Interview: Richard Cobbett on Nighthawks – The Vampire RPG
There aren’t enough good vampire games. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I gave Vampyr two playthroughs in a week, even though it very clearly deserved, at best, one. That resulted in me finally heading back in gaming history to sink my teeth into Vampire: The Masquerade, which is now just draining me of my time. As if he could hear my call for new interactive vampire tales, Richard Corbett launched the Kickstarter for his new vampire game Nighthawks. I did a quick interview with Cobbett about the project and why it looks so gosh dang exciting to daywalkers like myself.
Rely on Horror: Richard, walk me through your history in games. How’d you get started and what kind of work do you do?”
Richard Cobbett: Most people probably know me from the journalism thing, which I’ve been doing since around 1998. PC Gamer, Rock Paper Shotgun, Eurogamer… a million and one magazines both alive and dead… Over the last few years, I’ve mostly shifted to the other side of things, working as a freelance writer and narrative designer on various games, including Sunless Sea, The Long Journey Home, and a couple of projects I can’t talk about yet. Mostly though it’s been interactive fiction, I think partly so that if I ever get access to a time machine I can tell my younger self “So, in the future, we get paid to write text adventures. Also, please buy stock in Apple.”
Rely on Horror: What was it like working on some of the new classics of gaming like Sunless Seas/Skies and Fallen London?
Richard Cobbett: Fantastic fun! Failbetter are great people to work with, not least because they combine incredibly high standards of writing that makes you push yourself with each new assignment, and the willingness to let you play with their toys and show off your best work. With a lot of companies, you get a brief for a project and it’s essentially ‘do this’. And that’s fine! But with Failbetter, the brief is only ever the starting point, and they’re always willing to hear alternate ideas, crazy mechanical concepts, or ways to expand the lore of the game in new directions. Head words-honcho Chris Gardiner is also easily one of the best and nicest writers working in the industry today, and I’m hoping that Sunless Skies and whatever comes next get him the kudos he’s long been due.
Rely on Horror: I just got to play the Sim Brexit game Not Tonight. What’s it like to write for something that’s overtly political in games right now?
Richard Cobbett: The best thing about doing a political game is that the audience is so calm and willing to explore alternate viewpoints. Ahem. Not Tonight was a fun one because while on the surface it looks a bit like a polemic, you start playing and it should be obvious that it’s a comedy first and foremost. Sometimes a very dark comedy! It’s a world where there’s a gameshow based on Sophie’s Choice. But the nature of it, from the Simlish dialogue to the crazy bar-owners is mostly played for laughs rather being a serious attempt to change peoples’ minds about Brexit. Does anyone on the team think it’s a realistic portrayal? I kinda doubt it. Though if it does turn out to be prophetic, I guess at least the music will be cool…
The problem is that the current political situation world-wide often goes far beyond any satire or parody, to the point that I’d write something as a ridiculously over the top joke, like the evil Albion First government boasting that their new policy on caging children saves up to 50% materials cost on jailing adults, and then I’d turn on the news and be “Oh, that hits a little TOO close to home now…” So much lost material. Thanks, cruel world.
Rely on Horror: You’re running a Kickstarter for your new game Nighthawks. What are you hoping to do with the game and what sets you apart in your treatment of vampire lore?
Richard Cobbett: What I love about vampires in an RPG context is that they immediately add all these cool mechanical elements to play with – the need to avoid sunlight (even though that’s not really part of the folklore, it wouldn’t be a vampire game without it!), hunting for blood, the inherent politics of a modern vampire story… it’s a rich opportunity to do something more than just a bold hero on a quest to slay/rescue/retrieve/whatever. Vampires also have a fascinating dichotomy to them as a monster, in that they’re at once a power-fantasy and an extremely shitty thing to be. Not having a reflection, for instance, is both an existential problem, in that you’re almost guaranteed to lose touch with yourself, and a practical one. Your hair is going to look ridiculous, all the time!
The main shift in our lore from most games is that there’s no Masquerade – a little like True Blood, Nighthawks is a world where vampires have been exposed, and both vampire and mortal society is struggling to adapt. On a smaller scale, my take on vampires is pretty different from the usual conspiracies and puppetmasters that you get in a lot of this stuff. While there are a few ancient organizations and so on, the overwhelming majority of vampires aren’t part of any grand over-arching scheme or clan, etc. They’re more like feral cats; solitary hunters who can enjoy company but don’t necessarily need it, who are proudly individualistic. In fact, part of the lore is that the more individualistic you are, the more likely you are to thrive as a vampire – both surviving the initial transformation and developing secret powers in line with your personality.
It also helps that designing a setting with one game in mind means that we can keep things relatively lore-light – my interest is more in character stories anyway – and focus on the most interesting political time being right now, versus calling back to some meeting a thousand years ago that the player doesn’t get to be part of. In Nighthawks, you’re in the middle of the political upheavals, with a real opportunity to shape the future. What part will you play in it? We’re looking to explore those options from a few different shades of moral greyness.
Rely on Horror: What are your favorite and least favorite examples of vampires in games, and what are you taking from interactive vampire stories on both ends of that spectrum?
Richard Cobbett: I suppose complaining about the ****ing vampire babysitter in Willy Beamish would be a bit of a deep cut? But damn, she was annoying. I also still kinda want to smack Montreaux from Gabriel Knight 3 for being such a poser that he has a huge pentagram laser light puzzle protecting the entrance to… his wine cellar. A wine cellar which, incidentally, has a perfectly normal back door. Prick.
