Exploring 'Vampyr', the New Game from 'Life Is Strange' Developers Dontnod
London, 1918. The Great War has shaken the city's residents. An outbreak of flu is becoming a pandemic. And then there's the small matter of vampires in the East End.
Having seen their episodic, time-bending adventure Life Is Strange sell fantastically and attract a shedload of critical acclaim in 2015, Parisian studio Dontnod Entertainment is in a pretty good place in early 2016. But the team's not resting on its laurels. A new title, the studio's third after Life Is Strange and 2013's sci-fi action affair Remember Me, was just beginning to blink into existence in 2015, and it's the company's main focus for 2016. That game is Vampyr, and I've got to say, it's looking a bit tasty.
Vampyr is, on paper, an action-RPG, with all the skill trees and side-quests and item crafting that come with that territory. But just as Life Is Strange echoed the Telltale Games approach to narrative progression but made your choices even more important to the overall story, and Remember Me borrowed some of its combat from Rocksteady's Arkham series while twisting the formula via its "combo lab", so Vampyr is bringing singular features to a familiar genre. For one thing, this isn't a game about hunting down the undead – it casts the player as a budding creature of the night, newly turned, and asks them to decide what to do next. Kill everyone in sight, levelling yourself up rapidly in the process? Or be calmer, slower, and more selective? Or, just perhaps, find some other way of sating your thirst that doesn't involve tearing apart the throats of Whitechapel's residents.
Our setting is London, initially east, not long after the end of the First World War. The city is in a bad way – hell, the world's pretty shaken. And an outbreak of influenza, so rampant that it'll soon spin into a global pandemic killing as many as 100 million people, is only adding to humanity's dire situation. Vampires are taking advantage of the distress, preying on the sickly and insecure. But you, you're a doctor, a surgeon, a man of medicine. It was only recently that you were helping people, not dragging them into dark alleyways to drain them dry.
I watch a pre-alpha demo of Vampyr, guided by game director Philippe Moreau, which shows off some of its dialogue options (including opportunities to "seduce" victims, for either feeding or information), different paths of action and activation of some early vampire powers, including a "spring" for immediately traversing short distances, horizontally or vertically. The game's visuals are far from the finished article, but are already attractively atmospheric. I learn that you're not the only vampire in town – indeed, you'll quickly befriend others – and that the city has its share of vampire hunters, who won't hesitate to end your corporeal afterlife. And your actions matter – tread lightly through London and the city won't be scarred; run rampant, and it'll turn against you all the quicker.
Once Moreau's presentation ends, I sit down with Vampyr's art director Grégory Szucs to learn more about Dontnod's alluring adventure in waiting.
VICE: We've got this gloriously grim setting here, of post-war London in 1918, with flu raging across the city. But as impressive as the game's location is, within known history, I'm guessing the desire to make a vampire game preceded discussions regarding where, and when, it would be set?
Grégory Szucs: Yes, the vampire thing came first. And then we began to get into how we were going to wrap the story around that starting point. We looked for the best setting, and we had to find a time when humanity was in a really weak position, a weak position. So here we are, right after the First World War, where we saw killing on an industrial scale. People are alienated by industrialisation, and the Spanish influenza has taken hold of the world, the worst pandemic we've ever known. So, this is a perfect time for vampires to strike, again, to take advantage of the weakness.
In terms of going to London, we felt it was the perfect setting as it's this nexus of all the elements we needed. It's very gothic, and can be a very dark city. It has very different neighbourhoods, and social layers that we wanted to explore. There were also all the new inventions, like electrification, and advances in medicine happening, and in surgery. So this background makes sense – it has all the tools we need for our story.
The game's teaser trailer of 2015 had this striking, stylised look to it, but the in-game art is a lot more realistic. What's the ultimate approach the studio is taking with this, aesthetically?
The stylised art is something you'll see in the game, in the cutscenes. What you've seen in the demo is still work in progress, too – we are aiming for a realistic approach in many ways, like lighting, but we have an impressionistic twist to things. At the moment, the character models are still very rough. It won't be like Dishonored, where the characters had a sort of cartoon-like look; we're going to keep all the proportions of our characters anatomically correct, but emphasise this chiselled, sculpted look to faces. From a distance, the game might look perfectly photo real; but get closer, and you'll see that we've got our own signature in our reality.
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Can you tell me more about who the player is cast as, this new vampire who's coming to terms with his situation?
