Dontnod Entertainment is a studio that refuses to be pinned down by genres and conventions. After the release of their cyberpunk action game, Remember Me, the studio shifted gears to deliver the critically acclaimed adventure series, Life is Strange. Now, they are defying expectation yet again with the upcoming action-RPG, Vampyr.
If one thing does remain constant, it may be the studio's talent for creating rich settings with intensely personal characters, and Vampyr may present their most complex yet; a former surgeon dedicated to saving lives, now a vampire who must kill to grow stronger for the challenges ahead.
But, your victims are not mindless cattle for the slaughter. They are people with histories, motivations, and loved ones who will be affected by the loss. For better or worse, your actions have lasting impacts upon the city around you.
We caught up with the team at Dontnod to find out more about this intriguiging title.
Tell us about Vampyr; what is the story of Jonathan and his quest to cure London?
Stephane Beauverger, Narrative Director - Vampyr is an action-RPG set in 1918. Jonathan Reid is a famous surgeon who just came back from the war in Europe while his home city, London, is struggling with the deadly Spanish Flu epidemic – one of the deadliest epidemics to ever strike mankind. Turned into a vampire against his will while journeying home, Jonathan will have to understand who did this to him, what has happened to his city, and why.
How has it been working on a game that is so different in theme and execution from your last title, Life is Strange?
At Dontnod, whenever we develop a new game, we focus on the best way to express the universe we’re creating for the players. It would be fair to say that all our games tend to be very focused on a particular set of themes. In Vampyr, we wanted to go back to the roots of the literary and gothic figure of the vampire. We focused on finding ways for the player to feel the core duality of a rational scientist who is now also a lethal and supernatural predator.
Dontnod has a history of creating richly complex characters. Do you find it difficult to create a bond between player and character with more action-focused gameplay?
I would say the main difficulty is to include the potential violence of action-focused gameplay into the storyline and nature of the characters. Luckily, since Vampyr is telling a story about vampires and the cruel choices the players will have to make, blood, violence and uncanny abilities are all part of who the Hero is. Throughout our game, players will be exposed to violence – and therefore tempted to express violence in a powerful way. That’s how we want that bond to be tied between the Hero’s fates and the action-focused gameplay.
Why did you choose to use Unreal Engine 4 for this project?
Nicolas Sérouart, Technical Director - We already had quite some history with UE3, having shipped Remember Me and Life Is Strange with it. The engine had been heavily customized and modified to fit our needs - we had a PBR pipeline integrated and our own FSM scripting system among other things. The truth is that it was becoming harder and harder to maintain it and to integrate new features.
We knew that, for some systems, a massive overhaul would be required if we wanted to move forward. For instance, we were using the Xbox One and PS4 ports from Iron Galaxy Studios & Zombie Studios for Life Is Strange. Although we were really grateful for this at the time, these ports weren’t making great use of the available cores on these consoles. For our next projects, a better multithreading support in the engine was necessary to improve performances.
UE4 was a natural choice and an investment in the studio's future projects. Adopting it also meant that we would benefit from the large amount of features that Epic brings at each release, and from the very dynamic UE4 community. Last, but not least, the switch to UE4 meant de facto support for various platforms: Linux, OSX, IOS, Android, DirectX 12, VR etc., as well as better support from middleware companies.
Were there any features of Unreal Engine 4 that you found particularly useful or surprising? How did these impact development?
Overall, UE4 has many powerful tools that result in nice workflows for the artists and designers alike. Blueprint is probably one of the most useful tools, even if you need a bit of discipline and experience to get the most out of it.
For programmers, it may seem anecdotal, but one of the nicest things was the drop of the Unreal script system, which was a big relief for them. The fact that the engine was split into multiple modules and plugins (as opposed to UE3’s monolithic builds) helped reduce our linking times too.
For the team as a whole, I think that getting rid of the package system in favour of individual asset files was really a good move, as we had some serious package contention issues with UE3 in the past.
As one might expect with a vampire for a main character, the art and setting of the game are dark. What are some decisions you made with art direction to prevent characters and their stories from being lost in the shadows as it were?
