EDR & the Best Games of the Decade Part VII

Sweaty palms? Shortness of breath? Quickening pulse? There’s only one explanation – the premiere EDR Games We Really Liked Last Decade List is drawing to a close. There are only four games left – two from me, two from Gilbo. The anticipation is raw and physical.

But let’s pause for a moment for a brief examination of this whole list business. As is our way on EDR, it has all been rather chaotic and unplanned. We probably should have done it as more of a countdown, as that’s how these things always seem to end up anyway, so people tend to assume that’s what you’re doing. We didn’t. Well, sort of. Mine have ended up in a roughly hierarchical arrangement, but I can’t speak for Comrade Gilbo (although from my pure and objective viewpoint, I’d say the games he’s picked are roughly in the order I would have stacked them).

For me, this one is where things have become tricky. The shameful delay in posting has come because there has been a terrible three way showdown going on in my head (and, because my love of games is a hot and visceral thing, my heart) for this place. It could probably have gone any way. Then I thought, calmly, as I painted a box of Hormagaunts (this is clearly the best way to approach taxing blog difficulties), and considered; if I left all three off the list, which would cause me to tear at my hair and scream at the heavens in guilt-ridden misery? Only one answer.

So, what’s it going to be? Well, of course, it had to be…

"This game is uniquely adult, and not at all juvenile. No, really. And look me in the eye when I'm talking to you."

VAMPIRE THE MASQUERADE: BLOODLINES

Vampire, my love, dark mistress of my twilight teenage years. Vampire is almost certainly the worst game to appear on this list. Paradoxically, it is probably the game that most deserves a place here – Vampire was the maximalist super-sim role-player of the bloated maximalist decade. It started off as Deus Ex with a fire axe and a nice line in fetish slang, but by the end it had become Hellgate: London in a corset.

When Armageddon comes and the accountants arrive to tot up mankind’s high score table, at the top of the list of ‘Flawed Masterpieces’, there will sit Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines in its tarnished pomp. In fact, “flawed” doesn’t quite cover the noxious hive of scurrying bugs and problems which scuttle across the surface of the game and eventually bring the whole thing crashing down into the rattling death spasms of the final third. Bloodlines is a broken game.

But that isn’t enough to kill it. There is a poetically apt quality to Bloodlines – it is dead… and yet it lives.

Bloodlines is the only game that even attempted to do a Deus Ex, and while the ambitions of the team clearly outstripped their money and time limits, even if it had been as massive an artistic failure as it was financially, this alone surely deserves celebrating. In many places in the first two thirds, Bloodlines outdoes Deus Ex. To play Bloodlines is to be bombarded with options. Now admittedly you’re playing an immortal bloodsucking fiend*, which makes behaving like the Devil’s own selfish bastard the natural choice but Bloodlines doesn’t force you into it, and even when you succumb (of course you’ll succumb) there are so many ways to be a bastard that it’s hard not to revel in it.

Of course when you try to do everything, something has to give. In Bloodlines, a few things give – namely, the shooting and the combat. And the stealth, a bit**.

Sounds negative, eh? But Bloodlines can be forgiven all these things because of what it tries so valiantly to do, and it can be celebrated for all the ways in which it succeeds. A few speechless, blindly wandering wallpaper NPCs notwithstanding, Bloodlines has one of the most complete, most atmospheric, most convincing worlds in gaming. Los Angeles feels believably seedy, and while the player moves through only about five sealed off hubs for most of the game, the city beyond seems to thrum with life. The sound design is second to none. The city feels real, and it makes the GTA games look slightly colourless in comparison. The radio stations playing in the background in apartments and shops brim with tiny unnecessary stories. The world threads together gloriously.

The atmosphere throughout Bloodlines is completely delicious. LA is grimy, sweaty, dark, menacing, occasionally terrifying, and most importantly, adult. That last one is important. “Adult” has a chequered history in games. Usually when a game claims to be adult it is fairly safe to assume that the end result will play like it was written by a thirteen year old. Bloodlines bucks the trend with style. Ignore, if you can, the huge swaying norks – in a remarkable first for games, it’s only the characters who would believably have their baps on display that do. Focus on the way the game handles the thorny issue of sex.

