As soon as I entered Vampire Survivors‘ main menu, I was stunned. When I heard it characterized as a reverse-bullet hell mixed with a roguelike, I knew it sounded right up my alley, but I wasn’t expecting it to hit so close to home. While the main menu appears to be low-rent and the Castlevania-inspired graphics appear to be a bad replica at first, it was the initial character who stopped me in my tracks. Antonio Belpaese is the first of four Belpaese family members, as well as a slew of other characters with eerily Italian names. I was intrigued by my namesake taking the lead even before I had played a single minute of the game. As I battled through the first few plays and gradually unlocked additional characters, I felt like this game was representing myself and my large Italian-American immigrant family in a tiny manner that enhanced the overall experience like few other games I’ve ever played.
When people talk about Vampire Survivors, they remark about how much fun the game’s mechanics are and how quickly it’s become popular on Steam at the inexpensive Early Access price of $3. The gameplay is just outstanding. Using just auto-firing weapons, you try to survive an onslaught of increasing numbers of villains while gradually strengthening your armament with pickups and passive power-ups. It’s a roguelite that offers you a dopamine rush as the numbers rise and has no story, yet it’s full of culture. My family’s culture, specifically.
I COULDN’T STOP MYSELF FROM MAKING MY OWN HEAD CANON FOR SOME OF THE VAMPIRE SURVIVORS CAST.
In an interview with my colleague Jay Peters, Luca Galante, the designer of Vampire Survivors, said that he often gets stuck coming up with backstory, backstories, and meaning for the characters in his games. “I understand the technical parts, but stuff like crafting a story, especially for the video game medium, is something I don’t have the ability to do.” Luca is an Italian game developer who worked in the gambling industry before creating his breakthrough hit in the UK. In order to focus on the action and gameplay loop, he removed the story mode, beginning cutscene, and even vampires from Vampire Survivors. The game’s premise is described as follows on the itch.io site: “In the year 2021, Rural Italy, there lived a wicked person named Bisconte Draculó, whose numerous evil magics created a bad world plagued with poverty and pain.” It’s now up to the Belpaese family to put an end to his reign of terror and bring decent food back to the table.”
But I had a strong bond with these characters right away. Outside of high-profile examples like Mario and Luigi or Ezio from the Assassin’s Creed games, it’s not every day you see a cast of Italian characters in a video game. However, Mario and Luigi are caricatures made by a Japanese developer, with cheesy accents, bushy mustaches, and a blue-collar trade as their main features. With Ezio in 15th-century Italy, Assassin’s Creed II tried the historical fantasy thing, but it certainly dipped into cringe. Vampire Survivors is a unique experience.
So, here are some of my unofficial backstories and explanations for the game’s Italian-ness. Let’s take a look at the game’s biggest stars and their (chef’s kiss) incredible names.
Belpaese, Antonio: This is, of course, me. My grandfather, grandmother (Antonia), and over a half-dozen additional members of my extended family from the United States, Italy, and Argentina are among them. Why not keep using the best one — and for the best character in the game? Italians adore repeating names within the family, so why not maintain using the best one for the best character in the game? (Please overlook the fact that Antonio isn’t the most interesting character in the game.)
Imelda Belpaese (Imelda Belpaese): The family name Belpaese is a moniker for Italy that means “beautiful nation,” in addition to being a cheese brand. It’s similar to how Americans refer to the United States as “the land of the brave,” or how Germans refer to their homeland as “the land of chocolate.” Imelda has an old-fashioned name that begins with a magic wand, which she most likely used to reprimand my older cousins when they were kids. Wait, is that a spoon-shaped magic wand made of wood?
THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MARIO WENT TO RURAL ITALY AS A CATHOLIC PRIEST TO FIGHT HORDES OF BATS, SKELETONS, MUMMIES, AND GHOULS
Pasqualina Belpaese: My real-life cousin and godfather switched genders. Pasqualina means “small Easter,” so I’m guessing she bakes some fantastic bread and savory sausage and cheese pie (which is quite excellent). Pasqualina was born in the United States but, unlike me, speaks flawless Italian and goes by the nickname “Patty.” Did you know that Italian-Americans frequently use Americanized nicknames to avoid Americans mispronouncing their lovely language? No, you don’t have my authorization to refer to me as Tony.
Belpaese, Gennaro: My family has a few Gennaros, all named after San Gennaro, Napoli’s patron saint. You may be familiar with The Feast of San Gennaro if you live in the New York area. It’s the time of year when Italian-Americans assemble in lower Manhattan to fly small red, white, and green flags and parade around the half-block that is Little Italy. You may or may not have purchased an overpriced calzone from a street vendor and a replica Italian national team soccer shirt with Ciro Immobile’s name spelled with too many L’s and not enough M’s.
The Ladonnas are a family of Italian descent. Ladonna (meaning “lady”) is the second Vampire Survivors family. There are three Arca Ladonnas: Arca Ladonna, Porta Ladonna, and Lama Ladonna. Their hair and attire are edgier, and they look a lot like Alucard from Castlevania. By dressing as goths and listening to metal, they are most likely disappointing their parents. However, if you miss to call their father on his birthday, you will experience a guilt trip unlike any other. (As a side note, Porta Ladonna could be a play on “porca madonna,” which is a phrase I can use to be slapped in front of my mother or aunts.)
Poe Ratcho is a pun on the word poveraccio, which means “poor guy” or “someone you feel sorry for.” Poe Ratcho is an elderly man with a cane and a large white beard who begins the game with the garlic weapon aura. This is me in the future, when I’m even more garlic-scented but no longer care. Also, before I die, the mole on my neck will have grown large enough to scare my nieces and nephews.
Dommario: Mario, Father. Yes, instead of trampling turtles, Mario from Super Mario Bros. became a Catholic priest and journeyed to rural Italy to face swarms of bats, skeletons, mummies, and ghouls. Doesn’t that sound absurd? Sure. But I’m sure it’ll be better than whatever the hell the Chris Pratt film will be.
Krochi Freetto is an evil demon whose name is derived from the words crocifisso (crucifix) and croce fritta (fried cross). Regardless, if my mother observed me play as Krochi, she would silently chant three Hail Marys and two Our Fathers to herself. Also, for some reason, I’ve developed a need for super spicy taralles.
Mortaccio is one of the game’s best characters. He’s a halo-wearing wandering skeleton who tosses bones at creatures. If I could be a youngster again, I’d want a Mortaccio action figure to play with and fight against all of my Saint Michael figurines (he was the badass archangel with a sword).
Peachone is a weapon in the game, not a character. Do you believe the dove assisting you is a pretty one? No, it’s merely a piccione (pigeon). It’s too bad it doesn’t steal food from your enemies for you.
Obviously, a name contains a lot of information. While it’s entertaining to make up stories about any game or item of entertainment (Vampire Survivors fanfiction, anyone? ), there’s no denying that feeling connected to something when you feel even slightly seen builds a kinship unlike any other.
This game has become something extremely special to me, like a linked relationship that I can’t help but feel warm and fuzzy about – it’s kind of like a nostalgia trip, but it cuts much deeper into my being. Everyone should be able to have that experience with a game they enjoy, seeing themselves reflected in the characters as more than just a player analog. Even if it’s only to embrace the delightful foolishness of their culture, which helped form them as children.
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Kato Tanaka, a writer who is always looking for new ways to connect with readers and tell compelling stories. I believe that writing is not just about expressing oneself, but about creating a connection with others. I strive to create work that is both relatable and engaging, that speaks to the human experience in a way that is both authentic and accessible. I believe that writing has the power to connect us with others, to bring us closer together, and to help us understand ourselves and the world around us.