Returning to Vampyr

Vampyr came to Switch, so I got it and played it. This time around, with technical issues reduced, I was able to complete the game. That said, there were still a lot of technical issues present, which felt shocking on a console. There were still often lengthy load times, including screen-freezing loading in the middle of combat on several occasions. Sometimes, it appeared that the game became slightly sluggish with a slight frame-rate drop. These were annoying and disruptive problems, but not fatal. Even worse, the game crashed on at least three occasions, with at least a couple times where I got a Switch system error telling me the software had to be closed and at least one time where the game indefinitely froze in the middle of a battle, becoming unresponsive (even in that situation, I could still easily return to the Switch Home menu and quickly close out the game, which is a testament to the reliable nature of the Switch). On top of all this, the game has been ported to Switch with what appear to be the lowest graphics settings–fair, I get that sacrifices have to be made for this little, under-powered console, but it’s a hard pill to swallow when the game still doesn’t perform consistently.

I’m glad that I finished the game, though. It has a fun take on vampire lore. The story advances in jagged steps, and the dialogue doesn’t always flow naturally, but it still lands more than it misses. In fact, I suspect that Dontnod had a better story here that was stymied somewhat by English-language localization efforts. Still, this feels like an odd explanation, given that Dontnod, while a French developer, has typically produced games with good-to-great writing, like Life Is Strange and Remember Me, which both precede Vampyr.

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I enjoyed roaming the streets of this version of 1918 London. I enjoyed uncovering secrets and unlocking hidden lore. I enjoyed learning little hints about people and then using my vampiric influence to persuade them to share more about themselves, their motivations and their fears. I enjoyed healing people when they were sick. I enjoyed crafting treatments for them and serums for myself and upgrades for my weapons. And I enjoyed the combat, so much of it, combat outside of every safe district hub, combat between vampires and vampire hunters of all shapes and sizes. I enjoyed a focused approach to leveling my character, locking in on specific offensive and defensive abilities rather than going too broad with my skill selection and wasting valuable experience points on dead-end development. I enjoyed applying skill advancements that boosted my combat strategies and that sometimes made me adapt new strategies. I became a huge fan of hurling myself forward from the shadows across vast distances to damage and stun opponents, drawing blood and vitality restoration from them by biting them when they fell, and using a combination of vampiric claws and melee weapons (upgraded so that they, too, would draw little bits of restorative blood for me with every hit) to whittle down the health of tougher opponents in quick flurries of strikes between bursts of dodging. Combat stayed fun and fresh during most of my time in the game, and it kept the frequent backtracking across the game map more lively, but the boss fights were less fun and more frustrating, presenting the same sorts of challenges and requiring the same sort of maneuvers in basically every battle. And combat as a whole, especially at the scale in which it appears within the game, feels antithetical to the spirit of the core game, which is more focused on balancing your character’s thirst for blood with his impulse as a doctor to help people, to save lives, to be better. The narrative focuses on the latter so much that it feels increasingly disconnected from the active fighting and killing you’re doing most of the time.

[Huge spoilers about the end of the game follow. Stop if you have interest in giving the game a try without any reveals about the alternative endings.]

I hadn’t realized how close I had been to the end of the game before. I was well into the last third when I gave it up previously.

I made slightly different choices playing through this time. Chiefly, I found that I had little desire to choose to take the life of others. Something about my mental and emotional state at the time of this play attempt made me even more reserved about killing. Even when I encountered characters that are easy to hate, like a violent street gang leader or a sleazy slumlord or an actual serial killer, it didn’t seem right for me to be choosing to take their lives. At best, it would have been a brutal vigilantism, and at worst it was little more than an extrajudicial lynching, I felt. And so I spared characters I had previously killed.

