Love it or leave, Dontnod’s post-World War I vampire drama Vampyr has an interesting and unique social system that is unlike anything else in gaming. Social systems in video games have traditionally served numerous interlinking roles such as world, character, and relationship building, as well as a meter for morality. Over the years video games have played with balancing and implementing these different aspects in attempt to create experiences that are believable when the player makes dialogue decisions that can affect the overall game. However, no social system affects the world quite as intimately as Vampyr’s as every aspect of the game’s design from combat to world state to narrative is directly affected by your social actions. It manages to take notes from numerous other social systems in games and cobbles them together in a game defining system the uniqueness of which can be compared to Shadow of Mordor series’ Nemesis system in creating a new mechanical idea all in its own.
The Social Bloodweb
Vampyr’s social system is presented as an interconnected web of NPCs all centered around a central community pillar who presides over one of the four districts. Each NPC has their own place in the web based on social importance and has different bits of background information you can discover about them. This information is gathered through completing quests, finding documents out in the world, and through dialogue with related characters. So the more you explore, question, and coerce, the more you come to learn about the denizens of London. It pays to be inquisitive and thorough which means you’ll be wanting to comb over any chance you have to find out the dirty details of anyone you come across.
Here’s where things get interesting though. In Vampyr there are numerous ways to gain experience and level up: killing enemies, completing quests, collecting info on residents, and helping cure illnesses. However, the most lucrative way of leveling up is to kill citizens with your vampiric embrace. Each person has an experience point value assigned to them based on their place in the social hierarchy and discovering any or all of the aforementioned bits of info about an NPC increases that value. So you are incentivized to feast upon the unwitting residents of a plague riddled London.
However, doing so has overarching consequences that present a dilemma in both gameplay and morality.
The Mechanics of Being a Monster
It presents an interesting conundrum to have character progression enmeshed with not your ability as a player but with the way you interact with the social fabric of a game world. In regards to just how this works, it benefits us to look at the two extremes in interacting with the social web. Do you give in to your vampiric desires and consume/turn the whole of each social web, or do you play to what’s left of Dr. Jonathan Reid’s humanity and never consume those you come across?
The main drawback to playing a pacifist route means missing out on a majority of the game’s experience points which can make combat daunting. As you boot up a play through, the game even warns you by saying the game gets easier if you feed off others more often. So while you may be living a just life in the shoes of Dr. Reid, it isn’t an easy one as the standard mobs and bosses eventually outclass you every step of the way. It does however make it easier to keep up the health status of each district which means enemies will appear less and travel becomes much easier. It also means that you will have access to more shopkeepers and can gain experience helping treat peoples’ illnesses.
A more vicious route, one where you would embrace everyone means that you are more powerful yourself making combat easier. However, it does mean that the world state can descend into chaos and vampires, as well as vampire hunters, roam the streets. Combat becomes unavoidable and if you’re going for a truly sadistic route, it means killing off vendors and eliminating those potential market sources.
So the effect is twofold and balanced in either case. In pacifist, combat is harder because you refuse to give in to your vampiric appetite but you will experience less combat. In a violent route, you’ll see a greater deal of combat but you will also be a good deal stronger. The real question is, why choose one way or the other?
What separates Vampyr from other games with social systems is this interplay between combat and world state that is balanced not just through your choices at pivotal moments in the game but in your interactions with each individual NPC and your choice in their fate. All the while, not relying on morality or reputation systems as quantifiers for your actions.
Rather than rely on a black and white morality system, a la Mass Effect or Fable, or on reputation systems, like in Fallout: New Vegas, Dontnod sticks to their guns and focuses on character interactions as the locus of deciding what actions to take. Each character on the social web has numerous aforementioned bits of information that reveal more about their character. Some situations are clear in deciding whether it’s moral to embrace an NPC. Others may appear virtuous and in finding out more on their background, you discover they’re harboring evil. In some instances, you’re faced with choosing whether or not to embrace someone who is evil themself but embracing them would cause more harm than good. And there are some cases that are so morally grey you are faced with a lesser of two evils situation. So it comes down to player choice on each instance.
What this creates is an intermingling of narrative, character progression, and world building that rewards and promotes multiple styles of play in a fluid manner that allows for natural gameplay rather than forcing a player down predetermined gameplay paths. All of which stems not from combat or questing, but stemming from the game’s social system in a way that makes sense given the context of the game.
Tying it all Together
As the game begins, Dr. Reid finds himself taking his first victim without realizing the consequences of his voracious hunger as a newly born vampire. This sets the tone for the rest of the game’s decision making as the player is presented with the moral quandary of Dr. Reid’s new life. Does he give into his vampirism and accept his place as a different species of creature from humans? Or does he try to stay true to his human reason and form? Where does his fealty lie? Is it to his oath as a doctor? How much can/should he bend that oath to help save a dying London? All of these questions are a constant presence that underlies the social system and whether or not to feed off each and every person in the game.
And this presents a new way to look at social systems in games. It allows the player to have agency and find personal reasoning over their actions, rather that railroading everything into either an experience point based system OR a system that only relies on consequences. It eschews the idea that social systems only have to be tied to one aspect of game play. It doesn’t rely on making either broad sweeping strokes of the traditional “Good v. Evil” or reputation based systems nor does it rely on the smoke and mirrors created by story based games like Life is Strange or Telltale games. Instead it reflects the real world idea that social interactions are a multifaceted factor of a living world.
That’s the beauty of Vampyr’s social system. It is the lynchpin in which Vampyr functions as everything involving gameplay leads back to it. Your combat abilities and character progression are tied to it; you increase each social connection’s worth by exploring the game world and interacting with NPC’s. So it increases rewards for world exploration and ensures the player explores the world more. It affects the world on a mechanical level with affecting world state, which in turn affects the way the player sees their actions. All of this is overlaid by Dontnod’s impeccable storytelling that places emphasis on the unpredictable and often intricate nature of social ties in a way that doesn’t relegate them to black and white options on a list.
Vampyr’s social system certainly has its flaws but its successes and the implications that come with them are something to be closely studied. It manages to combine all the staple facets of social systems in games, branching dialogue choices, consequential actions, character/world development all the while casting it in a new mold that eschews traditional systems for an emphasis on storytelling when it comes to influencing player decision. This ultimately makes it not about manipulating numbers but about the reflections the player makes with their choices and in game characters. Altogether this makes for a new way to look at social interactions in gaming for a system that balances mechanics with storytelling that I hope to see other devs look at going forward.