Hardsuit Labs had stayed fairly quiet in the months leading up to last month's Xbox showcase. Since the Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines 2 developer announced a delay in October of last year, pushing the sequel of a cult-classic vampire RPG into the latter half of 2020, the studio seems to have been mostly heads-down in development.
At the time, Hardsuit CEO Andy Kipling and lead narrative designer Brian Mitsoda plainly laid out why the delay was necessary. Speaking to Hardsuit Labs recently, Lead Producer Nikhat Ali echoes the sentiment: the bar is set high for Bloodlines 2, both from fans and, as Ali tells me, internally at Hardsuit Labs. And the ghost of the original Bloodlines' notoriously spotty launch still lingers to this day.
"It is well known that the first Bloodlines game launched with a number of issues," Ali says. "We won't ship a game in that state. Last year it became clear to us that we needed more time to deliver the game that the community expects."
The Next Generation of Kindred
Ali says they are confident that Hardsuit Labs can hit that mark, though. Despite COVID-19 suddenly shifting game development to new, socially distanced arrangements, Ali is proud of the team's ability to shift to working from home. Some tasks, like motion-capture performance and recording, can't be done remotely, but much of the development has continued apace at home offices.
All the while, Hardsuit Labs has been ramping up to not just a current-gen launch, but the upcoming generation too. Alongside its new trailer at the Xbox showcase, Hardsuit Labs and publisher Paradox Interactive announced that Bloodlines 2 will be coming to next-gen systems, and will be part of Xbox's Smart Delivery—a program that enables free next-gen upgrade for anyone who already owns the game.
Lauren Gragg, production director at Hardsuit Labs, tells me that Hardsuit has been working on optimizing Bloodlines 2 for next-gen consoles for "some time before" the announcement. "The process has been smooth and we are looking at ways we can unlock the full power of the Xbox Series X's features," said Gragg.
What does this mean? The easy answer is one we've heard from other developers already: better graphics and fidelity. But more than polygon counts or SSD capacities, Gragg tells me, there is interest in the storytelling capabilities. Bloodlines 2 is, after all, an RPG—and an RPG tends to put its characters and narrative front and center.
"Look at Disco Elysium, one of the best RPGs of the last few years," said Gragg. "That game traffics in story and message, not technology. For me, the biggest gift of new tech and next-gen is that it can increase immersion. When tech is used in the service of immersive narrative experiences, that's when I think it is used best."
A City in Darkness
The world Gragg and the Hardsuit Lab team wants to immerse players in with Bloodlines 2 is Seattle, or at least, a fictionalized version of it. Where the first Bloodlines played out in California, with depictions of Hollywood and Santa Monica, the sequel heads up the Pacific Coast to rainy Seattle, which entails a bit of a change in scenery.
Mitsoda has stressed the importance of place in the past for Bloodlines 2; in making sure that the Seattle portrayed in Bloodlines 2 is honest to the real-world version, and not shying away from the real issues Seattle faces.
When asked about how the team is approaching an accurate depiction of Seattle, and what that means for the player, Lead Creative Designer Rachel Leiker explains: "There are few cities in the U.S. where the financial inequality of the modern world is more visibly apparent than it is in Seattle." Kindred will come from all walks of life, and that means seeing both the penthouses and skyscraper boardrooms populated by Ventrue to the homeless encampments under freeway passes.
However, that's just one part of the larger whole. Leiker refers to Seattle's origin as a frontier city, and a haven for those who found themselves on the fringes of society. "This meant artists, poets, authors, and more of the type of people that tend to have a profound impact on the culture of a place," said Leiker. Then, with the tech boom, money starts flowing into the city, creating a widening economic divide.
"Many of the people who built the culture of the place were pushed and priced out, and that meant social change," Leiker says. "Bloodlines 2 plays on this struggle between old and new—old money and new money, established culture and changing culture, and more."
The micro-stories—Hardsuit's term for smaller stories that play out in the city hub during the course of the game—flesh out this sense of place throughout Bloodlines 2. Smaller narrative stories that take place on the periphery of the main quest line makes it possible to better understand the motivations of different factions, or make important decisions about how to play the game. Leiker says these can directly influence the player's perception of the world and other characters' as well, which can have "unexpected outcomes."
This means a wide variety of viewpoints, too. The World of Darkness isn't just about vampires, after all; the original Bloodlines had werewolves, ghosts, and hunters. While Leiker won't tell me what else lurks in the shadows of Seattle, she does say that "the Kindred are not the only monsters active in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest."
Ties That Bind
The clans themselves have intertwined themselves with the workings of the city as well. Ventrue's ties into the burgeoning tech companies are predictable. While some clans from the first are making a reappearance, not all are playable; Leiker says the team knew from the get-go that it wouldn't be able to include every one of the original clans, so it set out to pick choices that would both "fulfill fan desires and expectations," as well as offer a variety of playstyles. The arcane blood-mages of the Tremere, the charismatic Toreador, the slightly more direct Brujah and, of course, Malkavians ("We would have been staked had we not included Malkavians," Leiker says).
There is more on the way after launch too. "I will say the Season Pass is called the 'Season of the Wolf,'" Leiker says, "You can speculate from there." Ultimately the team is forging ahead, planning to show even more of Bloodlines 2 this year.
Still, the ghost of games past lingers. 2004's Bloodlines is remembered quite fondly by fans. It tackled real-world issues, questions of ever-graying morality, and what it means to live as a blood-sucking immortal while trying to maintain some semblance of the Masquerade. Leiker tells me that one of the main goals in setting out to develop Bloodlines 2 was to make a true successor to Bloodlines, hearkening back to the original's blend of comedy, absurdity, and darker themes.
Mitsoda and the team have been "key" to striking the tone for what a modern Bloodlines game is like. But Leiker also acknowledges that some of the content in Bloodlines would be considered problematic by today's standards. The mature themes are still coming forward, but with an understanding of how times and understandings have shifted.
"It's important to us that Bloodlines 2 hits those humorous beats, and tackles mature topics with respect and without punching down," said Leiker.
There's still a ways to go, where as of this writing, Hardsuit Labs and Paradox haven't set a firm date for Bloodlines 2 quite yet. For this team, Bloodlines 2 has been years in development, and for fans of the cult classic, it's been years of waiting to see whether something can capture that same magic. It's a heavy weight, and Hardsuit Labs is well aware of it, yet determined to meet those expectations head on regardless.