Call in the Scoobies, the Frog Brothers, Van Helsing, whoever — vampires are everywhere in video games right now. Titles like Vampire Survivors and V Rising have been two of the biggest surprise indie hits over the past six months, and while Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines 2 is missing in action, the decades-old World of Darkness franchise is pumping out fairly well-received games too, from battle royales (Blood Hunt) to narrative RPGs (Swansong). Why are games so chock full of the bloodsucking creatures of the night lately? I delved into the dark and spoke to a few experts to try to understand the ongoing appeal of the undead.
An Ancient Evil
Of course, vampires in games are nothing new — they go back at least as far as the late 70s, with Scott Adams’s (no, not that one’s) text adventure The Count. Then there was Dracula on the Intellivision in 1983, in which you play as the count himself, stalking the streets for victims. But probably the most famous vampire video game of all time is Castlevania, which first appeared on the Japanese Family Computer Disk system in 1986 and then on the NES in 1988. Castlevania, of course, went on to become a long-running franchise, featuring a clan of vampire hunters called the Belmonts who must strike down Count Dracula as he rises again and again through the centuries. The Castlevania series continued strong into the 90s, but vampire games otherwise seemed to go into a kind of hibernation for a while, with the exception of the Legacy of Kain titles.
The 2000s saw video game adaptations of a number of popular vampire films and TV series, from Blade to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But there were was also a flood of new vampire IP coming out, too — Bloodrayne, Gungrave, and Boktai, to name a few. In 2003, the ambitious but deeply flawed Vampire the Masquerade Bloodlines was released, which would go on to garner a cult following and have many of its issues fixed by player-created mods. For a while, vampires were seemingly everywhere. Then, vampire games once again sunk into the shadows in the 2010s, with only a few notable ones being released in the last few years of the decade — such as Vampyr in 2019.
These trends in gaming seem to correspond with trends in other media, too. For instance, the recent boom in vampire titles has been accompanied by the successful What We Do in the Shadows television series, and, after several failed attempts over the last two decades, the not-so-successful film Morbius. In the 2000s, when Bloodrayne was running wild, badass vampires in cool, modern outfits were everywhere in movies too, from Blade to Underworld. When the Belmonts were fighting Dracula back in the 80s, movies like The Lost Boys and Near Dark were putting new spins on bloodsuckers. And of course, long before video games were around, you had the Hammer horror films of the 60s and before that, Nosferatu and Dracula in the first half of the 20th century.
So why do vampires keep coming back like Dracula every time he’s struck down at the end of a Castlevania game? Historian Jeffrey C. Womack tells me that “vampires are a really easy thing to reach for, creatively speaking, because they satisfy a certain set of narrative needs… the definition is usefully slippery, so new generations of creative people reach for ‘vampire,’ the concept, but then they adapt it to their own narrative needs. And the audience can grasp that concept — they know what it is — but can understand and be interested by whatever the new hot take happens to be.”
But what determines what that hot take might be? A lot of things, including social and cultural dynamics at the time. Film writer and “lesbian vampire expert” Annie Rose Malamet says that “True Blood was popular during the Obama years as a kind of succor to soothe the liberal soul,” whereas “Buffy was popular during the 90s because of the rise of girl power that was a sanitized strain of feminism born out of riot grrrl.” Later, in the 2010s, Twilight attained popularity, Malamet says, as a result of “backlash against the hard won sexual freedom that women had gained in precious decades.”
Depictions of vampires are also often tied to fears of illness and disease. “Nosferatu,” Womack notes, “posited vampirism as the Black Plague… down to having rats come off the ship in the scene where Nosferatu arrives.” In contrast, Bram Stoker’s original Dracula characterizes the Count’s predations as similar to tuberculosis — his victims waste away over time. It makes sense, then, that vampires would appear in media during times of mass medical crisis, whether that’s TB, HIV, or COVID-19. Movies like Blade shifted popular understandings of vampirism away from their mystical origins towards a biological model, leading to films like Daybreakers where vampirism is a rapidly-spreading virus that overwhelms humanity and triggers a blood shortage that’s a somewhat hamfisted metaphor for fossil fuel depletion.
