Saturday, January 21, 2017

V:tM - Bloodlines ! Santa Monica

As this series of posts runs through the entire length of the classic computer role-playing game Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, assume spoilers.

Welcome to Bloodlines' rendition of Santa Monica, California. I'm sure this is what it must look like in real life too.
The bum with the placard never ceases to amuse me. I know the trope's been popular in other games and TV shows like Futurama as well but honestly, after having lived half my life in the midst of two large urban centers I have to say you learn to expect this sort of thing. It should be included in Sim City. Your town can't be said to have hit the big time until you produce lice-ridden, foghorn-voiced street-corner prophets in knit caps and torn mittens.
This guy though, this guy's got it goin' on. Just look at that professionally stenciled lettering!

There's actually very little to be said about the Santa Monica zone itself. It's an introduction, and while this in no way makes it dull, it does mean most stories started here will be continued in later acts and better discussed there. Most RPGs make some show of obfuscating the "main quest" with some sort of preamble, yet nevertheless feed you cinematic teasers about the evil big evil evil necromancer/dragon/devil/archdemon you'll eventually face down in a climactic finish. Bloodlines on the other hand successfully buries the main event for its entire first quarter or half, tantalizing you instead with a tangle of other storylines stretching from one major zone to the next. News broadcasts foreshadow quests you'll only discover once you reach Downtown and Hollywood, leaving Santa Monica feeling... homey. Provincial. Under the radar. Beneath contempt. While the Downtown hub houses most of your important contacts, I think it was important for your own lair to be placed in a small-time drizzly backwater, a nice place to call home.

It carries a feel for exactly what's missing from most games: a sense for contrast, scale and proportion, a realization that experiences are only "special" in contrast to the mundane, the supernatural only noticeable in juxtaposition to the natural, the inhuman in contrast to the all too human, the grandiose in contrast to the petty. So you start slow, not mowing down entire armies of zombies/goblins/etc. as you would in the first few quests of most RPGs, but knocking a few human drugrunners over the head in a ramshackle cottage by the beach. Like that other old masterpiece Planescape: Torment, Bloodlines gets a lot done with dialogue, lending your character a more tangible personality through your social (or antisocial) interactions. Under scrutiny most of your deeds in Santa Monica aren't supernatural, and even as crimes they border on petty larceny. You read some poor sap's e-mails and blackmail him over cheating on his wife. You trick some numbskull into paying you for a piece of driftwood. You can intimidate a random pedestrian into giving you his watch. You break and enter local human businesses. You take some bounty hunting work "under the table" from nasal voiced, pudgy, greasy old Arthur Kilpatrick and his fantabulous Krime-puter!

Even the vampires you meet are predominantly "thin bloods" or those so weak as to barely qualify as more than leeches. However, now I'm getting ahead of myself. The warehouse job you pull off to move on to the Downtown zone isn't worth mentioning, except to say it would've scored off the charts in the crate review system and was exactly the sort of thing I was speaking against when I pronounced my extremophilia. Other quests and chains are more inspired but warrant their own posts to discuss them in terms of game design.

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