Forever Young, The Tragedy Of Bloodlines

By Jim Rossignol on February 11th, 2009 at 11:54 am.


There’s a bittersweet flavour to playing Bloodlines. It’s not because of the vampiric moodiness and the twilight tales that it tells, nor the real-world tragedy of its costly development finally undoing brave development studio, Troika. No, the sense of sorrow comes from the realisation that there’s nothing like this on the horizon. The idea is begged: why should there be so few games like this? Oh right, because it’s so very hard to do.

Bloodlines – a clever, multi-faceted RPG – is a rare animal. Even under the blazing light of Fallout 3′s recent release, there’s a sense that we’ve not yet reached our promised land of games that do more, games that do worlds, games that do people. Bloodlines points the way to those games. Indeed, there’s a sense that these games might just be becoming a myth. Like the plight of an animal species on the verge of extinction, the lack of games comparable to Bloodlines is one of the great tragedies of our time.

Our plight is this: if your great pleasure is hybrid action-oriented first-person role-playing games, with nuanced, open-plan stories filled with interesting characters, then your fantasy life is necessarily stunted. You have very few options. Games that offer a personal experience of worlds that we could never otherwise access outside of film and literature are rare. Ultra-violent warmonger, battlefield overseer, even sneaky thief man – these are all catered for in some way. But other, wider ideas are harder to come by. What, indeed, would it be like to live life as a 1950s private detective, or an FBI agent, or a nano-tech enhanced super agent of the near future, or a vampire?

Not many games bother with such wide open scope. Bloodlines does. And it does what a select few videogames have articulated: giving us sudden, direct access to something wonderful and alien. But it’s drama, and pseudo-social, as much as it is videogame action. It is filled with brilliant artificial people. Bloodlines allows us – like a participant in some larger soap opera – to make decisions about what might happen to those individuals. In this case, it’s always something wonderfully dark. Bloodlines manages to be funny, humane (if not human), brutal, horrifying, and thrilling, all at once. Its vampires are larger than life and yet nevertheless alive. Their twisted traits come tumbling out in excellent dialogue and strange quests. It is heavy on heavy themes, ideas that might otherwise pervert the purity of any other action game. Seduction, sedition, schizophrenia, propaganda, pornography, purgatory: these thematic notions are the lifeblood of vampire fiction, and they’re essential what’s going on in here. The struggle between the vampire castes is at once noble and despicable, and picking your route between its pitfalls is a delight. Ultimately, though, this is about exploration: about seeing something out of the ordinary. Toxic tourism in vampiric clubland.

Bloodlines is something like an action soap-opera. I truly wish I could say that of more games. So few games have attempted to access this most natural of game approaches: analogy of the real world, with conversation and violence intermingled, rather than simply delivering uninterrupted carnage, or endless management. These ‘immersive sim’ games are tough to make, granted, but when you play something like Bloodlines they also feel like they’re the games we deserve. Game developers often talk about the strange sense of entitlement that gamers seem to bring to their hobby, but when you taste games like this, it becomes entirely understandable. To be to be stealthy or stabby, seductive or violent, well, it’s almost like the game is spoiling us with options. After ten hours in Bloodlines you’re struck by the nagging concern: why aren’t other studios reaching for the stars like this? Even Bioshock and Stalker seem vapid in their shooter-obsessions.

Of course, it’s a matter of complexity. To make a game like Bloodlines is a task of terrifying scale. It’s one thing to make a game about running around putting bullets into people, and quite another to make it the tale of a weak young vampire who can talk to almost anyone in a series of thriving city hubs, travelling back and forth between them amid of a web of quests that range from simple puzzle solving, through the seduction of innocent human victims, to the brawling battles with rival monsters. To make this, you really have to know what you’re doing. And therein lies the crux of the matter, the black heart inside the game: the crucial problem with Bloodlines was its complete and utter brokenness on release. Troika had tried to reach the highest peaks of game design, and faltered, and then fallen. My first journey through this glitchy underworld left my character stranded in a sewer pipe. I never did get any further and, savegame deleted, his weird adventure game to a permanent end. Getting past that point months later sent me trudging into endgame of horrifying hack-and-slash tedium, where nothing of the early game intricacy remained to give us respite from the melee. Even if you didn’t get that far, a sojourn with Bloodlines exposed you to animation failures, spelling mistakes, and all other kinds of design splatter. This was not a finished game. Bloodlines, despite all its riches, was incomplete.

