Wednesday, April 5, 2017

V:tM - Bloodlines ! Heather Poe

"Hiding the fact you're dead again
Underneath the power lines seeking shade
Far above our heads are the icy heights that contain all reason

It's a luscious mix of words and tricks
That let us bet when we know we should fold"

The Shins - Caring is Creepy

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

Any discussion of Bloodlines' various twists and turns, highs and lows, characters and actors should make special mention of Heather Poe, because Heather is a very special girl.

Your early-game Santa Monica adventures revolve less around official, directed questing and more around casual interactions. Chat with NPCs to figure out how to wring money and/or blood out of them, that sort of thing. Good, clean vampiric fun. So, while innocently ransacking the local hospital for prescription meds to pawn off, you stumble upon a wounded woman piteously begging for help. If so inclined you can feed her some of your presto heal-o vamp blood.
She starts getting better and you high-tail it out of there before she has a chance to ask too many questions. Done. You're tossed a humanity point for your trouble, which seems a nifty enough reward at that point in the game. Nothing weird about it. Just another simple, casual, one-shot deal.
Important Plot Point : Nothing Else Happens!

At least not until the little red-headed girl ambushes you much later downtown to beg to serve you.
Heather is becoming blood-bonded to you, fearful but also utterly, fanatically devoted and addicted to her source of vampiric blood. You have a chance to turn her away (option 3 in the comedically Malked-up dialogue options above) but then again why would you? You did a good deed and now you're being rewarded. Seems legit. Maybe you tell yourself you just want to see where this goes. All the other cool vampire kids have ghouls so why not you?

And hey, young Heather proves quite useful. Aside from her role as the main source of eye-candy around your digs, she truly is desperately enraptured with you and trips over herself at every opportunity to serve you. Feed on her and take all her cash and she'll just get even more eager to please, going as far as to kidnap a victim for you.
By the end-game, you've likely gotten quite used to Heather's presence, having her change outfits and accepting her gifts with aristocratic decorum or equally aristocratic abuse, which she'll meekly accept as long as you don't kick her out. She will beg you to stay and even as the hints begin to drop that being around you puts her in danger
you only get reinforced in your decision to keep her with you when she turns out to be the only source for the heaviest protection in the game, the body armor. Hey, whaddayaknow, little ghoulie did alright. You pat her on the head and run off to fight vampire hunters and sabbat. Things are looking up, yessiree.

But not for Heather.
You catch a glimpse of the girl, kidnapped, getting mauled to death. Just a glimpse. There's little to do but avenge her then go on your merry way, abandoning her corpse in a grungy condemned hotel, and that's the end of Heather Poe.

So why does this story work so well?
After all, while not exceedingly common, tragic maidens crop up pretty regularly in games. As the death of a female (especially one of breeding age) elicits more sympathy than an entire warehouse full of disposable males, they're occasionally trotted out to maximize pathos. So why does Heather stand out?

1. Nothing initially happens. Heather's introduction's so casual as to allow the player to completely ignore and forget about her. She starts out as a nearly inanimate object on a hospital bed. Depending on the order in which the player completes various quests, she takes quite a while to show up again. She does not "join the player's party" or become a ubiquitous hanger-on. Quite clearly, she's no equal in the world of vampires. She doesn't quest.

2. You can drive her away. Heather's presence is not pushed on the player, by no means required for any other quests or content. Her obsequious pandering is merely allowed to grow on you, slowly, gradually, until she becomes a fixture, until keeping her around becomes the status quo. More importantly, you repeatedly get the option to not enslave this random human (imagine that) or to drive her away as the danger thickens around you. It is your choice to keep Heather with you, and you make that choice, the unethical, utterly wrong choice, again and again. The game encourages you to keep doubling down on your initial sunk cost.

3. Heather as a ghoul is not a good person. There's something inherently creepy about faith, about unthinking devotion, and a vampire's ghoul creeps like an epileptic nun. Heather loves you. Heather clings to you like a lost puppy, whining and ingratiating, disgustingly servile and even reckless in her need for your approval (kidnapping a random schmoe for you to feed on.) You have reduced her to this.

4. Heather's death is utterly meaningless. She has no great destiny. Her sacrifice serves no grand cosmic purpose, or even some petty motivation. She doesn't even die defending you. She's trampled in others' power struggles, collateral damage, not even a rung on your social ladder. She will not be remembered.
Apparently there are player-made patches which allow you to save Heather. No greater disservice could be made to the excellent storytelling in Bloodlines. Heather's death is fitting. The shame, the pathos, the nihilistic abandon of it fits perfectly.

5. Most importantly, Heather as a person is almost a non-entity. Oh, sure, it might've been nice to get a few more dialogues with her remembering her past life or describing her day job as a ghoul, but for the sake of pathos it's quite important that Heather has no real qualities, completely out of her depth among the supernatural. She's not smart. Her character model is not particularly pretty, somewhat horse-faced and more awkward without her unfashionable glasses than with them. She's not socially astute or smooth or possessed of any special powers. Heather is a nothing, even her enslavement and death mere accidents inconsequential to anyone else.

Heather Poe stands out because she would not stand out anywhere else except among grandstanding RPG characters.
She's special because she's not special.

If she'd never met you she might've died after getting shivved in a back alley in Santa Monica. She might have lived, stumbled her way through some diploma mill and gotten some meaningless make-work job, snared herself a drunken overworked husband, birthed her requisite 2.5 children and driven her Volvo into old age.

When that idiotic farce of a movie, 300, came out, I pissed off some more macho gamers on a forum by stating my disgust with it. I demanded a movie not about the parasitic hired muscle living off slave labor and capable of taking ten other soldiers down with them, but about the other side. I wanted to see the story from the viewpoint of one of those tens of thousands of spear-fodder the Persian army threw into Thermopylae, about some filthy, lousy, illiterate, cowardly, innocent, dirt-farming Persian boy who never even knew where or what Greece was, beaten over the head, conscripted and marched across half a continent to be prodded, outmatched by an order of magnitude, against a reinforced position by incompetent commanders.

That's Heather Poe, your little know-nothing conscript, poignant in her mediocrity.
Lacking any qualities which might give meaning to her death, she's that more emblematic of collateral damage, of the casual destructiveness of your predatory nature: a nobody, and now thanks to you a nobody no more.

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