Sunday, November 4, 2018

Wherein The Good Typist Gets All Allegorical About a 14-Year Old Video Game

As alluded to in last week’s post, I was going to write a game review today for “Vampire: The Masquerade," but as I wrote out my thoughts, I found them turning repeatedly to questions of morality, civilized structures, and what kind of sacrifices we are collectively willing to make in order to sustain a societal order. I feel differently about the civics of the “Vampire” world now than I did when I first played the game ten long years ago, and writing about the game mechanics doesn’t seem nearly as interesting to me as writing about the game’s story.

“Vampire” is a complex and richly constructed world, with numerous fascinating and well-written, well-voiced characters. It takes place in modern day California, spread out across Santa Monica, LA and Chinatown. You play a newly embraced (bitten) vampire, trying to navigate the tricky waters of surviving in your new physical state, while not alienating your allies on either side of the vampiric power divide.

In the lore of “Vampire,” the primary governing authority over all vampires (Kindred) is the Camarilla. All Kindred are considered members of the Camarilla by default, whether or not they formally acknowledge membership.  In “Vampire”, the head honcho of the Camarilla in Los Angeles is Prince Sebastian LaCroix, an imperious ass who I nonetheless find myself far more sympathetic to this time around. In opposition to the Camarilla is a small but vocal band of rebels called the Anarchs, who are deeply distrustful of the Camarilla’s self-established authority and who refuse to acknowledge their dominion. The Anarchs are a loosely organized group with no real influence, who hang out with each other for comradery, but don’t seem interested in making any meaningful power grab themselves. Complicating things is a truly heinous and shockingly violent vampire sect called the Sabbat, who wholeheartedly embrace their bloodthirsty nature and are bent on the full-scale destruction of humanity. The holy-rolling zealot Vampire-hunters, and the power-hungry supernatural sect known as the Kuei-jin, also pose a threat to the Kindred.

I remember that the first time I played the game, I was very sympathetic to the Anarchs and incensed that self-appointed Camarilla “leaders” could brazenly stride into a city and claim blanket authority over all its Kindred. But I now see the utility of the Camarilla: For their own protection, vampires are preoccupied with secrecy, living under the radar and in a constant battle not to give into the Beast within. They are beset with a powerful and savage hunger, and are always in danger of losing control, going into a Frenzy, and violating the Masquerade—the code phrase for revealing themselves to the regular world. Multiple violations of the Masquerade trigger a Blood Hunt, in which the authorities of the Camarilla will permanently take out the problem vampire in order to protect the Kindred from discovery and attack. The Camarilla system of control, while highly undemocratic and ripe for corruption, does work as intended. Law and order is (mostly) maintained, the Prince is highly effective at protecting his people, and the Camarilla keep the murderous Sabbat at bay.

The Camarilla system also ensures that the Kindred act responsibly, operate with some form of self-control and personal morality, and cling to whatever shred of humanity they still can while surviving as blood-sucking monsters. It contains the explosive forces of the Kindred’s bestial nature and safeguards them from outside threats.

The utility of the Camarilla’s dominion does not change its essential authoritarian nature and the corruption and malfeasance that is endemic to an unchecked system of power. However, because they are effective, no one makes a serious attempt to challenge the Camarilla’s power. The Anarchs strategy is simply to ignore them and take care of their own, and the Sabbat are too insane, bestial and unruly to form a cohesive governing structure. So the Camarilla remains, and Kindred society holds together, despite how unfairly the Camarilla gain and wield their power.

I’m not sure what it says about my personal evolution that I am now more sympathetic to the position Prince Lacroix is in, and more accepting of the Camarilla. Maybe I’ve learned to see value in the societal structures that, at least nominally, serve to contain the beast that lurks within all of us, the twitching savage just under the surface of our polite personas. Maybe I see that the Kindred not are entirely victims in this and are choosing to turn a blind eye to the Camarilla’s excesses in the interest of protecting themselves. And perhaps I’ve come to realize that the Anarchs are ineffective posers, rebels in word only, fully benefiting from the protection of the Camarilla while simultaneously bad-mouthing it.

In some ways, the game was more fun when I knew exactly which side I was on.

The good news is, when my head starts to hurt from thinking about all of this too much, I just mosey on downtown to visit my buddy Fat Larry, who sells certain…niche goods from the back of his windowless van. It takes my mind off of things:

 --Kristen McHenry