not exactly something you can slip into a .zip file

Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines is an interesting game with a lot of… quirks. Something overlooked is how the game’s style rapidly pivots between the weirdly cartoonish and the plausibly realistic. One can expect to see Dishonored-style facial composition one moment; nigh-photographic portrayals of characters the next. The environments, too, are no exception. From a design perspective, the levels give some real insight on how to capture the zeitgeist and feeling of a place, weaving a visual buffet where only a few things are tactically edible. So, let’s craft some hauntology, shall we?

As I continue my first playthrough (yes, shameful, having had the game for ages yet hardly taking the time to fully sit down with it at length past the beginning Santa Monica drudge) I will be doing a few short writeups on my thoughts and experiences throughout.

Oh no, I wound up in the wrong Portland!

California is a weird place, SoCal even weirder, what with American needs juxtaposed with faux-European flair, boardwalk beaches within the clutches of gargoyle-laden cathedrals. Santa Monica at times easily evokes the beachside areas of something like San Francisco, making you appreciate just how much flavor they managed to pack into these mazes: dense, elaborate, and spartan all at once. How, exactly, do you pack all there is to experience in a dense city neighborhood into a single game map, especially one as restrictive as the Source Engine with its requirements for lean brushwork (the building blocks of the world, as it were) and conservative memory usage?

One trick the game leans on is fresh assets. Coming out the exact same day as Half-Life 2 without consideration for polish or QA, Troika Games was put to the unenviable task of cramming untold hours of gameplay and a distinct vibe into what must have been the most alienating crunch gauntlet this side of game dev. SiN Episodes, while remarkable for the original content it cultivated in expectation of many more installments, still relied heavily on stock sound effects, textures, and sometimes even model geometry. Source Engine games were the original asset flips, and we’re no stranger to hearing sound effects seared into memory by our beloved Gordon Freeman in video games, anime, and film, thanks to widespread usage of stock audio libraries.

Cup of coffee was so strong, my veal cutlet couldn’t even defend itself.

Yet… Bloodlines manages to not just pull it off, but pull it off with style and flair. Gritty textures give way to beautiful muted tones from all over the spectrum; purples, burgundy, and a myriad of other gorgeous shades crop up regularly, somehow without starting to feel passé or overused. Bloodlines is the nightmare that takes place in the kitchens of all our grandmothers’ houses, a poor imitation of those hotels we found ourselves in, shoddy and unmaintained, but with a certain charm that still manages to send bugs crawling up your skin. It’s the coffee stain on the counter, the weird grease that bleeds through the dial on your stovetop, the gum beneath your diner’s serving table… at least you hope it’s gum.

There’s a horrific familarity to all this that ratchets up to 11 in the Ocean House hotel, a loving tribute to the famous digs seen in cinema’s most famous fearsome flicks. There’s no axe murderer banging down the door, and no peeping toms with a taxidermy obsession to be found, just good ol’ fashioned World Of Darkness wraiths haunting the corridors and telling you to beware, yet perplexingly begging for your help. Talk about mixed signals, eh?

It’s incredible that Bloodlines manages to straddle the fence between the real, the familiar as you remember it, and the vivid presentation of something done with artistic licence, as if it were pulled straight from memory by the artists who’ve lived there, been there, bartended there. It’s the kind of level design you can’t get from people who haven’t experienced it first-hand or in a longing dream.

It really does take the undead to keep goth clubs going.

It’s a thoughtful presentation, the provocative geometric come-ons that read like a love-letter to a city’s true essence. I haven’t seen work imbued with this much character outside of other surreal urban simulacra like the imaginative film sets of Brazil or Dark City. Bloodlines really makes you feel like you were there, when the scene was—ahem—alive.

It’s rare that levels live up to the esteemed personality of the cities they attempt to emulate, but it’s here, buried between the alleyway bricks, underneath the sewer grates. Los Angeles, Santa Monica… they’re not the ones you know; they’re the ones you want to see, reminders of a destination unreachable, crystalized through art and lost somewhere in time. I’ll be waiting for you, friendo, in the Diner with the five egg omelette, a cup of coffee, and the greasy soggy side of fried zucchini. We’ll see each other when we’re ready to reminisce together in the chapel of forgotten dreams.

Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice