I was excited to play Vampyr. I have the undying love for vampire fiction that any longtime goth finds herself living with, and I did like Life is Strange, Dontnod Entertainment’s prior game. Granted, “liking” Life is Strange meant forgiving a litany of terrible elements—first and foremost the strained teen banter, which never lets up—in the face of a pretty genuine emotional core. The talk in that game was like running a bad Diablo Cody script through several rounds of Google Translate, but it also understood the haze of terror and infatuation that defines a person’s teenage years+.
Life is Strange was basically as affecting as a supernatural coming-of-age story written by a couple of French guys could hope to be. Regrettably, the only trait it shares with Vampyr is that the latter also deals with the supernatural. In all other aspects, Vampyr is a total failure, a game that is content with sub-Bioware moral binaries, an anticharismatic protagonist, and an apparently proud ignorance of the vast canon of other, better vampire stories.
I could sit here and spell out how exactly Vampyr falls apart both on its own terms and in a generic context. But I think Ed and Reid have both done that work already; Ed, in unspooling the game’s comically flimsy central mechanic, the kind of gimmick that seems destined for the same afterlife as Shadow of Mordor’s ballyhooed “nemesis system;” and Reid, in marshalling enough attention to Vampyr’s pallid drama to adroitly draw some hot blood from its version of history. I don’t have anything to add to either of these analyses. I am bereft before Vampyr. It is a riverlogged corpse with its head and hands hacked off, an anonymous bit of drab horror that makes games like the infamously broken Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines look brilliant in comparison.
Vampyr, incidentally, shares its name with a 1932 Carl Dreyer film. Dreyer’s Vampyr is a quiet masterpiece of surreal horror, thick with atmosphere. Dreyer based it in part on Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story collection In a Glass Darkly, which includes the canonical lesbian vampire tale Carmilla—a novella thoroughly plundered by its descendants. Dontnod’s Vampyr, in a perverse twist of fate, has replaced Dreyer’s as the only thing you see when you google the word, and it says a lot about the game that the apparent reference is not a reference at all. The “y” in “vampyr” instead—deep breath, friends!—represents the many choices the player will have to make!
In preparation for writing about this game I had a frankly overambitious stack of materials at hand; I can recognize that hubris now. There’s no comparison to Poppy Z. Brite, let alone Jean Rollin movies, or The Hunger, or Ganja and Hess, or whatever you personally think good vampire stories look like. Rollin’s vampires in particular are coy, flighty, playful women, who come into conflict with bourgeois patriarchs. These conflicts are played out through action or shot composition as often as they are through dialogue; as a writer Rollin preferred oblique snippets of poetry to fleshed-out scripts.
Rollin’s work isn’t applicable to Vampyr, though. Neither are the bleedingly hip goth-rock strut of The Hunger or the oozing sensuality of early Anne Rice and Brite’s Lost Souls, or Udo Kier’s desperately virgin-hungry Dracula stranded in a world of “whores” in 1974’s Blood for Dracula. Vampyr is more interested in its own contrived systems than anything that came before it. Its menu screens and tutorials boast that all its characters can be killed by its sulking protagonist, and that each of their possible deaths affects the rest of their “community” in the game’s four districts. Technically this is true, although there are a few factors that prevent the enterprising revenant from draining all 60-odd characters right off the bat—mainly, Dr. Reid has a “mesmerize level” that needs to match or exceed a given character’s own level, and the only way to increase that power is by doing main story missions. And if the player takes the time to do side missions and find clues to upgrade each character’s “blood quality” (i.e. the number of experience points awarded on killing them), she will inevitably discover some morally complicating factor about that person. If they seemed good, maybe they also did bad things. If they seem bad, it may just be that they have some redeeming aspects.
Aside from Vampyr’s goofy rendition of 1918 London as a sleepy burg with under a hundred inhabitants, there are also an endless number of enemy characters. The game draws a hard line between that group of 60+ “citizens” and the hordes of lesser vampires and vampire hunters that populate the game’s combat areas. Killing them is not always necessary, but the point is that even if she chooses to gut each and every Non-Citizen it is not factored into the game’s strained moral calculus.
Astute players will detect a reference to the Hippocratic Oath, which is used to pit Reid’s new vampiric nature against his vows as a medical professional. This is about as torturous as it sounds, with all the grueling emotional resonance of a House spinoff. The game sprinkles rats around the streets, which provide a bit of blood in a pinch, and every time—every fucking time—the player nabs one, Reid’s sullen baritone voice actor intones one of three lines recorded for the occasion. “This … is … despicable,” he’ll say, after eating his thousandth rat. I suppose you never get used to some things.
I hate this game. Is that coming through? I resent its cynical timesucking mire of side missions and stiff dialogue trees and tedious backtracking and featureless cast of characters. Jean Rollin said of the gore in his films that “For me, it's impossible to make ‘gore’ without emotion.” Vampyr is bloody, but never gory or gross, and its blood is mechanized into the same overbearing systems that govern everything else. There is no passion, no seduction, no catharsis, no lust in its neck-biting.
After the past few months of absurdly bloated tentpole games I’m ready to cut everything off at six hours. It is exhausting to keep up with the big-budget videogame industry, which hooks you with 30 minutes of ideas and stretches them to 20+ hours of sheer mind-numbing repetition. Even the most rote Hammer vampire movie is better than Vampyr by default because it’s only 80 fucking minutes. Vampyr, fittingly, feels like an eternity.
+ If it didn’t, you’re a cop.
Astrid B writes about movies and videogames on the internet. Follow her on Twitter.