Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines has been written about a lot on this site (far more than one would expect from a game with both a colon and a hyphen in the title, which should be made a crime). It’s a clunky, unfinished mess of an action RPG that runs better today than it did on release in 2005 only by the grace of a community made patch, but somehow it was formative for a lot of people who ended up at RPS. Past and present. What we formed into is a different matter, of course.
If you’re a straight man Bloodlines can be a liquid sex-and-power fantasy pumped, undiluted, into your veins (ahaha). If you’re something else it can be something else. And with all the rumours about Bloodlines 2 that are swirling around, I’ve begun to examine why I love Bloodlines so much, when it’s a buggy, unfinished, undercooked spongecake of an action RPG that collapses in its third act.
On the face of it, Bloodlines doesn’t sound like a game that should rank in anyone’s favourites. Though the fan patch adds a lot, and fixes the bugs that riddled the first game like worms in a seabiscuit, it can’t fix everything. Character models stand awkwardly bow-legged, stalking the streets like they’re at a Tory party conference. Some of them, the female Malkavian in particular, have massive pornstar tits subject to the hilarious whims of the game physics. Don’t turn around too fast, ladies! (In Cara Ellison’s S.EXE articles covering Bloodlines she mentioned that playing Bloodlines can be… weird for women.) Stealth makes a strange bedfellow for combat in the Half Life 2 engine, and much of Bloodlines looks gangly and ungraceful. But it doesn’t feel that way. It feels sleek and sinuous, slippery as an oiled cat.
Vampires are, obviously, all about sex, because they’re all about blood, and that’s associated with sex and power in lots of ways. Cara also talks about how vampires have been hot, sulky boys since their inception, and how Bloodlines’ successful sexual, and sexy, tone makes it stand out from other games, even years later.
The context that I played it in is a huge part of why I love it still. At the time Bloodlines came out I was 15, lived in the middle of nowhere, rarely left my house, and had recently discovered a bunch of different vampires. I’d played a little bit of the Legacy Of Kain games; I had also found the 90s VHS copies of Interview With The Vampire and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (feat. Gary Oldman in that wig) that mum had put on the movies-for-grown-ups shelf that I had to stand on the armchair to reach. They were a crude representation of feelings that I wasn’t quite ready to engage with like an adult, but I could sort of take a fumbling grasp of when they were dressed up in period costume and pointy teeth.
The constant references to hunger being sated, biting vs. being bitten, and monsters stalking their prey. In hindsight it’s not so much reading between the lines as actually just reading the lines, look, look at what’s written there for god’s sake, especially when the films in question often find subtext isn’t quite obvious enough, so just put in a half-naked woman feeling herself up when they’ve been bitten. In the 1992 Dracula, supporting character Lucy is a big flirty ho-bag who is assaulted by Dracula in a garden and turns up after her funeral in a big post-vampirification wedding dress. I mean, for god’s sake.
At the time, then, I was ideally primed to play and love Bloodlines, despite how janky it was. It felt very adult: wandering dark streets at night without having to be afraid, night clubs in disused churches, drug deals, walking in heels, and strangers drinking on the beach together. Midnight in Santa Monica has such a real sense of place, and booting up the game again I still remember my first crumbling apartment above a pawn shop, with an INSTANT CASH advert-mural on the wall.
Bloodlines is grimy and sexy, but also horrible and a bit scary, but also, somehow, real. But there were other ways that Bloodlines was always different to me. It was the first game I played where I didn’t always have to resort to violence. I’m not anti game violence, but it does get boring if it’s all there is. More than that, being violent isn’t the same thing as being confident (indeed, the argument can be made that a dearth of the latter leads to increased likelihood of the former). In Bloodlines I could be powerful by being confident. Bloodlines does eventually become a frantic punch, gun and run affair, but throughout the game and in the first act especially you can use your seductive charms (or intimidation, or just plain ol’ magic vampire powers of persuasion) to solve almost all of the problems you’re presented with. This gave me an opportunity to be a manipulative creature of the night, but without having to make tooth floss out of tendons or getting blood all over my flouncy vampire clothes.
The other thing, of course, is that because Bloodlines is a game made mostly by straight dudes imagining other straight dudes playing it, it’s mostly full of hot girls with short skirts and low cleavage for you to bite. But I wasn’t playing it as a straight dude.
I liked the vampire stories I already knew, but they were confusing; I wanted to engage with the metaphor but couldn’t tell where to put myself in it. As far as I could tell girls were supposed to float about in diaphanous gowns and be chastely bitten and metaphorically ruined, a small, delicate sigh in a nightdress. I’d yet to discover Buffy, but it’s remarkable how often her just wanting to have a shag also coincides with a disastrous curse or emotional trauma. Vampires have all the fun, but girl vampires were often portrayed as petulant foot stampers mooning after their boyfriend even as he went looking for younger models to add to his collection.
In Bloodlines I could be a girl who bit not just the occasional man but other girls as well which, absurd as it seems now, had not occurred to me before. And I didn’t really take that idea to its logical conclusion for another few years. But I played Bloodlines over and over again, usually as a Toreador — the artistic, most human, and most seductive of the vampire clans. To bite. To be bit.
You never really know who your audience is, so sometimes when you’re making a power fantasy for yourself you’re also accidentally making a small little taste of one for someone else. Maybe, if there ever is a Bloodlines 2, it’ll give me one on purpose. It wouldn’t really take that much work, either. Expand the clothing options from lace basque, crop top or deep v-cut top, and give some of the female characters a backstory that doesn’t involve sexual trauma, and you’re already most of the way there!
That apartment above the pawn shop was on Main Street in Santa Monica. You can cut through the carpark at the end to get to the beach. I still remember the way through the back alleys to the Asylum club, on 2nd. It’s opposite the diner, which is okay for coffee late at night, but they have rats and the cream is sour, so I don’t recommend eating there. The club is owned and run by a weird pair of twins. I remember flirting with a girl in Asylum and biting her neck right by the bar. I remember it like a place I went to in real life.