Gregory Z. Szucs, Art Director - This is definitely a concern, since the player is free to roam and angle the camera as he pleases. We had a multi-layered approach, and one idea is to try and always secure some contrast between the main character, who is always in the foreground of the frame, and the background. The ever present London fog helps a lot to create that atmospheric perspective, even on short distances. Then it’s either raining or still quite damp, so you get those precious specular reflections.
When placing light sources, we try to maximize ‘backlighting’ scenarios for dark, rim-lit silhouettes. On top of everything, among the post-effects and color grading, we use filmic curves which helps make those contrasts pop.
Jonathan is able to advance his abilities more quickly by feeding, how does this work within the skill tree and talent system? How does this work for players with a more pacifist playstyle?
Philippe Moreau, Game Director - The XP you earn by feeding allows you to level up and you gain one skill point per new level. A skill point can then be used to unlock a new Vampiric ability or upgrade an already-learned ability.
Depending on the civilians you decide to feed on, you will be rewarded by a varying level of XP. Of course, we took a malicious delight in creating characters you don’t want to sacrifice because of their positive personalities, their kindness, their generosity, or just because they are important in term of gameplay, like a merchant. Naturally, these characters will often offer you far more XP if you choose to feed on them.
Players with a pacifist playstyle will definitely have a hard time evolving. If you don’t want to sacrifice civilians, you can’t grow up as a Vampire. It is a huge point of the game: you play a Vampire, therefore it is part of your new condition to sacrifice human lives. You can’t escape your nature...or you die. Sacrifices are basic needs.
Once you have accepted your cursed fate, you can try to figure how to deal with it in a way that works for you. For example, you might decide to play as a white knight who only murders the bad guys to be at peace with yourself, similar to how Dexter acts in the famous TV show.
Jonathan’s oath as a doctor is often at odds with his vampire identity. How did you choose to implement this moral quandary for players?
The duality of our main character is expressed in all layers of our game. It’s at the very heart of the experience, and we strive to ensure a cohesive way to mesh together Combat, Investigation and Exploration - the main pillars of the game.
Basically, as a doctor with an almost human appearance, you’ll try to hide your Vampiric nature to the people you meet during your investigation as much as possible. You will need their help to progress in the story, and they may share useful information and rewards, so there is no reason for you to reveal who you are. You can even inquire about their health status to cure them if you want to.
What may ultimately force you to unveil your true nature and appease your need for blood is your desire to evolve and grow stronger.
Indeed, the game is designed to regularly challenge you with enemies stronger than you are. At any moment of the game, if you are facing enemies with a higher level than yours, you have the possibility to backtrack in search for fresh blood. The civilians who once helped you are now your prey. Thanks to their blood, you will level up and become strong enough to defeat your foes. This is where the real moral quandary comes into play… who will you decide to kill and who to spare?
Your choices will decide the kind of vampire you will become, and how the game world evolves.
Is there any one feature of the game of which you are particularly proud?
I’m particularly proud of our evolution system, which consists of feeding on NPCs instead of killing enemies. Contrary to other RPGs, all of our NPCs have stories, jobs, activities, relationships and secrets to hide. Each one of them is a potential prey for you to hunt. Their deaths have a meaningful impact on the game world. This was tough to design in order to maintain a certain balance and offer various and interesting consequences, but I think we’ve achieved something very refreshing!
Why did you choose London for your setting, and what techniques did you use to bring the city to life in-game?
Gregory Z. Szucs, Art Director - Our London is a slightly ‘alternate history’ version of the real thing, though many aspects are accurate to reality. We studied as many historical references as we could muster, and did field trips there to get the feel, the architecture, and the street topologies correct as a basis. It was the perfect place for our story, as we wanted to go back to the gothic and romantic roots of the vampire mythos. To set our stage we looked for a city in distress, one that had lost a lot of people during World War I and to the disastrous Spanish Flu pandemic. A place where the industrial revolution brought tremendous changes and left false hopes and a feeling of alienation. We were also very interested in the way London’s districts and social layers are articulated.