It appears that this pure-hearted approach, wherein I refused to “embrace” any character, netted me the most “good” ending for the game. It was pleasant to attain that good ending, but I can imagine how frustrating it would feel to play through the game, choosing to feed and gain power only through enacting street justice against a few of the worst of the worst, only to find that this led you to being irredeemably corrupted. This insistence on remaining pure, avoiding the temptation to become a predator, feels especially silly given that the game actively encourages you to embrace people to gain power (and choosing who to kill and who to spare was part of the meta-narrative discussion around the game), while you’re also involved in a lot of fighting against and killing of the various types of vampires and vampire hunters. You can even choose an option, as I did, that led to a good person becoming a mindless lesser form of vampire (though not your intent), and you can return to their location later and kill their corrupted form, and this does nothing to hurt the ending. I had the protagonist feed constantly; using a vampire bite in battle was one of my major combat tactics, and there were plenty of rats drained of blood along the way. The distinction between the piles of bodies I drank from and killed along the way and this idea of abstaining from the thirst for blood as presented by the “good” ending narrative is contradictory and left unresolved and unaddressed in that narrative.

Still, the Gothic atmosphere and diverse cast of characters made it rewarding to explore (and fight through) the world all the way up until the end.

Starting to be a Vampyr

I watched a lot of movies over the holidays, as is my custom, but I also started a new game: Vampyr. I like Dontnod Entertainment’s games, I’d had my eye on this title for a while, a good friend had been strongly recommending it since its release, and it was on sale over the holiday, so it was easy motivation to purchase at that point. (And I wanted to play something other than Little Dragons Cafe for a while.)

I’m still fairly early in the game, but I like it. It’s flawed, but it has a strong sense of purpose, and it’s clear what the developers wanted to do with it. In many ways, it reminds me of Remember Me: it’s a game overflowing with ideas and intentionally crafted themes, a game that promises openness but doesn’t fully deliver, a game with a satisfying but maybe over-developed combat system. The dialogue system in the game is especially interesting; there are often robust dialogue trees, but it always feels investigative rather than interpersonal. Even when you unlock a secret and probe to learn more, the game presents this as using vampiric power to coax the user into speaking; you’re not getting closer to the speaker, but instead you’re stripping more valuable information away from a target. It’s lonely being a vampire, and that dialogue system adds to the loneliness–you’re isolated and poorly understood, even when surrounded by others.

So far, my biggest complaint is that I’m experiencing long loading times and a fair amount of lag when passing through area transitions (and sometimes in combat), despite substantially lowering the graphics settings. To be fair, that’s likely just an issue on my end; my computer’s getting close to a decade old, with only fairly minor upgrades since I originally built it. Still, while I don’t have the technical expertise to assess how this compares to other games, it does seem like even fairly recent games of comparable size and appearance have played more smoothly for me.

Interestingly, the game echoes certain plot elements and themes of Interview with the Vampire. I suppose some of that comes with the nature of a pseudo-historical fiction starring vampires, but a lot of the same motivations and goals drive the protagonists in both works. That’s the sort of thing I might want to write about more later–given sufficient motivation, and after completing at least one ending of the game.

For now, I’m just enjoying my time as an angst-filled vampire.

Review: Remember Me

I adored Life Is Strange. It was close to a perfect adventure game, with a quirky, emotionally evocative story about adolescence and high school life and creativity and community on the Pacific Northwest and time travel and serial killers and weird magic. It had at least three compelling mysteries driving the plot: what happened to the missing Rachel Amber, how did protagonist Max’s old friend Chloe become so troubled, and what is the significance and source of Max’s new time-traveling abilities? The gameplay allowed the focus to stay on the story and the characters. Player choice resulted in some gut-kick moments (especially the ending decision). And themes relating to memory and nostalgia and time were cleverly woven not only through the story but through the use of the time travel powers in the game.

So when I finished Life Is Strange, I figured I’d try Remember Me, developer Dontnod Entertainment’s earlier title (Life Is Strange was released in 2015, while Remember Me came out in 2013). I played through a few levels, but the closed-in environments weren’t interesting enough to keep battling with a difficult keyboard-based configuration on PC.