Playing in the Shadows
In games specifically, vampires fit comfortably both as antagonists to battle and as characters for players to embody. Sometimes they’re both in the same series — most famously in Castlevania, where the genre-defining Symphony of the Night cast players as Dracula’s son Alucard rather than one of the vampire hunting Belmont clan. Casting players as vampires allows developers to explore a range of themes and fantasies, from having to hide one’s true powers and identity to the thrill and terror of preying on human beings.
For instance, the visual novel Vampire the Masquerade: Coteries of New York has players take on the role of a newly-turned vampire struggling to survive in an unfamiliar world. The player has to learn the rules of vampiric society while simultaneously dealing with their eternal hunger, balancing efforts to maintain the titular Masquerade (hiding the presence of vampires from humans) with their need for blood. In contrast, the VtM battle royale game Blood Hunt focuses on the all-out power fantasy of being able to leap across buildings, slink unseen through the shadows, and wield mystical abilities.
Even these two games within the same franchise take wildly-different approaches to the meaning of vampirism. VtM has historically leaned into brooding, sexual imagery of the Anne Rice variety, with vampire bites being pleasurable to aid in the maintenance of the Masquerade. This comes up a little in Coteries, which describes the Kiss’s effect on mortals in sometimes-comical ways, whereas in Blood Hunt, the humans scattered around the map to function as power-ups don’t seem to be having a good time at all. Of course, since sexuality is less-tolerated in video games (and most American media) than violence, many vampire games prefer to gloss over any erotic angle on vampirism.
In V Rising, for example, the player vampire steals blood from their prey through a kind of magical spell rather than by biting them, obviating any sexual connotations. The game focuses much more on the logistical challenges of being a vampire, dropping the creatures into the survival game format. You think Dracula’s castle just went up overnight? Well, V Rising will quickly disabuse you of that notion, tasking you with gathering the resources and power necessary to build up your vampiric domain in a world full of rivals who would love to take that territory for themselves.
The Best Disinfectant
We may now be seeing in games not just a return to vampires generally, but a return to vampires as antagonists. Games like Vampire Survivors wear their Castlevania influence on their puffy white sleeves, pitting the player against the armies of the night. Similarly, the upcoming Redfall has a handful of humans take on vampires in a Massachusetts island town that’s been cut off from the rest of the world. Here, vampires are truly monstrous — clawed beasts who resemble the titular Nosferatu rather than preternaturally handsome nobles. But they’re undeniably modern, too, created through a scientific experiment gone wrong.
The return to vampire opponents might be at least in part driven by nostalgia — both for the 2000s, during which the virus type of vampire proliferated in media, and of course, for the 80s, the only decade to return as frequently in American pop culture consciousness as vampires themselves. The cycle of vampire interest continues, but it’s complicated by nostalgia. “Remember When My Vampires Were Different And Cool (let’s do that again),” Womack puts it, adding, “I think the movie Blade is having that moment right now.”
Another factor here might be COVID — if vampires are a metaphor for disease, then it would make sense that they’d be recurring as antagonists right now. A virus is impossible to see, hard to detect, can strike seemingly at random. Vampires, on the other hand — especially the big fangs, red eyes and claws versions — are tangible, physical threats. To quote Major Dutch Schaefer from another 80s movie about another kind of stalking terror, “If it bleeds, we can kill it.” With vampires, there are rules, a sense of order. There’s a kind of comfort, I think, in knowing that the disease has a physical form, that you can drive a stake through its heart or douse it in holy water.
So where are vampires in games going next? I’d bet we’ll see more games in the vein of Redfall and Vampire Survivor, where vampires are monstrous, sometimes scientifically-created foes for players to confront. We might see more games like Swansong, too, given that vampires are, as Malamet puts it, “such a potent metaphor for sexual otherness and outsider status.” And COVID isn’t the only issue that’s resurrecting certain depictions of vampires, either. “Right now we’re experiencing a global sex panic with trans people at the focus,” Malamet tells me. “That signals to me that vampires that embody gender fluidity or trans-ness (like the movie Bit) will probably become more and more prevalent.”