Life is Strange developer Dontnod Entertainments latest adventure transports players to 1918 London for Vampyr, an action role-playing game different to that of anything the France-based studio has created before. Vampyr follows the story of Johnathan Reid, a Doctor and recently turned vampire who is struggling to come to terms with his newly acquired undead status, torn between following the oath he once swore upon and his new found urge to feast on humans, draining them of their blood. Stephan Rodts of PressA2Join caught up with Dontnod and Vampyr Art Director Gregory Z. Szucs this week during Gamescom 2016 in Cologne to gain more insight into what promises to be a fascinating game.
Stephan Rodts: As a developer, Dontnod has taken us to futuristic Paris 2084 as Nillin for Remember Me and offered us time manipulation powers as Max Caulfield throughout episodic teen drama Life is Strange. Dontnod is back again, this time with Vampyr, what can you tell us about the game?
Gregory Z. Szucs: I can tell you that it is still about a strong story, we will still give the players tough questions and difficult choices that’s what we try to do in all of our games. That is a returning theme. Remember Me was an action adventure, Life is Strange, an adventure game and this is gonna be an action RPG. Vampyr is set in London in 1918 just after the first world war. The world has been shaken by the killing on a massive scale. It’s also during the Spanish flu, which is the worst pandemic the world has ever known. London, where Vampyr takes place is not in top shape at all, it’s really hard times. Players take on the role of Doctor Jonathan Reid, who wakes up in a mass grave, trying to make sense of what is going on.
One of themes I enjoyed most with Life is Strange was its ability to deal with real life problems, real life situations, some, very uncomfortable for players to experience and react to. Can we expect similar themes with Vampyr? what makes it different from Life is Strange?
Vampires might be fantasy creatures, but they come from the imagination of people who are experiencing things that don’t make sense to them. Like pandemics, the fear of their own rotting flesh, that’s where they invented the myth of the vampire. The time the game takes place if it was perfectly realistic, it was a time where people talked a lot about vampires. This is exactly the kind of situation from where the vampire myth incarnated. The game has a fantasy tone and is about how you react to the situation. In a way, we want to challenge the player with being put in the shoes of a vampire and make you understand that everyone is a prey in this game.
You can pretty much kill anyone, but it’s not free of consequences. You have to get to know the people and gain their trust, so you will be able to take advantage of them. So it might not be a situation you will encounter on an average day, but it’s the things you have to do, because if you kill and feed you will get a surge of power. When you have to live with the consequences of killing them after they tell you the stories about their family. It’s the things like this that you have to consider if you are willing to take that on. So it might not be the problems you will encounter in high school but like Life is Strange, you are gonna be confronted with some tough decisions.
The mythology of vampires is prominent throughout European folklore, especially in Slavic Eastern European countries. Can you tell me a little about the level of research that you put into Vampire lore prior to beginning development for Vampyr? Did you watch any films relating to the topic such as Dreyer’s Vampyr and Murnau’s Nosferatu?
The Vampire lore and mythos is very wide, there are a lot of different stories and rules. We went back to the original, it was a way to explain irrational things. The way we interpreted it was that the vampires strike when humanity is at its weakest. We ended up making our own mythos we only choose things that would fit into the gameplay situations. For example, vampires have to be invited into people’s home before they can enter, because you are a doctor and a well-known person you gain people’s trust really easy and will be likely to be invited into their houses. So we ended up mixing and matching the things we needed, we created a backstory for our own mythos, but it is based on the most traditional vampire lore. You have to put aside most vampire movies you have seen in the past decades with some exceptions. And yes, we watched films like Dreyer’s Vampyr and Nosferatu.
Would I be right in saying there’s a level of stealth to Vampyr‘s gameplay? with Reid, forced to hide in the shadows to avoid being exposed as a vampire. How does the gameplay work?
