Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines II interview: Deathless in Seattle

When Paradox Interactive acquired tabletop role-playing company White Wolf Publishing in October 2015, I and many others wondered how long it’d be until we’d hear about a new Vampire: The Masquerade game. Turns out the answer is three years.

Thursday, Paradox announced its publishing Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines II, the sequel to the acclaimed 2004 role-playing game from the defunct Troika studio. It’s coming to PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One in 2020, and it’s under development from Seattle’s Hardsuit Labs. Brian Mistoda, who made his name in gaming as a writer for the original Bloodlines, is the narrative lead for this new Vampire project.

Bloodlines II’s setting is Seattle, the home of Hardsuit Labs. You start as a “thin blood” — a baby vampire. You have no clue what’s going on, and you find yourself the star of a vampire inquisition even before you know what you’ve become. Vampires are’t just hungry — they’re political and social beasts. And in Bloodlines II, you must navigate this complicated world as you lean how to live and grow as a vampire.

Vampire: The Masquerade is part of White Wolf’s “World of Darkness” RPG setting, where werewolves and other monsters live among us. This horror setting never reached the heights of Dungeons & Dragons, but it’s had a dedicated following for decades, and Bloodlines is one of the best CRPGs of the early 2000s. But late last year, White Wolf’s CEO stepped down.

I interviewed Mitsoda and Hardsuit Labs cofounder Andy Kipling earlier this week at the Game Developers Conference 2019 in San Francisco. This is an edited transcript of our interview.

Written in blood

Above: Blood on your hands. Blood dribblin’ off your chin.

Image Credit: Paradox Interactive

GamesBeat: Why bring Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines back now?

Brian Mitsoda: First of all, a lot of things have to happen to get a game going. I will say it was definitely something—as soon as Paradox acquired the World of Darkness IP, it just so happens that the creative lead at Hardsuit Labs, Ka’ai Cluney, who is a good friend of mine, went in and convinced Andy and [cofounder Russel Nelson], the owners at Hardsuit Labs, to pitch a game to Paradox. He texted me and asked me, Hey, do you want to work on Bloodlines II? Of course I was like, I dunno? It’s been a while. Let me think about it. But by the end of the conversation we had some ideas going. We started working on the pitch, and we pitched it a few months later to Paradox, who were very interested in doing a Bloodlines II. It was a big reason they bought the IP. We pitched the game. We’ve obviously gone through some gates to get here, but here we are. That’s on the production side. That’s why it has been made.

But to answer your question from a player’s standpoint, it’s one of the bigger cult games out there. There’s been a huge demand for a return to the world, to have a sequel to the original Bloodlines, and not just a sequel in name, but a sequel in the feel and look and everything about it. This is very much a game that we’re making to be exactly like the Bloodlines you remember, but for 2020.

Andy Kipling: If I were to add to that, I’d say that one of the things for us as a studio is empowering our people, following their lead on the things that speak to their passions. When Ka’ai Cluney basically busted into my office with the news that Paradox had acquired the World of Darkness, the first thing he said was, we need to talk to Paradox. Do you know anybody over there? I said, I do, but what are you thinking? He said, we’re gonna pitch Bloodlines II. I’ve got Brian on board. We already have things going. Let’s send a quick email. I said, OK, that’s coming out of left field, but let’s go. It seemed very organic.

But within two to three months, suddenly the balls were rolling in ways I hadn’t fully anticipated.

Christian Schlütter: From the Paradox side, when we acquired the World of Darkness IP, we very much considered Bloodlines the crown jewel of that. There are lots of small IPs within the World of Darkness, but Bloodlines, with us being a video game company, was the one thing we absolutely needed to bring back. Then we also needed to bring it back right. We anticipated it would probably take some time. We’d have to do some other things first. But then these guys came with a pitch and it was too good. We couldn’t pass up on it, especially with Brian being on board, and having that true successor feeling to it.

Kipling: My assumption was that Paradox had plenty of plans already in place. I said, I don’t know what you’re planning, I assume you guys already have things locked in stone, but I don’t care what your plans are, we’re pitching you a game and that’s it.

Schlütter: For an independent studio, pitching a game like this is fairly risky. The idea is that you can only pitch it to one publisher, because we own the IP. You can’t put all that work in and just take it to a different publisher.

GamesBeat: Brian, what was your role on the original game?

Mitsoda: I was a designer and writer. I ended up being pretty much the lead writer on the project, doing most of the dialogue in the game. It was a very small team on the first game. I generally had a hand in a lot of different things. Mostly the quest design hubs and writing. It was kind of, what can you take on? That was the first game. For this one, it’s narrative lead, so anything that touches the story is something I’m overseeing.

