Vampires. Most of us love them. Some of us complain about their recent teen-ification. Others go a little bit further, trying to create stories that will do them justice. DONTNOD Entertainment, the studio behind Life is Strange, are currently working on Vampyr, a very promising action RPG set in a fictional Victorian-era London—a city caught in the throes of the horrific Spanish Flu. We met up with Stéphane Beauverger, narrative director, and Grégory Szucs, art director, to talk about the origins of the vampire and why they see it as a sexual figure, how Vampyr might not let you save your game at will, and how the player is cursed to descend into Hell no matter who they choose to kill. Oh, and karaoke. Gotta love karaoke. If you make it to the end of the interview, you’ll even find out how they think the world will end. Okay, here we go:
Existential Gamer: I’ve heard you say that you aim to bring adulthood to the vampire genre. Why was that so important to you, and does it have a link to the teenage setting in Life is Strange?
Stéphane Beauverger: Well I don’t think there’s any doubt that the teenage aspect of the vampire theme has risen to popularity recently because of the Twilight films. We wanted to go back to the roots of the vampire figure. The Victorian, tragic, romantic, and adult vampire. Who is very sexual. Who is a very erotic creature, always seducing his prey. I wanted to go back to this gothic vision of that particular character.
EG: And have you seen Werner Herzog’s film, Nosferatu?
SB: Yes, of course. And Byzantium, have you seen that movie? It was made recently.
SB: Very interesting movie, made two years ago, a British film with a new approach to the genre. There are always new ways to approach the vampire figure. Each time somebody new broaches the subject, gets close to the vampire mythology, he has to create his own vision, because there are so many aspects to take into account. Garlic—yes or no? Silver, crosses, sun… do you see yourself in the mirror? Can you enter a house without first being invited in? In fact there is no ‘real’ vision of the vampire, you can invent your own take on the mythology.
“They weren’t even called ‘vampires’ at the time. They were called ‘vrykolakas’. The figure of a predator linked to blood—who can drink the blood of its prey—exists in many different cultures.”
EG: The mythology of the vampire… I think we often tend to forget that it has its roots in a man-created story.
EG: In early story-telling it was all by word of mouth, and now there’s this idea that this genre is defined by something that’s much more set. Do you think of yourself as a kind of new interpreter of the original myths?
SB: I will confess that I’m trying to return to their roots. For example, everyone thinks that vampires come from Transylvania, a region in Romania. If so, Dracula could be considered the godfather of all vampires. But that’s simply not true. In fact myths originate from the Mediterranean area, traveling north from there. They weren’t even called ‘vampires’ at the time. They were called “vrykolakas”. The figure of a predator linked to blood—who can drink the blood of its prey—exists in many different cultures. It exists in Japan, across Asia, in South America. It’s very much linked to what we are. Human beings are made of blood. So if somebody is able to drink our blood, we disappear. That’s why it was interesting to create a set of ‘rules’ that would give a new origin… by reading and discovering the true origin of the vampire figure, which was very difficult, because it comes from the dark ages of humanity.
EG: From what I know, they used to unearth bodies, stake them, and bury them again. It was during times of disease. It was a reaction to that.
SB: Exactly. So you can create what you want. We wanted to go back to a dark, cursed figure.
EG: Were you influenced by any particular art when creating Vampyr?
Grégory Szucs: I have always loved the haunting figures in some of Phil Hale’s paintings. Sculpted, chiseled and bleakly lit with a cold, stroby light. Even the framing can be suffocating at times.
EG: What role do dark and light play in Vampyr?
GS: The shadows are essential to our hero, because that is where most of the bad deeds will happen. The exposure and the use of light and fog are designed to give the player just enough info to make their way around the world while keeping them on their toes. We want them to always be guessing at the true nature of the incoming silhouettes. Are they friend or foe?
EG: We’ve already spoken about your influences in the world of film. Are there any films outside of the Horror or Vampire genres that you would say inspired your vision for this game?
