WRITING VAMPIRE: THE MASQUERADE BLOODLINES 2
Hey there #vamily.
My name is Cara Ellison, and I’m the senior narrative designer on Bloodlines 2. I’m responsible for co-designing how the minute-to-minute story and characters in the game feel, what the player’s relationship is to characters, and specifically what you can say and do to characters. The awful jokes that radiate from the narrative department sometimes make Ka’ai suddenly choke and splutter at his desk, and I’m sure that at some point Luke Dodge, our Art Director, is going to have to call the police. Or maybe the CDC.
Today I want to write a little bit about what I've learned about building and writing a World Of Darkness Seattle to be a sequel to the first Bloodlines.
1. You are locked in the game with them
What is compelling about the original Bloodlines is that it is very interested in power relations encroaching on your ‘territory’ in a way that most RPGs are not. Most RPGs try to present you with systems that soup you up like a tanked-up space marine and expel you out into space to explode things and mess with civilizations and make your spaceship very shiny. Like a kind of settler model.
Bloodlines 1 and 2 are games that are much more interested in how its NPCs might fuck with you than how you might fuck with them. It is claustrophobic. As Watchmen’s Rorschach might say, you are locked in the game with them. You start the game already a political pawn in other people’s chess. Vampire relations in Santa Monica in Bloodlines 1, for example, were already a tense and volatile political mess before you started the game.
In Bloodlines 1 as well as in Bloodlines 2, every vampire you encounter in the game has been a vampire for longer than you. You are in their realm. You are not the hero of the tale, and neither are they. You are merely trying to make a mark on a world that got fucked up without you. And for characters that are weaker than you – mortals, for example – you have the ability to rope them into your nightmare, but what is certain is that there will be very little good outcome for anyone involved with a monster. Try to be ‘nice’, and it will backfire. Try to be ‘kind’, and you might have to be cruel. Try to help out, and you might help out the worst of the World Of Darkness. But what is certain is that this neo-noir set of characters is not going to give you a bunch of vampire powers and then let you do whatever you like. Someone created you for a reason; The Masquerade is all-encompassing. The characters in this neo-noir world are there to be a big, entertaining pain in your ass at every step. The original game - Bloodlines 1 – was the same way.
2. Choose Who You Hurt
In Bloodlines 1, and therefore Bloodlines 2, you cannot achieve anything without hurting people or making them angry. You can only choose who you hurt. You can choose between one vampire political reality, or another. Everything is seen through vampire eyes – when you’re immortal, you do not work on mortal time. The politics is long-term. You have to stay undead and stay powerful. And in order to do that, you have to start manipulating.
For example, if humans are dying out en masse, how will you feed? If the humans stop free movement from happening, where will you live, will your reality become more difficult? How do vampires use technology to manipulate their food supply? What’s the lowest effort way you can stay alive as a vampire? How can you stop humans from knowing that you exist… and yet keep them sweet on you so that you can feed on them easily? How do mortal politics interfere with your unlife? When the city bans sex work… is that good or bad for you and those you know? Does perpetuating mortal trauma make an undead existence easier… or harder to deal with? If you suck blood at a particular bloodshop, what happens when another vampire takes it over? Does what you were doing before the Embrace impact how people react to you now? Is there anything that…scares you as a vampire? And …can you make mortals more likely to turn up when you want by getting really good in bed?
3. Navigating the World of Darkness
We ask ourselves a lot of questions while writing and we try to give you a reactive world where you can figure out some of the answers to these questions. This means that whatever difficult choices we force you to make, the world will give you consequences that are always as equally interesting as each other. We try to open up every conversation so that you have a number of ways you can get through it – by negotiating, coercing, or seducing, for example. We also make bribery an option – even starting a fight or finding a way to avoid people is a viable way to get by. If you are a Malkavian, perhaps your options are more terrifying than usual. Or, you can merely ask a bunch of questions until you are forced to choose what to do.
A lot of our characters are assholes. A lot of people who exist in the real world are assholes. But just like in the real world, the way that characters in Bloodlines 2 talk about others provides a social fabric that gives you a better context and understanding of what that does to the world, what the consequences are, and how characters are affected by those attitudes and actions. No one character will be ‘just’ a category of person. If you laugh at a joke an asshole makes, it doesn’t make them any less a bad person who will screw you over at a moment’s notice. For example, in HBO’s Veep, we know that the characters are all some of the worst people we’ve ever seen. But what makes you understand that they are doing or saying something bad is that other people react to them in the way that they do. In our game, if you keep one asshole alive, maybe some other bad people will be really mad about it. I mean in the first Bloodlines, did you really, completely like Damsel? Or was there something naive about her? Was she just necessary for the fireworks to happen? Depending on who you hung out with, maybe you’d have a different perspective on her. Or maybe you’d be more impressed with what she does than what she says.
4. Unsanctioned Vampires
At the forefront of my mind in Bloodlines 2 is the crossover from being mortal to being a vampire. Around the time your character was created in an event called the Mass Embrace, a small number of other vampires were also created. Unlike you, they were abandoned and they did not get to choose who they were when they were Embraced. There was no character creator for them. Their lives were interrupted and they were made immortal, and all their relationships with the world were frozen in time. They are your brothers and sisters, in a way. And perhaps they are not having as privileged a time as you are. They had no guidance on the crossover. They had no support as to what was happening to them. They have to deal with their unlives as is. If you suddenly got thirsty for human blood and couldn’t stand sunlight, what exactly would you tell the people you know? How would you get through vampire puberty? And uh… what are the rules?
We let you figure out what to do with the messiest vampires. But I am not going to make it easy on you.