Kipling: Which is a lot of the game. The game is a narrative-driven action-RPG. The quest design, the storytelling, all that stuff, is primarily driven by the narrative. Brian has a lot to say on that.

Schlütter: It’s fair to say that Brian is and was the heart and soul of Bloodlines.

GamesBeat: Did you work on any other Vampire games?

Mitsoda: No, the only Vampire game I worked on aside from this one would be Bloodlines one.

GamesBeat: What other action-RPGs or RPGs have you done since then?

Mitsoda: I’ve had an interesting trajectory. [Laughs] Quite a few games I worked on were cancelled. That’s always a thing that happens in game development. I worked on an iteration of Alpha Protocol at Obsidian, but I didn’t finish that one out. I opened my own studio as an independent and did a game called Dead State. For the last three-and-a-half years I’ve been working with Hardsuit.

Seattle born

Above: The Inquisitor runs quite a show.

Image Credit: Paradox Interactive

GamesBeat: What is Hardsuit Labs known for?

Kipling: We started as about 18 people, close to five years ago, with basically the core goal of trying to do development differently than everyone else, really fighting against the staffing up and staffing down realities of our industry. Which meant valuing our people and really making sure we have the right people in place to do the right things. We started out fairly small, sort of bootstrapping our way up, doing a lot of port work, but knowing that we always wanted to be a game developer. Making sure we had a core team in place to build around, both in art and design. That’s where Ka’ai Cluney, our creative director, and Luke Dodge, our art director, came in. Both were there when we started. We caught a number of breaks along the way as far as allowing an independent studio like us to survive and continue to grow.

Like I said earlier, the first big project we had the opportunity to work on was Bloodlines II, and that came as a result of a confluence of opportunities, and then seizing those opportunities at the right time. From there we built the Bloodlines team with industry veterans, bringing them in to our studio, building up the team in general, while maintaining the culture and the team we had when we started. Prior to that we’d done a lot of work for a lot of other studios, which gave us a lot of opportunities to learn from other people’s mistakes. That was something Russ and myself valued highly, because there are a lot of mistakes in the industry. Striving to not repeat those is a key goal.

GamesBeat: When did you start work on Bloodlines II?

Kipling: Paradox purchased the World of Darkness in November of 2015. That day, when the news broke, Ka’ai was already driving the creative direction of the game. Then Brian came on board. We had, not a playable pitch, but a built-out world by February, when we pitched it to Paradox at DICE. We wanted to get ahead of GDC in particular, when there are tons of game pitches and all that stuff. We didn’t actually start full development until July or August. The problem is that Swedish companies take the entire month of July off. Were we gonna get a signed contract before they go on vacation for a month, or somewhere between?

But we spent all of that time, beginning in November, starting with Ka’ai and Brian and slowly building more and more, building up the art direction. And Luke for look and feel. By the time we signed had all of the core story and locations and a lot of the things around which we could build the core product.

Mitsoda: I don’t think I’ve ever had a game come together this fast. We literally just—it was over a couple of different sessions of sitting down and talking story, fleshing it out, that we developed the story very quickly and the systems very quickly. It was kind of unparalleled compared to any other development I’ve been on.

GamesBeat: Why set Bloodlines II in Seattle?

Mitsoda: We’re based there. It’s kind of writing what you know. I think one of the other reasons we like Seattle as a setting is that it’s really underutilized in TV and movies. Most of the time TV and movies will go, it’s in Seattle, and it’ll be shot in Vancouver, and then they CGI in the Space Needle.

Seattle has a really interesting history. It’s founded by pioneers and criminals. It’s one of those places that, if you’re a local, you have all these spots you know about, all this history you know about. But in general when it comes to Seattle, everyone just thinks of the Space Needle or the pier or Pioneer Square, all the tourist destinations. We wanted to show the greater part of Seattle, show multiple different locations and really touch on modern Seattle, how we look at it.

Kipling: It also benefits from lack of sunshine, generally being a fairly moody city in that regard. Which ties directly into the art direction and the noir aspects. Tying in the supernatural history of Seattle, which is what Brian spent however many months writing and re-writing, and pulling in those darker elements. The way Ka’ai refers to it, it’s like the dusty corner of the United States where all this crap collects over the years. That’s how the city was originally founded. It was a very blue-collar city. It had a lot of criminal underpinnings to start. Obviously recently there’s been a lot more white-collarization of it, if you will.

