The nice thing about the rise of independent game development is that you can get away with a lot more experimentation now than you could even two or three years ago. You can go off the beaten path, make games that challenge the traditional ideas of what a game is, and find great success while doing it.
As a part of this brave new world, we have seen a lot more than just gameplay experiments; the games that press the boundaries of the medium’s narrative potential are equally important, if not more so. We live in a world in which Mike Bithell can make us cry over rectangles in Thomas Was Alone, and where Twine game creators like Zoe Quinn and her Depression Quest can make games with practically no traditional “gameplay” but make an incredible dent in gaming culture. That is remarkable.
But there’s a catch; if you’re going to create a game with next to no gameplay, and focus entirely on the narrative, then your narrative better be up to scruff. It has to hold all the weight.
Vlad the Impaler completely fails at holding its weight.
Vlad the Impaler is an “interactive graphic novel” from developer Section Games that is positively rife with very good ideas. Playing as either a soldier, explorer, or mage, you are hired to investigate a series of horrible crimes in Istanbul in the year 1452, including murders, kidnappings, supernatural creatures, political assassinations, the whole shebang. Things are far more complicated, and classically horrific, than they seem, and the investigation will take you to the lowest and highest parts of medieval Istanbul.
Beyond its instantly fascinating premise, Vlad attempts to go beyond the traditional text adventure or visual novel gameplay by introducing some small RPG elements, as well as a class-based morality system. At the end of each event, you are granted stat boosts to one of seven areas, typical RPG fare like strength, agility, magic, constitution, intelligence, dexterity, and charm, depending on your performance and your choices. As well, each class has both a good and bad morality tree, based on your choices as a protector of the city or some kind of devil who doesn’t care about the people of Istanbul.
In an ideal world, this would play out like some form of a tabletop game; divided into 15 turns and 6 chapters (the first five are 3 turns long), you have only so many chances to unravel the mystery of who is behind the terror of Istanbul. Your skills would impact what you can learn, and your choices would determine your morality and how you choose to deal with the ultimate revelation of what is happening in Istanbul.
Except it doesn’t, at all. This is not an ideal world, because Vlad the Impaler manages to fuck up every possible thing there is to fuck up.