Ultimately the lamentable collapse of the final act of the game cannot be fixed without money and studio expertise, but many of the other problems have been dealt with. I’ve played through now with the community patch, and dozens of problems have been fixed. Dialogue trees have been trimmed and punctuated, animations have been been altered and replaced, bugs have been uncovered and squished beneath a fashionable gothic boot heel. Hell, the original boxed version of the game had glitches in the opening cutscene. Those have been mended. Bloodlines is so very far from perfect, but it is perfectly far from almost any other game we could pick up and play today. If you’ve not sunk teeth into it, then I fear you’re truly missing out.

A shorter version of this article first appeared in PC Gamer UK.

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173 Comments »

  1. vinraith says:

    Bloodlines was good for one playthrough, but was too linear and completely fell apart towards the end. It was also a buggy mess, like everything Troika ever made. They died an earned death, in that respect.

  2. Subject 706 says:

    If only Troika had had a proper manager and some more playtesting time…If only…

    Still, their games stand heads and shoulders above almost anything else. The possibility of never seeing these types of games in the future, makes me sad.

  3. Taillefer says:

    Starting in the apartment was executed to perfection. The decor was just right, but the sounds more than anything really brought it alive. You wake up, hear the noises from the street below, the distant sirens, and then that radio kicks in, which was a touch of genius.

    Oh! This is some good f’kin chicken.

  4. Jazmeister says:

    I very much like the cut of this article’s jib.

  5. Über Nerd says:

    Ever since Orange Box engine I’ve been wondering if Troika had a better tech insight and waited for Source to get its sh*t together instead of being the first game to be on Source, how many zirillion times the game could have been better?

  6. Alex says:

    @ Cooper

    With the odd exception like Valve, most developers don’t own their games- the publishers control the rights and only give some royalites once a product sells past a certain number of units.

    I’m guessing ActiBlizzion keeps whatever the game brings in nowadays for itself.

  7. Pijama says:

    maybe we should form some sort of hardcore pc gamer league demanding quality stuff like this.

    just sayin’.

  8. Kadayi says:

    VTM:B is (for all it’s faults) to my mind the template for future Computer RPGs, and that it’s an utter crime that no other developer has yet come along to build upon it’s legacy. Troika took Valves facial animation system and ran with it to fantastic effect, imbuing their NPCs with visible reactive character and personalities the likes of which no one else has really yet matched in recent years (Sorry Mass Effect..but he said/she said cut scenes don’t make the grade). It was a template that was moving away from the anally retentive statistical legacy of P&P RPGs and one that was actively embracing the immersive opportunities of play & approach games such as Deus Ex, Thief & System Shock 2 were exploring with 3D game space.

    Bizarrely the only developers I think who are remotely near Troika in that respect these days are probably Rockstar. GTA IV accords to the template on so many levels by being open world and freeing itself of the yoke of statistical meta gaming, it’s just a pity that R* can’t escape/move beyond the crime drama nature of their product. Liberty City cries out to be used as more than a backdrop for ‘Drive here, shoot that’ missions.

    Great article Jim, but the reminder of just how badly served we as gamers have been since just raises the hackles. One can only hope some game playing Russian Oil Baron comes along and decides to revive Troika with the ultimatum of ‘MOAR LIEK VTM:B PLEASE!!!’

  9. Oddtwang says:

    @Pangs: Spoing!

    Really ought to go back and finish this thing at some point – the oft-mentioned twins and the haunted hotel stick in my mind incredibly clearly; probably only surpassed by Blast Pit and some formative experiences playing Halls of the Things (back when games were allowed to be ridiculously hard) on my dad’s Spectrum.

  10. Taillefer says:

    Tangentially, do we know what happened to Dropship?
    Was it dropped?

  11. CryingTheAnnualKingo says:

    There’s not a single character that sticks in my mind from any BioWare or Bethesda game, as much as I love ‘em.
    However, the characters, even the minor ones, in Bloodlines are all still fresh in my memory because of their verve, edge, flavor and generally amazing voice acting. I’m looking forward to Dragon Age and ME 2 but I’m afraid that BioWare is going to stuff the games with the same, dry and wholly uninteresting backstory and characters as they always have.