This is a game that features strip clubs, and fetish shops. There are prostitutes all over the place. There’s also a porn studio in one of the game’s nastier moments (and that really is saying something). In most games, these would be the equivalent of slapping a “Danger: Toxic Waste” sticker on the box, but Bloodlines handles it all effortlessly. None of this is included for titillation, and if you decide to be titillated by any of it the game makes sure it freaks you out with something unpleasant bubbling underneath later on. Instead, the game comfortably drops fetish slang, and the people inhabiting the world of the game behave not as sex objects (which, unfortunately, is what I expect from most games) but as believable people.***

Handily, that leads us elegantly on to the next of Bloodlines’ excellencies; the writing. Planescape: Torment fans look away now, Fallout 2 aficionados brace for impact – Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines features the best writing ever in a game.**** The writing, unlike the undead, sparkles and glitters. Even when all else fails and the game collapses into formless unplayable mush, the writing stands tall and proud. Each and every character is beautifully crafted (and brilliantly acted, almost to a man). The very smallest, least important characters feel fully formed. It manages the rare trick of making you believe that if you went to the pub (or American equivalent thereof) with any one of the NPCs, they would be able to manage a decent conversation. They are as close as games have come to completely convincing characters.

Bloodlines also features the single best story ever featured in a game – Heather, the ghoul. Heather is an injured student you can save from death at the cost of turning her into a slavish blood junkie, staggering dazedly around your flat in bargain basement sex gear. She is a towering achievement, a masterpiece within a (near) masterpiece. Heather, by her being alive, means you must have tried to do something good, to be something other than an undead monster – but by existing, she stands as a symbol of your perversion, and makes the grandest statement of the game. You are a monster, and everything you touch is corrupted. Heather drags you into a truly awful master / slave quasi-sexual relationship based on obsession and ownership. It is shocking, and extraordinary in its power.

Vampire The Masquerade: Bloodlines is one of the grandest achievements in the history of games, despite its terrible flaws. It is horribly broken, yet it remains a game of rare and magical power.

It’s one of the Games of the Decade.

EDIT: Kieron Gillen writes a cracking piece about Heather at Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Go and read it, eh?

__________________________________________________________________

*And this is pre-sparkles, remember.

**Unless cops really are easily foiled by ducking around a corner. I can’t say I’ve ever been in a position to test this one. Then again, I’ve never shot anyone in the face either.

***Once more I plead lack of experience for any inaccuracy here.

****I have not, I admit, played every game ever. But what’s the odd sweeping statement now and then?

I think I need to find a new system of footnoting. Suggestions on a postcard, please.

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5 Comments on “EDR & the Best Games of the Decade Part VII”

  1. Joe Says:

    Better writing than KOTOR or Planescape? You, sir, are a heathen! The only really stand-out parts of Vampire for me were the haunted house, Therese and maybe the ghoul-girl, I didn’t ever get far enough to really get her full story though, the game didn’t grab me that much. Weird characters and spooky houses can only take a game so far before its many flaws kill it.
    Also, there appears to be a tiny smiley face in the upper right corner of the page, in the grey bit. Is that meant to be there?

  2. Scruffy Says:

    Late? Me? Always!

    Fallout 2 does have some great bits of writing, but it’s the absurd situations, that only a twisted humour in a post apocalyptic environment could allow, which create the fond memories. Planescape: Torment however is different… well ok it does have the crazy location and events to play with, but it’s the written flashbacks, memories and even the journal entries that grab your attention. Fallout 2 may have the most fantastic memorable moments and even the better game play, but I would say that Planescape is the best game writing by far, even better than VTM: Bloodlines even if only because the ending was written and not just thrown together.

    In my opinion Bloodlines falls short of Planescape for two reasons and neither of these are the fault of the game itself. Firstly the game being rushed to completion removed most of the actual written story from the latter part of the game, leaving it with some very poor choices and a whole lot of the awkward combat mechanic. The other problem is the lack of actual player character story. Planescape is all about you (your character) not the colourful bunch of people that surround you, admittedly it would not be very easy for Bloodlines to have gone completely player story central, but it does commit the sin of making the central character (the player(you)) almost an outsider to the main story. By far the best example of this is the ending, the simple fact of no matter which path you decide to take throughout the entire game, the same damn thing happens, a rather minor character settles the dispute and if you’re on the wrong side than tough luck.

    However if I had based my opinion on the fist half of Bloodlines then I would agree completely, it’s fantastic, it’s clever and surprising. It may not be the written masterpiece of Planescape but doesn’t stop it being an absolutely bloody brilliant game (apart from the bugs and the combat, and a few other tiny problems) in fact I now have an urge to play it again.


  3. I’ve just seen that smiley face too. Odd isn’t it? I’ll check it out.

  4. Paul S Says:

    It’s gone now. I’ll miss that mysterious cheery beggar.

  5. NightHunter Says:

    Poor Scruff. If it makes it any better I did read your post.

    (ok that’s a lie)


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