Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is a game with a very long name that was released a very long time ago in November of the year 2004. I was a senior in college. I was happy about baseball and sad about politics. I wore my hair pushed forewards instead of backwards and I really wanted my nickname to be Roxy Falcatraz, but Dufrau is what stuck. I did not care about video games. It was a bit of a dark age, baseball aside, during which I played Duck Hunt maybe three times and occasionally watched boys play Tiger Woods PGA Tour in dorm rooms while we waited for our friends to get ready for glamorous activities like drinking Boone’s Farm on a bench down by the river. As I am now old enough to buy my own Boone’s Farm and wise enough to drink it indoors, my hair is pointing the in the right direction, and I am married to at least two video game characters, by my calculations I ought to be ready to handle a game with Adult Content.
Well. It’s a good thing I’m so mature, because immediately after a character creation where you choose what kind of vampire you want to be based on what outfit you are least offended by, the game jumps right into that Adult Content. For some reason your character is banging a vampire dude apparently one million times based on the number of condom wrappers all over the room, and there’s handcuffs and chalices and drugs strewn about too because vampires are too edgy to clean their rooms, and then the dude bites you, and it’s all so embarrassing that the Vampire Police come and arrest you both, to my great relief. But alas, they are too late. You are now a vampire, which can mean only one thing: you must move to Santa Monica to assist in petty crimes. Also they behead your Sire for being a giant dork.
Santa Monica is run by vampire sisters Jeanette (who is Not Harley Quinn) and Therese (who loves margins and discipline). They operate the local Fangtasia, which in this case is called Asylum. A guy tells you to find a different guy, but that guy is in hiding because he did something to piss off the sisters, and the sisters won’t call off the dogs until you do a couple of video game things for them. To impress Therese you have to go to a haunted hotel to get a locket for probably spooky businesswoman reasons. Anybody who has ever met me will already have assumed that I would do whatever Therese asked me to, especially if she didn’t ask particularly nicely, and by golly those people are correct.
The hotel was honestly one of the most unsettling video game levels I’ve played in a long time. Apparitions and phantom footsteps and poltergeistery and my cat jumping halfway up onto my lap and scaring me and scratching me while I was otherwise alone in the house. I got lost a lot and died twice, but it was worth it to learn the value of quicksaving as often as possible, and to earn almost a glimmer of approval from my true love Therese after she finished yelling at me for the next thing I did, which was to destroy paintings and summon a blood demon for Jeanette. It turns out the paintings belonged to Therese and so did the blood demon. Incidentally, I also murdered the blood demon. She was a little angry, so I lied and said it wasn’t me, which I think is justifiable because we are all evil vampires. It really did seem to do the trick. She invited me to breakfast.
But it turns out Therese will never love me. Apparently Jeanette is the only character you can bang? I did not bang her, because she makes me uncomfortable in the way Miley Cyrus does whenever she isn’t singing and also because my heart immediately and obviously belonged to her sister. But in the end, it kind of doesn’t matter, because the breakfast Therese invited me to was a trick breakfast at a murder diner, after which it is revealed that Therese and Jeanette are actually just one vampire having a one-hundred-plus-years-long dissociative episode that I somehow went on to cure in one night using methods that didn’t seem very safe or therapeutic to me. When the dust settled, only Therese remained, but she remained as committed as ever to not banging me. (I think I did accidentally make a thrall though by feeding my blood to a person when I was skulking around the hospital stealing morphine? Maybe she will love me.)
My tireless research of one entire Google query led me to the startling fact that not only can you play as a woman in this game, it’s actually recommended. Not for cool reasons or anything though. One of the most useful skills in the game is Seduction, which girl characters seem to be able to use on basically anybody, whereas dudes can mostly only seduce women. So basically girl characters get twice the utility out of a major game mechanic just so gamers won’t have to be scandalized by a boy kissing another boy on the mouth in this game where boys regularly drink blood from each others’ necks. It’s not that surprising considering that even Bioware was pretty straight in 2004, but, like, it’s VAMPIRES. What is even the point of heterosexual vampires?
Another thing that I don’t love about it is the combat. Fighting in this game is horrible. It’s like Dark Souls except broken and random and nothing works right and damage makes no sense. Like, it looks like it’s telling me my bare fists do more damage than a baseball bat, and that doesn’t really make sense so either it’s dumb or I am too dumb to understand what the damage stat things are trying to tell me. But no matter how low my firearms skill is, if I shoot a dude in the face three times he should at least acknowledge it? Guns seem too slow and unreliable to even be worth using, so I just stab warehouses full of dudes with a knife like the vampires of old probably had to do. The ragdoll physics when they finally die is satisfyingly goofy.
For all the ways this game is super corny and dumb, it’s also actually pretty engaging and immersive. The seedy city environment reminds me of the SNES Shadowrun game, which is one of my all time favorites. Everything is dim and dirty and there are just enough people around that they all seem a little menacing, even knowing that I am the bad guy here. It feels like a place you shouldn’t be at night. (Except for the sewers, which are bright and almost pristine if not for the occasional rat.) And it plays like an old school RPG. It doesn’t hold your hand at all. There’s no map, there’s no quest markers, and the clues in your journal are vague as hell. Completing missions relies on a lot of trial and error and exploration, and on crazy stuff like actually listening to all of the dialogue and maybe even taking notes if you’re smarter than I am and/or too proud to consult the wiki.
The lore isn’t especially dense, but it’s consistent and it spirals outward into some legit intrigue. I’m only about a quarter of the way through the game, I think, but it already feels like a vibrant, soap opera-y society that I am excited to seduce and murder my way to the top of like some kind of undead Erica Kane.