First: I don’t know shit about game design. Like, I really don’t know shit about game design, even from a player’s perspective. I have watched the hbomberguy oeuvre never intending to play anything discussed, and I have friends and acquaintances who care deeply about this stuff, and all that adds up only to knowing how prominently I should flag my ignorance.
Second: there is room for a lot of this to be considered unethical, and it would probably have a number of terrible knock-on effects if actually created as described. Some of these could maybe be fixed with more thought. I don’t think you’re doing vampirism right if it isn’t at least somewhat creepy, but let’s be clear that, as stated, this is something I’m imagining, not pitching. Anything real-world and location-based needs a hell of a lot more safety consideration than I’m putting in here, for one. In the last bit you will hopefully start to understand why I would spend time imagining something that I’m not advocating.
Third: I do not care even slightly about the giant PITA that would be designing this to be resilient against Hacks. Someone who does like thinking about this kind of adversarial stuff can chime in to explain how it’s actually impossible given the client-sidiness of all this, and yet: I Do Not Care. I just refuse to consider anything more adversarial than ordinary RPG minmaxing. There are a hundred business-model and technical reasons none of this is possible today anyway.
Fourth: this is all zero percent associated with anything official, as is probably obvious to a True World Of Darkness Fan, which I don’t count as.
Finally: If you don’t know much about contemporary World of Darkness (the umbrella over Vampire: The Masquerade and its sister properties) and any of this makes you curious,
your best option (if you’re reading this within the next day) is to check out the Humble Bundle. But also, be advised that the content within is not free of the Swedracula era so just, uh, go for the Humble Bundle so $0.50 to charity comes out of it or pick up some used game handbooks published in the previous century.
A couple of concepts to roll around before we get started:
If you haven’t gotten into much Vampire: The Masquerade (V:tM) material, you may think of it as “Vampire D&D.” This is fair in terms of general cultural status1, but the appeal of the thing is much more tied into the high-concept stuff linked above than Dungeons & Dragons. It is the idea that there is a subsurface, an underworld, a society operating in parallel to our own2. There is Seattle, and there is Seattle.
Back in the era of visible polygons, they made a videogame: Vampire: the Masquerade - Bloodlines. It is a Big Deal. They announced a sequel to be set in Seattle – my town! I was… extremely hype. I have a folder of Google Earth screenshots from an evening spent figuring out exactly where within the city a particular shot from the trailer was located3. It was intoxicating to learn about the particular places – real places, places I went and knew – that were getting a layer of lore applied.
But appealing as the immersion becomes, damn, it seems expensive to build a 3d model of every landmark you need to interact with. The AAA game model of building the realistic environment – plausible enough to make a city resident go ooh that’s the little pergola thing – in order to create that feeling of something lurking beneath… pretty spendy.
It sounds like that sequel is never going to be released. I guess I should be glad I didn’t pre-order.
Even outside of the tabletop games, even outside of the videogames, the appeal of the lore’s layer on top of our world is key to the other franchise stuff.
Winter’s Teeth is a comic series set in the Twin Cities where the protagonist is investigating vampire society misdoings4. She visits these different locations that I’m guessing would strike me as iconic if I had even a fragment of familiarity with the place.
Coteries of New York is a visual novel I’ve started. It hasn’t quite stuck with me because I find the visual novel format doesn’t match either my reading rhythm or my game-playing rhythm – but it shows that you can do V:TM-ness with little chunks of story. The vibe: maintained.
I used to play Pokemon Go. It was really fun, back when I was still walking to work, to linger near a PokeStop and gradually realize that someone else lingering was doing the same. It was an unusual flavor of social interaction to sort of gesture with your hand holding your phone and smile embarrassedly back and forth. Yes, I was a tech employee outside a tech company office greeting another tech employee outside probably-another tech company office – but in the moment, it felt like meeting another snipe hunter.
So what if you had a V:tM mystery investigation game done with location tech? Not a catch-‘em-all game, but a story you had to go places to unlock. A story that would unfold over real time, with fake little voicemails and such. Playable in your nearest major metropolis – the same characters attached to a set of locations placed differently within each city.
