Choice driven video games aren’t a new concept. In fact, you might argue that they’re oversaturated as of late. Developers boast that you can change the outcome of the game and tempt you to play with fire. Will you give that poor, starving family some of your food, or will you leave them to starve in the zombie apocalypse? Telltale Games and Bioware popularized the formula, with many developers following suit. The power of choice is an enticing option for players who want control over the narrative. It’s like authoring your own novel where you get to decide how moral (or immoral) your characters will be.
Dontnod Entertainment is no stranger to the choice driven narrative; their episodic adventure, Life is Strange, is frequently hailed as one of the best of its kind, with players having to make difficult decisions that could affect the past, present, future, or all three. Its use of the Butterfly Effect is compelling and a very unique way to change up the timeline.
DontNod continues this trend in its latest title, Vampyr. Set in early 20th century London, the game follows Dr. Jonathan Reid, a World War I veteran and doctor who has come back home to a disease ridden England. After mysteriously being turned into a vampire, Reid is on the hunt for his maker while also trying to combat the more violent vampires (called skals) and save the various districts from sickness and destruction.
And that’s where the game leaves you to your own demises. In order to upgrade your vampiric skills, you have to drink the blood of citizens to gain experience points. And if those citizens happen to be ill, you can give them medicine before sucking their blood to gain even more points. You essentially play the part of a trustworthy doctor before giving into your own urges.
If you choose to play the part of the gentleman bloodsucker, then chaos will come to your victim’s district. Monsters will invade and citizens will go missing, permanently deleting various side quests. And while there are certainly other ways to gain experience for upgrades, sucking blood is by far the fastest way to go about it. Now, sucking blood would be a no-brainer if the NPCs were one-dimensional or simply enemies standing in the way, but Dontnod creates dozens of sympathetic backstories that has you thinking twice of who to take a bite of.
Each citizen has a branch of hints that unlock additional information about each citizen. The more hints you unlock, the more experience points you receive from that person’s blood. You unlock these hints through dialogue, documents, and local gossip through some particularly chatty locals. It’s through these third parties that you really start to understand the subject at hand and even start to feel sympathetic for him/her. Knowing significant details of an NPC’s life really humanizes their character and makes them more than a walking blood bag. Suddenly, they have their own dreams and desires, and you can be the one to ruin it all.
At some point in the game, you come across a young woman who’s been staying the local shelter to protect herself from the epidemic. Her sweet naivety strictly contrasts with her older sister’s cold, hateful attitude towards wealthy men. Nevertheless, their sibling bond is unbreakable, and they have dreams of living in a better place. Unfortunately, due to a bad choice on my part, those dreams will never come true. Because I tried to play the good guy, that young woman had to pay the price by being turned into a violent skal.
Dontnod makes you live with your consequences permanently by only allowing one save file a game with no manual saving allowed. While certainly frustrating, it gives the player a sense of finality in their decision making. Vampyr may not have a story comparable to Mass Effect or Dragon Age, but it can at least revel in the fact that its choice-making structure is far superior.