The dark side of Dontnod

Games TM - - CONTENTS -

We sit down the de­vel­op­ment team to find out how the stu­dio can shift from Life Is Strange to Vampyr (and then back again)

“I’m con­vinced that ev­ery dontnod game is about choice and con­se­quence... all of them,” con­sid­ers stéphane beau­verger, the stu­dio’s nar­ra­tive di­rec­tor as he con­tem­plates the con­flict that sits at the heart of ev­ery one of dontnod’s cre­ative en­deav­ours. those ti­tles, for any of you that haven’t been pay­ing at­ten­tion, are com­prised of a se­ries that have been de­vel­oped and re­leased over a decade, each of them the­mat­i­cally bound by a fix­a­tion on man­ag­ing mem­ory – of try­ing to al­ter the de­ci­sions that haunt us in our most vul­ner­a­ble mo­ments.

Re­mem­ber Me, the stu­dio’s de­but, rooted it­self in a con­flict of the ex­is­ten­tial va­ri­ety, ex­plor­ing the fric­tion be­tween choice, iden­tity and rep­re­sen­ta­tion in a dig­i­tally-driven world. Life Is Strange, Dontnod’s sopho­more ef­fort, viewed sim­i­lar themes through a de­cid­edly ana­logue lens; the five-part episodic ad­ven­ture framed a com­ing-of-age story around sac­ri­fice, forc­ing play­ers to ac­cept that ev­ery one of their de­ci­sions would have an even­tual con­se­quence – be it in your own life or of those that sur­round you. Both ti­tles used mem­o­ries – and the al­ter­ation of ex­ist­ing ones – as a way of ex­plor­ing what it means to be hu­man, as a way of fig­ur­ing out your place in the world.

What of the stu­dio’s lat­est, Vampyr, then? Well, Vampyr wants you to con­sider the im­pli­ca­tions of be­ing for­ever haunted by your mem­ory – of us­ing it as a way of re­mind­ing you of your hu­man­ity as you sac­ri­fice pieces of it to your in­ner demons.

On the sur­face, Vampyr looks like a some­what tra­di­tional ac­tion-rpg, one that’s driven by a rather tra­di­tional power fan­tasy. It casts you as a hunter of hu­mans, as a pow­er­ful vam­pire stalk­ing through Lon­don in the shadow of the early 20th cen­tury – the once great city plagued by a wave of death and de­cay, the streets be­gin­ning to re­sem­ble that of a Gothic mau­soleum. Should you take the time to sink your teeth into the game, how­ever, you’ll be­gin to see some­thing more in­ter­est­ing bleed­ing out through the punc­ture wounds in its skin. You’re a vam­pire that re­mem­bers a time be­fore the hunger; con­sumed by mem­o­ries of a past life, you play as a crea­ture that is strug­gling with a new-found hubgwe for blood as well as for vi­o­lence.

Vampyr wants you to ques­tion whether you should hold the demons scream­ing at you from within at bay or suc­cumb to your dark­est urges en­tirely. As you’re thrust into an ef­fort to re­claim your hu­man­ity – ul­ti­mately doomed to be haunted by the re­sults of your mis­deeds –

Vampyr presents an ad­ven­ture in which the choices you make and the con­se­quences of your ac­tions will be far reach­ing for all that come to know you.

“This is a vam­pire story so, of course, things are far more grim and bru­tal,” says Beau­verger when we ques­tion him re­gard­ing the dif­fer­ences be­tween Vampyr, Re­mem­ber Me and Life Is Strange. But, he as­sures us,

there is still a the­matic thread be­tween the trio of ti­tles. “We still want the player to in­ter­ro­gate them­selves over what they are go­ing to do. Vampyr might in­vite you to kill, but it ques­tions whether it is the right thing for you to do. It re­ally forces you to live with the con­se­quences of your ac­tions.”

Games prom­ise this sort of thing all of the time and very rarely de­liver. It’s un­usual for a devel­oper to ac­tu­ally suc­ceed in mak­ing you lament a life that’s been lost at your hands; you’re of­ten cast as a thinly-veiled har­bin­ger of death. Devel­op­ers have be­come ex­perts in find­ing any ex­cuse in the world, to jus­tify the slaugh­ter of any­thing that dares to stand in your way. So, how ex­actly is Dontnod look­ing to lever­age em­pa­thy to sell Vampyr’s core con­cept?

