Another View on the Vampyr

By Callum Agnew on at

Spoilers for Vampyr follow!

Vampyr is a moody RPG with a combat-to-conversation ratio that heavily favours the latter. You play as a conspicuously well-groomed Tory in a dying 1918’s London, named Jonathan Reid. The game opens with Reid’s vampiric rebirth and “accidental” murder of his sister. Don’t worry though, it’s all uphill for for him afterwards even if everybody else gets shafted. The ill, the poor, the stupidly rich... none shall escape your grasp. Resplendent in a three-piece suit, a checkered great coat with blood red linings and a matching tie, you instil a twisted sense of foreboding into your victims as you spend the entire game, essentially, grooming them.

Dr. Jonathan Reid is an incredibly interesting character who Dontnod explore through a mix of simple but not-to-be-underestimated cinematography that parallels his experience, expectations and position alongside the player's actions.

As an immortal, Reid is granted a new perspective on life. Any political opinion he may have once held about hot button issues – homosexuality, suicide, racism, etcetera – is discarded. To him they no longer hold meaning. Throughout the game, he happily tells everyone what they want to hear because it all seems paltry. His class status, however, remains. Poverty has no meaning to Dr Reid, he cannot empathise with the poor, but he does pity them, offering kind words as is expected, and pretending to understand their plight. In short, throughout the game Reid, and the player, will say everything and anything, tell whatever lie they must, to get what they want. That is sweet, sweet blood, which in the game is also XP. The more the prey likes you, the greater the reward.

This behaviour is the gory core of Vampyr. There are areas where combat is necessary (a basic hit-and-dodge system), but the majority of your time is spent in safe zones, talking to various characters and understanding their woes. As you speak with London’s inhabitants, you decide if and when to sacrifice them in a dark alley to boost your level.

Dr Reid struts around the poorest and the sickest parts of London and, because of his standing as a renowned Doctor, is treated with reverence. His colleagues at the hospital speak of how much they admire his revolutionary work and are ever-so-excited to be working with him. Even the patients will comment on how capable you seem to be upon first meeting. Like in life, the refined accent does the heavy lifting.

Reid loves telling people what to do. As a physician, he revels in the authority his profession and knowledge grants him, how it puts him above others. A conversation with a poet makes this clear: “I love to walk and talk with others at night” says the poet. “If you say so, but as a physician in a time of epidemic, I must caution you to avoid unnecessary exposure, sir”. The epidemic has granted him power, just like his new vampirism. As a middle class white guy, he’s already used to being ‘above’ others so takes it all in his stride.

He brings every conversation back to himself, and always thinks with the I, starting his conversations in the same way. When consoling a patient on his wife's death during a bombing raid, he almost immediately moves on to himself. “I'm sorry about your wife. So many died during the bombings, I served in France and witnessed the carnage there.” When confronted by a veteran suffering from what appears to be PTSD, “I served in France myself, I just wanted to know what happened to you” The veteran responds “You were an officer, weren't you? Then I doubt we fought the same war sir. No offence.” The difference in accent, in class, and the reality they both face is made abundantly clear but remains, as these interactions tend to be, in the background.

With this readily embraced self importance, it only makes sense that Dr Reid is an extremely proud man. If somebody uses an oft-unused word, his response will always include it, most of the time mockingly. He is threatened by intelligence from those he perceives as lesser than him: it as a challenge to his intellect, and he will not allow them to be above him.

It's why the investigation into his new power and the epidemic takes a back foot, and why he swiftly forgets his sister (that he murdered!). Reid never went back for her body and, until it comes knocking, he never seems to care about her. When he discovers his sister searched unclaimed bodies to try and find him, Reid is silent. The player feels a sense of shame, not just because Reid, however unintentional, killed her, but because all these days later, you haven't gone looking for her body. Reid is already lost in his new, twofold power. His number one focus is to consolidate this power via growing closer to strangers.

As an immoral immortal, it’s appropriate that Dr Reid, spends his time rummaging through the pockets of those he kills and stealing from the most vulnerable. It's hard to think of a more quintessentially Tory symbol than Reid sucking the life out of the poor and sick. Doesn't matter if a character is doing everything they can to support their son or living out of a tent by the docks, Reid will waltz in and not only kill them in the end but take them for every shilling they have along the way. The power we have as the player, as the protagonist, makes us overlook these actions. This is normal to us, and him. It's just how things work.

Vampyr’s key selling point, the number one feature, is how you get to decide who to kill and if to kill them at all. Judging others for their misdeeds, or lacking qualities, is also one of Dr Reid’s favourite past-times. Here again we see the players experience, parallel the main characters. He wants blood, you want XP, and you both decide that snake oil saleswoman was a waste of space. These are characters solely created for you to judge. The game's entire premise is based upon how you perceive their worth. Are they allowed to live? Will you spare them? Or would they be more useful as an XP boost.

Reid outright condemns an ambulance driver at one point, asking “Why do you have such a mediocre reputation?” Then the moment he's confronted with the realities of the job, the hell that is the lives of those in poverty, he immediately backpedals. Reid cannot engage on a human level with people, he’s lost his humanity, and like many video game protagonists operates as a total sociopath. It's arguable whether he ever had it in the first place.

