Tuesday, February 28, 2017

V:tM - Bloodlines ! Child(e) of Malkav

"Not a silent one
But a defiant one
Never a normal one
'Cause I'm the bastard son

A 44 full of bullets
Face full of pale
Eyes full of empty
Stare full of nails

Mad boy grips the microphone with a fistful of steel"

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

So, ummm... this is what passes for Malkavian heavy protection in Bloodlines:

The hat is very floppy. I swear they must've put more effort into animating that hat than half the game's combat animations.

Insanity's in no short supply in computer role-playing games, but as a rule it's reserved for non-player characters, usually villains or quirky one-shot comic relief quest givers, or more rarely a comedically plucky Mad Hatter type of sidekick. See my comparison of Jan Jansen and Grobnar Gnomehands. Vampire: The Masquerade includes a playable "class" rendered insane by its vampirism. As I don't play tabletop games this is mere conjecture on my part, but I would assume Clan Malkavian's perfectly playable in its original tabletop milieu. A flesh and blood (mostly blood in this case) game master can allow a player to go nuts while translating that player's actions into game mechanics.

In a medium dependent on scripted interactions, on the other hand, you can't have the main character going off-script. I don't mean that metaphorically. There is a literal script! So I guess the best you can do is write insanity into the script. So to get the point of Clan Malkavian's quirks across, your dialogue choices are all re-written, ranging in weirdness from poetic license to utter gibberish. In one conversation, my three options of charming repartee were:
"Bingo chips and fuzzy dice"
"Chicken-strip pheromones"
"Pieces of eight"
For added flavor, most vampire/ghoul NPCs will upon first meeting you feed the running gag of commenting what a pain in the ass it is trying to hold a conversation with someone who sees the world in shades of corkscrew,
while the humans you interact with tend to assume you're just drugged out of your skull:

For the most part, your choices in advancing dialogues as a Malkavian are the exact same ones as every other clan's, simply re-worded. The show must go on, after all. Nonetheless, in trying to implement playable, interactive insanity instead of just passive flavor text, Bloodlines' developers seem to have run into the problem of definitions.
What is crazy, anyway?

Most seem to define insanity simply as wild, uncontrollable behavior or false beliefs, but this doesn't quite cover it. Everyone can have fits of rage or euphoria. Having a phobia doesn't necessarily qualify you either. You can be utterly creeped out by spiders or closed spaces without assuming these to truly be the worst things in the world. The real definition might run more along the lines of this punchline from a webcomic partly concerned with mad scientists, Skin Horse.

Insanity's not just imagining something unreal. It's being unable or unwilling to tell the difference between reality and unreality. If you want a popular real-world example, just listen to a couple of minutes of Alex Jones. It's not just that he foams at the mouth, screeching at the top of his lungs while imagining he SOUNDS PERFECTLY REASONABLE!!!!11(one) but he can go from zero to Bedlam in under sixty seconds. He will start a sentence with some utterly trite and mundane ranting you'd hear on any talk show, how this or that group of politicians is running the country into the ground, etc., then top it off by concluding they're all shapeshifting lizard-kings from beyond Uranus! The insane don't constantly sound insane. They just can't tell when they do. Insanity's the inability to discern bat from shit.

In this respect Bloodlines' dialogue rewrite worked very well, sneaking a meaningful word in here and there among the gibberish, but in itself it would not have been enough. If Malkavians' perception of reality is tainted, then this taint must mingle with the mundane. If it's part of the game, then it must occupy the same space as other game elements. So, while pimp-strutting around Downtown, you get drawn into an argument with someone very rude and pushy.
During various dialogues, sinister voices will whisper half-intelligible warnings in your ear. The people you drive mad using your Dementation discipline deliver their new lines with the same aplomb as they'd give you the time of day, even when you convince them you're their childhood pet turtle or, why not, themselves:
TV broadcasts, while normally completely innocent of the existence of the supernatural, begin to include in your paranoid interpretation repeated hints that they're all out to get you!
These are of course slipped in with the same enunciated, matter-of-fact droning monotone as the rest of the news segment.

Bloodlines fans will cite the goofiness of a Malkavian playthrough, but if goofiness were constant and predictable it would grow monotonous. Every Malkavian in the game has a different feel: Grout's paranoia, Tourette's mood swings, Vandal's manic bloodthirst, your own ramblings, even your own ghoul's adorable lunacy. Better yet, the mix of normal and abnormal can make you act insane, sitting around waiting for your television set to speak more messages to you personally, trying to find other street signs to talk to. After all, talking to your TV might just be something all vampires do... right?

I've seen a couple of comments on various forums complaining that your many insights and premonitions in dialogues don't really mesh with the demands of the narrative as a whole, that the Malkavian playable character knows too much to be playing the mook for others. After all, you know LaCroix's a jester and Strauss wears the crown, know how to hurt VV and unmask Ming as the Mistress of Mirrors from your first line of dialogue with her. However, it begins to seem perfectly natural in context, given that your character would not, could not act on the correct impulses for being unable to know which of his random trainwrecks of thought to follow.

Yes, I'm sure we can all imagine many other game mechanics we'd like to see implemented for an insane playable character, but consider how striking and memorable an effect Bloodlines achieved utilizing only text and a few minutes' worth of extra audio. In any discussion of the game you'll find countless players recounting their Malkavian playthrough fondly and even excitedly. It's a wonder we don't see more such examples in cRPGs, given that it would require no great overhaul of a campaign, that such an effect can be achieved perhaps even more convincingly by scattering insane choices among saner ones, indistinguishable and... tempting.

New conspiracy theory: Alex Jones is a Malkavian. Sssshhhh! (It's a secret.)

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