Van Helsing and Anti-Stories in Games
Every so often, there is a television show that captures the attention of a generation. A show that makes such an impact as to change our habits and patterns to ensure we watch it live in order to share the experience with others. Shows that will be taught in traditional colleges and film schools alike – Twin Peaks, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Seinfeld, The Wire, Game of Thrones, Rick and Morty, and so forth. These shows are cultural touchstones that will be dissected endlessly in the years to come.
Van Helsing is not that show.
It is legitimately one of the worst – if not the actual worst – television shows I have ever seen.That isn’t to say the quality of the acting, script writing, or the production is bad – even though they are. What I mean is that it might be one of the worst television shows at even being a television show. So much so that I have a difficult time believing these choices aren’t being made on purpose – daring the audiences to expect anything from it that might resemble the expectations set forth in a traditional show. It’s an anti-show. It takes things like mysteries, action, tension, and motivations and flips them entirely around – taking them on a journey to crazytown. Needless to say, I was riveted during the first season at this bizarre display, and can’t help but think “what would this sort of anti-storytelling look like in a game – and could it possibly be fun?” In order to get to a point where the question even has any sort of meaning, we first need to look at how Van Helsing deconstructs traditional storytelling.
The show’s premise is thus: vampires now roam the earth – following a catastrophic event that caused the air to become polluted. As the event was occurring, a group of military personnel were sent to a hospital to retrieve a body of a woman. The group became locked inside, has been guarding the woman for three years in the hopes of keeping her safe until such time as they can return to their outpost – should it even remain, and the vampires have been searching for a woman that is undoubtedly the one the people in the hospital are guarding. As far as core conceits go, this isn’t a bad one. It presents a few central mysteries – including a doctor who got turned being kept alive by the military, comes pre-packaged with tension – three years cooped up in a single location, and has some interesting possibilities for world-building. At least, it would if the first episode didn’t spend its run time answering the mysteries and dispersing the tension almost immediately. Vampires fight and sneak their way into the hospital, find the woman almost straightaway, and then bite her – only to have it seemingly kill the vampire that bit her. The end of the episode – yes, the first episode – reveals the vampire didn’t die, he turned human again.
Prior to this, tensions amongst the survivors reach a critical juncture – as a member of the military force returns with additional people he met while he was out. Within 24 hours, vampires are now able to get into the facility and start causing panic – obviously there is a traitor. Well, the traitor is exposed almost immediately, because Axel – the main military person at the hospital – only gave the real codes for all of the security to his comrade. The other people received fake codes, of course. What could be played for tension is instead resolved within the first episode of the show – carrying little to no meaning as we have no idea of the relationship of these two individuals other than “served together, and were seemingly friendly.” The new people don’t add a layer of complexity or serve to heighten the tension in any fashion. They simply show up and are immediately discounted in this mystery because Axel has the answer. This could be something of a character illustration moment. Of course, such things are for shows that believe in traditional constructs.
Van Helsing is not that show.
Pilots are always difficult, though. It is often uncharitable to ascribe anything to a pilot episode – especially for American television. Pilots require a microcosm of the show’s intent, contain as much about the style and purpose of the show as possible, and often exhibit characters and stories that are excised entirely by the second episode – generally based on studio feedback or notes. However, the second episode is a flashback episode that catches us up to the current day. Vampires are in Seattle – the show’s setting – prior to anything going bad, searching for Vanessa – the mystery woman at the hospital – after the blood she donates ends up turning some vampires human. Vanessa is shown being a loving mother to her daughter, Dylan, providing as best she can for the two of them – despite Vanessa being consistently out of work due to her aggressive nature. To drive home the point, Vanessa protects her neighbor Susan from an abusive boyfriend. There’s barely any time for that though, as Vanessa is attacked by a vampire and killed – confirming that the vampires know who she is, and at least some of the powers she possesses. In true deconstructive form, these powers have to be mentioned over and over again – being used as a both a secret to keep from others and as a device to be revealed at every possible opportunity. Again, this is something the vampires already know from the outset of the show. How could it possibly be a reveal?