The potential in those moments of Pokemon Go eye contact feels relevant. What would it feel like to show up at a building AR-tagged with Anarch graffiti and see someone else holding up their phone to see it too? What are the potential social interactions you’d have there – game-mechanicked interactions?
Less of a brain storm than chunks of brain hail
- I write an in-universe backstory for my local abandoned corner store, send it to my in-game NPC sire as a fictitious report. It’s chosen by a city moderator as geotagged content to promote to semi-official status. The next week, my friend is walking a few blocks away and her phone pings her to check it out; by heading to the location, she unlocks the backstory and earns a few XP.
- More broadly, a blog system within the game’s pseudo-“app”; other players’ posts are gated to only be visible if the reader’s progress in the game is further than the writer’s was at time of posting
- I unlock one development in the mystery by choosing an in-game character to follow up with with an in-app “email”. Busy with work, I don’t play again for a week – but the advancement of calendar time progresses the story anyway, and the app pings me with a different update on what’s “happened”.
- My friend chose a different clan in the early game. You’re supposed to be loyal to it, and we’re both into the game, so she doesn’t tell me much – but it sounds like she’s being told a different side to the story. Movie night at my place is interrupted by a notification – the event’s two blocks away? Movie paused, we toss hoodies on over pajamas and head out. This time’s a little different – it says we’ll need not to work alone. Each of our phones shows a QR code – we scan each other’s, pointedly ignoring some other likely players lurking around the geotagged spot. The app buzzes again – each of us has received a message with flavor text acknowledging the other’s clan. The next week she tells me she’d needed to unlock an event with someone else from her own clan for it to work. “Kind of a creep, though – so when it asked me later that night if I wanted to save the connection, I didn’t.” I hadn’t even thought about it when it had asked me about her.
LARPing has a very cringe reputation. Some amount of this is probably general punching down. A lot of geeky hobbies are mocked. Breaking news, right?
However, when I imagine getting into it, even assuming a Fuck The Haters attitude toward societal disdain, the idea seems overwhelming to me, like a full-body cringe at my potential self. Other than my own problems I should probably work over with a therapist, I think there are a couple of reasons.
The first is the emotional effort of Staying In, approximately equivalent to performing improv. I already suck at roleplaying conversations in tabletop RPGs out of general personal awkwardness. It’s much harder to participate than to consume.
The second reason is what I imagine it is like to perceive the LARP grinding up against reality like a joint with missing cartilage. Suspension of disbelief is tricky! It is extremely hard to feel cool while imagining how you are perceived from the outside!
And yet – I think about LARPing more than most non-LARPers do. Why is that?
Well, I love immersive designed environments. Reading about the creative intention put into how Disneyland looks from every angle from every place a guest might stand: wild! The layers of aesthetic and functional clues in escape rooms: I love them! I watch movies for sets and costumes, so the idea of getting to be inside it all, to physically inhabit it, is seductive.
There’s also something cool about the appropriation involved. Yeah, you think this is just a bus stop, but we’ve decided it is a center of werewolf commerce or whatever, and we’re going to show up and use it accordingly, and that genuinely changes it as a public space. Our shared fiction manifests itself.
So when I think about socializing in virtual reality, when I see that a VRChat club scene is beginning to be a thing –
– it makes me wonder how you could layer a LARP on top of it.
The thing that’s really critical here is that an aspect of the vampire urban fantasy appeal is the idea that not everyone is a vampire. If you try to The Matrix Online this, to render the world within the design of an ordinary online game, you have to NPC a bunch of non-vampire humans, because feeding on non-vampires is not a dispensible part of the premise.
But what if you could go to something like that virtual club and have the normal visitors function as the non-vampires of your game?
Let’s imagine a virtual reality platform like VRChat, but less locked down – but socially let’s say it’s kind of like VRChat. I am going to call this VRBat5. Now let’s imagine an alternate client to that same platform, to those same virtual spaces: the Metasquerade client. The client would also be communicating with a server/datastore of vampire metadata, but it wouldn’t host rooms/spaces separately from VRBat.