    @Uber-It was less an issue of “tech” as it was an issue of “time”. They didn’t have enough of it to finish the game. Even if they had the best, most polished engine to work with, they still wouldn’t have had enough time to complete the game, so don’t blame Valve, blame Activision. Or the industry as a whole for not funding what would have been their next project; an untitled Fallout successor that would have been the game that the NMA crowd wanted Bethesda to make. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzYmQyHl2bc

  12. Tardvape says:

    “He related the anecdote of someone playing Fallout 3 and being disappointed that much of the game relied on social interaction with fictitious people.”

    Ah but here’s something to consider: That’s an awful, poorly designed aspect of Fo3. Even if you like that in games, chances are you don’t give a crap for it in Fo3. Now give these same people a Velvet Velour or a Jack the pirate vampire and I bet many of them would change their tune.

    Even with their flaws, Arcanum and Bloodlines are among the best RPGs ever made. If Troika had had the time and budget that Fo3 did we would have had 2 games that truly transcended greatness and became the stuff of legends.

    What we’re seeing in games today can be compared to what you see in say the music industry. The market has exploded since the late 90′s and people are trying to cash in on it left and right. You can compare us “old-school” rpgers to old fans of punk and hip hop. The kids out there listening to Kanye and Good Charlotte have likely never even heard of KRS One or Dead Kennedys yet they say they’re fans of the genre, much like many of the “RPG Fans” playing Fo3 have never touched the originals or planescape or god forbid something ancient like wasteland.

    The market for rich and possibly even turn-based RPG games never disappeared, I would argue it’s larger now than it ever was. The thing is, the entire market has expanded to such a degree that we’re no longer targeted. When producers start realizing there are hundreds of thousands of us who have found very little worth purchasing in the last few years besides puzzle quest and portal, we might start seeing something again. I think you could take a team of less than 20 people, and a budget of less than $500,000 and make a game that makes as much profit (percentage wise) as a blockbuster with a budget in the millions. Hopefully we’ll see something like that in the not too distant future.
    Stardock is working on an RPG…

  13. ph0tik says:

    The hate of Fallout 3 in this thread is hilarious. I am sure if this same post occurred in ’04 when Bloodlines came out everyone would say “oh this game is shit compared to Fallout 2″. It’s the same thing over and over again with gamers.

    Nothing can touch the storyline and intrigue of blah blah blah. Listen, they are still making games like this, you just seem to hate them all.

  14. Eschatos says:

    Such a great game. I played Malkavian my first time, and no other clan was quite like it. My favorite bit was listening to the newscasts and hearing the reporter refer to you in a menacing way. “We know it was you!”

  15. JKjoker says:

    ahhh, poor Troika, making the best D&D crpg engine ever and then using it with a incredible shitty and boring setting… every time i fire up nwn i weep thinking how that crap could be so awesome with TOEE’s engine
    During their short life they either aced on story and flunked on gameplay(arcanum) or aced gameplay and screwed up story(toee, bloodlines was more of a mix), also releasing bloodlines so close to half life 2 was suicidal (i doubt it was their choice tho)

  16. DeliriumWartner says:

    I’d like to see a film noir game along a similar line. I’d want him to start off an alcholic. Every now and then he starts to crave booze again, probably every night. If you indulge him, you’ll have to put up with the effects, as well as a downward spiral into a worse addiction. If not, he’ll steadily get more agitated, moaning and wimpering to himself, vomiting and cursing.

    Sounds grim, I know, but I think it really could work. What you reckon?

  17. Jambamagamba says:

    Been meaning to play this for ages, but it never seems like quite the right time to get into it. soon enough i’ll pick it up on steam and i’m sure i’ll kick myself in the face for having not done so sooner.

  18. Gaph says:

    Even far outside of “immersive sim” games I’ll occasionally catch a whiff of that immersive sim spirit. Those little moments often become my favorite parts of the game, more than the gameplay or story.

    Most recently in replaying FEAR just wandering around the ATC offices. The sprawling, haphazard layout of cubicles and offices, dimly lit only by the blue glow of LCD monitors. The silence is so prominent it feels like the slightest noise could be heard from anywhere in the building. I walk quietly, leaning around every corner.