That’s not to say Reid's omniscient. Like the player, when playing Vampyr, you both only have your preconceived conceptions to go on. During a particular difficult argument where I was having trouble persuading someone to my way of thinking, I was given a new shiny blue ‘charm’ option. Vampires, in most forms of literature, have the power to bewitch, to beguile, to enthral others, and it is a staple tactic for any RPG protagonist. I assumed I knew what I was getting into when I selected it. Just like Reid however, I was still unaware of the intricacies and the limitations of our vampiric power. My hubris paralleled with Dr Reid’s. I assumed based on my experience with RPGs, he assumed based on his fictitious knowledge of vampires. We both felt that cost.

One of the most prolific ways Dontnod help reveal the character that is Dr Reid is through its cinematography and camera work. Last year’s The Last Of Us 2’s controversial Paris Games week trailer received heavy criticism in it’s near-voyeuristic handling of a rather brutal scene. Vampyr is a standout showing of how good camerawork can elevate a game's whole world.

When talking with mortals the camera is positioned just over Dr Reid’s shoulder and is pointing downwards: if you turn it to face yourself, the camera repositions so it is looking up to Dr Reid. It’s clear you are the position of power. However, the camera locks into a neutral position when conversing with those of equal standing. When the dynamics of the relationship change as the conversation flows, the camera’s control is taken from you and will move to emulate the flow of the conversation.

This is most prominent in a scene when you interact with Lady Ashbury: you begin by looking down on her when you catch her feeding. The rest of the conversation is permeated with her shame, and Reid is galvanised as you temporarily, and hypocritically, own the moral high ground. In other scenes the camera positions her above you when she saves your life, and shows both characters in a neutral position when coming to an agreement (your services for her knowledge).

The aforementioned hypocrisy is a prominent part of Vampyr, much like when you chastise someone for stealing from the dead. Dr Reid will confront and spouts moral indignation to the thieving mortician, fully aware that he’s spent the past two nights looting the many people he’s killed, and selling said loot to the mortician. Aside from their first introduction, Reid had never once interacted with the mortician unless his pockets were bulging with the silver cigarette cases of victims.

This is not a case of 'ludonarrative dissonance' – the simple fact of the matter is, Dr Reid and the player, if they instigate this conversation, both just enjoy sanctimoniously holding power over others. Dr Reid's character remains a consistent analogue to the player. Where Vampyr stands out is how the characters don't shy away from you: in fact, the mortician straight-up points out that the dead have no need for their watches and that everyone still knowingly does business with him, because needs must. The silent “even you” hangs heavy in the air.

The few characters that Dr Reid encounters who he considers a greater threat, or an unknown, are also portrayed appropriately, When speaking to, essentially, the Vampire Bullingdon Club, the camera repositions to focus solely on Dr Reid’s face, only half of his face is shown and it is locked into a 2 dimensional shot. You are closed in, surrounded by potential threats and, unusually, are the absolute center of attention because in this situation you may be the prey. You do not know who the other members are, and cannot fully gauge how they would react if you rock the boat, so you have no choice but to do what is expected and to follow propriety.

Afterwards, when you have a one-to-one with the late William Marshal’s apparent progeny, an extremely old and influential vampire, the camera reverses itself. It is now positioned below Reid, looking up at this near ancient vampire. The pecking order at that moment is clear and neither you or the main character are happy about this. You bristle at his every word, your questions are treated like that of a child's. For one of the first times in the game, you are being looked down upon.

The default position, for the preceding 20-odd hours had Dr Reid in the foreground, his wide shoulders, high-collared coat, sharp cheekbones, and pronounced forehead took up the entire left half of the screen and loomed over whoever he was talking too. As Reid appears stoic, unmoving, the mortals you interact with are expressive, shifting their weight from foot to foot as they gesticulate, Reid’s head tracking them at all times. The predator and prey dynamic is handled beautifully and, due to the camera being positioned behind Reid, subtly. Like Reid, your focus is entirely on the character you are speaking too.

The idea is entirely implicit. Conversations are not filled with thinly veiled threats of being eaten, and in their subtlety make most other RPG conversations seem childish. Subtext and great camera work are what this game builds upon, and they say more than floating writing or a colour-changing LED on a character’s head ever could.

Alongside its overarching plot Vampyr tells a tale of class, extreme poverty, inequality, and what happens somewhere when a failed idea like the Big Society sees so many falling through the gaps. For non-UK readers, this Conservative initiative basically suggested that volunteers could take care of community infrastructure (rather than it being properly funded). Vampyr feels an appropriately timed story, as the effects of a near decade of austerity are being felt all over the country by families on the lower end of the income scale.

Dr Reid symbolises those who, due to their class, are unable to truly understand the realities of the other side of society (the fact he knows offhand who William Marshal is speaks volumes). When he is confronted with the destitute, he has only empty words. He still considers himself above them, and will take everything they have if it will better him.

You could equally argue that Vampyr’s protagonist acts as a cipher for the player. That Reid embodies whoever is playing. If the player is altruistic, empathetic and kind, then so would be Reid. This may explain why some find him a dull, boring or uninspiring character, but that says more about the player than the game’s writing.

I don't buy the cipher theory, really, because to me Reid felt like a very uncomfortable character to inhabit. Vampyr shows players an oblivious and inhumane way of life. His characterisation feels like something more. I’m not going to claim the game's main mechanic is a clear metaphor for the Conservative party’s policy of austerity. But I will say that, if Dr. Reid was real, he would have won the 2016 Conservative party leadership contest unopposed.