“You are a vic­tim of what you have be­come,” Beau­verger teases, ex­plain­ing that much of the ex­pe­ri­ence stems from the con­flict within. The game presents a more am­bigu­ous idea of what is right and wrong as you step into the shoes of soldier-turned-doc­tor-turned vam­pire Jonathan Reid. “The dilemma of choos­ing to kill or spare a cit­i­zen is kind of unique. We re­ally fought for that fea­ture; the fact that you have to think about killing, and the fact that you never have to worry about whether you’re play­ing the game ‘cor­rectly’.”

Of course, just be­cause Dontnod wants you to live with the con­se­quences of your ac­tions doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean that play­ers will abide. In­stead, the stu­dio has had to get cre­ative and pour con­sid­er­able time and re­sources into bind­ing your con­science to the game world and its in­hab­i­tants. “We de­cided that you would only meet unique char­ac­ters. All of the cit­i­zens have back sto­ries, per­sonal is­sues, se­crets and re­la­tion­ships – we wanted the player to feel as if they are en­ter­ing the in­ti­macy of some­one,” says Beau­verger of the 60 unique NPCS that can be found through­out Lon­don, with the game us­ing an out­break of the fa­mously deadly 1918 Span­ish flu pan­demic as an ex­cuse for the streets to be oth­er­wise de­void of life and ac­tiv­ity. “If you ask enough of the right ques­tions they will be­gin to talk to you about the is­sues in their life… each of them re­flect­ing a lit­tle part of what it’s like to be a Lon­doner at the time, de­pend­ing on where they [sit] on the so­cial scale.”

“That was the most im­por­tant part of my job, I think,” con­sid­ers Beau­verger, look­ing back over the project that has con­sumed close to three years of his life. “Apart from writ­ing the sto­ry­line, cre­at­ing these 60 in­trigu­ing char­ac­ters – and giv­ing the player an in­cen­tive to talk with each of them and find out who they are – was the most im­por­tant part of my job.” That’s largely down to Vampyr be­ing so heav­ily sys­tem driven. Not

only does the game have sur­pris­ingly deep RPG roots – with a com­plex web of weapon and abil­ity up­grades to man­age and in­vest in – but it has also been de­signed in such a way that all of its char­ac­ters are linked in one way or an­other, an as­pect of the game that is tracked and man­aged within the menus for play­ers to clearly track and pour over. This is an area of the game that is in­cred­i­bly im­pres­sive. The stu­dio has shown pro­fi­ciency for de­vel­op­ing ex­cel­lent star­ring me­chan­ics around a very clear con­cept, and

Vampyr is no slouch in that de­part­ment.

This game casts you in a po­si­tion of power, as a medic work­ing at a lo­cal hos­pi­tal. It’s up to you whether you choose to abuse this po­si­tion or use it as a force for good, to as­sist the cit­i­zens that are strug­gling with ev­ery­thing from the fall­out of the First World War to a deadly flu and lo­cal in­fes­ta­tion of ne­far­i­ous vam­pires. It’s this qual­ity that makes Vampyr feel au­then­tic in a way that few other games that look to tell a vam­pire story are able to repli­cate. “The vam­pire is a crea­ture of de­ceit,” Beau­verger tells us, not­ing that the hos­pi­tal is the per­fect cover, given the wave of death wash­ing over the city. “We are putting the player in a sit­u­a­tion where ev­ery­body in the hos­pi­tal will look to you as a bril­liant sur­geon who will save their life… but at the same time you have the right to kill ev­ery­body in the hos­pi­tal if you want to. It’s up to you… it’s go­ing to be very in­ter­est­ing to see how play­ers re­act.”

So long as your level is high enough, you can as­sault and feast on any of the named char­ac­ters in the game. In re­turn you’ll get a healthy dose of XP, po­ten­tially open up new lines of in­quiry (or paths for­ward) in your in­ves­ti­ga­tion to con­front who­ever it is that turned you into a vam­pire against your will, and to ac­quire the all-im­por­tant re­source nec­es­sary to up­grade your abil­i­ties and pow­ers: blood.

What’s stop­ping you from go­ing on a killing spree and quickly get­ting ac­cess to the game’s coolest-look­ing abil­i­ties then? Dontnod is en­cour­ag­ing play­ers to speak with cit­i­zens be­fore mur­der­ing them by di­rectly in­cen­tivis­ing conversation. “[Play­ers] will have to lis­ten to cer­tain char­ac­ters to go fur­ther in the sto­ry­line, but ev­ery­thing else is just dis­cus­sion that you can [en­gage in] for as long as you wish. It’s up to you how deeply you want to get to know each char­ac­ter be­cause we wanted the player to feel free to kill any­body at ran­dom if they want… you can go through the en­tire game with­out hav­ing a clue about who were the guys you killed,” says Beau­verger, a teas­ing smile the only re­sponse we get as we at­tempt to gauge how dras­tic the con­se­quences could be­come across the ad­ven­ture.

