When you think of California, you probably think of sun, people wearing shades, the wide, flat pavements sunbleached and neat. But when the night falls in Santa Monica, CA, it gets mortuary cold. I'm staying there this month and I found myself thinking of Jeanette the other night. Something about a tumultuous relationship, smudged kohl, and Jeanette.
So I paid for another copy of Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, and I went to visit video games' most animated goth chick seductress. She lives above the Asylum club in a Santa Monica where the sun never comes up. For this week's S.EXE I thought I'd write you the first part of my spiral into the dark, sexy overtones of one of the best-written western RPGs we've got, and my quest for someone there who gives a damn about me.
But I guess first I have to download a huge patch to slap on the ass of my 2GB game from 2004. The new unofficial 9.0 patch is out and I couldn't get the game to boot without it, as if this game deteriorates without love and attention. But perhaps that is just sentimentality. It was broken when it came out, I just look back on it with fondness.
Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is a gutsy move. There are many ways in which you can try to underplay the sexuality of the vampire metaphor: Bram Stoker barely sidestepped it, and he's perhaps the one we remember the most for making the monster. But if you are reading hard enough, Bram Stoker wrote about repressed sexuality more astutely than most of his peers. There are people out there who glance at the Twilight phenomenon, and shake their heads, and go, 'Why can't we go back to when vampires were scary monsters instead of these flimsy sexy sulkbros?' And I say to you: is there a time at which vampires were not flimsy sexy sulkbros? Sex is the monster, my dears. The libido is the monster. It's just who possesses it that's under contention.
And - what could possibly be more terrifying than a flimsy sexy sulkbro? I've been to clubs where the kohl-lined eyes of broken, upset boys live and they couldn't be more alluring, nor more terrifying to a vulnerable heterogirl, they're like looking at your own emotional carcrash and it's intoxicating and wrong and not very healthy for anyone.
Perhaps, I think, the people who complain about the departure from the Bram Stoker vampire are actually complaining about a recentring of the narrative. They are complaining that instead of Dracula's brides and Mina Harker being objectified by the lens of the readership, that now the masculine monster itself has become the objectified body, and we are merely seeing male heterosexuality feel incredibly uncomfortable about the so-called 'victim' having agency. People can like the idea of an oversexualised man just as much as an oversexualised woman! Can you imagine. Marketing to teen girl libidos instead of the usual teen boy? How awful.
But as I say, VTMB is gutsy, in that it embraces the fang metaphor, the penetrative act - it wholeheartedly embraces an erotic overtone in a way that makes you aware that games tend to actively avoid such material. Sucking blood to raise your 'humanity' levels is described as an ecstasy, and my character (my chosen vampire race a 'Toreador' - artistic vampires who can seduce and mesmerise) couches all encounters with victims in curling, flirty sentences. The act of sucking someone's blood is dramatic and seems personal as the light fades on everything but you and the victim, and their lifeblood bar goes down in rhythmic heartbeats.
What the game doesn't do is make people who are attracted to men feel like they can indulge themselves. I feel like it's even a bit freaked out by the idea of the player thinking men can be sexy; such is the arena of big budget games. So instead, we just get scantily dressed alternative chicks hanging out in Bloodlines' bars with incredibly pneumatic-looking tits for you to stare at, whilst you can barely make out an ass on some of the male character models. I'm not against people being sexy - I mean, if some people are sexy, they are sexy, right? If it fits the character, yeah, right on. But it's noticeably weighted towards teen boy fantasy in a way that is sort of cute. It seems a bit jarring considering Anne Rice's bisexual vampires revived the pop culture vampire singlehandedly in the eighties. And Troika borrows some of her stuff wholeheartedly: the scoffing about garlic and other vampire superstitions, the gung ho rockstar attitudes of the vampires, the mixing in of pop music, the idea that vampires might have a duty to kill criminals, or possess a morality, a pained existentialism. All things that Buffy also cribbed.
