Viewed in a kind of victim catalogue, which I can access in the pause menu, Vampyr’s non-player characters (or at least the ones I’m supposed to kill, and then internally debate whether I ought to have killed or not, since the loading screen warns me to “take responsibility for my actions”) present a grisly “to-do” list. They have names and faces. Displayed alongside those names and faces is the number of experience points I’ll earn if I kill them, and then beneath that a chart of collectibles, which if I find them all before I kill the non-playable characters (or NPCs) will mean I get even more experience points if/when I finally do kill them. In Vampyr, the more conversational tidbits about a person you pick up, the more nutrients their blood will eventually yield, which arguably serves as a metaphor for sadism or for evil—as in, the greater sense you have of your victim’s life, and of them as a person, the bigger the thrill and feeling of your own power you get from taking it all away; the juicier your kill.
The victim catalogue also reminds me, however, of Resident Evil 4 or, oddly, Spyro the Dragon, wherein each level is bookended with snapshots of the next level, like previews of coming attractions, or there’s a menu of game sections both visited and yet-unvisited, along with a list of the gemstones, hidden areas, kidnapped dragons that need rescuing, etc., that you’re going to find there. In one sense, this way of depicting characters as items plays in Vampyr’s favour. It makes me view the other characters in the game as resources, or as materiel, a mechanical and aesthetical choice that subverts my not insignificant experience of “getting things” in videogames into the subjective and sometimes amoral outlook of my character. I’m playing an inhuman monster who uses people for food, so it follows that I view them in this functional and objectified way.
In another sense, Dr. Jonathan Reid, the game’s semi-eponymous protagonist (“semi” because he spells it with an “-ire”) is a reluctant, conflicted victim of vampirism himself. Informing each of my decisions to murder or not to murder is Reid’s wordy, concerned voiceover, every morpheme of which seems formulated by Vampyr’s writers to force me into an ethical conundrum. Before every single decisive moment, Reid restates his moral position: a vampire, who is also a doctor, he is torn between his thirst for human blood and the Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm”. As Vampyr makes repeatedly, condescendingly, artificially clear, this is not a character who views other people straightforwardly as food. But I feel unable to see them in any other way. More than partially defined by their worth in resources, the decision to kill a character or not in Vampyr feels to me no more conflicting than attempting a difficult jump in The Legend of Zelda to obtain and open an optional treasure chest, or stealing a character’s bottle caps in Fallout on pain of “bad karma”.
I don’t care, is the slimmest way of saying it. I don’t know whether anyone who plays Vampyr cares, really. The values of my victim’s lives, as well as being reductively, dispassionately defined using numbers and by what uses they can serve me, are further undermined by the bland and robotic ways that they behave. Their dialogue is processional, used to parse out just the requisite context (or at least what Vampyr’s makers appear to assume is the requisite context) to make my choice to kill them marginally less than straightforward. Like awkward work colleagues on a corporate retreat, sat in a semi-circle, and told to introduce themselves and get to know each other before beginning their first team-building exercise, they describe who they are, where they’re from and then mention a quirky fact about themselves—they all do it. I can’t remember any of them. I’d challenge anyone who’s played Vampyr to remember the name and background of one of their victims. That’d be a pretty obnoxious and standoffish thing to do, but I think it’d prove a point, that these characters only really matter or mean anything, to anyone playing Vampyr, in the period between hunting them for their experience points and getting their experience points, and then you forget them. This dynamic would work perfectly in a game where you play an unfeeling monster, but not in this game, where you’re the do-gooder Dr. Jonathan Reid. And when I imagine what it would feel like if I killed every possible victim in the game, and with the dialogue turned right down, and the (creepy) soundtrack turned right up, it’s not much different to how I feel playing Vampyr already. I’d still be collecting bland bits of talking and experience points, it’s just there’d be more of them.
These characters only matter within a closed and acutely esoteric system: the game Vampyr. Their deaths, my murders, don’t feel like they stand for or represent anything bigger than the game’s internal mechanics and drama, which is probably too much to ask for, that when characters die in Vampyr, and in games similar to it, there comes some thematic or emotional resonance which registers beyond the game’s borders—that it feels like it means something, or at least like it has the power to remind you of something that means something—but then if I didn’t care about that what the hell else would, or should, I care about? All the other problems I have with Vampyr, its dull aesthetic, its numbing expositional dialogue scenes, its combat and collecting mechanics that are identical to most games I’ve ever played, they would all be solved, or at least solved partly, by a re-evaluation of whether the victim’s deaths actually do matter. It could still look cheap, and contain hours of insipid just talking, and play like God of War or Far Cry 5 or The Walking Dead, and so long as that moment when I killed one of the characters meant something to me, it wouldn’t matter. And that seems like a reasonable expectation: just make it so that when I kill a character in a game, they have enough personality that I can still remember doing it a day later. God, that sounds so flippant.
Ed Smith contributes to Edge, Rolling Stone, Paste, GamesTM, and PCGamesN.