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The hidden afterlife of Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines

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Twelve years later, a cult game is still changing

A couple of weeks ago, I booted up a game I hadn’t touched in years: the 2004 RPG Vampire: the Masquerade - Bloodlines. For all the time I’d spent away from it, I was surprised how well I remember its distinctive dark fantasy version of Los Angeles. After being unceremoniously dropped in Santa Monica, I worked my way through the ranks by running errands for the city’s vampire prince, who invited me to visit him downtown. Then I left his building, ambled into a nightclub, and nearly got stuck in a huge metal turnstile. Wait, I thought. I’ve never seen this before.

Even the game hadn’t been so familiar, I knew I would have remembered something this annoying. Then it struck me: in order to play the notoriously buggy Bloodlines, especially on modern computers, it’s practically mandatory to download a fan-made patch. The patch fixes a handful of irritating flaws, but it also optionally restores old content that was cut during Bloodlines’ troubled development process.

I’d used the patch before, and largely thought of it as a fixed quantity. But at some point since my last playthrough, it had added, without my involvement, this weird, tiny detail. In fact, over the last 12 years, the patch has reworked the game in all kinds of ways. It’s like returning to your hometown, only to discover it changed while you were away — familiar, but different.

The more I played, the bigger the changes got. There were whole areas I’d never seen before, and items I couldn’t recall receiving. An addition I did remember, which restored an entire quest line, had a different villain at the end — although I wasn’t sure I could trust my memory, until my confused Google searches confirmed the switch.

The patch wasn’t originally, and still isn’t, like playing a mod that adds all-new material to an old game. But it isn’t simply excavating old items, either. It’s a window into all the directions the original project could have gone, as interpreted by one man: a German analytical chemist and longtime video game modder named Werner Spahl, or wesp5.

Spahl is far from the only person who’s contributed to Bloodlines’ unofficial patch. He took it over from the original creator, Dan Upright, in 2005, and he’s enlisted help from the game’s active modding community, which spots bugs, creates new content, and develops tools for building things like game maps. But Spahl’s the project’s sole manager, and for over a decade, his vision has shaped what might be the gaming world’s ultimate — albeit unofficial — attempt at a Director’s Cut sans director.

Supporting Bloodlines character Beckett gives the player a reconstructed quest.

Uncovering hidden video game content is a fascinating process in its own right; a recent Kotaku piece delved into the dedicated community of Grand Theft Auto 5 fans that hunt within the game’s code for incomplete buildings and vehicles, missions and story-threads. But there’s a special poignancy in Bloodlines and its ever-excavating fanbase. The game was widely considered unfinished at release, after developer Troika and publisher Activision clashed over deadlines. Appearing on the same day as Half-Life 2, the role-playing game sold poorly at launch, and Troika dissolved without even having time to fix all its many bugs.

There are worse cases of "what might have been" in the video game world, but Bloodlines will always feel like a cult classic that missed its chance at becoming a mainstream phenomenon.

Many of the patch features are simple. One folder, for example, lists every usable item made for Bloodlines by its developers, even those that didn’t make the official cut. By cross-referencing the catalog against what’s found in the actual game, Spahl or any other modder can find scrapped weapons or occult charms and drop them into one of Bloodline’s official levels for the player to find. Elsewhere, they might spot an extra vampiric power, or an unused character model. The original game becomes a life-preserver for its own unfinished designs.

In other cases, though, the mod has been expanded from what the original developers produced for the final version of the game to include bits intentionally removed in development. Those involved in the mod have dug through outside material to find hints of how the game evolved through its creation — which is how the turnstile was discovered and why it was added. "Rather late in the whole patching progress, we stumbled onto a French site that had a lot of concept art and beta screenshots," Spahl told me over email. "In one of these the turnstile was clearly visible in Club Confession, where it is restored by the patch right now."

Of course, there’s a reason why the developers decided to cut a broken turnstile. And so, in an even stranger meta-design choice, Spahl added the in-game dialogue that allows players to ask the club owner to remove the turnstile — a thing that was never in the original game to begin with.

