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Launched into the spotlight with the success of the Life is Strange franchise, DONTNOD has been in the business of developing games since 2008. With the announcement of Vampyr in 2014 and a reveal in 2015, there was an undoubted weight upon the shoulders of the studio to deliver their magic another time around. Not prepared to shy away from the challenge, the team at DONTNOD forged a path forward to 2018 where the long-awaited Vampyr has been delivered to the masses.
At the core of the experience is a question – What is right and what is wrong? DONTNOD tackles the idea of wrestling with your own morality in headfirst fashion while thrusting players into the role of Dr. Jonathan Reid, a good man put in the unfortunate reality of becoming a vampire. It’s 1918 and the city of London is in the death grip of the Spanish Flu. Poverty, disease, and the ugliness of politics have devastated the citizens of the city and in the midst of it all Dr. Reid is forced to face the brutal nature of his newborn affliction. Driven by the will to heal the helpless and burdened by the need to feed, this fine balancing act will not be simple to achieve.
Using all of the tools available in the Unreal Engine 4 suite, DONTNOD manages to bring a world that exists only in darkness into the light. A game that takes place only at night coming to life in the shimmering of distant lamps and flickering candles. With the game’s recent release, we had a chance to ask the team at DONTNOD how they brought their vision to life and if they had any wisdom to impart to burgeoning developers.
DONTNOD garnered critical acclaim with the fantastic Life is Strange before starting development on Vampyr. What was the motivation to move onto Vampyr which is a drastic departure from Life is Strange in practically every way?
Philippe Moreau, Game Director — After the release of Remember Me, we created two separate teams. One was for Life is Strange and the other was for an action RPG. We wanted to focus on diversifying ourselves. We didn’t start to work on Vampyr immediately after the success of Life is Strange though. The development of this new project took a long time to build up everything from scratch with new pipelines, tools, a new engine (Unreal Engine 4!) and the need to hire RPG specialists. We decided to take this risk because we believe these kind of games are a perfect match with what DONTNOD is known for; a strong emphasis on storytelling with choices to make and consequences to assume. Choices are the very essence of an RPG. We knew it was a challenge to do, as not only do you need to build a fun and rewarding combat system but a deep evolution system too, among other things. Now that the game is finished, we can say that is was a great experience. We all learned a lot!
Being an established studio, likely with a lot of previous experience with Unreal Engine 4, how did that experience benefit you as a team when taking on your biggest project to date?
Philippe Moreau, Game Director — Vampyr was actually our first project on Unreal Engine 4! Back in 2015, Unreal was a young engine and it took us time to “tame” this powerful engine with the great possibilities it offers. We were especially pleased by the Blueprint system, which turned out to be useful during the pre-production phase to quickly build prototypes. During the production development, we then needed to adapt our workflow because a lot of new elements were constantly integrated in later Unreal updates.
One of our biggest challenges was to create the seamless, semi-open world version of London. We wanted something very atmospheric and immersive but we weren’t sure the engine was able to support such a complex urban environment with a high density of data, lots of details and lots of light sources (the game occurs only at night). It was hard to pull off, but we finally did it. Now, we are more confident in what the engine is able to support when regarding the latest versions of Unreal Engine and it looks very promising and exciting!
London, 1918 is the setting. It’s dark and depressing but light is used very well making the streets of the city equally alive, if not extremely creepy. Were there any tricks used with Unreal Engine 4 that helped create this stark contrast between light and dark?
Guillaume Liechtele, Game Designer — Yes! We made copious use of LUTs to get some of that sweet ‘filmic curve’ look, and we twisted and tweaked them for our foggy streets. It’s almost always raining or still quite damp in the environment, so we got lots of opportunities to get those precious specular reflections. When placing light sources, we tried to maximize ‘rim lighting’ scenarios, to get the dark, backlit menacing silhouettes we wanted.
The two pulls of gameplay within Vampyr, to be the bloodthirsty vampire or the more benevolent good doctor are obviously polar opposites — is there any incentive to approaching the game in a balanced manner instead of leaning one way or the other?
Philippe Moreau, Game Director — In Vampyr, the duality of our hero is at the very heart of the experience, so yes, you can approach it in very different ways. What makes our RPG unique is that every citizen has a name, a story, relationships and secrets – all are also potential prey for you to feed on. In fact, their blood is the most valuable resource for evolution. So you have the fate of London’s inhabitant in your hands. What kind of player are you? A kind of “Dexter” who only kills people who are a danger to society? Or are you more of a Jack the Ripper, taking countless lives for your own pleasure? Being more of a “good doctor” or “evil Vampire” really depends on how you envision your evolution.
