header is screenshot from Vampyr
The Slow Death of the Imperial Vampyr
Reid McCarter

No  monster is more perfectly suited to Victorian Britain than the vampire—pale and romantically haunted, nourishing its superpowered body by feeding on the lifeblood of everyone around it. Given that the 19th century marks both the height and decline of the Empire, there’s potent metaphor in the archetypal image of the undead creatures popular imagination has placed in its streets. Like the vampire, Great Britain resembled nothing so much as an imperial corpse—one that could only continue living by sending its “children of the night” across oceans to repeat the verminous feedings of their overlord by enacting them, victim to victim, on other lands. In Bram Stoker’s late-Victorian Dracula, the vampire is enshrined forever in Western myth as a figure that breaks free of rigid social and sexual conventions, frightening and tantalizing the imagination with the promise of liberation through damnation. That it serves so many other roles—historical, political, and social—so well shouldn’t be a surprise. We’re still living in the shadows cast by the behemoth Empire.

Set in 1918, Dontnod Entertainment’s Vampyr takes place at another pivotal moment in British history: the end of the First World War, the end of empires, and the emergence of the modern world. Its protagonist, the newly turned vampire Dr. Jonathan Reid, has just returned from France where he’s served his country as a battlefield surgeon. True to the game’s winking tone, he’s gained renown for pioneering blood transfusion techniques, and so it raises few eyebrows when he’s given a position as a nighttime researcher at a London hospital run by a fellow doctor who knows of, and is sympathetic to, vampires. Though his time at war is mentioned only through conversation with other, invariably traumatized veterans, the city Dr. Reid crisscrosses on his journey to understand its vampiric underworld is haunted by the seismic shift in national consciousness the war has brought to England. Entering the conflict, like the other great European powers, as a globe-spanning empire, Britain’s cultural and political heart has been weakened by years of horrific fighting, its citizenry reflecting the confusion, frustration, and anger that comes with having to face up to the death of its righteous imperial self-identity.

Vampyr’s London is a decrepit place, the old glory of its cobblestoned streets obscured by omnipresent layers of almost palpably noxious mists, barricades, and quarantines meant to slow the spread of Spanish flu by blocking up alleyways with piles of rubble, and roving bands of armed vampire hunters and rabid infected beasts polluting its ancient courtyards, markets, and parks. All the old institutions are corrupted, diseased. The Church is represented by a raving priest, holding forth about the imminent End of Days to passerby and a cannibal clergyman who satisfies his undead hunger by eating bits of human flesh (he rationalizes it, hilariously, by invoking transubstantiation) ; aristocrats are sheltered in their mansions, afraid to mingle with the potentially diseased and violent common people; newly-returned soldiers slouch on park benches or wander along the filthy riverside in civilian clothes; doctors, like Dr. Reid, try to maintain a belief in the good of scientific progress while despairing at the spread of the flu and questioning how to balance the need for clinical experimentation with the desire not to unduly harm their patients.

Most immediately apparent are the city’s political and class tensions, which Vampyr makes sure players are extremely aware of through a wide selection of characters who want to talk about almost nothing but their ideological outlook. Dr. Reid meets Romanian refugees, fleeing the continent’s destruction en masse, only to met by hostile English (a scumbag landlord sums up the general tone by referring to the new arrivals as “filthy immigrants” and “fucking savages”). Socialists attempt to redress inequality in the city’s poorest district by offering free medical care and agitating for fairer labour laws while an anarchist drinks himself to oblivion in a bar, non-white characters face racial prejudice, and suffragettes campaign for women’s equality. Nobody is content, even among the upper echelons of London society.

The Ascalon Club, a powerful organization of politicians who, in the words of one character, “seek the safety and expansion of the Empire,” summarizes Vampyr’s view of the aristocracy. Nestled in a well-guarded mansion whose parlor rooms are walled by framed art and lit by glittering chandeliers, they’re a nasty group of men, horrified by social progress. Their leader, Lord Redgrave, refuses to admit women to the society and, bewildered by the chaos on London’s streets, makes draconian plans for reasserting order while hiding in the safety of his study. In a game very much aware of contemporary politics, the figure of old, sickly, magnificently wealthy Aloysius Dawson stands out. Dawson’s bright idea is to erect giant walls and barricades so as to keep the sickness running rampant through London’s poorest districts from entering the domain of the rich. Later, the player can find him on his deathbed and kill him.

Through all of this, Dr. Reid stalks the night, choosing whether to grow his own power by feeding on others, allowing him fuller control over his environment, or simply leaving them be—even healing them by providing them with medicine. Vampyr, so unsubtle in the broad strokes of its scene setting, is clever in these systems. It’s a role-playing game and Dr. Reid must, at times, fight human and paranormal enemies with an arsenal of mundane and supernatural weaponry. To upgrade and unlock helpful abilities—summon an explosion of blood-daggers, jump on opponents like a man-cat, gain more health when drinking a stunned foe’s blood—the player completes little objectives around the city, defeats bosses, or, best of all, drains one of London’s (named, talking, relationship-having) citizens by hypnotizing them, gnashing on their necks, and slurping up experience points.

The social fabric of Vampyr’s London, held together by a spiderweb of interconnected characters within each of the city’s districts, is made of tenuous fibre. If Dr. Reid enriches himself by killing too often, other people notice, the region becomes more unstable, and the tone, in general, becomes even more desperate than it was before. Just as much as the background music, all anxious cellos, wisps of discordant harpsichord, and atonal choruses of the damned, the player’s willingness (or lack thereof) to become an even stronger monster as everything dies around her echoes the post-imperial mood of the game. It’s obvious enough that Vampyr’s creators are interested in what happens as an Empire collapses in on itself—the cultural and military warfare that obsesses its characters is impossible to ignore—but its repurposing of the vampire as a stand-in for early 20th century Britain itself works more subtly. As his nation’s stability crumbles, Dr. Reid can either try to better the city by helping improve the circumstances of others. Or, if he wants to exert some sense of control over the mess, he can take advantage of the disorder he lives in to gorge his decaying body on those same people.

Knowing what comes in the decades following Vampyr’s historical era doesn’t inspire a lot of optimism, but the game itself tries to find something heartening to leave players with. Just before the credits roll, the source of the evil infecting London is defeated and a near-mythological figure of British military history, his bloody fingertips reaching through centuries of violent national growth, is laid to rest. This is thematically resonant, but rings somewhat hollow. Unlike Dr. Reid, we know that 1918 was far from the last century’s nadir.

Instead, thinking back on the desperation, ruin, and confusion that characterized the game’s vision of an Empire in decline, the strangest pair of characters in the game come to mind. Twin brothers, possibly murderers or thieves or just plain oddballs, roam the uncharacteristically clean, orderly perimetre of Dawson’s gated estate. They sit on benches, chatting pleasantly and circuitously about their always distant plans to leave the city. They resemble a less quarrelsome Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Otherwise inconsequential to the plot at large, one of them offers a remark about what the world needs amidst so much horror: “For the time being, he says, “true kindness is the most valuable quality.”

The player can decide to take the sentiment to heart. She may also, if there’s a new skill that really needs to be unlocked, bite the veins out of one or both of their necks, ingest their blood, and become a more powerful creature of the night.


Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at GQ, The AV Club, Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE.