(If you really want to go in blind, don’t read this post, just play the game; it’s quite good! But I want to talk in some detail about how the mechanics of Vampire Survivors unfold because I found that unfolding process to be surprisingly interesting.)


I’m quite impressed with the way Vampire Survivors is constructed. It starts out as a game where you’re attacking and avoiding enemies; the gimmick is that you only control your movement, you don’t control your attacks, your weapon just attacks on its own, at whatever speed and in whatever direction is characteristic to that weapon.

As you defeat enemies, they drop gems, and if you can pick up enough gems without getting killed, you’ll level up. That lets you either upgrade your weapon (changing its characteristics, maybe it fires two bullets at once or fires more frequently); get a new weapon (that fires in addition to your first weapon); or get / upgrade an accessory that improves your character somehow (e.g. one that recovers health periodically, or one that decreases the delay at which your weapon fires).

As time proceeds, the numbers of enemies increases, and at some point, you’re unable to dodge enough, and your health drops to zero. So you think “I should get better at dodging, while still placing myself in the right location to be able to attack enemies and to be able to pick up gems”, and play again. Which is a fun loop!


As you’re doing this, you also occasionally break open lamps on the level; sometimes the lamps drop an item that heals you, but most of the time they drop a gold piece. (And sometimes, if you’re lucky, the lamps drop bags with 10 gold pieces in them instead.) You can’t use the gold during the level, but at the end of the run, one of the options is to go into a shop where you can buy permanent power-ups.

So Vampire Survivors is in dialogue with roguelites: the money mechanism is like the mirror in Hades, for example. There are quite a bit more things to buy in Vampire Survivors compared to Hades, however, and some of them seem quite expensive; clearly there’s got to be a better way to get that gold?

As you play, you’ll occasionally run into tougher monsters, and when you defeat these minibosses, they drop a chest; that chest gives you an immediate weapon/accessory level increase, but it also gives you a hundred gold or so. (And, occasionally, it’ll level up three or even five items, and give you more than three or five times as much gold.) The chest gold drops turn out to make the money you make from light sources almost irrelevant; and, with that amount of money, you can see how you’ll be able to buy one or two of the permanent power-ups every run.


That turns the core gameplay loop into more of a spiral than a simple loop: as you buy the permanent power-ups, you’ll survive longer and longer. But that’s not the only way in which the core gameplay loop changes between runs: most of the time, as you finish a run, you’ll get one or more achievements. And these achievements aren’t just cosmetic: they give you effects in game.

For examples, the initial achievements reward you for getting your character to a specific level in a single run; by doing so, you unlock specific accessories. Also, you can use your gold to unlock new characters; each character has a different starting weapon, and if you survive long enough with a given character within a single run, you’ll unlock that character’s starting weapon permanently. Both of these have the effect of expanding the possibility space within a run, giving you more options as you level up. (Though you’re only presented with three, or occasionally four, choices each time you level up, so this can be a little frustrating if you’re looking for a specific upgrade and keep seeing other ones! But even that can be good, it gets you out of ruts.)

So that’s the way the loop unfolds: you play more and more, and you both increase the possibility space (by unlocking more options) and increase your ability to explore the possibility space (by buying permanent power-ups). And you don’t have to go too far until the game morphs in a way where it’s no longer about increasing your skill at dodging enemies, it’s about discovering what’s out there in the possibility space. The game helps you with this, too: the achievements menu lists locked achievements, including their unlocked criteria and their rewards, so I’d generally start each run with an idea for what achievement I was going to try to get on that run.


That possibiity space continues to expand. As you survive longer and longer, you’ll level up more and more; if you’re like me, you’ll probably go wide, mostly acquiring new weapons and new accessories, but the game only lets you get six of each, so then you’re forced to go deep. (With an extra nudge from achievements that encourage you to go deep on weapons.) Once you level up a weapon enough then, if you’re lucky, the next time you get a chest from a miniboss, that weapon will evolve into a different form. And that evolved form is quite powerful, usually shooting very frequently and with some sort of new power, and doing so in a particularly theatrical way (These aren’t permanent changes: like the standard in-run level ups, you have to earn them every run. But that gives you something to look forward to. And also a bit of a mystery: initially, it isn’t completely obvious what triggers the evolutions.)

