I haven’t done this in a long time, and the breakdown I did of “The Witcher” is one of the most-viewed pages on my site. So, I’ll start going through my Steam queue and catching up on these not-quite-reviews and not-quite-game-design-deconstructions.
Over the summer I played 25 hours of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, and then briefly toyed with some of the game mods. Here’s what I learned from it.
Choice should be balanced. One of the things I remembered about the game when I first played it was that you could resolve problems in multiple ways, similar to games like Deus Ex. Different clans have different strengths and weaknesses, and implied that stealth and seduction were just as viable routes to resolving problems as combat.
Except that’s not true. After a while, there are parts of the game that just can’t be passed without resorting to combat. I played a Toreador with emphasis on Dexterity and Appearance (to shoot well and give me better dialog and feeding options), and when possible I tried to talk or stealth my way around obstacles. Yet, time and again, I found that the parts of the game that I had to replay over and over were areas where close combat was really my only option. Since I was playing the game primarily for study, I had to turn on god mode a couple of times just to get past particularly nasty combat areas. I never felt that the game really respected my choice to play differently.
Polish is key. Let’s be honest, here – Bloodlines is a game that is buggy as hell, even after a multitude of community patches. I can overlook a certain amount of graphic bugs and clipping and other bugs that just mess up the feel of the experience, but more than once the game would just… do stuff without me. Once I was feeding in a nightclub, and after I fed my gun went off. The blood doll I was feeding from died, the crowd scattered, and I had to evade the police, which resulted in a shoot-out in an alleyway and me hiding in a corner. All because the game thought I clicked the left mouse button when I really didn’t. It’s bad enough that the choices aren’t balanced, but to have choice taken away from me entirely was even more frustrating.
Emergent gameplay can be amazing. That being said, the ten minutes I spent dealing with the consequences of the botched feeding were probably some of the most fun I had with the game. I was yelling at the computer as I raced down alleyways, and I cowered in the shadows for minutes, praying for the little icon in the upper-right corner to change and let me know that the police had stopped looking for me. None of that experience was pre-constructed, but emerged from the systems of the game bouncing off of my actions (even if I wasn’t in control of all of them).
Repetition doesn’t make something interesting. I was somewhat interesting in the first “female vampire that uses her sexuality to feed” archetype. When I tripped over the third character like that, I got bored and annoyed. Looking back on the game months after I played it, the characters I remember most fondly were the ones I dealt with very sparingly, like the ghoul at the beginning bleeding on the couch and the graveyard caretaker. The characters that I didn’t have to run into time and again remained fresh and interesting to me.
The sum can be greater than the parts. Despite all my nitpicking above, the game is a hell of a lot of fun. It’s hard to point out what makes it fun, because when you deconstruct each part of the game, there are a lot of flaws. And yet, somehow, it doesn’t matter. Obviously I’m pretty biased toward a White Wolf Vampire game property, but even if it hadn’t been based on a property I knew, I think I still would have enjoyed this game. Somehow Bloodlines transcends all of its egregious flaws and turns into something special. At some point I plan to go back and play it through again with some community mods, which is something I don’t often do with long RPGs.