Selves and Others in Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines

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As I walked into a dark alley of the fic­tion­al Santa Monica, rain falling on my character’s newly upgrad­ed leather jack­et, I noticed a hideous fig­ure crouch­ing in the cor­ner. I stepped cau­tious­ly towards it, clutch­ing my knife. I was less con­cerned about who this crouch­ing fig­ure was than whether it meant any harm to me. I wasn’t look­ing for a con­ver­sa­tion, I was mere­ly look­ing for anoth­er out­let to exhib­it my power fan­ta­sy in this fic­tion­al world.

Instead, the moment I stepped close to it, the crouch­ing, grotesque man turned and began talk­ing to me.

I was taken aback by the idea of hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with some­one who my mind imme­di­ate­ly iden­ti­fied as anoth­er enemy. Another body to add to my ever-increasing count in the game. But instead, here I was, talk­ing and try­ing to coerce infor­ma­tion out of some­one who was clear­ly an intel­li­gent being. This seem­ing­ly mun­dane occur­rence of gen­tly sub­vert­ing the hor­ror genre’s tra­di­tion­al Othering of its ene­mies into flawed but com­plex por­tray­als was one of the many achieve­ments of Troika’s Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.

Games, par­tic­u­lar­ly the ones that rely on hav­ing the play­ers com­mit vio­lent acts, have a poor rep­u­ta­tion of stig­ma­tiz­ing men­tal ill­ness­es through a neg­a­tive por­tray­al, often equat­ing peo­ple with such ill­ness­es to mon­sters. Such games rely on Othering to antag­o­nize the play­er towards those it seeks to por­tray as in-game ene­mies. Othering ene­mies often involves empha­siz­ing cer­tain neg­a­tive stereo­types and mis­un­der­stand­ings, whether they are racial or cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences, or men­tal health con­di­tions.

One com­mon way the hor­ror genre antag­o­nizes those with men­tal health issues is by depict­ing them as exhibit­ing vio­lent, psy­cho­path­ic behav­iour that threat­ens the safe­ty of the play­er char­ac­ter. The endan­ger­ment of the player’s own well-being in the vir­tu­al world is a con­di­tion many action-based hor­ror games use in order to jus­ti­fy the vio­lent actions the play­er is then encour­aged to com­mit towards the dis­abled bod­ies.

However, Othering goes beyond the prob­lem­at­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of ene­mies. Mechanics like san­i­ty meters are com­mon­ly used in games like Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem to describe the men­tal state of the play­er char­ac­ter.1 If the meter is filled to its max­i­mum, it would gen­er­al­ly result in the play­er char­ac­ter going “insane” and trig­ger a fail state. This mech­a­ni­sa­tion is deeply prob­lem­at­ic, as on top of rein­forc­ing exist­ing stereo­types about a group of peo­ple, it fur­ther deep­ens the stig­ma sur­round­ing them by mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

One of the most com­mon mis­con­cep­tions per­pet­u­at­ed by the stig­ma­tiz­ing mechan­ics of hor­ror games is the false notion that men­tal ill­ness­es lead to crim­i­nal­ly vio­lent behav­iour. Many hor­ror games use men­tal asy­lums as their set­ting and task the sane play­er to fight against the dement­ed patients and escape alive. Moreover, these games encour­age the reac­tion of the play­er towards such patients to be neg­a­tive, by Othering them as sub-humans or mon­sters. Such games carry prob­lem­at­ic val­ues in their rep­re­sen­ta­tion, which could neg­a­tive­ly affect behav­iour towards actu­al peo­ple suf­fer­ing from such con­di­tions.

