Video games are as much an artistic medium as any other form of entertainment. Some games have stories that are so well-crafted that they draw gamers into a believable, fictional world while they play. Add enticing gameplay on top of that mesmerizing story and you’ve got yourself one hell of a game.
Dontnod Entertainment’s Vampyr offers exactly that.
The game casts you as Dr. Jonathan Reid, a doctor-turned-vampire in 1918 London. This leaves the player to navigate impossible moral choices, forced to decide between abiding to the Hippocratic Oath — to first do no harm — and succumbing to the bloodlust that comes with being a creature of the damned.
Players can decide to drain the blood out of every single character they meet — turning London into a giant vampire breeding ground — or they could join the side of the light, resisting the draw to feed at the cost of becoming weaker. All of the abilities and weaknesses in the game are true to established vampire lore.
The heavy focus on narrative storytelling falls directly in line with the developer’s other game, Life is Strange, which earned plenty of critical acclaim. But what’s going to make this game stand out from other vampiric offerings is that it has real history carefully woven into every fiber.
Originally, the game was supposed to be set in the 1950’s America, juxtaposing a demonic hunger with the happiness of a newfound suburban lifestyle. Instead, the developers decided to take the game to a place few others have gone: London during the summer of 1918 — just before the armistice was signed.
Stéphane Beauverger, the game’s narrative director, told Polygon,
“This war at the beginning at the 20th century is the root of so many things. It’s the beginning of communism. It’s the beginning of feminism. It’s the end of the old empires. Darwin has killed God. God is dead, now we know where we come from — it’s all genetic. It’s a brand-new era.”
This historical flare is evident from the very beginning of the game when you awaken from a mass grave. The corpses within the grave aren’t the result of warfare, but rather the Spanish Flu. The main character, Dr. Reid, is a combat medic who just returned from the front lines of the First World War. He is attacked by vampires who are using the widespread death caused by the pandemic to mask their lethal hunger.
In real life, this virus took its toll on humanity — far worse than the Black Death and The Great War itself. The Black Death took 75 million lives over a decade. The war took 18 million in four years. The Spanish Flu took somewhere between 50 and 100 million in just one year. Historians haven’t nailed down when or where this virus began, but the first known case was in Fort Riley, Kansas and it was quickly spread when American GIs rapidly deployed across the world.
The close quarters, the filthy living conditions, the idiotic decision to quarter live animals alongside men, and the generally terrible hygiene of troops in the trenches meant that a single cough could kill entire platoons. The poor handling of remains meant that the virus would quickly spread. Troops who contracted the flu were shipped to every other corner of the globe and, with them, the virus spread.
Most viruses are dangerous to infants, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems. Because the Spanish Flu attacked lungs and bloodstream, it was lethal even to young, healthy adults. So, how did they treat this horrific ailment in real life? Blood transfusions — which brings us right back to the video game about vampires. Dr. Reid was, according to the game, one of the world’s most renown blood doctors before becoming a vampire.
The game also plays with the disillusionment of the common folk. Each and every character that roams the streets of London has their own thoughts, goals, and lifestyle. It’s up to you, as both a healer and a feeder, to discover their stories — either by befriending them or consuming their very essence.
In 1918, the world was ripe with social and political revolutions. In game, some citizens show communist sympathies while others are proponents of the first-wave feminism, which was born after women took more direct agency of their lives in the absence of nearly all the country’s men.
Vampyr is an expertly crafted game that is definitely worth picking up for both fans of the occult or history in general.