Mitsoda: There’s been a big change in the last 30 years. Seattle is trying to figure out its identity. It’s a mix of the old, where originally it’s known for arts and music and the environment, and now we’re going into the tech space where everything’s being built up. How much do you change before the city kind of loses its identity? It’s something we deal with on a daily basis, to be honest. We encounter it everywhere we go in Seattle.

Kipling: It’s constantly changing.

Mitsoda: Obviously vampires are attracted to power and politics. Seattle has a lot of power in that respect, on a global basis. It was really the perfect setting, not just speaking to the city of Seattle as a character, but also the political nuance of vampire society, the dark underground, the noir. It fit.

Vampiric differences

Above: Pioneer Square is one of the many Seattle locations that Hardsuit Labs is re-creating for Bloodlines II.

Image Credit: Paradox Interactive

GamesBeat: For people who haven’t played the Masquerade before, what makes a vampire in Vampire: The Masquerade different from other bloodsuckers in media?

Mitsoda: Vampire the Masquerade is generally about the vampires staying secret. Unlike True Blood or even Buffy, I would argue, they are not out in the open. People do not know about them. They cannot know about them. Even now, as Dale [a character from Bloodlines II] says, it’s harder than ever to be a vampire. There are camera phones everywhere. Vampires have to be especially careful. There’s that element of your identity, keeping your identity secret. No one can know about what you are. And yet you’re a social creature. You have to go out there. You have to do business. You have to seduce people. You have to drink blood. You have to walk among mortals, but they cannot know who you are. The other thing that makes the Vampire setting different is, obviously, with the first game as well, it’s a much more mature universe. It’s not just in what we show as far as gore or anything that, but it’s about mature themes. As far as the dialogue goes, we’re exploring characters that are very nuanced and different from your average RPG, where it’s about good and evil. In the world of Vampire, you’re a monster. You’re struggling against the beast inside you. You’re constantly not only struggling to keep your identity secret, but you’re struggling with the thing that you are.

GamesBeat: Thing I’ve always associated with World of Darkness vampires is that they’re social creatures. But they can’t be social in the way we can be social. That paradox, if you’ll forgive me — do you play that up in this game?

Mitsoda: Oh, yeah. A whole lot of the game is just going out in the world and getting involved with the people there. Going to the bar and socializing, making contacts, figuring out how you can play people to your benefit. That’s what you do as a vampire. You’re not just skulking in the sewers. You’re not in a dungeon or something like that. You’re in the world, around people. Mostly you’re around humans. There aren’t nearly as many vampires as there are people.

Schlütter: Also, the idea of starting out as a thin-blood is more like—you’re being thrown into this world. It’s a very sudden experience. You still have a human background. You still need to figure out how to go about in this new world that’s been opened to you, as the character you were in life. You still carry that with you. That includes social connections and social traits as well. That’s something we play with a lot.

Kipling: It also empowers the player’s own agency, too, in terms of how they want to move through the world and interact with the world in terms of being that monstrous vampire, or playing more to the human, social side of it, engaging.

GamesBeat: Dale was talking about bagged blood. I assume he gets it from blood banks or distributors. Can you do that and not actually feed on people, if you want to go that way?

Mitsoda: The thing about bag blood — yes, you can get it. But bag blood just helps you get blood. The big thing for vampires in our game is to get resonance, which comes from feeding on people. It’s getting the emotional rush from feeding on people. Bag blood is like if all your food was Cheetos. You can technically get by on that, but it’s really not what you want to eat.

Kipling: Also, Dale as a character, his entire motivation is to remain cooped up in his apartment and not be involved in anything in the World of Darkness. It’s obviously a slightly different motivation than what we want the player to engage with as they progress through the world and try to figure out their place in it.

Mitsoda: It’d be a pretty boring game if you just played like Dale.

GamesBeat: Can you make friends with humans who willingly give you their blood and feed off the emotions of altruism and friendship that way? Or is that just too lovey-dovey for this game?

Mitsoda: I will say, you’ll definitely build some relationships in the game. I can’t go into specifics right now. But I mean, you—part of your core as a vampire is to make connections, to fool people, to get close to them in a way that you can use to get blood from them. Generally, vampires can be romantic, they can be nice, but at the end of the day they’re parasitic. They need blood, and they’ll do whatever it takes.

Kipling: The question itself is somewhat insidious, because it suggests that the motivation to become friends is to be able to drink their blood, which then questions the motivation for that relationship. It’s not the case that you meet somebody, you just happen to like them and become friends, and then consequently you also might be able to get blood from them. There’s definitely a motivation in blood for the player. That drives a lot of their actions and choices.