Bloodlines is a strange and fas­ci­nat­ing game on sev­er­al lev­els. This is appar­ent already in the char­ac­ter cre­ation scene. One of the six pos­si­ble clans the play­ers can role-play as, the Malkavians, are a group of vam­pires who suf­fer from a vari­ety of men­tal ill­ness­es includ­ing hal­lu­ci­na­tion and schiz­o­phre­nia. However, with­in Kindred — the col­lo­qui­al term for the com­mu­ni­ty of Vampires in the game’s uni­verse — they are respect­ed and treat­ed as equals, and are often regard­ed as seers and ora­cles. Even with­in the Camarilla, the rul­ing body of the Kindred, Malkavians are given an equal seat of power, and thus rep­re­sent­ed fair­ly. By estab­lish­ing a set­ting which treats char­ac­ters with men­tal ill­ness­es with respect, Bloodlines tries to human­ize key Malkavian non-player char­ac­ters, and com­mu­ni­cate empa­thy to the play­er.

Bloodlines con­scious­ly avoids this neg­a­tive stereo­typ­ing by care­ful­ly por­tray­ing every Malkavian NPC you meet dur­ing the course of the game as non-aggressive. Doing so sep­a­rates Bloodlines from the myr­i­ad hor­ror games where every “abnor­mal” thing is either vio­lent (and thus meant to be killed by the play­er) or behaves in a man­ner which makes it eas­i­er for the play­er to Other them. The lack of empha­sis on their “abnor­mal­i­ties” lays the ground­work allow­ing Bloodlines to por­tray Malkavians in more pos­i­tive man­ner. This rep­re­sen­ta­tion is also con­sis­tent with the Malkavians’ can­on­ized behav­iour in the uni­verse as that of seers and ora­cles. Most of the Malkavians you meet in Bloodlines are aloof, eccen­tric and insight­ful, but never vio­lent or aggres­sive.

Identity is often mis­un­der­stood to be a large­ly mono­lith­ic con­struct. Something which has a fixed point around which a person’s behav­iour is always pre­sup­posed to revolve around. Such a mis­con­cep­tion lies at the core of the social process­es which Other those with dis­so­cia­tive iden­ti­ty dis­or­der (DID). Bloodlines deals with this issue in an inter­est­ing way by uti­liz­ing the same approach it does with Malkavians. It treats them as who they are, first and fore­most — humans. This can be seen with how the game deals with The Twins.

Therese(left) and Jeanette(right) Voerman

Therese (left) and Jeanette (right) Voerman

Therese/Jeanette Voerman, the pro­pri­etor of the Asylum Bar, suf­fers from DID. Within the game, the play­er first meets them as twin sis­ters with dis­tinct per­son­al­i­ties, who are in con­stant con­flict with one anoth­er. Therese acts as the seri­ous, con­fi­dent and com­mand­ing half, while Jeanette is the play­ful, flir­ta­tious and friend­ly one; they each refer to the other in the third per­son. In addi­tion, through the player’s con­ver­sa­tions with them, Bloodlines tells of a deeply trau­mat­ic child­hood for Therese/Jeanette, where she was in an abu­sive rela­tion­ship with her father. While research on this mat­ter is con­tentious and incon­sis­tent, it was thought that trau­ma and DID were relat­ed,2 and through Therese/Jeanette’s back­ground the game pro­vides a foun­da­tion to human­ize her char­ac­ter. It also char­ac­ter­izes both the iden­ti­ties in sub­tle ways for the sake of sus­pense and the con­sis­ten­cy of its por­tray­al of Malkavians. Both Therese and Jeanette are respect­ed by other NPCs in the Bloodlines world and it presents an exam­ple of the game pro­vid­ing a safe space in its uni­verse to the Malkavians.

Seeing the world treat Malkavians like Therese/Jeanette with respect acts as a deter­rent for the play­er to Other them for their men­tal ill­ness­es. Bloodlines, by adding a per­son­al back­ground to the char­ac­ters, human­izes them and makes it eas­i­er for play­er to empathize with them. By fore­ground­ing their human­i­ty, Bloodlines allows Therese/Jeanette’s char­ac­ter to evolve with­out forc­ing stereo­types per­tain­ing to their con­di­tion. However, it does­n’t fully evade the prob­lem­at­ic aspects of the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Malkavians. By pre­sent­ing their per­son­al­i­ty traits as eccen­tric and mys­ti­cal, it cre­ates a stereo­type which reduces every Malkavian to that spe­cif­ic set of char­ac­ter­is­tics.

