Big Bad Wolf, the developer behind 2018’s The Council, was the right developer to tackle Vampire: The Masquerade. The execution of Swansong isn’t perfect, but the effort to recreate the pen-and-paper experience is spot-on, and so, the team at Big Bad Wolf have achieved something that’s increasingly rare in video games: they’ve taken source material and adapted it with respect to the source.
Vampire: The Masquerade has never been a pen-and-paper RPG that was overly interested in combat. There were mechanics to handle physical altercations within the game’s systems, but the White Wolf writers and creators were always very clear that Vampire was meant to be about telling stories and character interaction, rather than rolling dice endlessly to kill things dead. Indeed, the mechanics – called the Storytelling System, was so focused on the non-combat side of RPG play that there’s a formalised Live Action version for people that would prefer dress-ups and theatrics to dice rolls.
Most developers wouldn’t have the slightest clue how to do a RPG without relying on combat situations and virtual dice. To most game developers, the narrative bits are really just a way of driving players to the next dungeon or boss battle. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. The RPG is one of the greatest and most enduring video game genres for a reason. However, if you’re going to set out to make a World of Darkness game, and especially a Vampire: The Masquerade one, you’re really doing the property a disservice if it more closely resembles Dungeons & Dragons or Fortnite than it does a modernisation of the Dracula story.
This brings us back to Big Bad Wolf. With The Council, this team ably demonstrated that it understands how to craft intricate and complex character-driven stories, in which the player is an active participant without the options feeling arbitrary. Vampire: The Masquerade supercharges this. Rarely do you feel like you’re in physical danger, as you would in a typical RPG. You’re not going to be monitoring hit points. Rather, you’re tasked with navigating the sinister and clandestine world of vampires and the people that hunt them, playing the politics and acting as spy and saboteur. Though there’s no “Game Over” screen hanging over your adventure as in a Shin Megami Tensei title, for example, there’s a tension to just about every interaction in Swansong, and it’s because you’re always keenly aware that everyone you interact with is a sinister kind of dangerous and everything going on around you seems to be hurtling towards a cataclysmic end. You’re trying to stop that from happening, but whether you can or not is another matter.
None of this is to suggest that there aren’t skill trees, statistics and other RPG elements abound in Swansong. Rather than combat abilities, however, in this game the skills are more social and cerebral. Rather than magic missiles, here you have skills like “Computer Hacking” and “Persuasion,” for example. Every so often you’ll get to use these skills by spending points, either to simply use an ability (for example, one neat doppelganger ability allows a character to copy another person’s likeness, simply by walking up to them and spending a few points), or to try to beat another character in an opposed action (if you want to persuade someone that doesn’t want to be persuaded, for example, you’ll compare persuade stats, and you can use points to boost your score). Most critical situations have a couple of different options, allowing you to bully, smooth talk, outsmart or simply avoid your way through to a solution, and so you are very much playing these characters as you see fit.
You control three different characters, and they do all play significantly differently, with different scenarios designed to test their strengths and weaknesses. Each has puzzles to solve, traps to navigate, people to schmooze and tasty morsels to isolate and chow down on. These are all good, well-written characters, though the delivery is a sore spot. One of the three has a (vampire) daughter that tags along, and it’s just as well that “girl’s” actual age is something like 100, because otherwise I would have felt guilty about wanting to toss her off every tall building I came across, every time she opens her mouth. Delivery is also impeded by the character models, which are terrible, stiffly animated, and the facial expressions that are far too farcical for a game where you spend a lot of time watching them talk. This was a criticism of The Council, too, and Big Bad Wolf is no longer an independent developer. There’s no excuse for not finding the budget the rectify these presentational elements. In the game’s defence, however, the lush environment design – which I swear is exactly what I held as a mental image of every Vampire pen-and-paper game I’ve ever played – is gorgeous and does go a long way to redeem the art design.
I can forgive a game for shoddy presentation if the narrative is compelling and interesting – I certainly did for The Council, but there is one thing with Swansong that particularly bothers me: It’s not even close to being shocking enough. It’s bloody, certainly. The narrative kicks off with a massacre and it only escalates from there. But it’s very, very vanilla with the way it presents even the most extreme violence, and it never quite gets to the point that it can cause shock and discomfort like it should. Vampire: The Masquerade should be very counter-cultural and grungy in tone. The entire appeal of the White Wolf RPGs is that they’re a subversive and transgressive take on the RPG. Swansong’s far too neat for that. It’s elevated, thinky stuff, much like The Council. More akin to Shakespeare than the kind of thing you’d see in an attic theatre down a dark alleyway in a city’s subculture zone.
I also don’t think the game works particularly well as a vampire story – though this is by no means exclusive to Swansong. Until recently eroticism was foundational to the vampire storytelling. The bloodsucking was analogous to sex (and the fact it was achieved through domination and without consent a bit part of the underlying horror), and the creatures themselves were darkly sensual beings. From Dracula to Anne Rice these stories have always grappled with this as a theme, and it was there for people that wanted in in Masquerade, too. Admittedly tabletop gaming needs a very specific group of players to engage with that theme, but in the context of a video game adaptation, they really should. Unfortunately, the puritanism that is sweeping through western culture is making the sexuality of vampires un-commercial and so now they’re just cool and violent monsters.
There are little hints here and there of the sex in Swansong, but it has largely gone with the monster story, and while I understand the reticence to try and tap into eroticism in this industry in particular, it still means that these vampires are missing something core to their very concept. Furthermore, what little is there has been let down by it being treated with such a clinical detachedness that it comes across as sanitised and dry. “Intense” isn’t a word I’d use to describe Swansong. “Cerebral”, certainly. This is a fundamentally smart game. But it lacks the visceral bite (sorry, I couldn’t resist) that I was hoping for when I started playing. I wanted eye-popping. Not essay-bait.
Vampire: The Masquerade Swansong is nonetheless a good attempt to capture the mechanical essence and purpose of the pen-and-paper game. The developers could have made a stat-heavy action thing, or followed a bunch of other games and thrown players into a generic open-world that barely resembles or is relevant to the base material. They didn’t, and the game is better for it. Swansong comes across as a timid vampire story – the kind of thing a first-time game master might right for a first-time tabletop group, but timid as it might be, you are left under no illusions that you’re playing a game of Vampire: The Masquerade.