Hi Everyone! My name is Thanh Pham (Tawn Fam) from Hardsuit labs, and I am the Environment Art Lead on Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines 2.
Telling stories through a scene is a difficult challenge, even more so when the gap between fantasy and reality is minimal. The World of Darkness is the underlying layer below the facade of what we perceive as reality. If you are unlucky enough to find yourself behind this veneer, you’ll soon encounter very real powers and evils that you’ve previously relegated to fiction. In Bloodlines 2 a set of relatively ordinary people are turned into vampires against their will. They find themselves as fledgeling thinbloods, being trust into a world they don’t understand, and with no-one there to show you them the ropes. Amongst the tasks of Environment Art we are asked to support the story of these characters and how they move through their new life through environmental cues and set dressing.
Full disclosure; I came into this project without a complete understanding of the narrative surrounding vampires in “The World of Darkness.” My understanding of vampires, pertaining to this world, was limited and lacking. Here are a collection of my assumptions about vampires, and how they correlate with vampires in the World of Darkness:
Vampires despise garlic – Incorrect
Vampires are burned by holy water – Nope
Vampires are threatened by crucifixes - No
Vampires always sleep in coffins – False
Vampires breathe air – Wrong again.
Vampires do not reflect their own image in the mirror – While true for a subset of the most powerful of vampires, you shouldn’t count on it.
Prior to gathering all this new intel, I had an idea of how we were going to set dress and decorate the living spaces of vampires. When properly onboarded however, much of this went out the window as we started laying the foundations of our visual language.
Set Dressing in the dark
If you were randomly bitten by a vampire on the street at night, you would probably be in a daze for a while. When you finally come to your senses, you would likely head home, rather confused, since you did not have any considerable visible marks of your attack. You would wake up to the most confusing day of your life. The rays of the sun would burn and irritate your skin, food is no longer appetizing, and water is not quenching your unbearable thirst. The realization that breathing isn’t even necessary anymore is probably the most alarming aspect of your new life. Going to bed during the day and being awake all night might not seem so strange to many of us in this age of electricity, but after a while, it will take its toll.
As a newly turned vampire becomes more accustomed to their fate, their living space is likely to change to reflect this. Since food and water are no longer necessities, dishes, drinking glasses, pots and pans, and random snacks are either gathering mold in the sink or trash hidden away. As they progress they realize that there is really no need for a fridge anymore. If the vampire has been around long enough, they might get rid of their it to make room for something else, space being a premium in a small city apartment. (Not all vampires live in huge mansions.) Blocking out the sun becomes an early and urgent affair. They would likely use whatever is available to keep the burning rays at bay; pizza boxes, cardboard and duct tape. One could assume that after some time, they would upgrade that haphazard looking window into something more refined, depending on the interest in and sense of style, some might appreciate the finer things in life - making unlife that much more manageable. If not neatly arranged in bookshelves, you would likely find books and literature on vampyrism and other occult topics strewn about as the thinblood tries to make sense of their new reality.
Aside from the furniture and design of a vampire’s haven, there are some other opportunities to tell their story. Their newfound thirst for blood likely put a dent in the neighbourhood population of stray cats and dogs. A small animal does not offer much sustenance, so it is likely you would find remains of pets and other critters littering the apartment
New Powers Lead to New Areas to Explore
In Bloodlines 2, we are pushing the idea of vampire powers used towards vertical traversal. If a skilled parkour practitioner can scale up a building wall, so can a thinblood vampire. Vampires inhabit spaces in the shadows and areas least traveled by normal humans. Barely lit rooftops of buildings are great areas for the vampire to dwell in, but trying to set dress an area to show what a vampire leaves behind is difficult. Since they don’t eat or drink, they don’t leave food garbage lying around. Other than wet footsteps and other small clues, there is not much to go by. Instead, we decided to use other gameplay methods that enabled the use of heightened senses to find traces that vampires leave behind. These traces are often found as tags, similar to how gangs mark their territory with spray paint.
The storyline of this game takes place during on of the most festive season of all in Seattle - Christmas! Christmas trees, tinsel, ornaments, stringed colored lights, salvation army donation boxes - that the player can steal from - stockings, and joy for all. It is imperative that we drive the mood of this game towards a holiday theme and that it is clearly evident to the player. Not everything that happens during Christmas is all cheery and joyful. We have some goodies in store!
A major aspect of this game is that breaking the masquerade has severe consequences. Causing havoc and trouble in a well-lit open area will alert the police and be a detriment to your health as a vampire. Where can you be free and enjoy your new vampire superpowers? Where is the “dark web” of these city environments where the lawless can run to? We are introducing areas in the game called blind spots that will allow the player to escape to when they need to run from the police after a dirty deed has been done. Blind spots are alleyways, dimly lit back parking lot areas, or even rooftops. To the normal eye, these areas feel dangerous and unsafe. You definitely notice that the blind spot areas will feel unkempt. Garbage might be piling up, rats are scattered about, and the walls are tagged with graffiti. The casual human would generally avoid these areas, but to the vampire these areas are freeing and feel like home.
A major misconception about Seattle, is that it is always raining. It might not always be raining in Seattle during the winter months, but it is always drearily wet and misty. If one were to stand outside in December, they would notice the ground is always damp and it seems to stay that way for vast amounts of time. We decided to have the exterior environments in Bloodlines 2 to always be wet to be faithful to the weather in Seattle during the winter months.
An aspect of vampires in the World of Darkness compared to the current climate view of them is that they are monsters. There is no teenage vampire angst happening here or a coming of age scenario. They are monsters and shall remain monsters. Without giving away too much, if there are scenes of death and dismay, there will be quite a bit of blood and horror. We want to set the narrative mood of this game to be dark and disturbing. To attain that through environment art, we tend to stick to colors that are neutral and not overwhelming. Allow the lighting team to set the mood of the given scene and allow the colors and hues of death to dominate the space. The more realistic Environment Art can make a space look and feel, the more unnerving it will be when death and horror present themselves.
New World vs Old World
In Bloodlines 2, a major storyline is that there is a power struggle between the Old World vampires and the newer generation of vampires. I won’t go into much detail about this since it might reveal too much of the story, but the current reality in Seattle is that there is an economic and cultural shift happening with the massive rise of tech companies and an influx of new people moving to the city looking for job opportunities. We have included aspects of this dynamic into our game. One way is through the set dressing of cranes dotting the Seattle skyline to help denote new construction happening next to older architecture. Different neighborhoods with drastically different looks and feel in this game assist with the story of change in Seattle.
I hope this environment art dev diary helps give some insight on how we approach the Bloodlines 2 story through set dressing and environment cues. We often ask ourselves what would someone working in the field of Crime Scene decipher from our set dressing and choice of materials and colors in a given space. Could they guess the narrative of the scene from the story we tell with the environment? The World of Darkness is hidden in an underlying area of reality. Things are not always what they seem and we have tried to push that narrative through various locations in the game. The hope is that the players can see some of those underlying themes through Environment Art when they get a chance to play the game.
Of all the new facts I have learned about vampires in the World of Darkness, I’m surprised about how much they care about their image.. As I mentioned, vampires don’t breathe air, but quite a few of them still smoke!? So because of this, you might notice quite a few cigarette trays in this game. The older more refined vampires prefer to drink blood straight from a victim’s warm neck, anything else would be considered vulgar. So If you see a glass of blood it is likely another way for that vampire to show off for the player. A good example of a more flamboyant vampire in this regard is Lou, who really takes the idea about image to a new level. Lou is often shown smoking and drinking in her mansion when the player shows up, although she really doesn't get anything out of either, at least in the more traditional sense.