Editor’s Note: I play a lot of video games. But, like many adults who have had more money than free time for at least some small part of their life, I’ve picked up the bad habit of acquiring more video games than I play: 255 unfinished games, by the depressing tally on my Backloggery page. Now obviously, these aren’t all full-priced retail games: most of them I acquired for literally pennies, thanks to things like Steam sales and the especially pernicious “buy a shitload of cheap games while pretending you’re just being charitable” Humble Bundle. Yet even still, owning 255 games that I haven’t finished feels decadent to me; and given my current situation, in which I have way more free time than I have money, now seems as good a time as any to reduce that pile of digital shame.
So, from now until I have zero unfinished games (ha), I’ll be doing sporadic writeups of the formerly-backlogged games that I finish. I hesitate to call them “reviews,” because I’m not really interested in being a reviewer. Instead, I’m going to talk about what I find interesting (if anything!) about the games, and generally try to make something remotely worthwhile out of my arguably already-wasted time and money. In other words, this is all just an excuse for me to produce more content for the blog while still spending a lot of time on my ass playing video games. But hey, I’m both the owner of this blog and its most loyal reader, so if it sounds like a good idea to me, then I’m gonna do it. The first game on the list is EA’s and Starbreeze’s first-person shooter Syndicate: not the most auspicious beginning, but I chose it because I thought it would be short and pretty and I’d have some reasonably interesting things to say about it. It was both of the first two things; I’ll let you be the judge of the third. – Z.H.
What is it about evil corporations in high-budget video games? Don’t get me wrong, I’m right there with them; most corporations are pretty evil. But it feels a bit odd to see anti-capitalist sentiment in a game published by Electronic Arts, of all companies: the only video game publisher to be “awarded” (twice!) by the Consumerist’s annual Worst Company in America poll. In the world of video games, EA is the evil empire: playing an EA game where the villains are a massive corporation–a tech conglomerate, at that, makers of chips inserted directly into the user’s brain in classic cyberpunk fashion–is somewhat akin to walking into a Bank of America and seeing framed posters of Karl Marx on the wall. It’s not subversive so much as it is incongruous, and it makes the radical in me suspicious.
Of course, Syndicate was only published by EA, not developed, and I’m sure there was something cathartic for developers Starbreeze in setting several levels of the game (spoilers, I guess) in the corporate-chic offices of its titular mega-conglomerates, knowing full well that–per the brutal exigencies of AAA game development–many of them would probably be laid off if the game under-performed (as, indeed, 25 of them were). “So you’re targeting an 85 metascore, huh?” I can hear some disgruntled dev mumble under his breath as he decorates another sterile white wall with an enemy combatant’s brain matter. “Well, target this!”
Yet even if there is something mildly interesting about a hyperviolent video game first-person shoot-’em-up taking place in a kind of late 21st century Silicon Valley compound–something perhaps uncomfortably close to the actual conditions under which the game was made, a late-capitalist fever dream turning around and devouring itself–in the end it all feels decidedly safe. After all, of the many evil corporations I can think of in video games, not one has ever been an electronic games maker; and if you think about it, that’s bizarre, since surely the logic of corporate conglomeration tells us that a maker of “neural implant” chips in 2069 would also be designing some games for the damned thing. I mean, whatever happened to vertical integration? Hell, it’s only 2014, and Amazon already has games and drones. Syndicate, in other words, pretends to have something serious to say, but it doesn’t say anything that would upset the home office. Frankly, it doesn’t say much of anything at all.
One thing Syndicate does say is that Starbreeze really wanted to make a Deus Ex game. I haven’t played the original 1993 Syndicate, designed for DOS and Amiga computers by Sean Cooper of British developer Bullfrog Productions (and published by EA, back before EA was quite the evil empire it is today), but my understanding is that it has very little in common with its 2012 “reboot.” Similarities to the Deus Ex series, on the other hand–especially its most recent installment, Eidos Montreal‘s 2011 Deus Ex: Human Revolution—abound: from the first-person perspective to the character you play as, a black trench-coated, biotech-modified super-agent with a Mysterious Past (another “spoiler”: you were raised by the aforementioned evil corporation to become a perfect killing machine…but you already knew that if you’ve ever played a video game before). The most striking similarity to Human Revolution is the main character’s chip-enhanced HUD, which helpfully points out the names of common household objects like lamps and chairs: a dystopian vision of the future indeed, since our hero is clearly so dependent on his wet-wired Google Glass that he can no longer recognize a cup of coffee without the assistance of an OS. Meanwhile, the damn thing gives only sporadic indications of where you’re supposed to go–which might have been a breath of fresh air in this age of over-accessible “follow the compass marker” games, if Syndicate weren’t also designed as if there should be a glowing arrow pointing you in the right direction at all times.