The client would be able to use normal VRBat data to see who was around you at any given moment, who they were, and how far away from you they were; it would also cross-reference its vampire metadata to see who of those people were Metasquerade players. Your avatar might be shown differently at times to other players using the Metasquerade client – other “vampires” – than it would to non-Metasquerade VRBat users – “humans”.
The Metasquerade would require you feed on humans. To do this, you’d need to social engineer them away in the VR space from all other humans, and indicate to your client that you were going to try to feed. If another vampire came near, they would see some kind of feeding animation/indication – but a human wouldn’t. Maybe your avatar would start glitching a little in humans’ view – so that you could establish some functional social norms, but not immediately explicitly advertise I Am Playing A Vampire LARP.
Maybe you could mess up, feed too long (or on a human whose metadata indicates they’ve been fed on too often too recently), and endanger the human so much that it puts the secrecy of vampires at risk – so then other vampires who observed the human, now with a vampire-visible risk indicator, would be allowed to go after you, or to report you to trigger a Blood Hunt. Maybe if another vampire came across you feeding they could take advantage of you somehow, though with its own effects and risks.
Secrecy: if a Metasquerade client detected the word “vampire” or similar, typed or spoken, within a room with humans in it, every human there at that moment would become ineligible for feeding for a cooldown period, whether they remain in the room or not. This system would be calibrated aggressively, with many potential false positives, and vampires would be encouraged to narc to the game designers about euphemisms used to work around it. You might need other mechanisms as well, but the point would be less to prevent coordination with humans (you’ll never block out-of-band communication) and more to enforce the kind of fearful hush that The Vibe demands6.
If the Metasquerade system provided or manipulated avatars, maybe you’d look different if you were starving than if you’d recently fed. Perhaps the client would filter creepy noise on top of your audio, even audible to humans, to make it harder to get people to go off with you if you had certain penalties or debuffs.
Maybe getting into the game would require rules, initiation from a player. The generation math in the lore is pretty punishing regarding how much weaker a vampire is than their sire, but the whole sire relationship is cool enough that you’d want people to be able to bring in others that way. I’m sure the WoD people have handled this different ways for their different media.
Look, I genuinely think that, as a real human person, you shouldn’t have to pay any attention to anything opined by a “venture capitalist.” But enough people said enough things about “the metaverse” that I went and read this whole fucking blog series that… I don’t know if it kicked the thing off or concretized the opinions of a bunch of Silicon Valley buzz, but whatever, I read the whole thing. And I remember almost none of it, because I am a real human person who shouldn’t have to.
But… I can’t help feeling that a lot of “metaverse” branded things are just missing any zing that even a techie might hope for from a new technology. I’d guess that a lot of that has to do with the tension inherent in acknowledging that a lot of what has come in the past that has had the right energy was inseparable from open standards, but also that Companies Do Be Rent-Seeking.
In my mind, you won’t have a metaverse until you have something that is flexible enough to let someone adversarially layer something on top – a layer of both social norms and more computing – that you wouldn’t have planned or wanted. Shinigami Eyes is meta AF, never mind that it probably gave some Twitter product manager an ulcer to contemplate. The “weird underbelly of people that will go into VRChat worlds and intentionally ruin other people’s fun by using avatars that spawn a bajillionty particles to crash the game” – that’s bad and fixable and should be fixed, but also very much feels like an actual future. In the way that nothing Zuckerberg has touched in years ever has.
No one was ever going to get VC money to build the explicitly fuck-with-able thing, only ever locked-down APIs for Partnered Brand Experiences.
Who knows. Maybe VR hardware will get its Big Game Title that makes it more common, and from there the social possibilities will be unlocked. Mozilla and Matrix are trying to make more open things possible7.
So consider this a yardstick of a kind. Could the LARPers layer technology on top of your virtual world? Are the points of extensibility there?
If not, all the legs in the world won’t make it meta.