    Just brilliant, immersive atmosphere. The AI, story and gunplay is all great but these little moments make it for me.

  19. Tardvape says:

    At ph0tik:

    Sorry bud, comparing Fo3 to Bloodlines is like comparing Avril Lavigne to The Ramones

    One defines a genre, the other is a pop sensation. We won’t see any articles hailing the glory days of the Fallout 3 Era 5 years from now. A lot of us will have Fallout 1 and 2 on our machines for yet another decade, but no one will still be playing Fo3 in half a decade.

    DeliriumWartner: I dig that idea, starting off either on the spike, poppin pills or on the bottle, and your character getting pissed off or degraded depending on whether or not you feed the need.

  20. Petethegoat says:

    Looks like I’ve been beaten to mentioning Facade, which is a great game, by the way. I had to play three or four times before I beat it. As Gonzalo. The amount of voice acting is just incredible. Only downside is that it takes aaages to install.

  21. ph0tik says:

    @Tardvape:

    I am not saying Fallout 3 is the best game ever but let’s not rush to herald the death of this kind of writing in games. Don’t worry, the time will come =)

  22. RED-404 says:

    I love this game and it has some great mods.
    But this game has one life altering side-effect I find myself endlessly arguing with stop signs all-most every day.

  23. Tardvape says:

    And I wasn’t trying to say it was the worst game ever either, hey I kinda like some Avril Lavigne songs. (no sarcasm)

    And I’m not hopeless either if you read the last part of my first post. When developers / publishers realize that not only is there a market for good writing but that it’s largely the same market that prefers Art over Graphics, and that they can sell more copies if they stop targeting the 5-15% of the market that keeps up to date gaming rigs.

  24. ph0tik says:

    ^ Agreed

  25. Levictus says:

    I wish there were more games like VTMB, it’s really too bad that all we get now is generic shooters aimed at the lowest common denominator. I don’t even like the whole Vampire thing, but VTMB got me hooked. The NPC’s seemed so real, the atmosphere rocked. The game literally took you to another world. I was lucky enough to play this title in 2006, so most of the bugs were fixed. I miss games like this…

  26. bhlaab says:

    I wonder what kind of game Bethesda would produce if they decided to focus on a much smaller open world.

    Or, indeed, if their primary focus was the interaction with NPCs.

    Yeah, what if Bethesda was not even remotely similar to Bethesda.

    Huge and shallow is what they do there, and it’s working. The reason more games aren’t like VtM:Bloodlines is because the Bethesda formula is more viscerally impressive while being an easier pill for casual players to swallow. The Diablo hack and slash and MMO clickathon have even more appeal, God knows why.

    If you want to play a “real” RPG anymore you’re going to have to jump into the trecherous world of indie games, ugly and buggy they may be.

  27. bhlaab says:

    Tangentially, do we know what happened to Dropship?
    Was it dropped?

    No, it was shipped.

    Actually, I have no idea. It fell off the face of the Earth 3 years ago I guess?

  28. Sunjammer says:

    I just hated having to fight so much. The fighting never worked very well in the first place, and there’s so much of it near the end that it just stopped being all that fun.

    Playing Nosferatu is a staggeringly different experience to playing Toreador. Which is a very different experience to playing Malkavian. There’s so much gameplay in the game it’s almost miraculous that it wasn’t BUGGIER on release. I dare other developers to try their hand at this school of game.

    This reminds me; Temple of Elemental Evil was another game that got community-fixed the hell up post release. That kind of devotion speaks a lot about how much love Troika games inspired. RIP.

  29. The Spirit of Dr Alex Neill says:

    “the idea is begged”? Jim, I’m revoking your degree.

  30. Mike says:

    Also wanted to give recommendation for Facade. 1 small apartment with you and two other people – just type what you want to say to them and see how the night turns out. Check it out if you haven’t.

  31. Pantsman says:

    @All those recommending Facade

    I loved the idea behind Facade when I first heard of it, but was I the only one that thought the implementation was just terrible? They didn’t seem to respond naturally (or at all) to anything I said or did.

  32. Nervous Little Tit says:

    This game is the shit. I first played it when my gf went away for a week. I went into a very dark place (figuratively and literally) and found salvation in this game. Well, it passed the time incredibly well, let’s put it that way. I don’t think I’ve ever been so immersed in a single player gameworld before. Or since. I slept all day and played all through the nights until the sun came up. Then she came home and normality resumed. And I couldn’t help but feel like I’D been the one away.

