I was floored as soon as I got to the main menu of vampire survivors. I knew this hot indie darling was ringing up my alley when I heard it described as reverse bullet hell mixed with a roguelike, but I wasn’t prepared for it to hit so close to home. While the main menu feels cheap and the Castlevania-inspired aesthetic seems like a poor imitation at first glance, what stopped me in my tracks was the starting character. Antonio Belpaese: the first in a series of four members of the Belpaese family and a menagerie of other characters with incredibly Italian names. Before I even played a minute of the game, I was captivated by my namesake taking the lead. As I struggled in the early parts and slowly unlocked more characters, I felt like this game represented me and my large Italian-American immigrant family in a way that elevated the experience. like few games I’ve ever played.
When people talk about vampire survivors, it’s about how fun the game’s mechanics are and how it’s blown up on Steam for the cheap early access price of just $3. The gameplay is indeed exceptional. You try to survive an onslaught of a growing number of bad guys using only auto-fire weapons, slowly upgrading your arsenal with passive pickups and power-ups. It’s a roguelite that gets that dopamine kick as the numbers go up and is completely devoid of a story, but it’s rich in culture. Specifically, the culture of my family.
vampire survivors‘ The creator, Luca Galante, told my colleague Jay Peters in an interview that he was often stuck finding stories, stories and meaning for the characters in his games. “The technical aspects are what [I] understand correctly, but things like writing a story, especially for video game support, is something so difficult that I don’t have the skills to do it. Luca is an Italian who moved to the UK to become a game developer, working in the gaming industry before making his mark. He left vampire survivors without any story mode, intro cinematics, or even vampires in favor of focusing on the action and gameplay loop. There’s a short blurb on the itch.io site about the game’s premise, and it’s almost nonsensical: “The year 2021, rural Italy, lived an evil person named Bisconte Draculó, whose many Evil magics have created an evil world filled with starvation and suffering.. Now it’s up to the members of the Belpaese family to end their reign of terror and put good food back on the table.
But I felt an instant connection with these characters. It’s not every day you see a cast of Italian characters in a video game, outside of high-profile examples like Mario and Luigi or Ezio from the Assassin’s Creed games. But Mario and Luigi are caricatures created by a Japanese developer consisting mostly of nerdy accents, bushy mustaches, and a blue-collar occupation. Assassin’s Creed II tried historical fantasy with Ezio in 15th century Italy, but it certainly got some grimace. vampire survivors offers something different.
So here are my unofficial stories and explanations of some of the game’s built-in Italians. Let’s take a look at the stars of the game and those (chef’s kisses) fantastic names.
Antonio Belpaese: Of course, it’s me. Also, my grandfather, my grandmother (Antonia) and almost half a dozen other members of my extended family in the United States, Italy and Argentina. Italians love to reuse names within the family, so why not keep using the best – and for the best character in the game. (Note: please ignore the unfortunate fact that Antonio is not the best character in the game).
Imelda Belpaese: Besides being a brand of cheese, the Belpaese family name is also a nickname for Italy, which means “beautiful country”. It’s a bit like how Americans refer to the United States as the homeland of the brave, or the Germans referring to their homeland as chocolate country. Imelda sounds like a really old name, and it starts with a magic wand she probably used to discipline my older cousins when they were kids. Wait, is this magic wand wooden and spoon-shaped?
Pasqualina Belpaese: My real cousin and godfather’s sex swap. Pasqualina means “little Easter”, so I guess she bakes some good bread and a savory tart with cheese and sausages (it’s delicious, I assure you). Pasqualina was born in the United States but speaks perfect Italian (unlike me) and is called “Patty”. Did you know that Italian-Americans often have Americanized nicknames to prevent Americans from butchering their beautiful pronunciation? No, that doesn’t mean you have permission to call me Tony.
Gennaro Belpaese: There are a few Gennaros in my family, all named after San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples. If you’re in the New York area, you might be familiar with The Feast of San Gennaro. That’s when Italian Americans gather in lower Manhattan to wave little red, white, and green flags and march through the half-block that makes up Little Italy. There may or may not be a Joe Pesce look-alike out there, posing for pictures, but you most likely bought an overpriced calzone from a street vendor and a replica Italian national team football shirt with the name on it. by Ciro Immobile on it – spelled with too many L’s and not enough M’s.
The Ladonna family: The second family of vampire survivors is Ladonna (meaning “the woman”). There is Arca Ladonna, Porta Ladonna and Lama Ladonna. Their clothes and hair are a bit edgier – they’re very reminiscent of Alucard from Castlevania. They probably disappoint their parents by dressing like goths and listening to metal. But if you forget to call their dad on his birthday, you’ll feel a sense of guilt like you’ve never felt before. (Note: Porta Ladonna may be a riff on “porca madonna”, which I can say in front of my mom or aunts if I want to get slapped.)
Poe Ratcho: A pun for poveraccio, which means “poor guy” or someone you pity. Poe Ratcho is an old man with a large white beard and a cane, and he starts the game with the garlic weapon aura. This is me in the future, when I stink even more of garlic but don’t care anymore. Plus, by then, the mole on my neck will grow big enough to scare my nieces and nephews before it kills me one day.
Dommario: Father Mario. Yes, the Mario from Super Mario Bros. became a Catholic priest and traveled to rural Italy to fight hordes of bats, skeletons, mummies and ghouls instead of trampling turtles. Does that sound ridiculous to you? Sure. But I bet it will still be better than what the Chris Pratt movie will be.
Krochi Freetto: An evil demon whose name may loosely mean crocifisso (crucifix) or croce fritta (fried cross). Be that as it may, my mother would calmly recite three Hail Marys and two Our Fathers to herself if she saw me playing the role of Krochi. Also, for some reason, I’m suddenly hungry for more Spicy Tarallels.
Mortaccio: One of the best characters in the game. He’s a walking skeleton with a halo that throws bones at monsters. If I was a kid again today, I would totally want a Mortaccio figure to play fight against all my Saint Michael statues (he was the badass archangel with a sword).
Peach : Not a character, but a weapon in the game. Do you think it’s a beautiful dove assisting you? No, it’s just a humble piccione (pigeon). Too bad he doesn’t steal bread for you from enemies.
The first time I completed a stage with Antonio was a defining moment, resulting in plenty of screams and high-fives for this real-life Antonio. I died just as I crossed the 30:00 mark. (Note: the clip has no sound)
There’s a lot in a name, of course. And while it can be fun to make stuff up on any game or entertainment (vampire survivors fanfic, anyone?), there’s no denying that a connection to something when you feel even a little seen creates a bond unlike anything else.
This game has become something very special to me, like a soldered connection that I can’t help but feel a bit warm and fuzzy on – kind of like a nostalgic trip, but it cuts much deeper into the fiber of my being. Everyone should have that experience with a game they love to play, being able to see themselves represented in the characters as more than just an analog player. Even if it just gives them a chance to reflect on the joyful silliness of their culture that helped them grow.