A while back, Ed Thorn wrote a lovely piece for RPS asking why there weren’t more games about running. I was pondering this last week, playing Vampire Survivors, when I realised that there was at least one game about running I knew about: Vampire Survivors.
I know that on the surface Vampire Survivors isn’t strictly about running. It’s about being a sort of tooled-up magical hero taking on hordes of undead horrors. And yet! One of the things that fascinates me about running is how it’s a sort of metamorphosis engine. It takes things and turns them into other things. It turns time into distance, and distance into time. I am slow, so one circuit of a football pitch in the park near my house becomes a unit of time (90 seconds) while just over three circuits of the football pitch is turned back into distance (just about a kilometre). But running does this for all sorts of things. Music becomes time, which becomes distance. Roxy Music’s Mother of Pearl is six minutes and change, or just over four circuits of the football pitch. The typical New York Times Daily Podcast is just under a 5k. It all flows together and muddles itself.
So listen: Vampire Survivors is kind of the same thing. Vampire Survivors is a very pure, very focused slice of action RPG. You move a pixelly character around a simple top-downish environment that steadily fills with enemies. Your character attacks automatically so you just wander around, avoiding directly connecting with enemies while putting them within damage range. Enemies drop experience orbs when they die for you to collect, and when you level up you get to spend your experience on a random choice of new attacks or perks or buffs. The attacks will all be automatic too, of course, and within five minutes you’ve gone from picking a delicate path around two or three foes to absolutely roaring through waves of the things, magic attacks bursting out all over the place. What’s it like? It’s like being an experience orb Roomba. It’s like taking a terrible conflagration in a fireworks factory out for a nice Sunday walk. Or it’s like running.
Because one thing becomes another. And this makes picking a perk or power-up pretty confusing from the off. Simply put: damage boost or speed boost? Well, I reckon, if I’m moving faster and firing faster, aren’t I kind of getting a damage boost at the same time as a speed boost? A new weapon or more experience from kills? Well, if I’m getting more experience, do I need to kill people quicker in the first place? Speed becomes damage, experience becomes damage. Damage which is also, if you think about it, a form of speed.
These are the kinds of thoughts that occur to me as I play Vampire Survivors, because Vampire Survivors is simultaneously very exciting and extremely boring and encourages the sort of airless mobius loops of stoner thinking. Which is to say it’s extremely boring in a good way: it allows the mind to wander, and think about odd connections and unlikely pairings. The better you get at it, the longer you can play, and the longer you play, the more powerful you become, so the longer you can play again, and the more you can earn, so the more you can unlock, which means that your next run will allow you to be more powerful, and also play longer! Vampire Survivors is clearly the purest expression of the Katamari impulse in game design.
The main thrust of the game is all of this stuff. You are dropped into a level weak, you start to auto-kill enemies, and through killing you grow more and more powerful, while the enemies grow more and more numerous. But there are complications, which make Vampire Survivors truly brilliant, I reckon. For one thing, you’re always unlocking things, hitting secret trigger points in terms of kills or staying alive for a certain time or levelling something up. You unlock new characters to play as, new areas to play in – my favourite of which is actually the second, a long narrow library, which is a fascinating change of pace after the free-roam opening area – and new spells to discover within the game. But more: new game modes – hyper mode, inverse mode. New modifiers for the action. A map on the pause menu!
This stuff is all great, but the best stuff comes from the weapon evolutions and unions. The spells and weapons you choose between as you level are one of the great elements of freedom and expression in Vampire Survivors. They’re what makes one run different from another. Maybe the first run you focus on the bibles that spin around you, and you level it up when it’s offered rather than investing in a range of different attacks. Late-game Vampire Survivors when you’re wielding spinning bibles is very different to late-game Vampire Survivors where you’ve gone for the bombarding seagulls, or the flames, or the axe that flies into the air and then tumbles off the screen.
So that’s the start of the self-expression stuff, but over time you learn you can evolve weapons and turn them into something else. Pair the whip with the right secondary item and you can turn it into a huge purple beast that does loads of damage. Pair the flames with – I think – the herb that raises your damage and level both up and your flames turn into giant burning skulls.
What does this add? It shapes your path through the game a little. Each turn randomly offers you a few spells early on, and you pick those spells and maybe follow them down the evolution or union path. Or maybe you avoid that path and end up with a weird collection of spells and weapons with no unions in them. Both approaches are legit, and both will take you somewhere interesting. Because in the late-game, when the screen is always filled with enemies, a crush of danger or opportunity, you start to realise that the spells you have are almost like brushes in an art package, or tools in a gardner’s shed. What kind of shapes do you want to carve in the endless hordes of baddies? Straight lines? Arcs? Do you want to freeze and then shatter? Do you want to send a wave of death – and RPG on-screen damage numbers – rippling through the waves of oncoming monsters? How will your load-out handle bosses?
I think about all this as I play. I think about what I’m going to unlock next, which evolution I’m aiming for, where the next treasure chest and coin boost is coming from. I think about garlic, my favourite attack, which creates a little circle of damage around you so you can just nudge yourself against enemies the way a cat nudges you with its head when it wants fuss. I think about popcorn, which is what Vampire Survivors sounds like, each monster death sounding like another bit of corn popping in the microwave until the whole thing reaches a buttery crescendo.
And I think about running. Once this wave is done, once this boss is done, once I’ve unlocked a new character or item, I should really turn off the computer and go for a run. Maybe. Or maybe one more go, one more choice, one more chance to confuse speed with damage with experience.