Friday, January 13, 2017

V:tM - Bloodlines ! Humble Beginnings

And so it begins:
Sure looks epic, don't it? RPGs, in their scheme of character development through the expansion of personal power, bank on the inherent appeal of "rags to riches" and too many titles skimp on the rags. I loved waking up on a slab at the mortuary in the slums of Sigil in Planescape: Torment, or dressed in rags on a creaky boat in Morrowind, or the taste of simple village life at the start of Neverwinter Nights 2. I never liked the opening of the first computer V:tM adaptation, Redemption with Christof's chest-thumping heroics, but Bloodlines?

You pick your clan and assign your starting stats and then you watch the opening cinematic to find out you're a contraband bloodsucker, vamped-up in contravention of vamp law, your very existence already on trial before you begin. Then your new boss officiously boots you out the back door into a grungy rat-infested alleyway, by which of course I mean the glorious road to adventure!

There's a lot to like about the way Bloodlines handled its introduction tutorial, like the audience at your sire's beheading consisting mostly of NPCs you'll meet later (in some cases much later) in the story, lending a delicious feel of the secretive, ingrown cabal to the whole affair, or the straightforward blend of in-character dialogue and out-of-character explanations of the interface.
Best of all though, your beginnings are truly humble. There's no talk of you being "the chosen one" or a demigod or a chosen of Gaia or carrying a shard of a magical artifact in your heart or destinies to be fulfilled, or punching a dragon on the nose right out of the cradle or any other sort of great expectations. No omens, portends or tea-leaves herald your coming. The proper term for you, dear player, is a "mook" and no more. As an adventure in mookdom, Bloodlines opens in an appropriately dramatic fashion. Ushered out along the cramped, stuffy corridors of the abandoned theater where you narrowly escaped execution, you can almost taste the cool night air in the piss-soaked back alley. Somewhere beyond your reach loom lofty high-rises but your immediate world consists of moldy wood and chain-link fences, dingy bricks slathered in gang graffiti and a single hairy bum mocking and deriding you while condescendingly offering to show you the ropes of vampirism.

After you get a handle on sneaking, hacking, cracking and cracking heads, you finally reach your first location within the game proper, home sweet home:
It could very well be the room Ray Bradbury described in Death Is a Lonely Business, a coffin-sized studio, room enough for a dying old man to scratch his name into the plaster by his metal cot over and over and over and over again, a moldering decrepit bower seeping senility into your mind. It's functional, too, as a home base should be. You can store blood in the fridge if you want. A laptop just out of sight on the left is one of your main ways of receiving communiques from sympathetic creatures of the night. You flick the TV on to hear news broadcasts foreshadowing upcoming quests and if you're feeling lonely you can always flip on the boombox and listen to The Deb of Night, Bloodlines' main source of comic relief, a late hour call-in show in which an urbane, educated young hostess tries in vain to extract meaningful conversation from the stoners, insomniacs, conspiracy theorists, night watchmen, stalkers and other dregs of society likely to be seeking entertainment at the witching hour of night.

I didn't even realize until now that what really makes the scene, the icing on Miss Havisham's cake here, is the very centerpiece of the ensemble. Look at that rug! The only splash of color in the place, and that of course faded like the rest, a scrawny over-stretched little thing vainly trying to cover up the musty dirt colored bargain-basement carpeting with its red and white floral design. It's touchingly pitiful.

Bloodlines was the first game to license Valve's Source Engine, the same used for Half-Life 2, Portal, etc. In many ways I think this was a waste of money. Tech demos for the Source engine highlighted a (for the time) very realistic physics system, the chunkiest of explosions, projectiles with ballistic trajectories and especially characters with a wide range of very detailed facial characteristics, expressions and movements. Compared to Valve's own use of their own technology, Troika's attempt barely seems to scratch the surface of what the engine could do. Characters' faces for instance have a more limited range of expressions, generally capable of only "intrigued" or "angry" plus a default neutral setting. Everyone walks with the same swagger or the same hobbled, pained shuffle. On the other hand, the environments in Bloodlines are beautifully detailed. The grime has depth. The wrought iron looks cold to the touch. The static on the old-timey TV looks appropriately grainy.
For all it lacks in animations, Bloodlines' environments are entrancing, and once again, functional. It wastes no effort but spares none either. The playable areas consist of adequately proportioned city streets, with vampiric infestation unobtrusively, saprophytically slithering among the outskirts and interstices of human life. Almost everything you do takes place in human spaces, abandoned or not. Look at this first street in Santa Monica. Do you see a role-playing game? Do you see mighty fortresses, scenery-chewing villains, damsels in distress and hordes of goblins and other boogeymen pacing back and forth waiting for you to kill them? Of course not; we uphold the masquerade here! Yet every building in this picture contains a playable location: the pawn shop, the tattoo parlor, the medical clinic, the apartment buildings on the far right and straight ahead, the art gallery just past the clinic. Those pedestrians? They're dinner.

It's said that good art can make you look at the familiar in a new light. Your own apartment's staircase is just past the pawnshop and to the right. You wanted a world of darkness? You're in it now, my friend. You swallowed that red pill. You're living the dream, and most dreams are perfectly mundane... until they're not.

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