However, what rescues VTMB from my sighs of 'maybe we should have more diversity in the presentation of bodies here' is the writing. This RPG's dialogue is extremely strong: usually RPGs have sighworthy writing you press to skip as much as you can so you can get more upgrades, but VTMB's dialogue consistently sparks and charms, making you loathe to miss anything. When characters describe other characters in this game there's a real sense of conflict, like they might actually have real agendas, actual politics. You even try to second guess people. You are scared they might be lying in a way that makes you paranoid. And sometimes... they are lying. Sexy bastards. Sexy, terrifying bastards.
I began my night like any other night, emerging from my house at about sundown having slept most of the day. A beautiful woman was walking around on the street and so I went up to talk to her. She said she doesn't get many women clients, so she offered me a price of forty dollars and she'd go anywhere I liked.
I took her to a dark place, where I gave her the dark kiss, and was so overexcited about my first kill I held on too long, and she dropped to the ground, dead. I stare, shocked at her body, and start to panic. I sneak away into the shadows, my long limbs seeming unkempt and gangly, not the sort of gait you should get from a Toreador. I didn't mean to kill her. I forgot. I forgot what it is, that you do to them. Why can't I just stay around my own kind? I don't deserve human contact. I'm a mess.
I have to find her.
Yeah, she sticks in the mind.
I get lost in Santa Monica, even though it is strangely small for a city that, really, is about driving. I stumble into a diner where everyone ignores me, and I bump into a woman who asks me rudely if I can't see that she is eating. But everyone is sort of motionless, apart from a cashier who is ringing up bills. She is an old grey-haired lady, wearing a badge with 'Doris' on it and a terrible blue patterned dress that looks like she got it in a Bloomingdale's sale. I say hello and that I've seen rats in the back.
She looks up in surprise and asks me if I'm a hygiene inspector. I am taken aback, until I remember that I am preternatural and I am always anything I want. My body persuades people. I am cunning. I say yes and she takes a fifty out of the till to bribe me to go away and not come back and I think, shit, that was easy.
I decide to try my luck getting back my friend Mercurio's Astrolite, some liquid explosive that some thugs forcibly, sort of violently, removed from him (he is lying bloody on a couch). When I arrive at the beachside squat, I persuade the man who seems to be in charge of the hopeless ghosts that drift in and out of the house that we should be alone so I can work my tricks on him. But they are not the tricks he is thinking of. I bite him hard and steal his Astrolite. The other wankers open fire but I am long gone and I'm a fast runner. Part of me thinks that it is very cliche, almost racist, that the drug dealer kingpin is the only black man with dialogue I have encountered in this world in many hours of talking to Santa Monica's inhabitants. Hm. But I move on, hopeful.
Finally, I get up the guts to go into the club and see if she's there. A bratty auburn with a smirk is in my way, and I think, hey, I could use a snack.
But she's here to welcome me.
Ah, I think. I will go through hell for you, before the sun comes up.
Yes, a special kind of hell.
Bloodlines treats characters as much more complex than we have a right to expect from games, though I think there could be huge improvement in its treatment of women and sexuality, and its treatment of people of colour is very poor. It still manages to stand out from other games in the way it welcomes sexual themes, and doesn't end up being hamfisted about the negotiations spurred on by them. The grimy, murky environmental art only serves to make the world somehow smokier, sexier too. The mood is an important reason you indulge the cartoonish character models. It's hard to make NPCs into real, live people. It's hard to make a player feel like they are a sexual being. Somehow Troika did it, by preserving a particular mood, by making characters bluster in with all their id and ego and a charming rapport. They made you understand that although the game wants you to fetishise others (namely goth chicks), that those goth chicks have agendas. And yes, the next time we visit, perhaps when my laptop is not so broken, we will talk more about Jeanette and her brash seduction techniques.
You can find the previous S.EXE columns here. Til next time, my friends.