The more time Vampire Survivors has been part of the gaming landscape, the more I find myself questioning my feelings towards it. Because I’m starting to feel like it simultaneously represents some of the very best and absolute worst things about gaming in 2022.
On the good side of things, Vampire Survivors a great example of a small, independently developed, low-budget project becoming a massive viral success, primarily through word of mouth initially. It brings to mind the classic days of the 1980s’ “bedroom programmers”, who could blast out a game in a surprisingly short timeframe, release it on cassette for a couple of quid, and have it sell extremely well to young computer enthusiasts looking to spend their pocket money on something.
On top of that, it’s a solidly designed game with a decent difficulty curve and some indisputably satisfying mechanics. There’s plenty of variety, and that variety has only increased over time as the creator poncle has continued to support the game over the course of its Early Access period on Steam — since the last time I played it, Vampire Survivors has added several new levels, some new characters, a selection of new weapons and some refinements to the interface to make some of the game’s more obtuse elements — primarily the “weapon evolution” system — less difficult to discover.
On the other hand, Vampire Survivors is also a textbook example of the “grind as gameplay” formula that both PC and mobile gamers seem inexplicably attached to through so-called “incremental” or “idle” games.
Vampire Survivors is a game that, while it does feature elements of player progression over time through continued engagement, can ultimately feel kind of pointless. You can never reasonably “win” — even if you survive for a full half hour (or 15 minutes on the exceedingly tedious “bonus” stage, in which you mostly fight non-moving trees and plants) every level concludes with your death at the hands of a deliberately overpowered Reaper enemy. There’s no scoring mechanic to track your continued improvement; you either survive for the full amount of time, or you don’t — though you might unlock a few achievements along the way.
On top of that, Vampire Survivors’ Early Access model means that those regularly added updates also mean that there’s never a “best” time to play, because the next update is always just around the corner. The game is never finished, because those players who no-life the game and get all its achievements within an hour of a new update dropping are constantly demanding “more content”, lest they brand it a “dead game” that the “dev has abandoned”.
I like Vampire Survivors — at least I did when I first played it. Its simple gameplay and the inherent variation in the randomised elements each time you play makes for an enjoyable experience if you want to while away a bit of time with something that isn’t too demanding. But at the same time, I’ve found the experience increasingly empty-feeling each time I play it — to such a degree that even while exploring the latest updates in preparation to write this piece today, I found myself actively questioning whether I was actually having fun playing the game, or if I was just playing it because it was there in front of me.
Engaging with something “because it’s there” has become an increasing part of many people’s daily digital media consumption over the course of the last few years. TikTok (and other platforms’ attempts to imitate its success, such as YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels) has normalised the idea of idly, passively swiping your way through an endless stream of pointless, vapid and asinine content for no other reason than “because it’s there”. And the fact we refer to this as “consuming content” speaks volumes about what a mindless waste of time it is.
While Vampire Survivors offers a little more mental and physical engagement than endless videos of angry white women arguing with themselves and people who aren’t funny believing they are the best comedians in the world, I still ultimately find myself thinking about it in the same way: isn’t there something else I’d rather be doing? More often than not, the answer is “yes” — even when I’m in the mood for a more casual experience.
Despite ostensibly being something of an idle, timewaster sort of experience, Vampire Survivors actually makes surprising demands on your time; as previously noted, most levels require you to commit at least half an hour to “complete” them, and unless you’re uncommonly skilled or extremely lucky with your item drops, it’ll likely take an attempt or two to be able to reliably survive for that full 30 minutes. And even then, I find the sense of satisfaction at “beating” a level to be quite a bit less than the relief I feel that the session is over.
For me, if I have that sort of time available to me, more often than not I’ll want to play something more substantial — and if I’m in the mood for a casual game, I’ll either boot up a retro arcade-style title that is designed to last a couple of minutes at most, or I’ll plump for something like one of the Pretty Girls games, where each individual stage is a couple of minutes, but I can play for as long as I want if I find myself in the mood to keep going.
Even with the indisputably good parts of Vampire Survivors, then, I find myself questioning whether this is what we really want from our gaming in 2022. Because while your own personal mileage may vary, I’m not sure it’s what I want any more.
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