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'Vampyr' and the gender politics of 1918 London

Engadget Engadget 23/06/2016 Timothy J. Seppala
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Vampyr, the next game from Dontnod Entertainment features a white, male protagonist. For any other studio, this is de rigueur, something dictated by the gaming industry's presumed demographic. But for the team behind Life is Strange and Remember Me, it's the first time they've delved into the male mindset. And it wasn't the result of market research either: It's because Vampyr's story wouldn't have worked any other way.

The PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One game takes place in London, circa 1918. World War I has just ended, the Spanish Flu pandemic is killing thousands, the first wave of feminism has begun and women were recently made eligible to hold seats in Parliament. Elsewhere, communism is beginning to spread outward from Russia. As Dr. Jonathan Reid in Vampyr, you're caught in the midst of all this and more.

"We needed that kind of setting to make [the story] believable," said art director Grégory Szucs. "With what we needed from the character at the time, it was perfect to pick a male. It was more interesting and more fitting to pick a woman for Life is Strange.""

Vampyr is a story of duality, according to Dontnod. You play as Reid who believes in science and helping people as a doctor, but you're also a supernatural being who must take lives and feed on the living to survive. Narrative director Stéphane Beauverger said that there were a few cases of female doctors during this time period, but the vast majority of people with a scientific or medical background were white and male.

"To be historically accurate, if we'd created a female character, each time she went to a house and said 'Hello, I'm a doctor," she wouldn't be believed," Beauverger said. This plays a direct part into vampire fiction in general: Unless a bloodsucker is invited inside, they can't cross the threshold of someone's door.

"Normally as a doctor at this time, when you knock on the door you're invited in. That makes it very easy for a vampire to enter a house," he said.

"We needed [Reid] to already have influence over people because of where he comes from and here he was born, his place in society, his being a doctor, all before he was a vampire," Szucs added.

That's not to say that there aren't prominent female characters in Vampyr. Your main point of contact with the underworld, for instance, is an ancient vampire named Lady Ashbury. She's a sort of matriarch who's dealing with sexism even in the game's vampire society. Her role here is to guide Reid through his new life. She's essentially his moral compass.

"She's independent," Beauverger said. "She tries to shake things up." Sometimes, it's in subtle ways that we'd overlook today, but were radical ideas in Vampyr's setting. Like Ashbury wearing something other than a skirt or dress. "It was illegal at the time for women to wear pants," Beauverger said. But still, Ashbury does.

What's been shown off of her at this point is minimal, but, given Dontnod's history, it's highly unlikely that she'll be left on the sidelines.

"As a doctor, when you knock on the door you're invited in. That makes it easy for a vampire to enter a house," Beauverger said.

Speaking to the studio's past work and exclusively female protagonists, Beauverger mentioned that story has always dictated who you're playing as -- not his own desires as an admittedly white, male narrative director. Take Dontnod's first game, Remember Me from 2013. You play as Nilin, a multi-racial woman who, by story's end, discovers the evils she's been fighting all game long have been constructed by her parents. Beauverger said that the team didn't create Nilin because her being a woman would tick a certain box, but because her being a woman was the right fit for their first game.

"That's why we created that character; not because we wanted to show that a woman can be strong -- we know that a woman can be strong."

"The problem was when we realized that we had negative answers from the marketing team," Beauverger said. "That's when we realized we had to fight for this. For us, it was just natural."

With Vampyr's main character and Dontnod's track record of success, however, there likely won't be much of a pushback from the marketing department ahead of the game's 2017 release.

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