Recently, we named Vampyr the Most Disappointing Game at E3 2017. My Cliqist colleague and longtime Edward Cullen cosplayer Joanna Mueller has long written about the troubled Dontnod follow-up to Life is Strange. She’s called for more information about the game from the developers, considering the game is still set to release in 2017 and before E3 there was barely any gameplay footage. During E3, she wrote about how rough the game looked.
“Since the footage was taken from the game’s alpha build some of the character animations are still rough. Mouth movements don’t always coordinate correctly and some of the combat dashing looked a bit clunky. Dontnod definitely still has some technical polishing to do to get the game ready for its November release date.”
I’m not quite as optimistic on Vampyr as she is, but we share one thing in common. The gameplay doesn’t quite match what was originally promised when the game was first announced.
Twinkle, Twinkle Little Vampire
When Dontnod first announced Vampyr in November 2015 after Life is Strange wrapped up, I was enthralled. I never played Remember Me, by all accounts a thoroughly bland and forgettable game, but Life is Strange, with all its flaws, is one of my all-time favorite games. Now, here they were announcing a new game set just after World War I, one of my favorite historical periods – and you know I love my history.
From the sounds of things, Vampyr would be all about the story and player choice. When Dontnod first spoke of the game, they played up the disparity between the player’s role, that of Dr. Jonathan Reid. You’re a doctor fighting against the onslaught of the Spanish Flu, a real disease that claimed the lives of 50 to 100 million people between 1918 and 1920. At the same time however, you were also a vampire, and had to feed on the blood of your patients to survive.
Think of all the interesting dynamics inherently present in that idea! The game could explore how World War I served as a vessel that easily spread the disease around the world quickly and easily. It could have explored how you needed to feed on blood to survive, bot almost everybody is infected, leaving you vulnerable. Think of how they could tie vampires and the flu itself together, maybe treat the vampires as a not so subtle proxy for the Jewish population, who were first blamed for the outbreak. The possibilities, both with the history and story are limitless.
“The information you gather, the things that you see, and the relationships [you] nurture will all define your decisions,” game director Philippe Moreau wrote on the PlayStation Europe blog. “But you will have to feed. You cannot escape that you are a vampire.”
Dontnod hyped up how the ‘Y’ in the title somehow related to the moral choices in the game, and how Dr. Reid struggles with his demons of wanting to save lives but want to take them so he could feed. There was all this talk about how you could complete the game without ever feeding on anyone at all. Moreau also said it was an RPG with combat mechanics, but he also said “you’ll have to collect many clues, and talk to many people as you prowl the streets of London,” in order to progress.
For all intense and purposes, this was sounding like a grounded tale, much like Life is Strange. Swap out the time travel powers in that game for vampirism, and the contemporary American high school setting for the end of 1918 in Britain and that would be the game, right?
This Stake’s Overcooked!
The first sign of trouble was right there, and I should have seen it. When the game was announced, there was no gameplay shown, there weren’t even screenshots. There was a teaser trailer, but it was little more than a slideshow with some concept art. That didn’t stop me from falling for the hype though, as I was still in the honeymoon phase with Life is Strange.
It wasn’t until Gamescom 2016 that we saw gameplay for the first time. It started out decently enough, with a well-directed (if clichéd) cutscene in a rainy cemetery at night. Then a woman appeared and spoke to our protagonist, showcasing not only the dialog choices, but clunky dialog. Then the actually gameplay began, and I could feel my excitement drain from me as I watched it unfold.
The player was walking slowly around a small level, clearly trying to make it look bigger and more open than it actually was. Dr. Reid showcased his bland writing and acting, clearly gunning for the “Generic Video Game Protagonist of the Year” award. Nothing happened as the player walked around backstreets and houses, save for Reid droning on about nothing in particular. Then we saw the combat.
The combat looked atrocious. Any pretense of a grounded world evaporated in an instant, as Reid bobbed and weaved around the tiny arena at random. It seemed you were limited to dodging, stabbing, and shooting, a level of depth you’d expect from a game a decade ago. Enemies burst with blood like piñatas as you hit them, and you could feast on their blood at will, without the much touted consequence.
Questions began to form. Why are these people fighting to the death in the middle of a London street anyway? Where are all the townspeople? Why are they attacking you? Where are those touted RPG mechanics, and why does the combat look so flat? Things looked grim.
E3 2017 and a New Reckoning
With my hopes for Vampyr in tatters, I put the game out my mind, forgetting about it entirely until Joanna’s first article about the E3 2017 trailer. “This looks like shit,” she should have written, clearly holding herself back from casting immediate judgement like a “professional” or some such nonsense.
Dontnod’s E3 trailer looked abysmal, completely throwing out even the faintest hint at a grounded RPG, instead leaning hard on the silly other-wordly supernatural elements. There are apparently going to be zombies in the game now, because that fad still hasn’t died out yet in 2017. “But don’t worry, there’s going to be lots of blood and beating people up, because this is a mature game” the trailer seems to scream.
That E3 trailer was the low-point for Vampyr. As disappointed as I was by the Gamescom footage, I still held out hope Dontnod would turn things around. But this trailer shattered such a silly belief. Still holding firm to its 2017 release date, and without any gameplay to show other than the Gamescom 2016 footage, I figured this game was dead in the water, one way or another.
But then, a funny thing happened. The supposed “behind the scenes, closed door” gameplay preview at E3 this year was made public almost instantly. The iffy dialog and mediocre voice acting were still in full force, but there was something different this time around. Was it a new haircut? A new shirt? No, Vampyr had a pep in its step, one that came from a much needed layer of depth.
This new demo was all about countering the awful Gamescom presentation. There was a truly open world to explore, albeit a small one, full of NPC’s you could talk to and interact with however the player choices. There were side quests and leveling, different weapons, and slightly improved combat at least. It was a short demo, so we didn’t get to see what kind of impact the player choices would actually have, but there were clear signs of being able to do things different than what the player chose to do.
Where did all of this come from?
The Dangers of Marketing
The footage shown at E3 was somehow still alpha footage, despite the still firm 2017 release date. It’s clearly rough around the edges, the way both of Dontnod’s previous games seem to be. I have a feeling what we saw at E3 this year is as pretty much close to the final gameplay we’re going to see before its release.
It’s a marked improvement over the Gamescom 2016 trailer, and much closer to what was originally announced. But the game that was originally announced, this is not. What was first spoken of by Dontnod was a grounded, narrative driven game in the same vein as Life is Strange, and what we’re getting appears to be a Mass Effect or Skyrim-esque RPG.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but Dontnod should have sold it as that from the very beginning, making sure they were clear that Vampyr would be a lot more like Remember Me than Life is Strange. They chose to be ambiguous though, heavily pushing the narrative and withholding any gameplay footage or even screenshots of the game until nearly a year after its announcement. Now, no matter how good the final game may end up being, I’ll still feel disappointed at what could have been rather than enjoying the game.
All of this goes to show how important first impressions are. We see this all the time with crowdfunded projects. A developer will promise the world only for their game to be half of what they said it’d be, if that. Or they write pages of text detailing every aspect of the game, telling without ever showing anything but expecting funded anyway.
Expectations are important to manage when developing and announcing a game, both on the part of the audience and the developers. Maybe Vampyr was originally envisioned to be similar to Life is Strange but changed during development, after the announcement was made. Maybe there will be more story than what the marketing is letting on because publisher Focus Home Interactive doesn’t have faith that story will sell.
It’s impossible to say what’s going on behind closed doors at Dontnod, but one thing is for sure – however good or bad Vampyr will be, it’ll still be disappointing.