One important thing to note though is that the game difficulty is linked to your evolution. If you don’t want to feed on citizens, the game will be harder. Being a good doctor who refuses to become a monster is a long, hard road, but it’s totally possible to finish the game that way. There are other sources of XP too, such as healing sick citizens or completing side quests, but it requires more time to spend exploring London.
The main protagonist, Dr. Jonathan Reid, comes to a crossroads when he wakes up in a disease-ravaged London as a vampire. Tell us a little bit about the good doctor and how his existing morals conflict so greatly with his newly acquired situation.
Philippe Moreau, Game Director — As an eminent surgeon, Jonathan Reid was praised by his peers before the war. He was — and still is — a passionate scientist, fascinated by the progress of science and the uncharted knowledge yet to be discovered. But now, as a vampire, he has turned into a predator who must lie about his true nature to all mortals he meets. He has become a deadly deceiver. At the same time, since he did not ask to become such a supernatural creature, he has to learn how to deal with this new condition of his. And he tries to keep a rational mind while investigating the biological paradox he has become. This duality, which is at the core of Vampyr, is fully embodied in Jonathan Reid: science versus supernatural, knowledge versus belief.
Dr. Reid’s decisions within the game have overarching effects across many citizens in London. How did DONTNOD go about making those decisions feel impactful for the player?
Philippe Moreau, Game Director — All citizens in the game are unique with their own stories, relationships, and secrets. You can collect hints through observation skills and discussions – for example in order to understand who they really are and to whom they are linked. Our intention was to create believable and grounded characters of 1918 London. So expect to meet very different people: nurses, doctors, police, preachers, journalists, prostitutes, slumlords, war soldiers and so many other archetypes with different origins, social statuses and their own psychological profiles from saints to serial killers. We wanted players to be emotionally involved every time they decide to sacrifice someone. It’s about morally ambiguous choices but you also have to consider their “Blood Quality” which represents the amount of XP you will receive if you decide to feed on one of them. The higher the blood quality, the more XP you gain.
After sacrificing someone, friends and relatives of your chosen victim will be affected in very different ways. For example, there’s a case in which you can decide to kill bar owners Tom and Sabrina. You can kill both or just one of them, and there are a lot of different ways this can impact the future of your story. If you kill one before the other, there will be different consequences, and if you eventually kill both of them, their bar will close down and that will feed into the lives of the people who used to visit and hide out there. I think that’s a good example of how your decisions have a big impact on the environment and people living there.
All of DONTNOD’s games have occurred in radically different times and settings — how did you go about developing the world of Vampyr?
Philippe Moreau, Game Director — We chose the setting of 1918 London because it was the perfect place for our story. We wanted to go back to the gothic and romantic roots of the vampire mythos. The beginning of the twentieth century was an era with so many fundamental scientific discoveries, a true age of wonder, so it was interesting to add some supernatural threats to this fragile age of reason. Because of the countless deaths from the Spanish Flu, the city of London is completely disorganized, and no one will raise an eyebrow about one more dead body found in the streets (which is very convenient for a vampire who regularly must feed and kill). It also gives our protagonist the opportunity to use his medical skills to help and heal the sick in the city, thus showing his human side.
To build the world, we started from historical references. We have a lot of historical research on scientific information, to precisely see what the medical knowledge was at this time. I also spent time in the city, taking a lot of photographs, doing research. I find it very rewarding to work on a place that’s real, somewhere you can go in your own life. We’re definitely using some artistic license, but there’s so much wonderful Georgian and Victorian architecture in London, and even in the poorer neighborhoods, there are amazing buildings. The glamour and the squalor, it’s all in there in London.
Unreal Engine 4 has a multitude of tools available for developers — if you had to choose one favorite tool, which would it be and why?
Guillaume Liechtele, Game Designer — Blueprint! It’s the perfect tool for designers to create quick prototypes and iterate on gameplay loop. I’m also a big fan of bookmarks, which turned out to be very useful to quickly load the scene of someone else for reviews or to help fixing bugs. Considering the large amount of .umap and datas we were dealing with, it was a real time-saver.
What advice would you give to a burgeoning development team jumping into Unreal Engine 4 for the first time?
Guillaume Liechtele, Game Designer — My advice would be that each designer of the team should work closely with a programmer to review and sometimes rework their Blueprints. Don’t think that everything can be done with Blueprint. It’s very powerful to use for pre-production, but during production it often needs to be integrated in code by programmers for performance and consistency purposes, especially if it involves complex/systemic behaviors.
Where can people go to keep up to date on everything Vampyr?