The binary morality meter has fallen out of fashion. Big-budget role-playing games used to track and display stats for how Good or Evil the player was being, but more nebulous ideas of justice and of the player’s role in the world have cropped up. The Dishonored series, for example, looks at the player’s choices as contributing to or alleviating chaos in the rat-infested city of Dunwall, but is still careful to present those options to the player as obviously as possible. And even that is less popular today: most mainstream releases at the moment are more linear, or at least less tied to a sort of comprehensive morality mechanic. Gone are the special branches of the skill tree that only unlock if you make enough evil choices.
Dontnod’s Vampyr almost feels retro then, in its loading screen insistence that the player “take responsibility” and in protagonist Dr. Reid’s increasingly pallid complexion should she choose to consume one or more Londoners. Breaking from the ambivalent tradition of these sorts of games though, Vampyr seeks bravely to provide a third option somewhere between Total Saint and Big Jerk—represented in the hammiest way possible, with a giant “Y,” as styled in the title. These choices are separated from normal dialog options (which can be repeated more or less endlessly), but it’s difficult to tell what a decision one way or the other might mean. No character will ever make up their mind about something without the player’s input and presence, but it’s rarely clear what lines are linked to what outcome. Vampyr—despite its large city and community-centered story—feels like it might prefer being smaller and more focused on its protagonist (like say, Dontnod’s Life is Strange).
But sometimes the three-choice structure does work: at the end of each chapter, Dr. Reid is left alone with a “Pillar” of the local community, and—assuming the player has dutifully exhausted every possible line of dialog in the neighborhood—three choices are available. It’s not immediately obvious what the morally good option is, or which option will keep the neighborhood safe. If the cannibal priest Sean Hampton is killed, the Docks area falls into decay, but the same is true if he’s spared. The only way to keep the area ticking is to turn him into a vampire. The choices do tend to break down into Kill/Spare/Vampirize, but it ends up being difficult and engaging to balance what’s best for the neighborhood against what’s best for Dr. Reid’s XP bar.
Morality systems are often criticized for their leniency. Players tend to choose to be good people, especially if it’s easy. In BioShock (among others), the kinder path makes the player-character stronger and the game easier: you’d have to be exceptionally malicious to choose to devour the Little Sisters, because even if they’re good for a quick burst of valuable resources, rescuing them ultimately gives you more ability points to spend. But in Vampyr, discipline in diet necessitates discipline in combat: the more indulgent path provides more experience and better abilities. Although if you do eat too many people and a district collapses, it fills up with stronger vampire mooks and vampire-hunter mooks.
As much as the Kill/Spare/Vampirize options do present a more dramatic moment of decision, the supposed complexity of Vampyr’s Good Doctor does not make itself known on a moment-to-moment basis. Where the player is left to equivocate and figure out which character would make the most efficient, safest, and highest-value meal, Reid readily snaps between dialog responses about how murder is wrong and lines about how humans are nothing more than vampire food. The reason for these broader lines seems to be that the few dozen citizens of London are more interesting as a general stand-in for Humankind than as individuals. There’s a huge amount of text overall, but each character is only so deep. Many of them are paired off, and going back and forth between the two provides a kind of micro-drama. If you eat one of them, often the other will disappear and come back as one of the game’s mindless vampire enemies. Many of the characters who do not have relationships feel even less fleshed out, which is especially uncomfortable when their defining character trait is their race or immigration status.
These characters are so dull largely because they never do anything. They sort of mill about London’s streets like lobsters in a supermarket tank. The professional rivalry between two doctors at the Pembroke Hospital is initially exciting, but, as they argue over how best to operate on a desperate patient, they permanently repeat the same lines about how long the patient has had to wait while they argue. Despite the insistence of urgency, the patient will remain “about to lose his arm” for as long as necessary. A gang enforcer and a shopkeeper in Whitechapel repeatedly play out their own frozen interaction: the enforcer demands money and threatens to beat up his neighbor; both men get angrier and louder until they suddenly click out of conversation and glide back to their standard paths.
The one thing that does happen to the townspeople is that they get sick. The neighborhood menu shows all the characters in a borough, how many experience points their blood is worth, and how healthy they are. If someone gets sick, it’s more likely that other people in the neighborhood will also get sick. And everyone who’s sick gets worse when you take a night to level up. This is the part of the game where the most dread seeps in. I tried (especially in Whitechapel) to constantly make errands around the city, picking up supplies and crafting medications for their fatigue and neuralgia. I worried I might be damning whole districts if I didn’t, plus their blood is worth less when they’re sick.
But it turns out they don’t die from sickness. Because nothing happens without the player being there to decide how it should happen. This illness system comes close to making the city feel like its own ticking machine that Reid can push in one way or another, but it refuses to get really out of hand without the player specifically and constantly re-affirming that that’s what she wants. The story of Vampyr is about respecting the humanity of the people of London, about rescuing them from a chaotic vampire flu epidemic. Even the game’s perpetually aggressive half-vampire “Skals” have a soft side, we learn, in an extremely brief aside where we can’t really talk to any of them.
But as Reid (McCarter not Jonathan) points out, there are moments where you’d really rather just kill a Pillar of the community instead of turning them into a vampire. The already-dying Aloysius Dawson is loathsome and his ham-handed wall plan sounds like a disaster for the city. He doesn’t provide ministry or medical help, as the other Pillars do, but he remains necessary for keeping his borough healthy. Loathsome as he is, killing him results in chaos. It’s inconceivable to Vampyr that there might be a replacement Pillar, and in more than one instance the choice turns from Kill/Spare/Vampirize to Kill/Let Die/Vampirize, smoothing out the rough morality that made the question dramatic in the first place.
With the epidemic mounting, every moment of Vampyr tries to convey a sense of urgency, of precariousness. One wrong step and London tumbles into the abyss. But then there are fewer and fewer real choices, and as the game trips over itself to provide the player the greatest possible degree of freedom, the city loses its human veneer. The lifeless diorama underneath is unsavory to look at.
Daniel Fries has writing about design, AI, and esports that lives at Kill Screen, Heterotopias, and Unwinnable. Find him on Twitter.