If you be­come friends with char­ac­ters – help­ing them with odd jobs that make up the side-quests through the semi-open world dis­trict – you’ll be granted a bonus should you later de­cide to drain them. You can push play­ers to make the dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion be­tween sav­ing new-found friends or drain­ing them in an ef­fort to get a small in­crease to their health bar or im­prove the sharp­ness of their claws.

In­ter­est­ingly, and we weren’t able to glean how far reach­ing this would be from our hands-on ses­sion. Dontnod also prom­ises that your as­sault on the pop­u­la­tion will also be­gin to warp the world around you. Killing off char­ac­ters will even­tu­ally desta­bilise the dis­trict; hub ar­eas could close en­tirely should you kill the pro­pri­etors, push­ing the other char­ac­ters out into dif­fer­ent ar­eas and al­ter­ing cer­tain threads of the sto­ry­line, not to men­tion catch­ing the at­ten­tion of the charm­less vam­pire hunters hot on your tail.

We pressed Beau­verger on why he be­lieves that a lit­tle conversation will be enough to keep the blood lust of play­ers at bay. We get it, it’s a cool idea, but given gam­ing’s propen­sity for vi­o­lence we were cu­ri­ous as to whether the play­ers would ac­tu­ally feel the con­flict at the heart of the game – Vampyr is, af­ter all, go­ing to be a more chal­leng­ing game for those that choose not to en­gage in a lit­tle evening mur­der, the all-im­por­tant blood to up­grade your abil­i­ties oth­er­wise dif­fi­cult to come across. “We fig­ured it out early on,” Beau­verger tells us. “We knew we wanted the player to feel some guilt when tak­ing a life, so my col­leagues did some re­search.”

What Dontnod dis­cov­ered was sur­pris­ing. When it sur­veyed play­ers ask­ing whether they like to play as a force for good or evil in a videogame, 80 per­cent of the play­ers leaned to­wards good. We raise an eye­brow in dis­be­lief to which Beau­verger laughs, not­ing: “That sur­prised me too.

[But] it means that there is a moral com­pass in ev­ery­one; to take a life in a videogame – not in a fight­ing sit­u­a­tion, but in cold blood, when it is cal­cu­lated – it is much more dif­fi­cult. To push the player to go in this un­easy

“The stu­dio has shown pro­fi­ciency for de­vel­op­ing ex­cel­lent star­ring me­chan­ics around a very clear con­cept, and Vampyr is no slouch in that de­part­ment”

“The RPG sys­tems may in­deed be deep and finely tuned, but the com­bat is frus­trat­ingly straight­for­ward and in­ef­fec­tual ”

moral sit­u­a­tion I think it will be one of the most im­por­tant as­pects of the game… once some­thing be­gins to feel as hu­man as you it be­comes more dif­fi­cult to kill.”

Vampyr will track all of your de­ci­sions be­hind the scenes. As you give in to your an­i­mal in­stinct you may start to see cos­metic changes to your char­ac­ter while other play­ers in the world will start to be­come sus­pi­cious of your ac­tions and mo­ti­va­tion. As Beau­verger tells us, choice and con­se­quence is at the heart here, and Dontnod will re­ward play­ers for fol­low­ing any given path through he game. “There are four dif­fer­ent end­ings. Three re­flect how good or bad of a vam­pire you have been all through­out the game, and there is a fourth hid­den one that is much more dif­fi­cult to achieve – es­pe­cially made for those who went through the game with­out killing any­one.”

Both of Dontnod’s pre­vi­ous ef­forts have been cel­e­brated for their high con­cepts and de­rided for el­e­ments of their ex­e­cu­tion. It’s been, in many re­spects, in­cred­i­bly frus­trat­ing to fol­low Dontnod’s jour­ney over the past decade, to see a stu­dio be­come so adept at world build­ing and sto­ry­telling only to strug­gle on ‘the ba­sics’ of com­bat de­sign and op­ti­mi­sa­tion. It’s sim­i­larly frus­trat­ing to re­port, then, that Vampyr has some fairly fa­mil­iar prob­lems for Dontnod – the stu­dio is in dan­ger of be­com­ing a spe­cial­ist in em­brac­ing its short­com­ings, so in­tent it seems to con­cen­trate on one cor­ner of the game ex­pe­ri­ence over oth­ers.