There’s a contradiction here. Hypothetically, Spahl’s patch restores the video game equivalent of deleted scenes. In practice, it’s more like reshooting lost scenes from a classic film, requiring plenty of independent decisions. And the more ambitious the change, the looser its connection to the original object.

The LA Public Library, as rendered in the unofficial patch.

Take, for example, the extra quest I mentioned above: "Night at the Library," where your character disrupts a ritual held by the monstrous Sabbat vampires. If you were simply looking through the game’s code, you’d never find a hidden map or list of objectives — the only clues that it had ever existed would be some textures and models that resemble the real-world LA Public Library.

Instead, the inspiration was a postmortem interview with Bloodlines designer Brian Mitsoda, where he briefly mentioned a cut quest involving the unused location. Spahl read the interview, spotted the models, and emailed Mitsoda for more information.

"The library design never even made it into an alpha stage," Mitsoda replied, according to the patch notes. "It was discussed, part of the level was built, but there was never any finalized quest plans or layout. There was some idea of it being a side quest connected to one of the major characters and the Sabbat, but it never really got beyond that."

Nearly everything in the library mission, which includes two cavernous areas and strong ties to the larger Vampire: the Masquerade mythos, is improvised around one developer’s vague recollections. The maps were sketched out by Spahl and built with the help of other Bloodlines modders, and an earlier boss was brought back, delivering an unused monologue from his game files. The raw materials were already there, but their arrangement is pure speculation.

(Daus Hendriks)

That arrangement is also endlessly mutable. After "Night at the Library" was added four years ago, some players were dissatisfied with the boss — whose voiceover featured a different accent than his other appearances — and Spahl replaced him with a totally new character. He saw a smoke shop and cafe mentioned on an in-game bus map and worked them in, rearranging the quest substantially. You can occasionally find confused players posting in forums, wondering why walkthroughs are steering them wrong.

This kind of confusion is one of the reasons that restored material is in a separate section of the patch, and there’s some disagreement over whether it counts as restoration at all, as opposed to a separate mod. It’s also not, arguably, the best version of Bloodlines. The turnstile, for instance, wasn’t just annoying; it can also interfere with finishing a quest. One of my patched-in vampire skills was an instant-kill spell that cost nothing to cast, an ability so massively overpowered that it made most combat trivial. It’s easy to see why these things got left out of the finished product, even if they’re still present deep within its code.

The Bloodlines patch drives home how difficult it can be to determine the "true" version of a work of fiction — especially a video game. Is the real Bloodlines the sometimes unplayable original release, or the limited fix released by Troika employees? Is it Spahl’s minimalist patch, or some version of his expansion? Where is the line between a technical update and a creative transformation?

If anything, the patch feels like a skeletal version of some alternate universe Bloodlines, developed with no budgetary constraints or deadlines. The cut library material "was found in the game files for a reason," Spahl argued in 2012, when a forum commenter disputed the quest’s validity. "And that reason is that Troika wanted to implement it, but they hadn't had the time or the money." But is that true? Or were some pieces left behind simply because that was easier than removing every last crumb of a flawed design? In this capacity, Spahl’s mod can feel like a fan taking every letter of every rough draft as canon.

A version of Bloodlines’ never-built smoke shop.

The patch is currently on Version 9.5, which was released earlier this year. When he’s not updating it, Spahl is also helping out with an unofficial prequel called Bloodlines Prelude, along with The Babylon Project, a Babylon 5-themed conversion of starfighting game Freespace 2. "I'm not constantly going over the new maps again and again to look for stuff to be tweaked," he says of the unofficial patch. "I'm quite glad when something is finally finished so the fans and I like it." But will the patch itself ever be complete? "Every time a new version is released, I hope it might be the last one," says Spahl. "But then people still find bugs or ways to restore!"

At the end of the patch notes for every version, there’s a long list of features that remain lost to the ages. You’ll probably never see the unbuilt East LA hub, suggested by some of the game’s music, and you can’t use the delightful-sounding "glove claws" or "stake launcher" weapons. A mysterious chateau location will appear only in the textures of another map. But there’s always a chance — no matter how slim — that any of this could change.