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Thanh Pham, the lead environment artist for Hardsuit Labs' Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines 2, brings us the latest developer diary for the upcoming vampire-themed RPG. If you're interested in how the game's environments will interact with its gameplay and what you should expect from Bloodlines 2 atmosphere-wise, you should definitely check it out:
Hi Everyone! My name is Thanh Pham (Tawn Fam) from Hardsuit Labs, and I am the Environment Art Lead on this project.
Trying to tell a story through a scene is difficult when the gap between fantasy and reality is narrow. The World of Darkness is an underlying layer of our reality that contains evil and power that most people are unaware of, and most people just assume is purely fiction. In Bloodlines 2, we are telling stories of how a set of relatively ordinary people become vampires overnight against their own free will. They are thrust into a world that they do not understand, thrown back into the streets, and left without someone to guide them through the nuances of their new existence. Environment Art is tasked to support the characters and how they move through their new life through environmental cues and set dressing.
For full disclosure, I came into this project without a complete understanding of the narrative surrounding vampires in “The World of Darkness.” My understanding of vampires, pertaining to this world, was limited and lacking. Here are a collection of my false previous thoughts about vampires in the World of Darkness:
Vampires despise garlic – Incorrect
Vampires are burned by holy water – Nope
Vampires are threatened by crucifixes - No
Vampires always sleep in coffins – False
Vampires breathe air – Wrong again.
Vampires do not reflect their own image in the mirror – Only the most powerful full bloods are invisible.
Prior to gathering all this new intel, I had an idea of how we were going to set dress and decorate the living spaces of vampires. After I gathered this new information, we had to alter how we approached the visual language moving forward.
Set Dressing to the New Realities
If you were randomly bitten by a vampire on the street at night, you would probably be in a daze for a while. When you finally come to your senses, you would probably head home confused since you did not have any considerable visible marks of your attack. The next day after you wake up will be the most confusing day of your life. The rays of the sun seem to burn and irritate your skin. Food is no longer appetizing, and water is no longer thirst quenching. The realization that breathing isn’t even necessary anymore is probably the most alarming aspect of your new life. Going to bed during the day and being awake all night might not seem so strange to many of us in this age of electricity, but after a while, it will take its toll.
In terms of what your living space would look like during this period, things will change the more the individual becomes accustomed to their new life. Since food and water are no longer necessities, dishes, drinking glasses, pots and pans, and random snacks are either in the sink or trash gathering mold or put away. The need for the fridge is null and void. If the vampire has been around long enough, they might get rid of their fridge to make room for something else in their small city apartment. (Not all vampires live in huge mansions.) In the early stages of vampire life, the individual might throw random cardboard boxes or whatever they can get their hands on that will block out sunlight on a glass window. One could assume that after some time, they would upgrade that haphazard looking window into something more refined. Most vampires in the world of darkness do seem to have a sense of style and care about their looks and their surroundings. The number of books and literature uncovering the aspects of vampire life might be strewn all over the place in the quest for knowledge of what is happening to the individual.
Aside from the furniture and design of a vampire’s interior space, there are some other elements to gloss over. If someone was a brand new vampire but they didn’t fully realize what they are becoming, what do they do with their newly found thirst for blood? Would we litter the interiors of apartments and homes of a new vampire with carcasses of stray cats and dogs? Maybe the new vampire is quick enough to catch birds and rats to drink from? The assumption is that this newly found thirst for live blood results in a lot of dead carcasses around the vicinity of the thinblood vampire, and we should take that into consideration for environment set dressing and propping.
New Powers Lead to New Areas to Explore
In Bloodlines 2, we are pushing the idea of vampire powers used towards vertical traversal. If a skilled parkour practitioner can scale up a building wall, so can a thinblood vampire. Vampires inhabit spaces in the shadows and areas least traveled by normal humans. Barely lit rooftops of buildings are great areas for the vampire to dwell in, but trying to set dress an area to show what a vampire leaves behind is difficult. Since they don’t eat or drink, they don’t leave food garbage lying around. Other than wet footsteps and other small clues, there is not much to go by. Instead, we decided to use other gameplay methods that enabled the use of heightened senses to find symbolic tags that vampires leave behind. These tags are similar to gangs marking out their territory with spray paint, and since Vampires are very territorial, this route of set dressing we are taking can help fill out that aspect of the narrative.