The RPG sys­tems may in­deed be deep and finely-tuned, but the com­bat is frus­trat­ingly straight­for­ward and in­ef­fec­tual. The game may push you to con­sider the moral quandary of tak­ing a life in cold blood, but it ea­gerly thrusts you into sit­u­a­tions where your only op­tion is to slash and bash your way through face­less, name­less and charm­less vam­pire hunters with wild aban­don. Vampyr feels like it wants to be an open-ended RPG driven by di­a­logue, choice and con­se­quence, but it’s one that suc­cumbs to a per­ceived need for com­bat to en­tice play­ers into the ex­pe­ri­ence to be­gin with.

In treat­ing per­son­nel with quest mark­ers above their heads dif­fer­ently to the ev­ery­day folk at­tempt­ing to pro­tect them from, well, you, the game cre­ates this weird dis­as­so­ci­a­tion from it­self and its ex­cel­lent core con­ceit. You’ll lis­ten to Sab­rina is­sue a sob story about how she wishes for a bet­ter life – one away from the mis­er­able plague-rid­den, vam­pire in­fested streets of Lon­don. Sec­onds later you find your­self smash­ing but­tons to swipe and bite with lit­tle moral rec­om­pense at Un­sus­pect­ing Hench­man Num­ber Three who is at­tempt­ing to pro­vide her with ex­actly that life.

By fail­ing to make any real dis­tinc­tion be­tween the two types of NPC that you’ll en­counter, Vampyr also robs you of the op­por­tu­nity to make any dis­tinc­tion for your­self. It im­pacts im­mer­sion in a way that, frankly, we strug­gle to see be­ing rec­ti­fied ahead of its launch in June 2018. Cou­ple this with the some­what stilted, me­chan­i­cal com­bat and the alarm bells start ring­ing. It’s rough around the edges for sure, with a lim­ited bank of an­i­ma­tions also en­sur­ing that you’ll quickly be­gin to see the same com­bos play out over and over again. Com­bat has been a source of frus­tra­tion in Dontnod games since the be­gin­ning, and it’s frus­trat­ing to see that lit­tle has im­proved in this re­spect.

Con­flict is at the heart of Vampyr. It’s a game that feels at odds with it­self, di­vided be­tween its high-con­cept and the re­al­ity of its de­sign. It’s dif­fi­cult to see Dontnod rec­ti­fy­ing this ahead of the launch, al­though we are hope­ful that some of the in­ter­nal ten­sion may be al­le­vi­ated as the game be­gins to steadily open it­self up to ex­per­i­men­ta­tion as the hours wind on. In many re­spects, Vampyr looks to be an­other typ­i­cal Dontnod re­lease, one in which a bril­liant idea is ul­ti­mately im­peded by a hand­ful of frus­trat­ing de­sign de­ci­sions and dis­ap­point­ing com­bat me­chan­ics.

We’d love to be proved wrong, of course, but some­times there’s lit­tle that can be done to keep the dark­ness at bay.

Vampyr is be­ing cre­ated by many of the core team be­hind Life Is Strange and Re­mem­ber Me. It’s the stu­dio’s sec­ond at­tempt at a ‘dou­ble-a’ ac­tion game, with Vampyr also com­ing with the added de­sign com­pli­ca­tion of a semi-open world and deep-rooted RPG...

Vampyr suc­ceeds when it leans on Dontnod’s abil­ity as a sto­ry­teller and world builder, though it re­ally fal­ters when it comes to com­bat. The fight­ing is finicky and un­sat­is­fy­ing, lack­ing the req­ui­site feed­back or dy­namism to re­ally hold the at­ten­tion.

Choice and con­se­quence run through­out Vampyr. Dontnod is bank­ing on play­ers lean­ing on their moral con­science to help keep vi­o­lent ten­den­cies in check, with the game shift­ing around how deeply you suc­cumb to your vampyric in­stincts.

Build­ing re­la­tion­ships with char­ac­ters is key to pro­gres­sion in Vampyr. The more time you spend with the 60 unique cit­i­zens in the game, the more lines of in­ves­ti­ga­tion and routes through the story you’ll open up as you hunt the mys­te­ri­ous vam­pire that...

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