All these things will be lost, in time...
Tim Hutchings’ Thousand Year Old Vampire is one of the most difficult, challenging, and demanding games I’ve ever played. It’s intensely personal, it requires you to surrender to its whims, and it may leave you feeling exposed and alone. And all you are really doing is writing a vampire story.
Packaged as a lovely hardbound book filled with a Vaughn Oliver style collage of images, textures, and words, Thousand Year Old Vampire is a solo role-playing game with just a scant whiff of mechanics to support the generation of an almost boundless narrative of memory, experience, the relentlessness of time, and most significantly loss. The game is the story of your character, who becomes a vampire at its outset, and through pages and pages of prompts you will create not only this identity but also the world around them as you play.
Initially, your vampire is just a couple of Experiences, which are grouped into Memories, along with a couple of Resources, Skills, and Characters that have a relationship with you. You get a Mark, which is a physical representation of your affliction, and you create who or what made you into the monster you will remain. From there, you’ll roll dice and advance to prompts throughout the book. These will ask questions that you respond to, writing down your new Experiences within Memories. You might have to check off a skill or lose a resource. Or someone you love might die at your hands, whether intentional or not. The game (and your life) can end prematurely if you can’t mark off one of your skills or resources, or you could go the distance and reach one of several ends.
Perhaps you’ll decide to start out as a Mayan warrior sent to eliminate the Jade Fang, an outcast lurking in the jungle around your village who turns out to be the vampire that creates you. Or perhaps you are a sculptor in fin-de-siècle Vienna, turned by your mentor who wants to preserve your talent for the ages. You could even set your story in a sci-fi setting, exploring entirely different themes and concepts as your vampire’s lifespan stretches into a speculative Afro-Futurist alternate history. You might travel the world, hole up in a castle for 200 years, become the CEO of a global corporation, or haunt the sewers of Rome. All while dealing with love and friendships, learning new skills and talents, and watching everything you hold dear or otherwise slip away while you persist.
The catch to all of this is that Mr. Hutchings has a very specific idea about vampires. If human identity is an accumulation of our memories and experiences, then the vampire’s identity is as much about losing those memories and experiences. You see, you can only have Memories, each of which contain three Experiences. Eventually, you have to lose Memories. And as you strike through these on your character sheet or delete them from your Word document, you’ll feel something very strange. The game is telling you that you’ve forgotten the love of your life or the empire you once ruled. And it’s just gone. This is a profound, impactful sensation as you continue with your story, watching your own history disintegrate with the passing of time.
Losing a Memory might mean that a hundred years have passed. It could mean that you’ve chosen to forgot how you killed the little girl that befriended you and brought you rabbits to feed from as you hid in a cave when she got older and realized you were a monster. Or it could just mean that whatever it was has just slipped away, rendered as unimportant and irrelevant as a random Autumn day 200 years ago. You can preserve some memories in a Diary, which could be anything. Maybe your vampire has painted an elaborate mural sometime during the Renaissance that contains secret symbols and codes to remind your future self of your past. Maybe hidden in the genetic code of an android are your Memories and that is your “diary”. Or maybe you’ve written them all down in a book called Thousand Year Old Vampire.
Playing this game, I can’t help but think of Roy Batty’s dying words in Blade Runner. You know the speech, attack ships on fire and all that. Tears in rain. This is a game about tears in rain, about watching time wash over you and wash things away from you. But Roy Batty had a four year lifespan. Your lifespan in this game could be the whole of human history.
That’s a lot of time for tragedy, but also triumph. Over the course of your character’s life, there are undeniably moments of beauty. Sometimes you will connect threads that you’ve developed in ways that are surprising. You’ll be amazed when elements just work together, and your story takes on an almost magical logic. The prompts are simple, but what they cause you to reveal in your storytelling can be harrowing, surprising, startling, or even upsetting.
Without a doubt, this game is undeniably tragic, and I’ve been surprised at how emotionally wringing and sometimes introspective it can be. I’ve found myself pondering decisions for days. I’ve felt regret at making painful choices. I’ve dreamed about situations that I have created in the game with my characters. This is a game that is digging deeper than just about any other I’ve ever played, and this is why I find it uniquely challenging and even difficult to play. It demands a lot out of you, and not just because you’ve got to write sentences and come up with characters, timelines, settings, and environments.
It’s also particularly demanding if you want to play it as a strictly or roughly historical game. You might wind up searching online for Cherokee names so that you can give a character an authentic name. You might be learning more about the Ainu people than you ever expected to while playing a game. But this is also game that will generously give back to you whatever you decide to put into it so ultimately, the commitment is worth it.
But it is not, however, a game I could recommend to anyone. The book warns that it is a “lonely” game, and that is very true. I’ve found the loneliness to be not in playing the game alone, but in visualizing situations and creating this detailed identity and having no one to share it with. And also in some of the deep-seated psychology that the game has dug up and made me aware of. This kind of isolated self-realization is not an “all audiences” kind of quality, and some players might find themselves confronting situations that make them uncomfortable- alone, with just a book, some dice, and something to write with. This is not necessarily healthy for some people.
Thousand Year Old Vampire is a stunning piece of work and specifically as an example of the kind of narrative that games can create. It is profound and moving, contrasting almost bottomless mortal grief with the limitless ascendancy of the immortal. And it is maybe a little dangerous, which is not a quality I think I’ve ever attributed to any game in my entire life. It’s thrilling to encounter something as singular and engaging as Thousand Year Vampire, but I would caution that one must completely surrender to what it is doing in order for it to work. You might be surprised at how difficult this is to do, to let the game absorb what you create and return feedback on it for you to react to and play with. But if you can let it in, a delicious life awaits.