Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is a game with a name as convoluted as its development. Less convoluted, however, is its impact and legacy. Some of you may not know this, but for a grueling 15-year period until Paradox announced the sequel to the 2004 sleeper hit, vampire-loving RPG fans had to salvage and endure the bug-ridden, broken, and in parts unplayable original. It’s all we had. Well, that and the several sequel rumours that got everybody’s hopes up and were immediately squashed.
Fortunately, thanks to the hundreds of people who’ve poured their hearts and souls into fixing the game, VTMB is in a much better state now.
Having replayed it recently, and with the sequel on the horizon, there’s no better time to take a step back and go over all the reasons why this game has attained legendary status, despite its shortcomings.
Here’s what made Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines such a rich and compelling experience.
The Vampires Themselves
Vampires have a weird spot in popular culture. As far as public perception is concerned, they fall into two distinct categories. These categories consist of Bram Stoker’s highly intelligent, but savage and bloodthirsty Dracula, a depiction which was fully cemented into public consciousness by Christopher Lee’s interpretation in a series of films under Hammer Film Productions, and Anne Rice’s sensual, emotional and highly sexual vampires.
Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines ditched these two variations and decided to go on a different route. They made their vampires grounded and believable, or at least as believable as a mythological being who sucks the life force out of mortals can be.
The vampires in this game have their own goals, motivations and agendas, much like humans in real life. And, let’s face it, we can all agree that hunting humans just for the sake of it can get boring after a few hundred years, so you have to pick up some sort of hobby, like ruling the world behind the scenes or running a media empire – but more on that later.
The World Building
Right from the get-go, Troika Games defied genre conventions by setting their game in a gritty version of noughties Los Angeles. The city exists in a world in which vampires, werewolves, wraiths and other beings have shaped human history and affairs for generations. In fact, it’s heavily implied that vampires have orchestrated historical events from the shadows, be it the founding of Rome or the fall of the Byzantine Empire. In the modern era, vampires have taken to infiltrate governments, multinational corporations, public institutions, the media as well as organized crime networks.
In VTM, vampires are not pariahs marginalized by society – they are the society. And the game does a great job of illustrating the level of impact and presence vampires have in human affairs through characters and bits of lore. One example is Isaac Abrams, a Hollywood producer and expert who claims to have worked with Scorsese, James Dean, Robert de Niro and other figures from The Golden Age of Cinema. Or LaCroix, the story’s antagonist, who used to be in Napoleon’s ranks, partly explaining his megalomania and lust for power.
But what’s even more striking about VTM’s worldbuilding is how plausible they make the prospect of a world ruled by vampires seem. To be clear, I don’t actually believe my tax dollars go into funding shadowy plots devised by ancient vampires – but if they did, I wouldn’t be in the least surprised.
The Setting and Atmosphere
Noughties Los Angeles, with its glitz, glamour and vanity is the perfect backdrop for the intrigue and backstabbery that define the world of VTM. However, its shiny and alluring exterior hides a rotten core. Danger lurks behind every corner, and the thousands of young people who flock to the city hoping to make it big in the film industry are the ideal prey for the vampires who have been ruling the city for generations.
Troika Games knocked it out of the park with the setting and the atmosphere. Los Angeles, with its goth night clubs, sleazy pawn shops, decaying and abandoned theatres, dirty 24/7 diners, and shady alleyways should be considered a staple and benchmark for any future vampire-related media.
Hollywood, one of the game’s four major hubs, is especially worth praising for its design, aesthetic and musical theme. The latter, composed by Rik Schaffer a day after being released from jail, perfectly encapsulates the hopelessness, melancholy and excesses of the city.
VTM had some of the best writing talent in the industry. Since the game’s writing is so good it really deserves an article of its own, so I’m going to focus on its major strength: the ability to deliver lore and information not through bouts of endless exposition, but through the characters. The characters are a reflection of the world they inhabit, and through a few lines of dialogue, you can quickly determine their personality type, stance, beliefs, position in the vampirical hierarchy, as well as a few bits of lore.
This wouldn’t be possible, of course, without excellent voice acting and superb facial animations, which still hold up today. The cast includes John DiMaggio (Bender from Futurama), Grey Griffin (Selina Kyle/Catwoman from Batman: Arkham City), Courtney Taylor (Player Female in Fallout 4), Dee Bradley Baker (American Dad, Phineas and Pherb) and Phil LaMarr (Marvin from Pulp Fiction).
The Deep RPG Mechanics
You might’ve noticed that I’m nearing the end of the article and I haven’t even mentioned what is, by far, the most praised aspect of VTM: the gameplay. Not the combat, mind you – it’s so broken that even the modders can’t fix it, so it’s bound to suck (sorry not sorry) forever. I’m talking about the brilliant quest design, the intricate clan system and deep RPG mechanics.
In VTM, the player assigns their character to one with of several vampire clans (this clan quiz will act like that hat from Harry Potter and assign you to the most relevant one), each with unique powers, abilities and dialogue options. The clan selection is not purely cosmetic, as it affects how the player is perceived and certain quest outcomes.
Furthermore, each clan invites a different playstyle – so different in some cases, in fact, that it becomes a whole different game. The Nosferatu, for example, are grotesquely deformed vampires, shunned by mainstream vampire society for their appearance. “Civilized” vampires abide by the Masquerade, a set of rules that forbids them from showing their nature to mortals. Since their appearance itself constitutes a violation of the Masquerade, Nosferatu are forced to live the rest of their ‘unlives’ in the city’s sprawling sewer network. Players who choose to play as the Nosferatu must avoid the streets, and hack and stealth their way into accomplishing objectives.
And this is just one facet of VTM’s intricate RPG mechanics. Toreadors, the game’s equivalent of bohemian intellectuals, require charisma and dialogue-heavy builds. Ventrues, or the corporate vampires as I like to call them, rely on intimidation and presence. And Malkavians… well, you probably know what they stand for. They’re batshit crazy.
Wrapping up, these are just a few reasons why Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is a staple of video gaming history. It’s a flawed masterpiece; a cult classic that spawned a devoted fanbase and set a standard for future RPGs. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to sink my teeth into it one more time.