Vanessa’s body is sent to the hospital, where she is examined by the coroner – the “doctor” from the hospital first episode. The coroner witnesses stuff that concerns her, so she calls a colleague for some help – one who is actually her sister. For some reason, the doctor doesn’t know her sister works as a military research doctor – despite calling her at the military number and being her sister – and the military is dispatched to retrieve the body. Of course, when the military arrives, the doctor is prepared and then asks a bunch of questions that force the military to be really awkward and admit that they were looking for someone like this. Why does the doctor suddenly know military protocol and their codeword classifications? Simple. Having this be a mystery to develop would be the traditional path for a show to follow. It’s a question laid out that can then be followed and answered, allowing the audience to feed into that tension. Not here. Such story constructs are for television shows, not anti-television shows.
I could continue on at length, but let’s do so in service to our previous question: what would this look like in a game, and could it be fun? In order to answer that, let’s break down the ways in which Van Helsing is an anti-show into larger buckets – focusing on some macro categories of storytelling failure.
- Character Consistency
You’d think with the above there wouldn’t be much more to say in the way of mystery, and this might be true of other television shows.
Van Helsing is not that show.
There is plenty more to discuss, here. Good mysteries – in games and in other stories – work by focusing on the tangible. Having a lot of questions to answer is fine, but it’s about how the answers are presented more than the question itself. That is to say, a mystery is only a mystery and not a vague mess if there is an answer to the central question. For example, let’s say the Queen of South Yulvin is discovered murdered in her private chambers, with no signs of a struggle, the doors are still locked, and nothing is missing. This is a fine central mystery for characters to explore. Clues should be provided to point characters in certain directions, and the characters can draw further conclusions from the information presented to them. In all cases, it’s about what you are giving the characters rather that what you are withholding from them. It’s not about the unknown, but the imperfection of the known.
Van Helsing takes a different tact. It doesn’t actually withhold the information. It immediately answers the question. Who betrayed us to the vampires? It was that guy. Why do the vampires want Vanessa? She turns them into humans. How did she recover from death? She heals from all of her wounds. Did Axel know about Vanessa beforehand? Yeah, and he was even going to share it with her. Think about this in the context of a game for a moment. Who murdered the Queen of South Yulvin? Johnny Murderface comes and confesses it was him. End of investigation and mystery. What would be left for the players in that case? The mundane. Even the follow-up political or procedural play would go against the ethos of the show. Johnny would simply confess, and the truth would be verified – denying any sort of trial. The heir to the queen would already be in place, eschewing any need for player interaction on that front.
For the players, it would simply be about moving forward with their daily lives following the death of the queen. The difficulties of law and order in a time of uncertainty. The challenges of supply chain management due to the other countries seeking more favorable trade partnerships. I’m not talking about going to negotiate in the resolution activities. I’m specifically speaking of the everyday challenges of just trying to bring charges against a thief you already apprehended or trying to trade for rations so you can go adventure.
Tension goes hand in hand with how mystery is handled on the show, but deserves a discussion on its own. The major external tension in the show ostensibly stems from the fact vampires turn humans into vampires or eat them for sustenance. Characters are under the constant threat of one of these two outcomes…except for the fact that Vanessa has the power to revert any vampiric change – which also stops future changes – and vampires who try to feed on her are turned human. Despite this, the show continues to prevent this as a source of tension, going so far as to have characters panic, flee, and make horrible decisions around these facts. Why would you possibly worry about being bitten and turned when you know you have not only the cure but the vaccine against it traveling with you and it will never run out? The show knows this, and continues to present it as tension as if daring you to realize that fact.