Another inter­est­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion of men­tal health in Bloodlines emerges from the impor­tance of Humanity for every vam­pire and how it’s reflect­ed in the mechan­ic of Masquerade. Adapted from the Vampire universe’s mythos, Masquerade entails that the Kindred vam­pire com­mu­ni­ty enforces rules demand­ing its mem­bers keep their vam­pir­ic instincts con­cealed from the rest of soci­ety. The mechan­ic of Humanity brings the topic of iden­ti­ty back into focus where the play­er has to nav­i­gate the ten­sion between their instinc­tu­al urge to con­sume blood to replen­ish health and being civil by not break­ing the Masquerade.

The play­er is often remind­ed of the pun­ish­ment that’s meted out to those who break the Masquerade too many times. In fact, the first cutscene in the game offers a brief glance at the harsh pun­ish­ment meted out to those who vio­late Masquerade one times too many. But it pri­mar­i­ly exists through the mechan­ic which tracks the num­ber of times you have pub­licly given away your Kindred iden­ti­ty by feed­ing on some­one or using your pow­ers. The game keeps a track of such griev­ous offences, drop­ping your Humanity by a point every time you break Masquerade. Do it too many times and you’re fac­ing the prospect of a per­ma­nent Game Over. Moreover, the lower your Humanity, the more like­ly you are to tem­porar­i­ly trans­form into a Beast, where play­ers’ con­trol of their char­ac­ter is wrest­ed away. For a few brief moments, you watch your­self go out of con­trol and attack any crea­ture in the vicin­i­ty. At first it appears as a unique way of rep­re­sent­ing the con­flict between mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties. But such a per­spec­tive crum­bles when analysed crit­i­cal­ly.

The for­mal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the con­flict between two iden­ti­ties is explored in a unique way in Bloodlines, but that doesn’t absolve it from all prob­lem­at­ic aspects. One can argue that by demo­niz­ing the ‘eccen­tric’ as vio­lent, ani­mal­is­tic, it is rein­forc­ing the stereo­types. This is fur­ther empha­sized by the fact that being ‘ani­mal­is­tic’ is unde­sir­able to the play­er as it can poten­tial­ly lead to a Game Over. Rather than pro­vid­ing any nuance to such an ‘ani­mal­is­tic’ per­son­al­i­ty, Bloodlines sim­ply takes the con­trol away from the play­er briefly. In absence of a per­son­al­i­ty to layer such a mechan­ic, the brief lack of agency seems like a more glar­ing prob­lem in rep­re­sen­ta­tion by empha­siz­ing neg­a­tive, vio­lent char­ac­ter­is­tics. In addi­tion, by con­flat­ing this ten­sion between iden­ti­ties with the Humanity mechan­ic makes it seem like a more prob­lem­at­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Even if Bloodlines jus­ti­fies it by fram­ing it as an adap­ta­tion of the nar­ra­tive ele­ments of the White Wolf uni­verse, it doesn’t pro­vide a com­plete­ly nuanced ten­sion between mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties that the Player has to han­dle.

A Malkavian Player Character in conversation with an NPC

A Malkavian Player Character in con­ver­sa­tion with an NPC

Bloodlines’ ambi­tion comes to the fore when the you as a play­er choose a Malkavian char­ac­ter to be your pro­tag­o­nist. Unlike other clans, a Malkavian Player Character (PC) has a large­ly dif­fer­ent script and they often speak in con­vo­lut­ed and vague dia­logues to other char­ac­ters. These dia­logues have a vague tone which may be cryp­tic and opaque to a first-time play­er.