The storyline of this game takes place during the most festive season of all in Seattle - Christmas! Christmas trees, tinsel, ornaments, stringed colored lights, stockings, salvation army donation boxes that the player can steal from, reefs, and joy for all. It is imperative that we drive the mood of this game towards a holiday theme and that it is clearly evident to the player. Not everything that happens during Christmas is all cheery and joyful. We have some goodies in store!
A major aspect of this game is that breaking the masquerade has severe consequences. Causing havoc and trouble in a well-lit open area will alert the police and be a detriment to your health as a vampire. Where can you be free and enjoy your new vampire superpowers? Where is the “dark web” of these city environments where the lawless can run to? We are introducing areas in the game called blind spots that will allow the player to escape to when they need to run from the police after a dirty deed has been done. Blind spots are alleyways, dimly lit back parking lot areas, or even rooftops. To the normal eye, these areas feel dangerous and unsafe. You definitely notice that the blind spot areas will feel unkempt. Garbage might be piling up, rats are scattered about, and the walls are tagged with graffiti. The casual human would generally avoid these areas, but to the vampire these areas are freeing and feel like home.
A major misconception about Seattle, is that it is always raining. It might not always be raining in Seattle during the winter months, but it is always drearily wet and misty. If one were to stand outside in December, they would notice the ground is always damp and it seems to stay that way for vast amounts of time. We decided to have the exterior environments in Bloodlines 2 to always be wet to be faithful to the weather in Seattle during the winter months.
An aspect of vampires in the World of Darkness compared to the current climate view of them is that they are monsters. There is no teenage vampire angst happening here or a coming of age scenario. They are monsters and shall remain monsters. Without giving away too much, if there are scenes of death and dismay, there will be quite a bit of blood and horror. We want to set the narrative mood of this game to be dark and disturbing. To attain that through environment art, we tend to stick to colors that are neutral and not overwhelming. Allow the lighting team to set the mood of the given scene and allow the colors and hues of death to dominate the space. The more realistic Environment Art can make a space look and feel, the more unnerving it will be when death and horror present themselves.
New World vs Old World
In Bloodlines 2, a major storyline is that there is a power struggle between the Old World vampires and the newer generation of vampires. I won’t go into much detail about this since it might reveal too much of the story, but the current reality in Seattle is that there is an economic and cultural shift happening with the massive rise of tech companies and an influx of new people moving to the city looking for job opportunities. We have included aspects of this dynamic into our game. One way is through the set dressing of cranes dotting the Seattle skyline to help denote new construction happening next to older architecture. Different neighborhoods with drastically different looks and feel in this game assist with the story of change in Seattle.
I hope this environment art dev diary helps give some insight on how we approach the Bloodlines 2 story through set dressing and environment cues. We often ask ourselves what would someone working in the field of Crime Scene decipher from our set dressing and choice of materials and colors in a given space. Could they guess the narrative of the scene from the story we tell with the environment? The World of Darkness is hidden in an underlying area of reality. Things are not always what they seem and we have tried to push that narrative through various locations in the game. The hope is that the players can see some of those underlying themes through Environment Art when they get a chance to play the game.
Of all the new facts I have learned about vampires in the World of Darkness, the one opinion I have about Vampires is that they care so much about how they are portrayed by others. Image is everything it seems. I stated earlier that vampires don’t breathe air, but quite a few of them still smoke!? You might notice quite a few cigarette trays in this game. The older more refined vampires prefer to drink blood straight from a victim’s warm neck. Anything else is considered vulgar in the vampire community. If you see a glass of blood in this game, it is just for show for the player’s eye. Lou really take the whole idea about image to a new level. She is shown smoking and drinking in her mansion when the player shows up, and we know she doesn’t really care about either.