The wait is almost over: three years after being announced, Dontnod’s next game is nearly upon us. After a couple of delays, Vampyr will finally hit shelves tomorrow (June 5th), taking full advantage of retail’s quiet period. It’s been quite a while since gamers have been able to enjoy a good vampire game, probably since zombies became en vogue and took over the gaming landscape.
Former CEO at Vampyr’s publisher Focus, Cédric Lagarrigue, said himself that one of the reasons he took on the project was because of his love for 2004’s Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. “We’ve been looking for years for a studio with a good vampire game project,” he told MCV last November. Narrative director Stéphane Beauverger also joked with us last year about Dontnod wanting to do Vampyr because “vampires are cool and there are too many games about zombies.”
But vampires aren’t the only exciting thing about Dontnod’s new game. The studio very much aimed for historical accuracy with this title, apart from the ‘vampires killing people’ bit, of course. Vampyr is set in London in 1918, during the Spanish flu epidemic (main character Jonathan Reid is a doctor turned vampire) and Dontnod put a lot of effort into recreating the city accurately.
“We chose London for a couple of reasons,” art director Grégory Szucs explains. “First we wanted to go back to vampires’ gothic roots and London sounded like the perfect place – a city where Dracula went. People associate vampires with the Victorian era and yet it is set a bit further in time so we have access to a lot of new things from the modern times: development in medicines, electricity... Regarding the flu, it’s actually the first time they were doing quarantines, up to that point they thought only the poor got sick. There are many things that we read that made us converge towards London.”
Choosing that exact time and place also meant easier access to historical documents for research.
“At the time there were already a lot of historical documents and photographs, so the research was quite easy on that front. One interesting thing was that the census from that time was released into the public domain, so that gave us a very precise idea of the way the jobs and the wealth were divided across the districts. We tried to reproduce the different social layers and all the different problems.”
Beauverger immediately gives an example of how they applied this historical knowledge to the game: “Jonathan Reid, who was born in London, who is a true Londoner, enters Whitechapel and says: ‘I’ve never been to that part of town in my entire life’. That’s a way to make the player understand how isolated the different districts were according to your social status.”
He continues, talking about the unexpected discoveries the team made while researching that part of British history: “The thing that astonished me the most was that at the time Londoners were just left to die alone. The city didn’t cope with the epidemic at all. Nobody really realised what was going on because the war was not over. That’s why it killed so many people. It was surprising but really useful for the storyline of Vampyr because that means we could create very secluded parts of London, with people not knowing what was going on and that’s historically true.”
Szucs takes over: “Even the way the architecture of London was set at that time... Before that, there were ‘tenements’, these huge buildings with no real accommodation – all the workers and families lived there. And it began to change at that time, they started to have inside courtyards – you see that in Peaky Blinders a lot. Then you have the poverty, the slums, they filled every nook and premises available, so we built it.”
Beauverger adds that Peaky Blinders was used as an inspiration for recreating the East End docks: “We used that show to get an interesting insight of how the gangs were fighting each other at the time and how the civilians were coping with that part of the social aspect of the East End.”
However, Peaky Blinders also unexpectedly pops into our conversation when discussing something completely different: “We’ve already seen reactions saying ‘It’s a game that happens in 1918 and Jonathan Reid has such a hipster haircut’… No! That was the way the guys cut their hair at the time, look at Peaky Blinders!,” Beauverger laughs, with Szucs adding that they actually “toned it down,” fearing people’s criticism about Reid’s supposedly hipster haircut.
But Peaky Blinders is not the only BBC series to have inspired Vampyr’s art direction and story (and haircuts, apparently), Beauverger continues: “We also worked a lot with Casualty 1900s which is based on the true records of hospitals in London from the first war. That shows how the medical staff was dealing with diseases with brand new things like X-rays, ultraviolet light and so on. So we used that show for the ‘how was it to work or to be a patient in a London hospital’.”
Having re-created a historically accurate version of London and added a pinch of fantasy to it, Dontnod also had to populate the city with believable characters. That’s Vampyr’s much talked about citizens system, with every NPC in the game having a meaningful backstory that will impact the player’s experience.
“There are four districts in the game, each of them has 15 unique citizens that you can deal with. To spare or kill,” Beauverger explains, also reminding us that you can play through the entire game without killing anyone. “That means you have 60 different unique characters with backstories, families, friends, relationships. Each time you decide to kill one of them as a vampire you will impact people who know them.”
Szucs continues: “There’s no filler, no generic NPC. Everyone is a character from this pool so they all matter.”
Obviously that meant a lot of work, having to supervise the design of 60 distinct, different characters.
“You can’t just change the colour of their eyes or hair; everyone has to be a unique character,” he adds. “They have routines, they interact with others. You can’t create them as side characters who only sit in the background.”
The challenge was the same on the writing side, with all these characters in need of a story.
“From a narrative point of view, it means that you have to create who they are, what their secrets are, what they look for in the mess that is London at the time, who these people know, who they are connected to,” Beauverger says. “What does it mean if you kill this one first, how will they react, what would be the different layers of dialogue according to what’s happening in this character’s life? That was a huge amount of writing, much more than the storyline itself.”
Impressively, the writing team to do all that only included two people, Beauverger further says.
“Two French writers created the characters and dialogue and we had two native speakers from England, who rewrote the dialogue to give it ‘flavour’. If you’re not from England you can’t actually get the way they speak.”
As a result, Vampyr is only getting voice over in British English, with Dontnod really wanting to remain true to its London setting.
“We thought about creating American accents, international accents or just British ones and we went for British. It was much more relevant for the project,” Beauverger says, with Szucs adding that the marketing department did ask about more accents being included.
“Downton Abbey was the key element that proved to them that we can create a show or project with British accents that will work worldwide,” says Beauverger.
Vampyr’s citizens system is instrumental to the game, which wouldn’t exist without this microcosm – or would have been a very different game to the one Dontnod wanted to create, Beauverger insists.
“We wanted to create a game that would put the player in a situation of being a deceiving predator. So to have that working you had to not consider the citizens as experience points or blood bags but people who have relationship, fears, goals, wishes, hopes and make these really impact the player.
“That’s why each time you kill a citizen in the game you will get his last thought and it will depend on who this guy knew who had already been killed. We tested a lot and I think it really works, it tells the player ‘You did not just get some experience points, you took a life and you are responsible for that’.”