The dark side of Dontnod
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...