SB: From Hell, perhaps. Even if it’s set forty years later than the Victorian era, at the end of the First World War. Nonetheless, there is this vision of this dark, gloomy, rainy, foggy London. This was very interesting to me, and helped me in my creative process. But in our game, there is no gaslight, we imagined a Victorian-era London with electricity.
EG: So that’s fictional.
“By the end of the First World War, there are so many things happening at once: the rise of Communism, the appearance of Feminism, the British Empire beginning to crumble…”
EG: And when you were creating your version of Victorian society, did you base that on those kind of genre films, or historic research?
SB: Oh yeah, we always do a lot of research at DONTNOD Entertainment. For Vampyr, we didn’t want the setting to be the center of the player’s focus, but we did want to provide information: by the end of the First World War, there are so many things happening at once: the rise of Communism, the appearance of Feminism, the old empire—the British Empire—beginning to crumble… so the roots of what will come to define the 20th century—the industrial age—are appearing during this time-period. It’s sad to say—but true—that medical discoveries happened at a higher rate during times of war, when many people were wounded. This was also the first war to use industrial techniques to destroy and kill on a massive scale: hundreds and thousands of soldiers lost their lives to just a single bomb or mustard gas attack. So, since we have a lot of citizens in the game, I hope that all of them will give a little taste, a little aspect of what life was like for people in London at the time.
EG: Playing The Witcher 3, I was struck by the relative lack of sentimentality in the narrative. Do you find that as European writers and game designers, you notice this kind of difference between your way of story-telling and your North American counterparts’?
SB: You mean the American writers would manipulate emotions more?
EG: Yes, I suppose, more sentimental.
SB: Perhaps. That’s strange because I would have said that romanticism is from Europe, actually. Seduction is from Paris… everybody knows that. *laughs* I don’t know. I must say that when I played The Last of Us, about a year ago, I was struck by the quality of the emotions between Joel and Ellie. It came across as very true, very realistic. Brilliant stuff. I didn’t think: “geez, Americans made this?” I thought: “Whoever made this is brilliant.” I’m sure there are cultural differences when you approach character creation, world building, and story-telling. Of course the cultural aspect is essential. But I can’t say I think there is a higher quality on one side of the ocean or the other.
EG: To kill or not to kill, that is the question. It seems like this choice and its consequences are at the core of progression and the development of the game’s main character and narrative. Can you explain why this was so important for you?
SB: First of all, I must say that the question is not: “to kill or not to kill?” It will be so difficult to avoid killing in the game. Everything in the game will be easier if you take a life, because you’re a vampire and you’re compelled to do so. We wanted to translate that idea into the gameplay. You get much more rewarded for taking a life—for biting someone and killing them—than you do for fighting them. You receive much more experience points. So that’s the easiest way. Because you’re always hungry as a vampire. But there is always a cost too. There are consequences to each murder. There is no going back to your previous save.
“There are no ‘salvation points’. All you can control is the speed of your descent into Hell. It’s up to you. You just control the brake.”
EG: There’s no saving?
SB: There is saving. But it’s definitive, much like in State of Decay. Each time you lose a guy from your team in that game, the game goes on and you can’t return to a previous save. Same concept in Vampyr. For now. Perhaps we will realize that this is too difficult for the player. Perhaps we’ll have two modes. But for now, we aim to integrate that mechanic of permanence. You’re a vampire! You’re cursed! You’re doomed! You need to kill, sometimes even people you know. That’s why the question is not, “to kill or not to kill?”—even though technically it’s possible to avoid killing throughout the game—but rather: “who will you kill?” That’s why the leitmotiv, the model of the game is: “cursed be the choice.” Because you will have to choose a target, sooner or later. You could choose blindly, picking someone at random, if that puts your mind more at ease as a player. But each time you kill someone, you will know exactly who they were and what their life was like.
EG: After you kill them?
