No shortage of time, words, or effort has been spent on analyzing the shifting gameplay of Vermintide 1 and 2, but there’s one topic that I haven’t seen picked apart with the same rigor: this mysterious thing that people have been calling “Charm”. I’ve generally seen consensus that Vermintide 2’s keep isn’t as “cozy” as the Red Moon Inn, but the precision of language ends there. Narrative framing has an outsize effect on the overall player experience, and by digging into the details of design we can start to understand how Vermintide 2s Keep seemingly lost some of the charm of the first game’s Inn.
Part 1: Home
So the keep in VT2 is less “charming” or “cozy” as VT1’s Inn. What does that mean? Passive world building is usually taking a simple idea and packing the margins with details that support that idea (show don’t tell applied to environment design, instead of long expository cutscenes). The gameplay experience in the Inn constantly gives players chances to experience a warm, safe, personalized enclosure deep within a very dangerous city. The Keep doesn’t do this as much, reducing environmental immersion and making it feel less like a place to call home.
Before you even gain control of your character after logging on, splash screens are already framing your understanding of your home base. Is it a place of comfort, where a diverse band of heroes rest and plan their next move?
Or is it… a lonely looking fortress isolated on a mountain top?
The Keep splash doesn’t connect our heroes or their well being to the place the player is about to enter. It’s an impervious looking fortress, sure, but it doesn’t give the characters (or the player, by extension) reasons to be comfortable and soak in the atmosphere. In VT1, once the game loads, the player takes a few steps forwards and this sight greets them:
It’s a warm, safe, personalized enclosure deep within a very dangerous city. Within the first couple of seconds the player knows the main point of the Inn: it’s warm and cozy in here, but the danger (here represented by the green light of Morrsleib) is just outside. Points of functional interest (the forge, quest board, etc.) are conveniently located a few steps away, and the banners the player has earned are pretty much always in sight. Every second the player spends in the Inn, the Inn is saying “everything you need, and all of your personal touches, is all right here”. In a word, it’s cozy.
Contrast that with the first thing the player sees when they enter the keep. The open space invites the player to enter, but what are they entering? The achievement banners are also in view, but they’re very high up and outside of the space the player inhabits. High stone walls speak to the defensive security of the place, but holes and disrepair prevents it from forming a safe feeling enclosure.
Safe from what though? VT1 made sure the player knows about the looming threat outside, and how only a thin veil of shadow magic is keeping the Inn hidden. What is the threat looming over the Keep?
Looking around outside doesn’t exactly yield much.
What the Keep lacks in this case is context and location. The sheer amount of physical isolation between the Keep and where our heroes actually go on missions disconnects the Keep from those missions and by extension the rest of the game. It feels lonely.
The Keep feels lonely in spite of having objectively more characterful details than the Inn. The armory could use some work, but the quarters for each hero are immensely flavorful, the trophy room (although it only came out recently) is a fun piece, the outdoor training area gives you a way to pass the time, and the crafting stations are built beautifully. The problem is that everything is too isolated to see when playing normally. In VT2, how often do players interact with the in game objects instead of just hitting the hotkey to get to the right menu? Players stand about motionless in the entrance of the keep adjusting their gear for the most part. The main exceptions are the loot pedestal, Okri’s Challenge Book, and the mission select map, but notice how they’re all on a straight line to the Bridge of Shadows. Players have a reason to pass through that space and nowhere else. There’s so much passive world building not happening because the player isn’t passively in all of the spaces.
Part 2: The Experience of Starting a Mission
The best set dressing in the world won’t matter if the player doesn’t interact with it. The home base of both Vermintide games primarily serves as a hub to start missions, which make up the vast majority of the game. Though technically little “gameplay” happens at the home base, the player passes through it literally every time they play, and so the flavor of how missions are started colors the overall experience from the beginning.
The mission selection experiences in both games mirror how their respective home bases connect their players to the game space. Consider the two mission select screens from Vermintide 1 and 2:
Do the actual locations of the missions on the VT1 select screen mean much? Not really. The missions could be shifted around without much effect. What matters here is that this screen reminds you of location and context: we’re in Ubersreik and have things to do. The map is a lovely detail that provides a little bit of immersion without compromising functionality.
VT2 places much more emphasis on linear mission structure than VT1, with each mission chipping away the goal of killing the bosses until the heroes can reach and destroy the Skittergate. The design of this screen reminds the player that all roads (or mission unlocks, in this case) lead to the final mission. Immersing the player in the setting is less important here because the design pays less attention to it’ we’re laser focused on the Skittergate and not giving the player a chance to appreciate the surroundings or fluff.
Quick note, clicking on a mission in VT1 gets you a short line from Loehner. Another context reminder/bit of flavor not in the newer game.
So you’ve selected a mission and are ready to dive into the game proper. Mechanically VT2 takes the advantage with the Bridge of Shadows. I love when mechanics get married to flavor, and moving the character into the portal (using established game mechanics) integrates with the game more seamlessly than having the player (an entity outside the game) just push the ready button.
But what do players do when waiting for the game to start? VT1 offered so much to look at within the Inn, and a lovely chandelier to whack. What could have been idle waiting time is instead a fun immersion moment where players can connect to the space, their home in game.
What can you do from the Bridge of Shadows? What sights can you see? Pretty much nothing, especially from under the magical dome. Whacking dummies and chandeliers, looking at the character's quarters, checking out the trophy room, admiring achievement banners, and appreciating the Keep become a hassle when you're trying to play the game.
Part 3: Conclusion/TLDR
I love almost all of the Keeps details – at least in isolation. Both the Keeps physical design as a game space and its technical design as a mission start hub distance players from the amazing detail packed in. Veterans from VT1 knew and took comfort in every detail of the Inn because the game helped them and kept all of the flavor in close proximity. Though VT2 supersedes its predecessor in almost every way, it falls short in connecting players to their in game location.
Quick shout out to FatShark for making these fantastic games; I wouldn’t be writing essays on something I didn’t absolutely love.
Also, in the next week I’ll be doing a treatment on making a cozier keep, as well as on how mission framing affects characterization of the Ubersreik Five and co.
Thanks for reading.
© Post "Cozy: How Connection to Home Base Shifted Between Vermintide 1 and 2" for game Warhammer: Vermintide.
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