A Vampyre Story first look archived preview
A few years ago, publishers wouldn't touch a cartoon adventure with a ten foot pole. Realistically, they wouldn't touch them with a pole attached to a robot controlled remotely from an underground bunker. Their attitude towards cartoon-styled adventures was unjustified in retrospect (as evidenced by the commercial success of games like Runaway and Sam & Max), but for Bill Tiller -- once lead artist on The Curse of Monkey Island -- it meant an arduous four-year process to get his own 2D cartoon adventure project funded.
The concept of A Vampyre Story was developed by Tiller years ago, wanting to do an adventure in the macabre cartoon style of artist Edward Gorey. He considered pitching the game to LucasArts, but what kept him from doing so was that LucasArts would own the idea even if they wouldn't use it -- which was all too likely, given the company's focus on making Star Wars games at the time. Going the independent route proved challenging for Tiller, but the project did eventually find its financier. After a brief false start with an ill-fated (and quickly-forgotten) publishing startup, production of A Vampyre Story began in earnest a little over a year ago, with Crimson Cow as its publisher. A team of about a dozen writers, programmers and artists are now working on the game out of Autumn Moon Productions in California.
Since the project has been known in the public realm for a relatively long time, I was quite curious to see its first showing at the Games Convention. Had Tiller's years of persistence been worth it? The short answer is yes. It's clear that Autumn Moon's debut game is a true labor of love, and everything I saw during the presentation exhibited genuine wit, charm and soul to a degree the genre only rarely sees.
You probably already guessed or knew that A Vampyre Story is about a vampire. As Tiller explained, it was a design tradition at LucasArts to always match the gameplay and puzzles to the characteristics and abilities of the protagonist. Ben got to kick down doors and ride motorcycles in Full Throttle, while pirate Guybrush Threepwood sailed the seas and fired cannons. In A Vampyre Story, you play opera-singer-turned-vampire Mona, meaning you have to do vampire-like things. While Mona is initially reluctant to accept her recently discovered vampiric nature, she gradually develops abilities that help her deal with many obstacles in her path, like turning into a bat, biting people in the neck, or talking to animals. Being a vampire also brings with it some limitations, such as not being able to come into contact with water, which plays a role in at least several puzzles.
Mona is accompanied at all times by a bat named Froderick, a sidekick character who provides much of the story exposition and comedic relief. While Mona tries to be cautious and lady-like, the sarcastic Froderick is more willing to get his wings dirty, given that -- as Tiller puts it -- he cleans himself with his tongue, eats bugs and poops in his cave. Much like Max in the original Sam & Max Hit the Road, Froderick appears as an item in the inventory and can be used in many ways, often to comedic effect.
A Vampyre Story's charming atmosphere and narrative resemble that of a good animated film or, indeed, past adventures by LucasArts. This is no coincidence. Bill Tiller's background is in traditional Disney style animation, having gone to the same animation school where many Pixar animators learned their craft. Tiller describes his time at LucasArts as his "second round of education", learning from many of its famed project directors. As a result, A Vampyre Story is a classic adventure game through and through.
Even when A Vampyre Story introduces new gameplay elements, their roots are in LucasArts legacy. For instance, the inventory can contain icons representing ideas rather than items, which Tiller revealed is something that was first developed for The Dig but which got ultimately cut from that game. A Vampyre Story uses it mainly to avoid situations where the main character has to put unrealistically large objects in their pockets in order to manipulate them, but there is certainly potential for other uses of this mechanic. (Having just previewed Mata Hari, I should clarify that that A Vampyre Story appears to take the concept a lot less far than Mata Hari does, so think of it more as an extra feature.)
While this first look is based on a video presentation only, it has to be said that A Vampyre Story already looks great at this stage in development. The dialog and cutscenes shown had a certain traditional quality to them that is hard to put into words. In a particular cutscene, two of the game's villains are arguing in the foreground, one of them claiming to know one thing for sure, that "the undead don't just sail up to you and present themselves". Meanwhile, Mona just happens to float by in an empty coffin in the water behind them, even asking the two for directions, neither of them looking over their shoulders to notice the one vampire they are looking for. The way the dialog beats are delivered, along with some highly expressive animation and voice acting, turn such a simple joke (at least, on paper) into a genuinely funny moment.
Whether A Vampyre Story can deliver on the expectations remains to be seen, but Autumn Moon certainly exudes confidence in their project. In fact, their ambitions have grown since the game got signed by a publisher. A Vampyre Story will end on a cliffhanger, with plans already in place for a trilogy of games, and with ports to console systems being actively considered. The succes of Telltale Games has perhaps had some role in inspiring this confidence, and with any luck Autumn Moon will be able to shape its own identity independent of its LucasArts roots, the same way Telltale Games has managed to do so over time.
We can't wait to get some hands-on impressions of A Vampyre Story, but in the meantime, if you are a fan of classic style adventures, there's no question that A Vampyre Story should be sending your anticipation needle all the way into the red.