Yes, Starbreeze got all the superficials right–the hacking abilities, the crawling through ventilation shafts, the aforementioned black trenchcoat–but philosophically it couldn’t be further from a Deus Ex game. Deus Ex is all about giving the player the tools to accomplish a goal within a given space, and then letting them choose how to go about doing it; Syndicate is as linear as any other “cinematic” contemporary shooter. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing: I was a fan of Naughty Dog’s first two Uncharted games, for instance. But there’s well-executed linearity and there’s poorly-executed linearity, and Syndicate falls decidedly in the latter category. You’re frequently given a specific task that seems like there should be some leeway in completing it, only to discover that no, you have to follow the path the game dictates for you; that ventilation shaft you’re crawling through is the only way to reach your goal. I can’t even begin to estimate how many times the game, in the form of a disembodied A.I. voice (trust me, you know the voice), told me to go somewhere and I had to run around the space like a dumbass, checking every door until I found the one that would magically open because it led to my destination. Even more insultingly, many of these magic doors were distinguished by a green light, while the doors I couldn’t open were marked with a red light…but not always, because sometimes I’d try a door with a green light and it would be locked, too. More than most recent games I can recall, Syndicate left me chafing at the boundaries the game imposed.
It may be tempting to read something into that, something deep and thematic. Certainly Syndicate tries: the game (does anyone really care about Syndicate spoilers?) has the now-obligatory mid-game reveal that the player character is being manipulated, that everything “you” have been doing has been a meta-commentary on the conventions of video games and the player’s tendency to follow “orders” from the game without question. This was groundbreaking when it happened in System Shock 2–and Metal Gear Solid 2, and BioShock–but at this point it’s little more than a tired cliché that gives developers a chance to pseudo-intellectualize while still regurgitating the same tired old gameplay scenarios. Of course I was mindlessly following orders, Syndicate; my only other choice was to put the game down and do something more productive with my life.
So why didn’t I? Well, completism is a powerful urge, for one thing; I wanted to play the games in my backlog, and ideally “playing” them means finishing them. The game’s also not a complete slog: once I got the hang of using my “DART Overlay”–basically a time-limited effect that slows down the action, highlights enemies, reduces the damage taken and increases the damage dealt–the game’s moment-to-moment gun battles were fun, though they did sometimes fall into the monotonous pattern of using up my DART meter and then hiding behind cover waiting for it to recharge. There were, to be sure, some astonishingly low points: especially the poor-man’s-Metal Gear Solid boss fights, especially the one where you have to hack rockets to send them back at the guy with a rocket launcher. At its best, though, Syndicate had some great palm-sweating moments, particularly the first encounter with the shotgun-toting enemies in heavy armor that needs to be “breached” to make it vulnerable.
Finally, Syndicate is a very stylish game. Though it didn’t look quite as amazing on my PC as I’d hoped it would–there were still some low-res textures, and character models were wonky –the game’s setting and art design frequently took my breath away. It helps that I’m a sucker for cyberpunk, and Syndicate caters shamelessly to people like me, visually referencing everything from Blade Runner‘s neon-lit squalor to Minority Report‘s slick holographic advertisements. I recall some reviewers being put off by the game’s, ahem, generous use of bloom lighting, but that seems a bit silly to me: cyberpunk as a visual genre tends to be highly expressionistic, and the washes of sometimes blinding light felt appropriately atmospheric for the setting and mood.
The problem is that, even as Syndicate excels at cherry-picking bits and pieces of cyberpunk’s visual aesthetic, its attempts to do the same thing with its narrative themes are never convincing. It all comes back to that issue of a nominally anti-corporate game being released by a corporation. Syndicate pays lip service to issues of spiraling corporatocracy and income inequality, of technology’s effects on human agency, because these are tropes in the cyberpunk genre. But even when it’s waving the red flag, even when it’s congratulating you–in the voice of the sexy neuroscientist-turned-subversive ally who looks and sounds suspiciously like Rosario Dawson–for becoming “human,” the tropes don’t have teeth, because there’s nothing behind them. This is especially noticeable because those pet cyberpunk themes have arguably never been more relevant: the genre’s godfather, William Gibson, now writes novels set in the present day that still read like his old stuff, because we’re basically already living it.
I don’t want to overplay my hand here, because believe me, I’m aware that this is just a mediocre little 10-hour-long video game. But it feels distasteful, somehow, to literally play at anti-corporatism in a game that’s anything but. To pretend that games and the companies that make them are somehow innocent of global capitalism’s worst transgressions, when the military-entertainment complex continues to exist. Cyberpunk writers like Gibson spin their dystopian visions because they ultimately have humanity’s best interests at heart; Starbreeze and EA may or may not, but Syndicate‘s paper-thin ideological posturing doesn’t exactly breed confidence.