You're a doctor, Jonathan Read, who's just come back from the war. He's a high-ranking surgeon – actually, he's at the top of his game, and has pioneered some blood transfusion techniques, which might give you a clue as to how he's found himself in this situation. Actually, when you begin, you wake up in a mass grave. You remember everything about your past – except for how you became a vampire. And that's part of your quest – who made you this way, and why, exploring all the intricacies of vampire politics.
The demo you saw, that's pretty early in the game, and you're still coming to understand your powers. You've just made your first few vampire acquaintances, and you're running errands for them. To be honest, maybe they're being a little manipulative.
So, do these vampires work like we know them to, traditionally? I'm wondering if we can stroll around during daylight hours.
We definitely went back into vampire fiction, to the romantic type of vampire – not in the Twilight sense, but to when they were dark, doom-filled figures, who are always questioning what they're doing. These are predators with consciences. So not all of them embrace the beast inside them. And as you can see in the spelling of the game's title, we've looked back at how the word was first used, in its Romanian spelling. There's a huge lore, and we've picked and chosen particular characteristics to build our own vision of a vampire.
The studio must be in a pretty upbeat frame of mind, after the success of Life Is Strange in 2015?
We're definitely charged up. Many of the people who worked on Life Is Strange have come across to Vampyr – we're a relatively small team. I think, right now there are about 60 of us working on this game. We've brought in some new faces, too.
Life Is Strange was a game of choices, and I notice in the demo that Jonathan gets to decide between targets – or, rather, victims. And whoever he chooses to kill will have an impact on how the story plays out, won't it?
Well, you can play as a cold-blooded killer, maximising your XP by feeding on loads of people. You can even try to heal injured or sick people you meet, getting them better so that when you feed on them later, you get more out of it. People in bad shape, feeding on them won't be so rewarding.
So Jonathan is struggling to come to terms with his situation. He's conflicted, so it's down to the player how they steer his bloodlust?
Yes, you can decide to not kill anyone, as hard as that will be; or embrace your vampire nature and – well, not go on a rampage, as that's difficult and you need your cover of being a doctor to remain, but pretty much kill everyone. This isn't quite an open world – it has large hubs to explore, and there will be a lot of NPCs in each one. And I feel that's the best way to approach this sort of game. You're still free to roam, free to meet whoever you like – and to come back later on, and visit people again. A fully open-world game can have spaces with nothing in them – or, you see the filler space.
'Vampyr', 2015 teaser trailer
And is it just set in east London?
No, there are different districts of London in the game. I spent time in the city, taking a lot of photographs, doing research. I find it very rewarding to work on a place that's real, somewhere you can go in your own life. We're definitely using some artistic license, but there's so much wonderful Georgian and Victorian architecture in London, and even in the poorer neighbourhoods, there are amazing buildings. The glamour and the squalor, it's all in there in London.
It feels to me like that the player's moral compass is going to be tested. There was the suggestion, made by Philippe, that the more you kill, the worse shape London can find itself in. So, by growing yourself, and expanding your vampire powers, you could actually be destroying your home, right?
Sure, you can make things worse for yourself, and for the city. You will have to balance things – but Jonathan himself isn't really going to be punished, either way. You can proceed using quick kills for small amounts of experience, and you might gain more powers early on that way – but doing things that way will restrict you in other areas. Once you kill someone, their family will drift out of the game. However, maybe you'll help someone, and their family in turn will help you to accomplish other things in this world. There are some deep systems at play in the game, which we will elaborate on later this year – but if you kill someone, you never know what's going to happen. Kill someone's son, and what is the father going to do? Is he going to break, and maybe go and hang himself? Or is he going to come after the person who did it?
Which is on top of the vampire hunters, who have been mentioned.
Yes. You're not the only vampire in town, and they're being hunted down. Now, you might just happen to stumble into the path of these vampire hunters when they're tracking another vampire entirely. We want this game world to feel like it continues without you – everybody has their own stories, their own activities, which are going to happen even if you're not there to witness them. If you go and disturb that equilibrium, you're going to feel how everything falls out of place.
Okay, so where are we in terms of production, and a release date?
We're still very early on in the production process, and the game is scheduled for a 2017 release, though I can't be any more specific than that. It's that early in development that we're not really sure yet. It'll come out on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC, and we'll show more of the game at E3. We're going to be there with more things to reveal.
Vampyr is released in 2017. Follow the game's development at the Dontnod website. VICE Gaming conducted this interview in Paris at the "Le What's Next de Focus?" preview event, with transport and accommodation covered by Focus Home Interactive.
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