Until the nineties, roleplaying games were largely the domain of epic fantasy quest or cataclysmic wars across the stars, but 17 years after the first monster was slain in Dungeons & Dragons a new breed of roleplaying game was released. Vampire: The Masquerade was different, and it singlehandedly revolutionised gaming and became one of the greatest unacknowledged forces in recent pop culture.
Created by Mark Rein-Hagen and published in 1991, Vampire: The Masquerade excised pages of tables and statistics and replaced them with chapters dedicated to storytelling and characterisation. It was also, as the title suggests, one of the first times that someone could play a vampire. “Vampire wasn't the first game in which you played a monster, but it was the most resonant,” says Matthew Dawkins, World of Darkness line developer for Onyx Path Publishing. “What it offered, that many games of a similar vein did not, was context.”
Until this, vampires had been largely portrayed as remorseless killers. From Dracula to The Lost Boys, vampires were monsters to be slain, and even the odd exception like Anne Rice's Interview With the Vampire (where the protagonist's story is tragic) was still overly enamoured with cloaks and fancy names. The simpler 'monster' idea was all there was in the video games of the 1980’s, like Castlevania and Vampire Village.
Rather than the traditional view of vampires being creatures of the night that lurked in gothic castles, Vampire: The Masquerade presented them as modern-day beings that existed on the fringes of society, veiled under a façade of humanity. "I think it really entrenched the notion of vampires as a protagonist and encapsulated that ideal so well,” says Dr David Waldron, a lecturer in history and anthropology at Federation University.
In Vampire: The Masquerade, players took on the role of a vampire from one of thirteen clans. This defined the character’s vampiric powers. In addition to their character’s health, players also needed to keep track of how much blood their vampire had, as well as their character’s humanity – a measure of how closely the vampire clings to human values. “Vampire has always described itself as a roleplaying game about personal horror, and that horror was intended to come from the drama of the vampire trying to preserve its fading humanity,” says Jason Carl, Vampire producer for White Wolf .
Vampire: The Masquerade is set in a dark reflection of the modern world, where greed, corruption and decay are rife. Borrowing from counter-culture aesthetics of the time, opera capes and flowing gowns were replaced with biker jackets and sunglasses. Suddenly vampires looked cool, magazine cover cool, and this particular idea appealed to new sub-cultures. The games itself and those it inspired became cool.
The success of Vampire: The Masquerade spawned the epic World of Darkness series, which included Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Mage: The Ascension and others. It also led to a collectable card game and a live-action roleplaying game which, at its height, saw a game being played in every city across the UK. It even had a television series, a comic series and a music album.
But the real influence of Vampire is much wider and further. Films like Underworld and Blade share structural and aesthetic similarities with Vampire: The Masquerade to the extent that White Wolf, the game's publisher, took Sony Pictures to court for 17 counts of copyright infringement (the case was eventually settled before trial). “You can see key concepts about vampires that are now expected, even taken for granted, that originated in the roleplaying game appearing quite visibly in other vampire games, films and television shows” says Carl.
It was in gaming, however, that Vampire: The Masquerade would have its greatest impact.
After the release of Vampire: The Masquerade, video games soon followed where players could take on the role of a vampire. Games like Bloodnet and Gothos were created before the official video game adaptations were released: Vampire: The Masquerade – Redemption, and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. Despite the latter being bug-filled it was such a faithful adaptation of the original game that fans continue to patch and improve the game to this day. These were followed by the likes of Dark and Infamous 2: Festival of Blood.
Barring the official adaptations, it is possibly the recently released Vampyr that shares the most similarities with Vampire: The Masquerade. Players take on the role of a former doctor turned vampire in post-World-War 1 London, where they must balance the need to feed with their Hippocratic oath.
Unlike other vampire games, which are often based in a fantastical setting, Vampyr is set in a genuine moment in London’s history. “You can see the Vampire legacy with clans and the vampire as a misunderstood loner protagonist trying to preserve his humanity,” observes Waldron. “The secret society of elders, etc, were all very clearly influenced by Vampire.”
CCP Games, the creators of EVE: Online, bought White Wolf in 2006 to create an MMOG based on Vampire: The Masquerade. Initially promising, the project eventually ground to a halt and was cancelled in 2014, before White Wolf was bought by Paradox Interactive a year later, a purchased that included the rights to the World of Darkness.
Meanwhile, Vampire: The Masquerade was cancelled in 2004, and succeeded by a new version, called Vampire: The Requiem. However such is the enduring interest that Vampire: The Masquerade is currently undergoing a rebirth, with the fifth edition, called V5, launched at GenCon last month.
Vampire: The Masquerade radically updated the idea of what a vampire might be, dragging it away from campy horror and billowing cloaks and into the busy, crowded, and diverse modern world. Its ideas influenced not just games but films and television. “Vampire transformed gaming, fusing the RPG and gothic subcultures together,” says Waldron. “It emphasised rich storytelling and characterisation over combat, and left countless imitators in video games.”
But, will we ever see Vampire: The Masquerade in video games again? A game based on Werewolf: The Apocalypse is currently in development, while the rights to World of Darkness have returned to White Wolf, which is now owned by games developer and publisher Paradox Interactive. It seems unlikely that, even if currently dormant, video games have seen the last of these particular bloodsuckers.