SB: After you kill them. And if you want to investigate, observe, get hints, clues, who they are, what they know, what their secret is, then you can learn more about the consequences of killing them. You would know: “oh, if I kill him, his son will lose a father, but on the other hand he’s beating his wife.” You can investigate and make up your mind. The cost is the same. You will be damned. Each time you kill someone you get a ‘damnation point’, and those don’t ever go down. There are no ‘salvation points’. All you can control is the speed of your descent into Hell. It’s up to you. You just control the brake.
“The vampire is seductive. He knows what he was, who he was, and he’s always trying to remember his love. He’s a quite erotic and sentimental figure, a romantic figure actually.”
EG: Maybe this is an antiquated concept to apply to the game, but what is ‘winning’ in a world in which you become more and more damned?
SB: How far did you go? You have the right as a player to be an evil beast. You can kill everyone and just say: “I’m not part of mankind anymore. I’m something else. I’m a predator. You’re my cattle.” Or you can say: “No, I want to remember who I was.” That’s why the vampire is such a fascinating figure. He’s one of the rare ‘monsters’ who’s aware of what he does. The werewolves, the mummies, the zombies, the ghouls, they’re just brainless creatures that kill or destroy everybody they meet. The vampire is seductive. He knows what he was, who he was, and he’s always trying to remember his love. He’s a quite erotic and sentimental figure, a romantic figure actually. That’s why we wanted to create relationships between the citizens in the game. Each time you kill someone, you don’t just take a life, you also impact the person’s relatives, their family, their friends.
EG: Are you an RPG fan in the classic sense? What’s your favorite RPG?
SB: You mean the old tabletop games with paper and pencil?
EG: Those, and CRPG’s.
SB: Ah, ok. Yes as a teenager I played a lot of classic tabletop games. And CRPG’s, of course. Fallout, Neverwinter Nights… more occidental games than Japanese ones.
GS: Easy answer for me. My favorite and the one I’ve clocked the most hours in is Vampire: The Mascarade. If you count the hours spent playing Vampire: The Eternal Struggle and other titles in the World of Darkness universe, it borders on the absurd.
EG: What about you, Stéphane, what’s the game you’ve played the most hours of in your life?
SB: Sid Meier’s Pirates!… the old one.
EG: Nice. Mine is probably Civilization by this point. Sid Meier’s games… *laughs*
SB: *laughs* Ah, the 80’s.
“Karaoke games like Lips and Sing It. But I have to play those alone, because I want to keep my friends.”
EG: What is a game people would be surprised to know that you enjoyed?
SB: Euro Truck Simulator 2.
GS: Maybe Hotline Miami? Oh no, wait, I know… Karaoke games like Lips and Sing It. But I have to play those alone, because I want to keep my friends.
EG: What’s been the most difficult obstacle in the development of Vampyr so far?
SB: Maintaining a storyline despite the cuts that are necessary to all projects. To maintain a coherence, an evolution for the characters. Not just for the heroes, but also for the main NPC’s. That’s always the most difficult part of my job as a Narrative Director. To maintain a thrilling sensation for the player to experience.
EG: How do you maintain creative consistency across an entire game, with so many moving pieces at play? Do you find that this imperative creates internal clashes within the team?
GS: You have to adhere to the philosophy the game director has established. You’re working on a game, not a painting. Most people don’t buy it just to look at the FX or the skybox. The experience as a whole is what matters.
EG: Some of the early promo for the game featured highly-stylized artwork, but the latest trailer leans more towards 3d realism. Will that original art style be present in the game?
GS: Yes, this is something we’re considering for the storytelling bits.
EG: When do you believe the world is going to end, and how?
SB: The world or humanity?
EG: Let’s do both.
SB: Humanity will disappear much sooner than the planet itself. Not because we will die out, but because we will evolve into something else. A new aspect of our selves, a new technology will emerge… we will reach what they call ‘post-humanity’. As for the planet itself, I suppose it’s already been decided by the cosmic laws. At some point the planet will be too close to the sun, and that will be the end of it.
GS: I think it’ll be grey goo. And way too soon, like less than a hundred years from now.