These evolved weapons are quite good at cutting through enemies. The game throws periodic challenges at you (the aforementioned minibosses, some rings of flower enemies that constrict your movement, a huge wave of skeletons); once you evolve your first weapon, those challenges won’t seem so hard! Then they’ll get hard again, but you’ll evolve more weapons; and, at some point, the screen will be covered with enemies and bullets from your weapons, and you won’t really be able to tell what’s happening but you’ll be clearing out everything around you.

And then you’ll hit 30 minutes, and an indestructible enemy will appear and will kill you. But doing that (actually, you don’t even have to make it all the way to 30 minutes) will trigger an achievement that unlocks a new level. And that level has harder enemies (and an interestingly different physical layout that will cause you to rethink your approach), letting the difficulty curve grow to match your increased powers. (But the earlier level is still there if you want something that’s more chill; I’d generally try out new characters on the first level, for example.)

With this, you’ve got the basic ingredients for what a run looks like. You try to get a good mixture of weapons to keep you alive in various circumstances (some that clear out enemies near you, some that do more damage but in ways that are less controlled), you try to pair them with a range of accessories to keep you alive and increase your offense in different ways, and you structure your acquisition and leveling up of weapons and accessories so that you’ll be able to unlock evolved forms of weapons quickly enough to survive the increasingly aggressive waves of enemies. And all of this is mediated by random drops during your level up opportunities, so you can’t guarantee in advance what a given run will look like.


As you make your way through the achievements, you’ll unlock more maps, and that gives rise to more possibilities. Each map after the first comes with a couple of relics; they’re pretty far away from your initial position, so it will take a few runs until you’re strong enough to be able to reach them, but each relic opens up a whole new mechanism. Some of the mechanisms are cosmetic (e.g. one that lets you select the music), but some are more significant.

One relatively early relic shows you the weapon evolutions. It’ll show you the full recipe for evolutions for weapons that you’ve already evolved; for other weapons, it shows question marks in part of the recipe. That way you at least know that the weapon can be evolved (because not all of them can be), and how many items you need to evolve it. (Usually a weapon evolution requires one weapon and one accessory, but some are more complex.)

This gives you a nudge towards one way to expand your knowledge: to try to discover all of the weapon evolutions. So I’d have a list in my head of all of the accessories that I knew about that I hadn’t yet linked to any evolution, and every time I got a new weapon, I’d try it out will all of those accessories. And this turned out to be surprisingly satisfying: there was a period in the middle of my time with the game where this was on the edge of getting a bit much and I was wondering if everything really would match up; but as I got further down the checklist of unlocking all the weapons, I’d start putting more and more of the evolutions together, and it all tied up nicely in a bow at the end.

Another important relic unlocks the arcana mechanism. Arcana are cards that you draw, one at the start of the level, one at about 10 minutes in, and one at about 20 minutes in, affecting your gameplay in significant ways, of a quite different flavor than the accessories do. Often, they apply to a specific set of weapons, giving them extra powers (e.g. their bullets might bounce multiple times); sometimes they cause your attributes to change significantly on a timed basis; one of the arcana gives a whole new damage mechanism, keyed off of both specific weapons and off of one of your attributes. So these open up further options for build customization and create new sets of synergies.


I’ve been playing Kittens Game again recently, and actually it ends up having a fair amount in common with Vampire Survivors. The basic mechanics are completely different: one’s an action game, one’s a clicker. But in both cases, those mechanics are relatively superficial: they’re pleasant enough, they give you something for your fingers to do, but they become routine pretty quickly.

But, in both cases, those basic mechanics change in significant ways. And what I enjoy and find interesting about those games is how that possibility space of mechanical behavior plays out: the experience of exploring it and coming to sense with it.

And I think that both of those games do a particularly good job at progressively unfolding that possibility space. They don’t dump all of the possibilities on you at once, but at any given time they’re showing you enough to give you short term goals while also giving you an idea about possibilities that are unattainable in the short term but give you something to work towards in the medium term. And occasionally, as you make progress on those medium term goals, the game will expand the possibility space in surprising and significant ways: you didn’t know it, but you were only getting started, there’s more richness to explore.

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