Time passed. A lot of time passed. Finally, with the June 2018 release of Vampyr by Dontnod, I decided I’d try to revisit Remember Me. In the interim since my last play attempt, my wife had gifted me a wired 360 controller for the PC. This controller change was an immense improvement. Remember Me is a game that is oriented around the button configuration of a console controller, and it’s one of those still relatively rare titles that legitimately plays better with controller. Combat, a significant element of the game, is largely oriented around the A, B, X, and Y buttons, which are strung together to create increasingly powerful combos. Button mashing was largely ineffective, I found, and careful use of combo streaks with dodging was critical to succeed.

So, with my new controller approach, I tackled the game at the highest difficulty, Memory Hunter, and I’m pleased to say that I beat the game. It wasn’t especially long, with eight levels. It didn’t feel especially deep–despite often sprawling vistas, the futuristic setting of Neo Paris was limited largely to cramped hallways, alleyways, dormitories, and plazas. While the parkour navigation and wall-crawling was entertaining, it still felt limiting when pathways were always predetermined. Secrets to be discovered often depended on taking a path to the left instead of to the right before advancing, or going down before going up. Those secrets appear to represent replay value; I could go back through individual levels to collect all the lore entries and power-ups. I have no motivation to do so.

The game didn’t even feel especially hard with the game controller. There were some frustrating battles, but no boss fight required more than a few attempts to figure out what the game expected from me.

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Combat is a large part of the game, along with memory remixing and environmental platforming. I’ve discussed both combat and the parkour platforming above (I’d add that there is also a customizable set of combos that can be reoriented with new moves that you unlock, though I early on found a set of moves that took advantage of the different powers in-game and didn’t mess with it much after that; it was more convoluted than needed for the combo trees actually employed in combat).

Memory remixing was the most interesting element of the game. You play as Nilin, a memory hunter who has had her own memory stolen. Over the course of the game, you rediscover your lost memories and abilities while attempting to tear down a dystopian society built around the commodification of memory. A key ability of Nilin’s is the power to steal or even remix memories. Nilin can project herself into someone’s mind and alter one’s memories so that they remember a different outcome. Small changes in a memory snowball into larger changes. Nilin must be able to make the right changes to cause a larger change in memory that could even result in an individual taking on a new worldview or personality. The remixed person might take rather sudden and drastic action based on the newly re-perceived events, even.

Unfortunately, this cool feature is underutilized. There are maybe a half-dozen memory remixes throughout the game. I would have liked to have had more opportunities to play with reality (or at least memory) in this way–and I suppose Life Is Strange‘s time travel powers represent an improvement on this form of gameplay.

Most of Remember Me feels underutilized, in fact.

There are a lot of cool ideas here. Interesting philosophical ideas drift in and out, explicitly and implicitly. Memory and the past become critical to the game’s central theme and narrative. But the game doesn’t fully explore any particular concept, and what it tries to say about capitalism and memory and resistance and family is muddled.

Nilin is a kickass female protagonist, and the game has a fair amount of racial and gender diversity. But there’s not much character development, and there are few interesting, unique characters. (One person we’re supposed to care about a lot, who is key to what should be an emotional moment late in the game, is defined only by his fan-worship of Nilin.)

There are cool sci-fi ideas, from memory storage/sharing and memory remixing to an oppressed class of robots and an outcast band of humans with corrupted psyches. At many times throughout the game, the game world felt rather like a spiritual sequel to the darkly conspiratorial cyber-punk world of Deus Ex. But with so many sci-fi concepts buzzing about, the world seemed somewhat amorphous. And oddly, many of the artifacts of the world (toys, shows, news, advertisements, etc.) appeared largely to support an impending story development. Yet the robots in the game don’t get developed after all, even though we see them used as abused personal assistants, prostitutes, and soldiers. (It’s likely that these robots are not truly sentient, but there’s a lot to be said about designing robots that look and act in a human-like fashion and then using them for sex and violence and drudgery.)

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Gameplay is varied, and the game often tries to suggest a much bigger world. But the closed spaces of the final level design leave a lot to be desired.