  33. Muzman says:

    The chief problem with Facade is you have to type so damn quick or they’ll react to your silence before you get the chance. And if you’re too terse they don’t seem to be able to parse what you’re saying.
    Still impressive though. Would make a very interesting aspect of a detective game, for instance, interviews and negotiations etc.

  34. Alex says:

    ‘What, indeed, would it be like to live life as … an FBI agent’
    I would pay both my kidneys for a well-executed game like this. There’s a wide-open opportunity for a GTA-a-like with the protagonist on the side of law and order (don’t mention True Crime, for my sanity).

  35. Zwebbie says:

    There’s this odd phenomenon where your opinion on games can change quite a bit when you’re done playing it. I loved Oblivion while playing it, but grew to hate it once I was done and saw how shallow it was. By contrast, Bloodlines, in my memory, has already overtaken Arcanum and is now vying for my no#1 favourite game against Deus Ex. The more I come back to this game, the more I see how beautiful the atmosphere and writing are.

    One of my greatest regrets in gaming (along with buying Spore) is that I didn’t buy Bloodlines at release. I loved Arcanum, but the whole gothic vampire atmosphere in the modern world didn’t inspire me in the least and reviewers weren’t particularly excited about the game. I should’ve bought it. I’d buy it five times over today if only it would help Troika – but it’s too late. I feel that Arcanum was the pinnacle of the games of its era, but Bloodlines could have been – should have been – the template for role playing games for the next ten years to come, like Fallout was in its day. The game wasn’t perfect in its execution, but its philosophy of a character-driven world and story is admirable to say the least.

    The writing! Just last week, I flipped through Bloodlines’ sound files and found the radio files (->Vampire\sound\radio) – the Deb of Night. I listened to the whole loop, for the umpteenth time and laughed at Republican senator Robert Thorn as always. When it was finished, I fired it up again. The next day, I listened to it again and looked up a transcript for the parts that were hard to follow. How much of a difference compared to Fallout 3′s Three Dog!

    And that extends to all the writing in the game. I’ve yet to see anything that comes even remotely close (though I have yet to play Torment). Through dialogue, I actually found myself caring little for ordinary humans. Not because they were just a bunch of NPCs in a computer game, but because the game had talked me into being an arrogant predator with more important matters to attend to than these kine would ever understand. A wonderful experience, compared to other role playing games where I asked myself what kind of guy I was role playing. Something about the game elevated it beyond role playing and somewhere into role being.

    There’s an odd thing. The stop sign. Brian Mitsoda, its writer, said that it was conceived of and executed in a matter of minutes. That’s exactly what I imagine Bethesda does, come up with ideas and implement them, because FO3′s quests and locations are all stand alone rule-of-cool items. But the stop sign is a wonderful piece. Maybe Mitsoda is just a better writer than anything Bethesda has, or maybe this was just an isolated event in developer spontaneity, but there’s a clear difference.

    All right, I’ll stop my sentimental love letter now :) . If you haven’t played the game but like good writing, play it and don’t let its setting, gameplay or bugs bother you. Malkavian dialogue makes up for anything.

    “So… what’s it like to be a turtle?”
    “It’s a lot like being a walking house that eats lettuce. “

  36. Winterborn says:

    The ToEE engine was by far the best D&D engine ever made. It’s a shame the game was fairly shallow as the combat was pure joy. For anyone who’s not played it or had trouble with it back in the day I reinstalled it with the community patches(I think they’re on a site called circle of eight) about a year back and had a great time.

    As for Vampire, probably number five or six on my all time favourite list. Great game.

  37. kadayi says:

    @Alex

    This might be what your looking for:-

    http://www.rockstargames.com/lanoire/

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L.A._Noire

    http://uk.ps3.ign.com/articles/911/911808p1.html

    Apparently it’s no longer a PS3 exclusive (Sony have cut their funding) so I’m fairly confident that it will arrive on the PC somewhere down the line after the console release.

  38. Janto says:

    I’m a bit confused by the Arcanum love on display here, my own experiences of it were indifferent, to say the least. Possibly it just suffered from being busy and inaccessible, especially in character creation – my reaction to the technology option on first sight was pretty much ‘fuck right off, you mad bastard.’

