World of Darkness: the Documentary is an 86-minute homage to the majesty and cultural influence of Vampire: the Masquerade from Luckyday (writer/producer Kevin Lee) and DarkCoast Entertainment (director Giles Anderson). It presents this story with a weaving of archival footage and photography from the early years of White Wolf, extensive interviews with prominent figures in the history of Vampire: the Masquerade, and a lot of LARP footage. Its initial release was in May 2018 in Germany, but is just hitting streaming services in the United States today (including Amazon, iTunes, Vimeo, Google Play, Sling, Fandango, FlixFling, Dish, and InDemand) The film is almost guaranteed to please any longtime fan of Vampire: the Masquerade.
World of Darkness: the Documentary (for some other film I might just shorten that to “World of Darkness,” but instead I have decided to revel in the signature White Wolf colon in the title) follows the arc of Vampire: the Masquerade from the founding of White Wolf through the acquisition of the company by Paradox Interactive (despite the title of the film, the rest of the World of Darkness is barely mentioned, and Vampire: the Requiem is essentially a mistake that came between two periods of Masquerade). A good third of that is dedicated to the early years – the status of roleplaying games before Vampire: the Masquerade, the creation of White Wolf magazine, Mark Rein-Hagen’s bolt of inspiration (which occurs at Gen Con, because everything awesome happens at Gen Con), the launch of Vampire: the Masquerade (including the origin story of the iconic cover), and the influence of Vampire on the culture of the time (and vice-versa).
After laying out the roleplaying revolution launched by Vampire, the narrative touches on the firing of creator Mark Rein-Hagen, a reduction in book sales coupled with an explosion in vampires in other media (including the ill-fated Kindred: the Embraced), legal battles, the replacement of Vampire: the Masquerade with Vampire: the Requiem, everyone’s favorite PC RPG Vampire: the Masquerade – Bloodlines (ha, made you reinstall it!), the acquisition of White Wolf by CCP for purposes of making a World of Darkness MMO, the announcement that this MMO would be Masquerade rather than Requiem, the launch of V20, and the eventual cancellation of the MMO.
This narrative presentation is mostly presented through figures from White Wolf, most frequently brothers Stewart and Steve Wieck, but also include Rein-Hagen, living art god Tim Bradstreet, a very little bit of Justin Achilli, and a liberal helping of Jason Carl (who briefly appears in episode 239 of the Strange Assembly podcast, from the floor of Gen Con for the launch of Vampire: the Masquerade 5th Edition). And that isn’t even half of the narrative interview subjects.
Interwoven with those interviews are interviews with LARP participants, many identified by clan, as well as background footage of LARP action (there is some footage that appears to be older, but other footage was more recent, from an event such as the Convention of Thorns). These interview subjects generally present the impact Vampire has had on them and how they feel when LARPing, with the interviews primarily conducted while the LARPer in question puts on their makeup and costume. Alas, those of us who operate primarily at the tabletop get no such love (sadly, it turns out that just wearing a Tremere t-shirt does not look nearly as cool as artificial fangs, hand-crafted apparel, and half an hour spent applying durable makeup).
World of Darkness: the Documentary is, indeed, a documentary, but it is a documentary with a message and a focus. This results in a few subjects that might have gotten a more divided treatment instead being presented with a unified voice. This stood out the most with the treatment of the legal dispute between White Wolf and the Camarilla fan club. The documentary slams White Wolf for employing lawyers against its own fan club, but does not verbally mention that it was actually the Camarilla that sued White Wolf in a dispute that concerned, among other things, the fan club’s filing of a trademark in the term “Camarilla” (there is legal paperwork splashed up on the screen, so if you know what you’re looking at you can see that it was the fan club that sued White Wolf, and lost – but you wouldn’t know that from the voiceover). Regardless of who (if anyone) was “right” in that legal dispute, World of Darkness: the Documentary gives an occluded picture. On the other hand, while Vampire: the Requiem is presented as a bad thing and lawsuits against other content creators (e.g., Underworld) presented as somewhat misguided, dissenting reasoning is presented through interviews – an explanation is given for why the switch was made from Masquerade to Requiem, and the frustration of many of the White Wolf creators is clear when they talk about their ideas and concepts being used without any credit or acknowledgement.
The film also perhaps oversells a bit in its praise of Vampire: the Masquerade. For example, early on it pushes on the notion that before White Wolf roleplaying games were for dorks (I resemble that remark … and I’m pretty sure I continue to resemble it five VtM core books later), and then Vampire made roleplaying cool (or, at least, a cooler breed of social outcast played Vampire). Even if you accept that premise as true, it gives short shrift to the greatly expanded popularity and acceptability of roleplaying games, especially the old standby Dungeons & Dragons. However, it is pretty spot-on about having a much more gender-balanced community (especially back in the 90s).
I won’t claim any expertise as a film critic (you like how I didn’t mention that until almost the end of this article?), but I thought the score really drove well in the scenes were it was turned up, the grainy quality of the archival footage gave a good ‘feel’ of history, and I thought there was a good interplay between the narrative and personal elements of the film. I will, however, claim expertise at being “someone who has been a Vampire fan for a couple of decades,” and from that point of view I think World of Darkness: the Documentary was a great success. If you’re a fan of Vampire of a shorter duration, then there’s going to be less of a tug of nostalgia, but I figure it will be accompanied by an increased level of learning, so still a good watch. If you’re new to Vampire, the film probably oversells the subject a little, and the personal interviews may not have as much meaning, but wow are you in for a treat.