The story is fairly straightforward. Nilin, the aforementioned amnesiac memory hunter, is rescued from prison and works with an anonymous benefactor using the pseudonym “Edge” to retrieve her memories and promote the Errorist cause. The Errorists are, well, memory terrorists. They quickly escalate to large-scale acts of violence and destruction, as well. Nilin is pulled along, committing ever-more-despicable acts on both the physical and memorial stage. She is morally repulsed by the outcomes of some of the things she does, but she keeps following Edge’s orders. Authorial intent would seem to be that she is uncomfortably in his debt (he did save her, after all) and reacting to even larger atrocities committed by the corporate powers of the world. But even so, the actual story fails to fully deliver, and at times it seems that Nilin keeps doing horrible things–things she regrets–merely because she has nothing better to do and is willing to blindly follow the leader.

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The most interesting elements of the story relate to the technology and philosophy of the memory-sharing corporate society. I’ll admit that I didn’t even read all the lore I collected (and not reading the lore is rather unusual for me in a sci-fi or fantasy game with any form of codex), but I feel like the cool ideas outstretched the feasibility of execution. The ability to alter memories as though they were actual events that, if changed, would follow logical paths was a little bit difficult to believe, for instance. And let’s just say that Edge’s ultimate intention seems a little contradicted by his methodology.

In general, motivation was a bit of a stretch. While some apparent plot holes were cleared up as Nilin regained memories, it still remained that Nilin would do things before having the adequate motivation to do them. And while I actually grew rather fond of Nilin, I had very little emotional attachment to any of the other characters. Even Nilin’s own emotional journey felt muted to me.

Everything points to a much bigger game that was trimmed down. Perhaps there were budget or deadline concerns. Perhaps Dontnod eventually realized that it was overambitious with what it wanted to do for a first title. While the game is complete, it is not polished and feels smaller than it wants to be–smaller than it should be, for all the features and ideas it tries to contain.

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I liked Remember Me. The combat was mostly fun, and the memory remixing sequences were interesting puzzles. But I wish I’d been able to play the game that Dontnod seems to have intended to make here, rather than the game that they ended up with.

Remember Me is not a bad game–and this middle-tier release from a new studio should have given the AAA titles an impressive run for their money. But while I can still wholeheartedly recommend Life Is Strange, I could only suggest Remember Me with qualifications. It’s not a perfect game, and yet I don’t regret my time with Nilin in Neo Paris.

In-Universe Detective Fiction

When I was younger, my favorite type of game was the open-world RPG. I could play those for dozens or hundreds of hours. I still do, at times: my Steam version of Morrowind, for instance, has racked up 260 hours of play time since purchase in 2012. And there are other exceptions, of course, like Arena and Shadow of Mordor.

But as I’ve gotten older, and I’ve had less time to play video games, and I’ve wanted my time with video games to be more meaningful even in that smaller amount of time, I’ve gravitated more toward shorter, narrative-rich experiences. For instance, while I was never a big adventure game fan, adventure games have taken up more and more of my time. I’m okay with a game that does not require a lot of skill or reactivity, but it’s still important to me that the game offer a sense of choice and diverging paths. There should be a sense of personal investment and consequence.

As a result, I’ve played a few of the Telltale games, though certainly not all. My favorite was The Walking Dead, with an emotionally gripping story and rich character drama. I only played season one, though; the first season alone was so emotionally draining that I am in no hurry to engage with the title further, and I’m not a huge fan of the nihilistic death and violence and gore of zombie stories in the first place. I played the Jurassic Park game, because I’m a huge fan of the original book and film, but that story offered very little sense of real consequences for most of the game, and it was too dependent upon annoying quick-time events. And I played most of the Batman game, which definitely offered the feeling of real choice and consequence, and it had excellent detective scenes that were fitting for the character and excellent character interactions. But I never finished that game, after encountering a persistent game-crashing bug in around the third or fourth episode. It was frustrating to have to give up on the game; I know that a lot of people complained about bugs and glitches and unplayability for the initial releases of each episode, and I suspect that the problem may since have been resolved, but I’m not too eager to get back into that story now.

