I love the sunshine, and I've rather a taste for garlic, so I've decided I'm probably not a vampire. It's taken a while to be sure, though. The world of Bloodlines is so arresting, so marvellously cohesive, that it's difficult not to be entirely taken in. Despite the ageing visuals, the places and people of this gritty, gothic Los Angeles are frighteningly real.
Real, that is, except when an NPC hovers across the room eight inches above the ground. Or gets shot, only to fall and cry out in pain three seconds later. When a texture flickers on and off in front of you, or the game crashes you back to the painful reality of your hideously cluttered desktop. In many ways, Bloodlines was the greatest game in the world. In many others, it simply wasn't good enough.
Returning with this knowledge does it some favours. This time around, I knew it would be broken, removing much of that crushing disappointment. I also came armed with an abundance of community fixes. Bloodlines' fans are admirably dedicated. That they've felt it important enough to spend years tweaking code and (for want of a better word) revamping animations says a lot for the inspirational quality of the game itself.
And, really, it is inspiring. A seedy, present-day take on the Deus Ex formula, it bristles with life and character, particularly during the opening half. Split into a series of hubs, each a different region of the City of Angels, Bloodlines follows your fledgling vampire's rise up the undead food chain - and isn't afraid to tackle some serious issues along the way.
I was excited to experience them again. But I'd forgotten what came first. So, without fully intending to, I found myself staring up at the foreboding silhouette of the Ocean House Hotel.
In the past, I've always found myself meticulously ticking off side quests in Santa Monica - the game's first region - in the hope that somehow the Ocean House mission would mysteriously disappear. Delicately riffing on a variety of haunted house tales, most immediately The Shining, it's a glorious, self-contained horror story, a courageous format-breaker so early in the game.
The secret to its success, much like the comparable Robbing the Cradle mission in Thief: Deadly Shadows, is that it shows rather than tells. You find newspaper cuttings, drip-feeding information on the hotel's dark past. Writing appears on walls, a stark warning of things to come. And there's no overt enemy threat in Ocean House. It's just a place where some really sinister things happened, and somewhere you really don't want to be. The whole thing is impressively terrifying.
It's the little stories like that of Ocean House - the ones not obviously related to the main plot - that fascinate me most about Bloodlines. Almost every quest, mandatory or otherwise, tells a tale or explores a character. All are fiendishly intelligent, and adult in exactly the right way. Bloodlines tackles issues that would have most games cowering in a corner, but never is it crass or exploitative. It's a game about people, about the nasty truths of our society. Despite the supernatural front, it's irrefutably a game about real life.
It's a beautiful thing, and I've yet to play another game with such astounding attention to narrative detail. The script isn't just witty and intelligent; it's positively huge to boot. That each character delivers his or her lines so candidly, so effortlessly, throughout this mammoth spread of dialogue is nothing short of spectacular.
I'm almost certain they're real people, digitised. Nuanced and entirely credible, they speak with innumerable traits intact, never missing a beat. From the delightfully twisted Voerman sisters near the start, right through to Gary the Nosferatu in the later sections, each is thoroughly spellbinding.
Bloodlines's penchant for extended conversation has been interesting this time around. Usually, I'm a male Toreador. The elegant upper-echelon of vampire society, the Toreador are well-spoken, calm, calculated and charismatic, precisely capturing the sort of character I tend to veer towards in role-playing games. I'm always a male one, because of the rather fetching suit.
This time, I fancied a change. The more thuggish classes don't appeal to me, so I was left with a choice between a Nosferatu and a Malkavian. The Nosferatu are hideously ugly, clearly not human, and largely confined to skulking around in the darkness. Not my cup of tea. The Malkavians are just insane. They have arguments with signposts and speak in a barely intelligible flurry of nonsense, but their appearance is strikingly human. Could be interesting. I picked a busty female. Just because.
The stark raving lunacy of playing a Malkavian is amusing, but fairly inconsequential. The perks of playing a bubbly, attractive lady are far from it. As an experiment, I threw all my early stats into the charisma and seduction feats. Within half an hour, I'd charmed my way into two buildings and sucked half the life from the neck of a vaguely aroused security guard.
Bloodlines doesn't simply take your character's traits and re-juggle its numbers accordingly. It rewards you with whole new lines of dialogue that directly shape your relationships with various other denizens of the game. Though action-based stats function in a reasonably straightforward manner, the feedback provided for building your personality is miraculous. In other words, you're not just levelling up. You're actively playing a role.
Of course, it all takes a nosedive. Bloodlines' degradation into incessant hack-and-slash is well documented, but I do wonder if those who haven't experienced the final sections understand quite how tedious they are. I recall my original play-through, in which - having created a particularly talky character - I found myself simply running away from every grotesque beast in the mandatory, maze-like Hollywood sewers, since my action stats were nowhere near high enough to take them on. A friend of mine, who had focused on combat, recounts how even he had to use a full-ammo cheat. The bugs are irritating and occasionally disastrous, but most of them can be fixed. Sadly, the complete dissolution of the early intricacy and intelligence will always remain. There's no patch for the game design.
There is, however, a work-around. It's an option that's available throughout Bloodlines, but only really becomes logical once the first three hubs are cleared. It's a simple combination of key-presses and mouse-clicks, and you'll find yourself a lot more enamoured towards the game should you take this route.
That is to say, you can quit.
The ending's available on YouTube if you're that interested, but really, nothing exciting happens once you're done with Hollywood. The main narrative arc was never the most interesting thing about Bloodlines. It's the incidental stories and the people you meet along the way that matter.
They're abundant in the opening sections, yet criminally thin on the ground later on. Bloodlines falls from its pedestal after 15-or-so hours, but the journey to that point is as mesmerising as you're likely to see. At its best, it's a glorious, grand, mature piece of design, still unsurpassed in its niche little field.
Encapsulating it all was the first time I entered an LA nightclub, and the first time I met the sassy, voluptuous Jeanette Voerman. "You smell new, little girl," she said, "like fabric softener dew on freshly mowed Astroturf." In the background, the music, the dancing and the unstoppable sense of cool... that's Bloodlines. Though its life is eventually sucked away by the fangs of its own turbulent development, it remains as stylish, smart and seductive as games come.