Dontnod has had an unexpected journey in the games industry to date. On the verge of bankruptcy at the end of 2013 following Remember Me’s flop, the French studio then came back from the dead two years later with episodic smash hit Life is Strange.
With its future now secured, the extra breathing room has allowed Dontnod to refocus its efforts on an altogether different type of title – the action RPG Vampyr. Development on the game actually started long before Life is Strange came out, but the latter’s success doesn’t seem to have affected Vampyr’s production.
“If you start to worry about what people will think of your work based on your previous work, then you don’t work at all,” narrative director Stéphane Beauverger (pictured below) tells MCV.
“You have to go with your heart and your guts. You have to go with the way you feel; you want the player to feel emotions and to be tempted by the shades of grey you’re going to create.”
Of course, Dontnod is renowned for trying something new with each game, as none of its portfolio adhere to one specific genre. All of them, however, have something in common – a strong narrative – and Vampyr is no exception.
Pictured above: Dontnod's narrative director Stéphane Beauverger
If Beauverger jokes about the studio wanting to do this title because “vampires are cool and there are too many games about zombies,” he rapidly explains it was actually the scenario’s good story potential that attracted the team to the idea in the first place.
“I think what was the most interesting for me from a narrative point of view is that vampires are one of the very few creatures who are aware of what they are, what they were and they have their own duality,” he says. “Whereas the zombies, the ghouls, the werewolves are just stupid creatures most of the time.
“The vampire is a trickster. He’s living among the humans, he’s trying to manipulate them, so it was interesting to create someone who is torn by some kind of personal conflict. This is the kind of thing I wanted to explore – to become a vampire without deciding to be turned, to have to deal with this new condition and understand how it works, who you can trust, and who you can’t.”
This theme of internal conflict can also be seen in the game’s setting, which was initially supposed to be America in the 50s, but was then changed to early 20th century London.
"I think what was the most interesting for me from a narrative point of view is that vampires are one of the very few creatures who are aware of what they are, what they were and they have their own duality."Stephane Beauverger, Dontnod
“That was before I worked on the project,” Beauverger explains. “When I arrived, I said that, for me, the main interest of the vampire is the duality between light and shadow, believing in science and believing in supernatural things, science vs religion, humans vs creatures, and so on. So we looked at what could be a really interesting era for that.
“The beginning of the 20th century is very interesting because the laws of Darwin, the evolution theory, have been discovered, and slowly science is pushing away religious beliefs and superstitions.
“And Vampyr’s hero, Jonathan Reid, is from a scientific background. He’s a doctor, he believes in science, he believes in progress, and then he becomes a vampire and everything is twisted. He now has to understand that everything works with very different rules, so this is the first reason why we chose this specific era.
“It’s also the end of World War I. Millions are dead, and the Spanish flu epidemic is killing many people, more people than the war itself actually, and the city of London is really on the verge of scrambling down. So [as Reid] you come back to your hometown and realise that you’ve been turned into this creature and that the city is about to fall and it’s up to you, as a doctor, to make a difference. But what will you decide to do?”
Putting the story into players’ hands is another common theme in Dontnod’s games, but here, the path players choose to follow will have a much deeper impact on the game’s ending.
“Will you try to become a humanist vampire and just have a quick bite or, on the contrary, do you want to play a heartless creature who just wants to create mayhem? It’s up to you,” Beauverger smiles. “The game will not punish you or give you hints about the way you’re supposed to play, but there are different endings. There is one specific ending you can get if you manage go through the game without killing anybody.”
Of course, the most efficient way to progress and level up is to kill and drink citizens’ blood – you are a vampire, after all – but Vampyr will also reward players who don’t kill
“All your potential targets have secrets, friends, families, jobs and purposes,” says Beauverger. “Some are saints, some are desperate, some are mad, some are criminals, some are good people, some look like they’re good people, so it’s up to you.
“If you want to take someone at random and kill him, you have the right to do so, but if you want to investigate and understand who he is, you will get more interesting character sheets on your potential targets and then can make a better choice,” he continues.
“There will also be moral ambiguity; there are no good or bad actions. This is the most important aspect of the storyline for me – how do you cope with freedom of action when there are so many bad consequences? Because you are a creature of tragedy, you are a vampire, you are a character of a sad story, and there can’t be a good ending.”
GROW BIGGER OR DIE
After partnering with Capcom for Remember Me and Square Enix for Life is Strange, Dontnod is now teaming up with fellow French firm Focus Home Interactive as publisher on Vampyr (for more on the publishing side of things, read our interview with Focus' boss Cédric Lagarrigue).
“They gave us so much freedom on the creative parts of the project, it was a great pleasure to work with them,” Beauverger says.
Vampyr is a big project for both Focus and Dontnod, with a team of 60 to 80 people working on the title, compared to 50 to 60 for Life is Strange. But when asked if Dontnod has triple-A ambitions with Vampyr, Beauverger is categorical:
“Of course not,” he says. “Triple-A has become a strange thing. For me, it means millions in development budget, and that’s not the kind of game we create. You can’t compete with triple-A. You can only try to create a good game, with a lot of coherence, a strong narrative, good combat mechanics, good gameplay, and hope that when the player puts down the controller they say ‘Wow, that was a journey’.
"I think many people will come from the Life is Strange experience and try to face a new game by the Dontnod team."Stephane Beauverger, Dontnod
“There is a rule in the video game industry: if you don’t grow bigger, you die or you get eaten. As long as you get success on your project, you can create more games, which cost more and are more ambitious, but it’s a very slow process.”
Life is Strange’s success allowed Dontnod to go even further with Vampyr and Beauverger very much hopes that the game’s fan base will follow the studio in this
“I think many people will come from the Life is Strange experience and try to face a new game by the Dontnod team and see what kind of stories and sadness and strange characters we have created this time,” Beauverger says.
“The main difference, perhaps, is that Vampyr is an action RPG, so you will have to prove some skills in combat. But people who like Dontnod’s approach on video games and narrative will be interested by the project,” he concludes.