My favorite contemporary adventure game was Life Is Strange, by Dontnod Entertainment. I was heavily invested in the choice and consequence of that game. The story was mystical and bizarre. And the time-looping powers of the protagonist resulted in interesting gameplay moments and were fully integrated into the game’s narrative. Narrative and game mechanics fed into each other. The weirdo teens and their interactions with the weirdo adults, and the snapshot of the Northwest, were great (I only really understood the comparisons to Twin Peaks after playing, as I only started watching the cult classic show months after finishing the game). Not that this is much of a feat, given that the achievements involved completing episodes and taking optional photos, but Life Is Strange is one of two games in which I reached 100% achievement completion on Steam (I stand by my final decision in that game, saving the town and reversing everything that happened, even though it is emotionally devastating; the other choice seemed too selfish to me, and I’m glad that 100% completion did not require playing both endings).

I tried Dontnod’s Remember Me, which felt like a fairly conventional action-adventure title although with the fairly interesting gimmick of memory alteration (memory and the past are obviously important themes in Dontnod’s body of work). I look forward to Vampyr, which seems to be quite a different game for Dontnod, and I’m curious to see how memory and the past might influence that experience.

But I’m discovering that there is a very specific form of typically short, narrative-rich game that I especially love. It sits somewhere between adventure game and visual novel. It often, though not always, has some level of consequence due to choice; at the very least, players’ investigative skills and growing familiarity with in-game systems are critical to advancement. And it involves the use of some sort of in-game software, often an operating system. I don’t know that this particular type of game warrants having its own genre, and I don’t know if there is already a genre descriptor, but I’m going to call these sorts of games In-Universe Detective games.

What I love most about these games is that they use the limitations of the genre to actually build a greater sense of immersion. Instead of remotely playing as another character, the game operates under the assumption that you are you. You may have a particular role or function within the game, and “you” can be defined by the player out-of-game. But who “you” are is built out of direct interaction with the game. The game itself, by acting like a software program, allows for easy suspension of disbelief. The world of the game is your world.

I know of three entries in this genre: Analogue: A Hate Story (and its sequel, Hate Plus), Her Story, and Orwell.

In Analogue: A Hate Story (designed by Christine Love), you are a spacer on a salvage operation to investigate an old, abandoned colony ship; the entire game involves reading through archives and interacting with one of two AI programs. You attempt to discover what exactly went wrong with the ship, and in the process uncover a feudal Korean-inspired culture that developed after a regressive societal change aboard the ship. The game has interesting things to say about misogyny and the myth of the forward march of cultural progress. And it has just as many interesting things to say about identity, rebellion, and forgiveness. It’s a short game, but I played the hell out of it; it’s my other 100% Steam achievement completion title. If you’re into anime or visual novels, it’ll be an easy game to get into. If not for some favorable coverage, though, I would have passed; the cutesy anime girl avatars of the AI were a little obnoxious for me to deal with at first, but they prove to be quite interesting quite quickly.

In Her Story (designed by Sam Barlow), you use an old police computer to review archived clips of interviews with a suspect in a murder investigation. You slowly piece together what happened as you find new videos. You have to find ways to draw connections to other videos, as you cannot simply review them all at once. There’s a fun amount of searching and browsing and deduction involved. Even though the case is closed, you feel like you’re doing a lot of detective work in the searching. Plus, there’s very little interaction outside of this searching role–just an occasional text conversation with a third party–so that a lot of the investigation work you do is off-screen, out-of-game, implicit, personal. I took notes on paper as I worked my way through. It was engaging, and the ending resulted in an interesting shift in perspective for me. This is a game that I would have 100% completion in, if I’d ever bothered to play more of the computer application game on the in-game desktop background.

Lastly, there’s Orwell (designed by Osmotic Studios), which I just reviewed on Sunday. Of the three, I found this the least rewarding to play, although it maybe had the most to say. I’d point you to my review if you want more insight there.

You could say that all of the above are basically games from other genres, and that I’m just reorienting them around a gimmick. But if it’s a “gimmick,” it’s holding up rather well for me and inviting a very particular type of immersive experience. I’ll gladly keep playing games like that.

If you know of any games that fit the bill, please let me know. I’m certainly not tired of them yet.