Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines
by Diego Beltrami
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is perhaps the best immersive simulator there is. Even despite not actually being designed with that framework in mind. It’s certainly a great adaptation of the Pen & Paper RPG.
Immersive sim is the school of game design born from Looking Glass studios and it’s clearly visible in games like Deus Ex, System Shock and nowadays in games like Dishonored. Its main focus is the liberty for the player to approach the objective in his own way. It centres around choice and consequence with a world that keeps a record of what the player have done and act accordingly.
Bloodlines, despite being presented just as an RPG certainly ticks all these boxes. The World of Darkness’ Los Angeles, despite being contained in a shoebox is incredibly well realized. With several parts of the city acting as quest hubs were you interact with the local citizens.
The only thing I can criticize here is the somewhat silly urban design. Specially in Santa Monica, the first level, which consists of two parallel streets connected by a parking lot. That city has more parking space than buildings. It’s very very silly and completely destroys immersion. That’s saying something about building believable places. The other hubs, while still consisting of a few blocks only feel more coherent so it doesn’t mess with suspension of disbelief.
Building this place is actually quite important as progression doesn’t mean that earlier hubs are abandoned after getting access to a new one. You’ll go back, chat, perform missions. It’s actually pretty nice that the game actually rewards you for coming back and chatting with the right character for some missions, giving some bonuses or more insight into the task you’re asked to perform.
It always feels like “your” game. It provides a lot of options, different approaches, alternate dialogue options and paths. Playing as different clans changes your approach to certain challenges and there’s no shortage of quests to explore.
It’s certainly an open game despite its linearity, but there’s a small detail that I left out when describing immersive sims. They also encourage emergent behaviour. And this is where my theory goes to the trash. Despite all its systems and openness, Bloodlines doesn’t let much room to experiment and be creative. One of the staples of the genre is precisely use the systems in unexpected games, take advantage of them. Setting traps, using the environment and abilities to get to difficult to reach places, combining objects, abilities and environment to approach the situation from different places. I feel that Bloodlines despite all its systems doesn’t give much freedom to the player. You’re what your abilities let you do. There’s no room for creativity here.
So, it’s open, it provides several ways to approach each situation but you can’t do something the game isn’t expecting. The game doesn’t let you play with its systems.
What makes it great as an immersive sim is how it deals with level hubs. While games like Deus Ex always had their fair share of them, they’re still accessed linearly, while Bloodlines’ allows you to get back to each one whenever you please. This means access to characters and places that can prove useful and makes the place more believable and grounded. It removes certain aspect of linearity and gives the illusion of freedom. I’m saying this as a good thing. It’s a game that creates this living world, which responds and grows and slowly makes you part of it.
And that’s not only thanks to the levels, the story is masterfully crafted with one of the best endings I’ve ever seen in a videogame. Its buildup and resolution are flawlessly realized. Something to discuss some other time.
It’s quite broken too. And I’m not talking about bugs, just systems. High stealth makes you almost undetectable. You can push people while stealthing and they won’t realize you’re there. It ends up being the best way to deal with enemies.
And oh God. It’s got one of the most awful sewer levels in the history of gaming. Why do people still think they’re a good idea?
Even though I abandoned it before and wasn’t much interested in coming back I so very glad I did. It’s a fantastic game filled with little details and a lot of personality. It’s a game that feels alive. Isn’t that ironic. A game about undead creatures feeling incredibly living.
Disclaimer: I forgot to take screenshots myself, so I stole some from the lovely people at Rock Paper Shotgun’s Forums