you can recite a dozen classic moments at the drop of the hat, and the game's about those moments, those shining gems of great writing and execution. Only the lure of those moments never were enticing enough to make the whole grind worthwhile. Nothing ever convinced me that the game deserved its intelligent, mature reputation. For sure, the characters I dealt with were more realistic, pitiable and "human" than in most other games, but that just makes one aspect of the game better, not good, and what "most other games" have is a cohesion that Bloodlines does not. Bloodlines is interesting in fits and spurts and the rest of the time it's broken and deathly dull.

Bloodlines never took me to the point where I could overlook that I found all a little bit stupid. Games like this, unlike practically any other medium, have made me excited about cut-and-dried fantasy worlds, elaborate sci-fi conspiracies, Dungeons & Dragons and Star Wars. Bloodlines didn't sell it. It was not the Planescape: Torment of vampiric lore.

I'm happy to reduce it to that: I didn't get it. Which is a shame, because I love games like this, and I don't have many other options.

1 comment:

MIchael Miller said...

I know I am a bit strange for leaving comments on a dead blog, but I was just reading through a bunch of your posts, and they're quite fascinating. I don't just mean the insights they offer about games (and they can be very interesting) but also about the character of the writer. Intelligent, opinionated, mocking, self-deprecating (although insincere) and possibly a bit bored? In love with writing in games (and also game writing), but deeply unhappy with the one genre that tries to actually lift writing above the mediocre norm of gaming – RPGs. I need to have a look at his new blog… not sure if gamers have had their Citizen Kane, but Duncan Fyfe might just be their Pauline Kael.