Let’s do the nicer side of that question! The weird thing is that there aren’t that many vampire games out there, at least if you want more than just an enemy type. Hell, outside of Castlevania, there’s probably about as many games about Count Duckula as Dracula. Luckily, most of the examples I can think of are ones that I like. Katrina from Quest For Glory IV was an amazing character for being a villain defined primarily by her loneliness than anything else, to the point that the moment that turns her against the hero somehow leaves you tied to a torture device while wanting to apologize to her for the misunderstanding. The Legacy of Kain series… wow, that plot.
And of course, we can’t not mention Bloodlines. Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines is one of my favorite games ever, and mostly because of the characters. Smiling Jack, Therese and Jeanette, Heather, LaCroix, the Deb of Night… it’s a world I never get tired of just basking in, and a big reason Nighthawks exists is that I’ve been looking for something similar ever since. Admittedly, my take on things is more focused on the social side of vampire life rather than being a fixer, but Bloodlines absolutely looms over much of my design and reason for doing it.
As for other inspirations – oh, there’s plenty! Something I like to do is to draw inspirations from games that maybe didn’t work that great, but have ideas worth remembering. The old cyberpunk vampire game BloodNet for instance, which is one of the few that made biting people into a narrative thing rather than just treating blood as mana or a raw moral decision. Vampire: The Masquerade: Redemption, with one cool mission that saw you out in the daylight, desperately clinging to shadows to avoid burning up. As I said earlier, vampires are mechanically fascinating.
On the negative side, I don’t like games that are ashamed to be what they are, or which try to obsfucate things too much. For instance, if you’re doing vampires, do vampires. With apologies to the recent Vampyr, there’s more resonance in the word ‘vampire’ than ‘Ekon’ or ‘Skal’ or whatever, and without naming other names, we really don’t need scientific justification for, basically, magic. We’ve bought a vampire game. You can probably assume we’re cool with the concept.
While we’re on that subject, maybe a little less hand-wringing from some quarters would be nice? That’s something else I loved about Bloodlines – you could play it as a tragedy, or as the best thing that ever happened to you. Nighthawks is much the same. Undeath is what you make of it, for better or worse, and we’re exploring that a lot – particularly through the NPCs.
Rely on Horror: How long has Nighthawks been in development and what’s this process been like for you? Highs/Lows/Surprises?
Richard Cobbett: Probably about a year, on and off. I started thinking of it while working on another, sadly canceled project, but it was only early this year that I really knuckled down with Unity to create the prototype. It wasn’t originally going to be A Thing, just a personal challenge. But when I’d written it and passed it around, almost everyone told me “You should make this.” So, I went back, took it a bit more seriously, and a few months later, here we are!
The high, honestly, is seeing how much enthusiasm there is for the idea. It’s kinda wonderful that it’s 2018 and I can get over a thousand people (at the time of writing) to plonk down money for a text-driven RPG devoted to the story rather than stabby-stabby action. I love interactive fiction, I love the possibilities of text, and I’m excited to see how far we can push it. With Kickstarter especially, there’s nobody to say ‘you can’t do that’ or ‘this isn’t market-friendly’, so we can do a lot of crazy stuff that’s normally against the rules – like making time into a key resource, or saying “No, we’re not doing strip clubs, because frankly, I’m bored of them”, with no exec to push back on it. There’s a lot of stuff in the genre that makes me growl a bit, and it’s nice not to have to argue the point with anyone. For instance, in Nighthawks, sex workers are not just free health packs. Quit that shit, industry.
As far as surprises go, again, I think it’s the enthusiasm for the idea. I knew it was a game I wanted to play. I wasn’t sure until I casually mentioned the concept on Twitter as something I was maybe, sorta, kinda playing with, that it became clear lots and lots of other people wanted to play it too. Which is a little nerve-racking! It’s much easier to tinker on something just for yourself…
Rely on Horror: What talent are you excited to be working with on this project?
Richard Cobbett: All of it! Our main artist, Ben Chandler, is nothing short of a pixel wizard, and I’m really excited to see what he can do when freed of low-resolution adventure games and given a 4K canvas to play with. And of course, while Dave Gilbert is a friend of mine, that stems from having been a long-time fan of his work, going back to before Blackwell and Shivah. We’ve been talking for years now about doing something together, and just looking for the right project. This one seemed perfect – a big departure from Wadjet Eye Games’ usual fare, but one that still drips with character and urban storytelling that you’d expect from a couple of long-time adventurers and Dresden Files nerds.
Oh, and wait until you see a few of the people who’ve expressed interest in being guest writers…
Rely on Horror: What’s your best elevator pitch for why people should support the Kickstarter now? What reward tier do you find most enticing, rewards-wise?
Richard Cobbett: Well, if people don’t back it, it won’t happen! So, that’s a pretty good reason…
My favourite reward tier is “Get Eaten By A Vampire”. I like Kickstarters that offer backers a chance to be in the game, but it bugs me when it’s too obvious to the player that you’re looking at a tier reward. Rooms full of photos on the wall, endless NPCs with suspiciously specific names, that kind of thing. This tier is designed to tie into the Nighthawks concept, where you own a nightclub and your VIP room is your personal feeding ground. We could have drawn a load of NPCs to be your victims. We thought it would be more fun to slip backers in there, and it’s darkly funny and appropriate to the genre to first celebrate them… then murder them…