An example of this from a game perspective might be best expressed through Game of Thrones. The players guard the wall in the North, worried about the constant threat from beyond the wall. They all carry weapons of either dragonglass or Valyrian steel, as is the wall. As long as the players stay behind the wall, there isn’t actually any threat of the White Walkers coming to get you. However, the political climate and your superiors are absolutely convinced that this is a very real threat. Even though the only incidents occur when you venture beyond the wall, and then put yourself in a situation that would make it intrinsically unsafe – you get drunk and put your Valyrian steel weapon under your pillow or something. The tension would then need to come from the politics of the situation and the nature of your fellows. This isn’t actually the worst thing in the world, come to think of it. Having a position of more or less guaranteed safety that is jeopardized only because of the politics or bad-decision making of party and NPCs is an interesting conceit. The motivations would just need to be inline. Van Helsing actually does fairly alright in this regard. Vanessa wants to get her kid. Axel wants to get to wherever the military is. These are fine and good to drive action. Van Helsing doesn’t mind using conventions when it allows them to present further situations to then undercut.
Finally, let’s talk briefly about the character consistency in the show – or lack thereof. Even the best shows can have issues with consistency across episodes. When you have write collaboration, it’s easy for one voice to dominate and justify things one week and have it change enough to be slightly jarring the next. While Van Helsing certainly has that problem, the problems more often rear their head within the same episode. Axel continually gets called a dick by people for his actions – usually after he did something totally not-dickish at all. In one instance, Axel allows more refugees into the hospital. He allows them to gorge on their supplies and comfort before eventually talking to the new group’s leader and then insisting the refugees follow the established rules and take some very minor precautions. For some reason, the refugees lose their shit and start getting angry with him. This is compounded by all of the defenses he has in place that are clearly marked from the hospital side. When one of the refugees almost dies, they get even more angry at him. The door literally says “DO NOT ENTER – EXTREME DANGER AND CHANCE OF DEATH.” I dunno, fam.
Another good example is the doctor. In one episode, she admits that she didn’t try and save Axel’s compatriots, but was saving her own skin out of cowardice and got bit in the process. Axel has a heart to heart with her and forgives her – with the message being “it’s not about then, it’s about now, and we will all be better.” Before the end of the episode, the doctor has panicked and left Axel to be bitten by a vampire and then locked him in a radioactive facility. As a reminder – they literally have someone who can turn him back and then prevent that from ever happening again. So what did the heart to heart and admission bring us? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. This isn’t a one-off. The leader of the resistance against vampires is literally talked out of killing the head vampire by the vampire telling him the lady vampire the resistance is working with will betray them. It’s seriously one sentence. The resistance leader then kills his human allies and works with the vampire he was about to kill. What in the what.
For players, this is really just a game of long-form Paranoia. Each clone of you is probably a different version of you enough to be noticeable, particularly when friend computer is making sure to inform you of your past mistakes so you “correct them.” In a traditional, non-multi-life game, it would be the triggering of Aspect or Personalities at consistent times throughout the game and not allowing for any actual growth as a result. This could be frustrating, but the presentation would be such to say – “it’s not about the character growth, it’s about environmental response and stimulus.” Taken in that vein, it’s a game that would be centered on the most basic instincts of the players, but played as if there was nuance. It’s savages cosplaying as the enlightened. We’d all be both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde throughout every single session. That could certainly be fun, provided everyone is on board with it.
All of this adds up to a high-concept game experience. A game about the mundane with vacillating personalities and the complete lack of external tension and conflict. The good thing about games is the agency and interaction they provide. Taken at face value, this might not be all that exciting. However, when you start to live within the world and the actions, even this anti-story can be something riveting and compelling. This is because even though Van Helsing is an anti-show, it’s not really telling anti-stories. These are absolutely stories, just not ones that are for the traditional viewing experience. Games are a great place to try and experiment with things like this. Will every group find a story centered on salt-trading along the border – focusing only on the act of trading and the commodity itself – to be compelling? Of course not. Will there be some groups that are totally into something like this and want to play as often as possible? Absolutely.
If you are looking for a great tv show, Van Helsing is not that show. If you are looking for an offbeat, experiment game premise, it just might be.