    Perhaps it’s the fact that there seemed to be so many options, but anything which wasn’t an option seemed to be so much more glaring an issue, a good argument for limiting scope to focus on specific issues. All the sprawling sideways depth was actually deeply unappealing to me, and in my opinion makes a game like Planescape far more successful, design-wise.

    Take the ogre-farm subplot/thing. That was far more interesting than the vacuous main plot, but it didn’t go anywhere – at least for me, I was laughed at and the guy ran away. Then it was off to the Wise Dude to tell me about me super destiny to fight another Evil Dude, who may or may not have been related to the Wise Dude… and I stopped playing. Maybe there was a twist, maybe I could have hunted down the gnome conspiracy anyway, but my experience up that point had been following the main story in the hope that, at some point, it would become good, and I’d had enough of Arcanum’s tosh by then.

    Also, the game’s as bad as Morrowind for psychotic wildlife attack tedium in my memories.

  39. Alex says:

    @kadayi
    Looks interesting, and I really can’t believe I’d never heard of it before. Thanks for the links, although I did notice a particularly unfortunate choice of words in the IGN link:

    It has been said about Australia that we’ve not been that successful putting out a title that really has set the world on fire…’”

    Ow.

  40. kadayi says:

    It does sound interesting and I’m rather hoping it delivers on the promise, though given the lack of news on it, I doubt we’ll be seeing it any time soon unfortunately.

  41. drewski says:

    I don’t understand why I’m not allowed to like an open ended, vastly interesting freeform world like Fallout 3 or Morrowind and also like a more focused, detailed and character based world like Planescape: Torment or Bloodlines.

  42. Troika fan says:

    to me the first place for the most complete, cohesive world design goes to fallout the first.

    Bloodlines is impressive until it starts to become a horrible dungeon grinding game, even with all its faults. I agree, it was simply too much of an ambitious game to be actually completed. The scope of it, it’s something a big software house could begin to fantasize about making.

  43. absentblue says:

    Damn I gotta go home and replay this… never actually finished it either, I got to the park at the end with the wolf and got pissed off (and a tad scared, admittedly).

    Such a good game, I even played it without Wesp’s patch and didn’t experience much aside from the typos of course and a couple of non-show-stopper bugs.

  44. ascagnel says:

    @drewski:

    You’re allowed to like the open-endedness/freeform-edness of Fallout 3 and Morrowind. The difference between those and VtM:B is that they put their focus on the actual world, where VtM:B puts its focus on the “world” in the more ethereal sense: they make you feel like you’re in a real world, with well-thought out characters instead of lame archetypes.

  45. Uriel says:

    With the benefit of hindsight, I think Bloodlines was actually the best game I ever played. It frequently didn’t feel like it at the time and it certainly wasn’t finished but every game since it has been a disappointment.

    The only other thing that’s come close was going back to play the original Deus Ex.

  46. Duncan Frost says:

    Ahh gads don’t use the wesp patches there terrible.
    The True line of patches is a lot more faithful to the original game. http://forums.steampowered.com/forums/showthread.php?t=628246

  47. Vorpal says:

    Awesome article for a game that literally “sucks” you in!

    What can i say about Bloodlines really? immersive atmosphere, fantastic music.. actually i love every aspect of it — one bloody fine wine troika made there.

    Gonna miss Troika(they were a bunch of honest dudes)and VTM series in general – games created with passion are damn rare nowdays.

  48. MunkyRiver says:

    Thanks for reminding me of that game, and for pointing to the unofficial patch! Didn’t know about that one. And shouldn’t know either, with two exams still to go, I guess. Ah well, got to go playing again..

  49. karthik says:

    Bloodlines is so good, it gets two Retrospectives on RPS.

    The community patch really does clean up the gunk. I still stop playing before reaching the endgame, though.

  50. Metronome says:

    Vampire:Bloodlines is indeed a gem. I think the gaming studio should really aim towards making game like this or even better. Lately, the graphic of games are getting better, but not sure why, the gameplay of these new gen games are more toward shooting games lately. They don’t really care about the uniqueness of the story and concept anymore, it is more to heavy shooting game, that’s all. If only this game is being remade….