There is no stealth based element, you don’t have to hide in the shadows. You are perfectly functioning as a human. You still work in the hospital, and people just see you as the doctor, a person they can trust. You can take advantage of this all throughout the game, the important thing to do is not blow your cover. It’s more about creating the situation where you can kill someone, but you cannot just do it in the open. It’s about getting around, getting to know people, gaining their trust, and finding that opportunity to kill them.
Will players have a level of choice throughout Vampyr? If so, how is it likely to alter the story while progressing in the game? Can we expect the story to branch out in different directions?
Yes, Vampyr works with different layers that you have on top of the game’s main story, with branching to plot points and multiple endings and then there is London and the way you interact with the districts, the side quests and the way you treat the people. For example, when the situation in a district is really dire you can ruin it and change it forever, or you can try and make things better.
You spoke in the past about players being under no obligation whatsoever to kill and feed on NPC’s to survive and progress within the game. How does not killing NPC’s throughout the game affect its difficulty, does it in any way? Are there any side effects or downsides to players who choose not to kill civilians?
There is a tremendous incentive in Vampyr to kill people. When you kill people you get a surge of power and you can become stronger really fast. So you can express yourself better in combat and you get more advantage over your enemies, and then you have to kill more and more to maintain this level of power. So if you will refrain from killing NPC’s you will have to show absolute mastery of combat and tactic. So it will be a more challenging way to do it, but it is a possible way.
Did you choose London during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic as a setting to convey a more gothic mood for the game, as opposed to an American setting? what sold you on London as the game’s location?
London as you said, is a very gothic place, we needed that time where medicine made a lot of progress. The doctors and scientist during that time, they are feeling like gods themselves. So it was perfect for our storyline, to have a character that had that feeling, who is also working in the field of blood transfusion. A person who was so certain he could explain everything with rationality is suddenly faced with the supernatural. He has to reconcile with it and make sense of it and try to find a way to explain it rationally. It is the perfect setting for that combined with the Spanish flu and the war. There were not many other options to choose from.
We’ve seen victorian London represented in recent games such as Assassin’s Creed Syndicate and Frogwares’ latest Sherlock Holmes game The Devil’s Daughter. While Syndicate boasted a wide open London for players to explore, The Devil’s Daughter felt slightly restricted. How does Vampyr world compare to the two games mentioned?
Vampyr is a semi-open world, we looked at London’s architecture, the street layout. The idea was to really make you feel like you are in London. We tried to create a balance, not to make places where nothing is happening, we tried to make it on a sensible scale. So not everything is there but there are a lot of places to explore and every building is accessible. So it will definitely not feel as restricted as Sherlock Holmes, but somewhere in-between.
As Reid slowly comes to terms with becoming a vampire I would imagine he starts to gain different super powers. Can you tell me a little about those powers and the advantages they can give players over enemies in a fight? He also has a variety of weapons at his disposal such as melee and long range?
You have a variety of weapons at your disposal, Reid is a surgeon so he has his tools at his disposal. He was also a field surgeon so he has been trained as a soldier, he has pistols and shotguns. If you know a bit about the war in the trenches, you know they had to kill each other with clubs they had to make on the spot, he is very crafty so he can probably craft some stuff. But the main thing he can use during combat are his vampire skills, there will be skill trees that you can decide to specialize, they have different flavors like blood, shadow and the power of the mind. I can’t go into specific but you can have your own build.
It’s not just London’s civilians Reid must concern himself with throughout Vampyr, with vampire hunters and fellow vampires looking to take the Doctor down. How does the combat change as he encounters these different enemies?
You are way stronger than a human, a single human is no threat to you. Like the hunters that you mentioned, they have to come in numbers and be well prepared and have to use some tricks that work against you. It’s very different when you encounter a vampire, it is completely different than when you encounter humans, who are afraid of you and try to trick you. A vampire is your equal and can use the same brute force as yourself.
How far along are you with development for Vampyr, do you have a solid release date for all platforms?
No, we don’t, it will be somewhere in 2017 that’s all I am allowed to say.
Thank you to Gregory Z. Szucs of Dontnod Entertainment for taking the time out to speak with us.