Vampire Survivors and death's ceaseless approach

What are we doing here?

I don’t like that I like Vampire Survivors. I don’t like that I almost booted it up again instead of sitting down to write this. (I don’t like that I did boot it up right before editing this.) I don’t want to like a game as pointedly pointless at Vampire Survivors, but I do.

Vampire Survivors is a game-ass game. There is absolutely nothing tying it together narratively, and, as has been noted elsewhere, even its titular connection to vampires is dubious at best. The game works as a kind of tower defense/bullet hell hybrid, in that you passively attack enemies without direct control, your only input coming from choosing the weapons that shoot out of you and the movement of your character through increasingly dense hordes of incoming enemies. Put more simply: action-wise, Vampire Survivors boils down to choosing things and walking around. It’s conceptually silly, visually underwhelming, and musically repetitive, and for some reason I keep playing it.

Like Universal Paperclips, Vampire Survivors is a game about raw numbers. More than anything I’ve played of late, at least not since Hades, Vampire Survivors is a case study in power creep. You begin the game barely beating the baby bats besieging you, but end by blasting flaming skulls and oscillating scythes out of your garlic-encrusted body while Maybe Dracula™ slowly marches toward you. If I have one mechanical critique of the game, it’s that the ramp-up to that stage of the game (fighting Maybe Dracula™) can feel slow with each replay—but once it’s singing, it sings. When you’ve got a good build going, you feel like Alucard or Van Helsing. You revel in your big ol’ garlic force field. You are death, destroyer of worlds, and it’s a total blast.

So what’s my issue? I’m not sure, to be honest. Playing this game, then trying to write about it, I’m realizing that a side project of this newsletter is an attempt to pinpoint what it is that makes gaming a worthwhile use of our finite time on this planet.1 Maybe that’s an obvious mission for a newsletter criticizing games, and maybe still that’s what all criticism is meant to accomplish. Still, I don’t know about you, but with the state of the world—war, an ongoing pandemic, pervasive and entrenched inequality, the seemingly inevitable approach of an inhospitable climate, etc.—these days, I’m pretty death-obsessed when it comes to my hobbies. I often find myself thinking, “Will this be what you wanted to spend your precious hours doing? Will you feel good about having played—let’s see here—Vampire Survivors on your deathbed?” More simply than this: “Are you proud that you spent the first 30 minutes of what was supposed to be your writing hour walking around shooting ghosts and red bats, which are harder than the black bats?”

I’ll be the first to admit: this is a bad metric through which to pass entertainment! I’ll also be the first to admit: this is stuff I should talk about in therapy! I’ll also be the also to admit first also: I do talk about this stuff in therapy! Most days, I know that time spent enjoying yourself, especially in moderation, isn’t time wasted. That said, I can’t shake the scary feeling while playing Vampire Survivors that I’m wasting my time here on earth. I can’t shake the feeling that every minute of every day matters right now, that like the bats that encircle me each run, death is pervasive and unrelenting. I can’t shake the feeling that everything I do, and I mean everything, has to attain some undefined, know-it-when-you-see-it Worthwhile Status, the criteria for which changes on a day-to-day and maybe even an hour-to-hour basis. Which is why the fact that I enjoy a game in which you essentially walk around passively blasting skeletons and ghouls for 10-30 minutes at a time is really bugging me out.

Vampire Survivors is fun, costs $3, is playable on Mac or PC, and I recommend it if you want to have a good time. Vampire Survivors is also a mirror in which you may see, undistorted, the inherent frivolity of the ways in which we choose to pass our finite time, an exercise in futility with not so much as an ambient narrative, and something I should probably delete from my computer until I’m well enough to play it without worrying about the ever-encroaching end of my own 10-30 metaphorical minutes. So, yeah. That’s videogames! Ha ha ha.

Sorry. I don’t really have an outro for this one, poetic, comedic, or otherwise, so here’s another vampire-related gaming JPEG for you that I hope provides some sense of finality to this rambling, death-obsessed newsletter. I’ll see you in two weeks. I promise not to be so weird next time. And I’ll probably talk about Elden Ring, finally.

  1. I found myself thinking back on my experience with Vampire Survivors while reading Morten HøI Jensen’s essay on Gawker, “Why Read Fiction in a Bad World?”: “Deep down, the reader is secretly embarrassed by her hedonistic indulgence of this purposeless pastime — the horror of horrors in our rational, utilitarian age.”