However, what’s inter­est­ing to note is that these very dia­logues are designed to serve as fore­shad­ow­ing to a play­er on a repeat playthrough of the game. Many of them sub­tly hint at major rev­e­la­tions well before they are actu­al­ly script­ed to occur in the game’s plot. For exam­ple, in Figure 2, the dia­logue options pro­vid­ed to a Malkavian PC while they are con­vers­ing with an NPC include an option (num­ber 2 in Figure 2) which fore­shad­ows the event where the NPC tricks the play­er. This dual pur­pose of the game’s writ­ing sug­gests a con­scious design deci­sion to not just serve dif­fer­ent types of play­ers, but also to show­case the insight­ful, seer-like knowl­edge Malkavians have about the future. To add to this, a Malkavian PC hears soft whis­pers in their game’s audio sig­ni­fy­ing the hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry symp­toms shared by all mem­bers of the Malkavian clan.

Such an expe­ri­en­tial sim­u­la­tion of a play­er char­ac­ter suf­fer­ing from men­tal ill­ness is dif­fer­ent from how they are typ­i­cal­ly por­trayed in games. The nar­ra­tive fore­shad­ow­ing through con­vo­lut­ed dia­logues and hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry whis­pers in the game audio sug­gest an expe­ri­ence designed for an advanced play­er who is already famil­iar with the game’s sto­ry­line. By doing that, Bloodlines also implies that while words of some­one suf­fer­ing from men­tal ill­ness­es are often rel­e­gat­ed to ram­blings by soci­ety, they may con­tain wis­dom that may require a deep­er under­stand­ing. It still can be seen as a form of Othering, but with­out much of the neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions that stig­ma­tize peo­ple with men­tal ill­ness­es. The kind of under­stand­ing, which in the con­text of the game, that only play­ers who have expe­ri­enced the game would have.

However, there are always risks to rep­re­sen­ta­tion through mechan­ics, and Bloodlines serves as a reminder of that. While its rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Twins and Malkavians might sug­gest a rad­i­cal­ly pro­gres­sive out­look, the method­olo­gies it employs still demand a crit­i­cal per­spec­tive. While rep­re­sent­ing Malkavians as non-violent eccentrics sub­verts expec­ta­tions estab­lished by hor­ror tropes, that does not nec­es­sar­i­ly make them more relat­able. Or do the meth­ods Bloodlines employs fetishize char­ac­ter­is­tics we asso­ciate with peo­ple hav­ing men­tal con­di­tions? It’s worth ask­ing if rep­re­sen­ta­tion in media always runs the risk of objec­ti­fi­ca­tion on some level, no mat­ter how nuanced it might be.

Ultimately, those are the inher­ent lim­i­ta­tions of a pro­ce­dur­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion with­in a nar­ra­tive space. That’s the cost of try­ing to por­tray a group of peo­ple with spe­cif­ic con­di­tions and depict­ing their sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ences. However, that shouldn’t stop from games tak­ing a step in the direc­tion that Bloodlines did and go even beyond that. A nuanced form of rep­re­sent­ing the under­priv­i­leged is often a nec­es­sary phase a matur­ing medi­um needs to under­go. For games where the defin­ing verb is “to act”, the vocab­u­lary needs to evolve away from rep­re­sen­ta­tions that stick to demo­niz­ing tropes or to Othering those soci­ety has tra­di­tion­al­ly treat­ed as out­casts.

  1. http://​www​.poly​gon​.com/​2014​/​7​/​21​/​5923095​/​m​e​n​t​a​l​-​h​e​a​l​t​h​-​g​a​m​i​n​g​-​s​i​l​e​n​t​-​h​ill []
  2. Spiegel, David. “Multiple per­son­al­i­ty as a post-traumatic stress dis­or­der.” Psychiatric Clinics of North America (1984). p. 2. []