These days, almost every game is a roleplaying game. You collect and upgrade loot in shooters. You progress through skill trees in stealthy action-adventures. And you earn experience points in basically every genre under the sun.
But it wasn't always this way – there was a time when RPGs stood apart. Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines
, for instance, was marked out by a strong connection to the world of tabletop roleplaying, a heavy emphasis on player choice and problem-solving, and a quality of writing that often towered above what the rest of the industry had to offer.
Which makes it all the more tragic, then, that it was the game that ultimately led to the demise of its developer. Bloodlines was a game that was so ambitious – so ahead of its time – that it killed the studio that sired it.
Troika Games may not be a household name today, but the studio was home to roleplaying royalty. Founded by three of the key members of the Fallout
and Fallout 2
development teams, Troika's output included The Temple of Elemental Evil
, an RPG based on a classic Dungeons & Dragons scenario, but it was the strikingly original Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura
that really earned Troika a reputation.
Like most RPGs of the time, however, these games made use of a zoomed-out, isometric perspective. For its next game, the team at Troika wanted to place players face-to-face with its cast of characters. And when publishing partner Activision suggested that Troika create a followup to Nihilistic Software's well-received Vampire: The Masquerade - Redemption
, Bloodlines began to take shape.
But while the direction was clear, the development proved difficult. One issue was the decision to make use of the Source Engine, which was still in development at Valve. Source was certainly a capable engine – and Troika made use of its powerful facial animation and lip-syncing features to bring Bloodlines' characters to vivid life – but it was also unfinished. After a series of delays, Activision set the team a firm deadline. One way or another, the game would launch in 2004.
The timing couldn't have been much worse. When Bloodlines launched in November 2004, it was on the very same day that Half-Life 2 practically redefined first-person PC gaming with its revolutionary physics and peerless production values. Bloodlines, by comparison, bore the marks of its hurried release, launching with a litany of glitches and a scrappy final act.
But even early players noticed that there was something special lurking behind the bugs. Reviewers heaped praise on the quality of Bloodlines' writing and the intricacy of its open-ended design, with some even drawing comparisons to modern classics such as Deus Ex
. The game's setting – a seedy vision of modern-day Los Angeles in which rival vampire clans secretly steer the world of humans – was also hailed for its detail and vibrancy.
Play it today and it's hard not to be impressed by the sheer ambition of Bloodlines. Even your very first choice – which of the game's seven playable vampire clans to select – has massive repercussions. Will you play as a charismatic Toreador, charming and seducing your way through LA's bustling social scene? Or will you choose to embody a hideous Nosferatu, shunning the city streets in favor of the festering sewers that run beneath it? Your choice will transform the way you play.
But in spite of Bloodlines' many virtues, initial sales were disappointing. Less than six months after the game's launch, Troika Games closed its doors for good.
Life after death
In the wake of Troika's closure, a community of modders formed to squash bugs, fix glitches and even restore content that was cut from the final release. Wesp5's Unofficial Patch, for instance, is still in active development today, 15 years on from the launch of Bloodlines, and is so comprehensive that we include a version of it with every copy of Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines
sold on GOG.COM.
What motivated these fan modders to pour years of work into a vampiric roleplaying game? "I had never experienced writing as deep in any other game," explains Wesp5 – otherwise known as Dr. Werner Spahl – when we ask him. He tells us that his motivation was "to improve my favorite game which was released in such an unfinished state." It's partly thanks to the work of Spahl and his fellow modders that Bloodlines is still impressing new players to this day.
And the Bloodlines story doesn't end there. In 2015, Paradox Interactive – the acclaimed publisher of Stellaris, Battletech, and the Crusader Kings series – acquired the rights to the Vampire setting and work began on a sequel to Troika's flawed masterpiece. Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines 2
is no less ambitious than its predecessor, with a complex branching narrative that reacts to your choice of a vampire clan. But this time, there's also a host of factions you can pledge allegiance to, each jostling for position in Seattle's supernatural underground. Choose your side, then change your mind at any time – but remember, the world will react to your decisions. And if you're still thirsty for vampiric action, Vampire: The Masquerade - Coteries of New York
will offer a bloodsoaked blend of visual novel storytelling and character-driven roleplaying when it launches on 4 December.
Considering the vampiric subject matter, it seems only fitting that Bloodlines went on to enjoy such a rich afterlife. Sink your teeth into the next chapter of the story when Bloodlines 2 launches in 2020.