Thursday, May 10, 2012

Gestalt with Fangs on the Beach

This is not a review of VtM:Bloodlines. I only want to talk about one scene from the game, but in arguing its merit, its relation to the subculture that spawned it has to be mentioned.
Bloodlines was a vampire game. Vampires, as a plot device or subject matter, are dark fantasy creatures by definition. They are boogeymen.
'Dark' fantasy has among its components various emotional triggers which appeal to the fringe of a society, however it may be defined. Violence or the threat of it is one element, and this is certainly easy enough to achieve in a video game. Games even have an upper hand over literature and film in this respect. The same can be said for grotesque visuals, where even though games cannot be said to outdo movies, they have certainly been striving to match them disfigurement-for-disfigurement.
What's harder to create in a game is the low-key background of a dark fantasy world, the anomie that accompanies immersion in a world of id, of personifications of dangerous, unpredictable forces, of boogeymen. This is the film noir appeal of dark fantasy, shared with cyberpunk and apocalyptic stories. It features strongly in Neil Gaiman's books, in George Martin's Fevre Dream, in Interview with the Vampire and from what i can tell in the Vampire: the Masquerade tabletop RPG setting itself. It is difficult to transfer to an interactive medium. How can you make the player feel a sense of loss, pointlessness and hopelessness when he is at every instant the undisputed star of the show, actively moving the plot along?

Well, i doubt i could formulate a coherent answer to that question, so i'll limit myself to this one example for now.

Early in Bloodlines, your character, already a vampire, is sent on an errand to the beach. There, you run into a small group of 'thin-bloods', weak, unworthy vampires cast out by the rest. Their concerns are petty and ridiculous. They're... vampiric beach-bums.
There is no single element that makes or breaks the scene. There's the immensity of the ocean, its waves lapping at the shore, the trash-can fire with a few figures hovering at the edge of its light. There is, of course, a bit of drizzle, just enough to create the illusion of a cold night, to make the small comfort of the trash-can fire real. Instead of battling monsters and saving the world, you find yourself indulging in petty schoolyard cruelties like making fun of the kid who stutters or playing mean-spirited pranks on the gullible. You get your future told by a fortune-teller who is, naturally, no help at all despite her insights and just pockets your money. Through it all, a song issues from a boombox near the fire with lyrics along the lines of "i heard the voice of a smaller god".

If you want the full experience, you have to play through the game yourself. I can't adequately describe an interactive experience. The way in which the setting, coming up on the immensity of the ocean, the music, the small cluster of beach bums, all slow you down without making you feel as if the game's action has stopped, all contribute to the experience as a whole. If you want a snippet of the scene, there's a bit in this youtube video, starting around 7:20. If you want the song, here it is. It's not a terrible song, but not great. Its use in that context was inspired because its tone and theme fit so well.

Credit goes mainly not to a musician, a dialogue writer or a graphic artist, but to whoever designed the scene as a whole.

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