Above: Bloody bars sound like a treat for vampires.

Image Credit: Paradox Interactive

Schlütter: We do have characters that are very close to the player who, time and again, remind him of his own humanity. Do you really want to sacrifice this part of your humanity for power? We question that a bit.

Kipling: I will say that one of the core pillars for us in development is that we do want you to be a vampire. You’re playing a vampire fantasy. We’re not setting you up to play as—we want the player to play how they want to play, but ultimately you are a vampire. It’s balancing that duality between the monster and the human.

GameBeat: What’s the hardest thing about writing a vampire character?

Mitsoda: I have some experience now, so it does come a bit naturally. [Laughs]

I will say, the difficult thing in any character is just trying to figure out their voice and who they are, what they want. As far as vampires go, the way that I approach vampires is that, ultimately, they are locked in at death. There’s this idea for them that they can change, that they can become better, that they can retain their humanity, but ultimately, their biggest weakness is that they can’t really change when they’re a vampire. They’re whoever they were when they died. That’s how I approach vampires. But there are so many places that can be taken as far as where characters go. Vampires themselves, and especially in the Masquerade—there are so many different archetypes of vampires. You have the Anne Rice seductive type of inspiration. You have the corporate vampire, the one that latches on to a business and uses money because money is power. You have vampires that are on the street getting involved in organized crime, because they can hide there. No one talks in that world anyway. It’s always just figuring out how vampires would infiltrate various parts of society, and then what is their experience like when they’re there?

GamesBeat: Did you include any other World of Darkness monsters in this?

Mitsoda: We cannot be specific about what else you might encounter right now, but I will say that it is the World of Darkness, and not just Vampire the Masquerade.

Kipling: One of the great things about the World of Darkness is how rich it is in terms of the ability to speak to today, and then weaving that darkness through it. Not just vampires.

Mitsoda: Sometimes people can be just as bad as vampires, too.

Schlütter: It’s also fair to say for us that one goal for Bloodlines II is to bring the IP back, to show people how cool this universe is, and then open up for a lot more opportunities.

Putting on a new Hardsuit

GamesBeat: How long have you been in the game industry now, Andy? Is this the first time you’ve worked on a vampire game? Any game with vampires?

Kipling: I started in 2002. It’s my first vampire game.

GamesBeat: What do vampires mean to you? They’re definitely something Brian’s been working on, but this is new to you. What’s attractive about them?

Kipling: To be honest, the thing that captures me the most about this IP is the depth of the world in which we operate. In any game I’ve ever worked on, it’s always been a huge desire of mine to experience that world more fully. Whether that’s the most mundane military shooter that I worked on, or something like Bloodlines II, what’s happened here? What’s gone on?

I spent some time as a level designer. I love history. Taking something like your own home city of Seattle and weaving the World of Darkness through it, making you look at everything a little bit differently as you walk through the city, is super awesome. That’s probably the biggest calling to me, the ability to write a really compelling history and story and universe into which, as a gamer, you can fully immerse yourself. I’m the type of gamer that wants to explore every nook and cranny and understand this corner, why that is there, what’s going on, what the backstory is. The World of Darkness allows that, and then Brian fleshes it out with his approach to things. It’s a very deep world, and it’s a very—it interweaves so much different stuff that it’s super exciting. You can’t help but want to immerse yourself into it. That’s the biggest draw for me.

GamesBeat: In 2019, what’s the most important, most significant issue you think the game industry needs to tackle?

Kipling: There’s a lot, to be honest. I can speak to myself and my own motivations and the things I prioritize. As a studio owner, the most important thing to us is making sure we foster an environment for creatives who can ply their trades and do the things that they’re most capable of doing. That means finding the right people, empowering those individuals, and then helping the studio and those creatives to build something that’s meaningful and compelling. That’s something we’re doing here, I think, and ultimately to some extent building a level of art and expression and creative work that the people in your studio can stand behind and be proud of and take out into the world.

Mitsoda: For me, as far as the industry goes, I think the most important thing is that, with our stories and the tools we use to tell them, that we continue to develop and tell more complex and mature stories. Rather than doing the old good guy/bad guy shtick, we’re advancing the medium to a point where we’re developing content and saying things that are more reminiscent of shows you might see on HBO or AMC. The storytelling medium of games needs to advance with the time. That’s a very narrowly focused thing as far as the industry goes, but for me, that’s what I’m hoping to get from it.