Holding Out for a (Gothic) Hero: An Analysis of the Problem of The Order:1886

    

an editorial review and commentary by Felix Hergood

 

Like Bonnie Tyler, I’m holding out for a hero. Although in my case, I’m hoping for a Gothic one. I like that dark, murky shit that chills your bones when you’re reading an iconic creepfest at 2 AM when it’s unforgivably windy out. I like the filmic games; I play them a lot. I love The Last of Us. It has replay value on its varying difficulty levels, a challenging online survival based multiplayer and a story with developed characters I can relate to. The Order: 1886’s story felt a lot like The Last of Us only I don’t think it’s finished yet. I can only assume this is because Sony intends to reveal the full story in piecemeal DLC or in a sequel that will cost me another sixty dollars. The similar feel to TLOU is not surprising considering the game was developed by Ready at Dawn and published by Sony Computer Entertainment, publishers of TLOU. The same video game formula was clearly there, albeit much darker considering the subject matter was an alternate Gothic version of late 19th century London, replete with werewolves and vampires - villains familiar to any ravenous fan of Gothic horror. I myself am one of those ravenous types. I remember when I was younger I attempted to read Bram Stoker’s Dracula at ten years old and had to put its rich, Victorian text down because I was too dumb to read it. Four years later, Gary Oldman simplified the reading part when I saw Dracula in Francis Ford Coppola’s oversexed adaptation of the text, and I was hooked on Gothic. I love Gothic chicks, Gothic art, Gothic movies (like Brandon Lee in The Crow), and Gothic comics like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. There’s a darkness in me that I’m, regretfully, sometimes too inclined to explore. In lieu of this, what has become abundantly clear to me after playing the Uncharted series, The Last of Us and now The Order: 1886 is that even though Sony likes to make video games, above all they like their stories to feel like movies. The Order: 1886 truly felt like a Gothic horror movie (incidentally, 1888 is the year of Jack the Ripper’s infamous White Chapel murders, not 1886, so maybe we are looking at a prequel here). The high resolution, life-like graphics rarely brought down the fourth wall for me. I was fascinated by the characters and was rooting to see their relationships develop. Like a gripping movie or television series, I could not put it down, pushing forward for more 19th century Gothic horror. When I started to realize this game was less like a game and more like a movie, I was content that the game lacked the minutiae of collecting and puzzle solving because it was so much like a movie. More precisely, I was happy the game lacked that crap because I wanted to follow the story more. I resolved to follow along without expecting the story to be too gamified. As I reached the end, I began to realize The Order: 1886 was stylized like an artistically rendered film. It had a thought provoking ending that did not tie up all loose ends and left me thinking a lot about my purchase. The question I asked myself when I reached the end, without spoilers, is this: Do I want a thought-provoking, cliff-hanging end to a story, lacking all traditional gameplay features, when I paid sixty dollars for it? Let me explain further:

 DRACULA, this isn't.

DRACULA, this isn't.

Being a fan of Gothic horror, The Order: 1886 was a game I had hope for before purchase. Anybody who is interested in playing The Order: 1886 should try it just to see it; especially if they like Gothic horror. It’s a beautiful looking game. I think it renders the atmosphere of that time period accurately to my fan needs. I think it’s the best looking game so far in next-gen and that does give me hope that there will be a lot of good looking, closely rendered to “real” looking games coming out soon.  However, like an attractive woman seen from a distance who ends up having a lukewarm personality, this game may underwhelm even the most tolerant of “game” players once they get their hands on it.

I’m not one to nitpick details, but I will here for a paragraph or two because I’m so in love with this genre. I’ve played a lot of games quoted by the industry as being bad and enjoyed them. The primary mistake of The Order: 1886 isn’t phrases like “running amok” and “it’s your funeral, not mine” paired with lots of “bloody hell” in between, seeming to be advertising speaking British more than exposing story. The mistake is also not the fact the game runs linear with no emergent opportunity at any point in the story. This game is “on rails” the whole time, but that should be understandable quickly into the first twenty minutes when a player realizes there’s an awful lot of watching. (It should be noted that you can pause and bypass the watching later for replay value). Regardless, The Last of Us was also very filmic and mostly carried me through it on rails, and I didn’t have so much of a problem with it. So what was my problem?

I think Sony saw the success of the Uncharted series and TLOU and they took a risk in assuming film and video games have converged completely. I think they believed fans were ready to play a movie and would be willing to forgo the high price and traditional gaming features in lieu of a game that looked almost as graphically equal to a film. Ready at Dawn founder Ru Weerasuriya even said “it’s a matter of quality, not quantity.” I can only assume his measure of quality must be based on The Order: 1886 having graphics that seem to be rising further out of the uncanny valley and looking more like a film. However, I would challenge that the success of modern games, as judged by the people paying for them, is not based solely on how beautiful the graphics in a game look or how closely it is rendered to film. I don’t believe a majority of players are in it for the story at all. This is fallout from a former generation of games, Pong, Super Mario Brothers or Donkey Kong, made solely for gamers - those of us who like to solve puzzles. People who played Donkey Kong for the points couldn’t care less that the damsel Mario was trying to save was named Pauline. Being concerned with story, I personally believe they could care more about Pauline. The fact that games weren’t made with good stories is not surprising. I don’t believe a majority of developers of games were developers of films in that era. Sony Computer Entertainment is a new concept. Back then, developers were game players and fans of games. Their only measure on what was a good story was what they saw when they were watching films, when they weren’t playing their creations. What they created was comprehensively derivative of film. Steven Spielberg was one of the first pioneers of game and film convergence when he got involved with the production of the Medal of Honor games, and those games felt like his movies. Before Steven Spielberg, there wasn’t anybody trying to get the two together. Now, we have Sony to make our games - a movie studio outright. If Sony is going to make a playable film, then I expect it to be a great film, lacking no derivative qualities, fully develop the story and be memorable. This game’s story was not as memorable as I would desire in films I enjoy, so it was not worth the price of admission, especially considering the normal price of admission for sitting and watching a film is no more than twenty dollars.

So if we’re judging this product as if it were a film, does it measure up to actual films? In terms of quality, I feel the game fails as a film because it lacks fully developed characters and a denouement fulfilling enough to complete the story’s three act structure. This was predicated on a decision by Sony and Ready at Dawn to sell it not as film, but as traditional games have been marketed as of late: piecemeal, with the intention of releasing the whole of it eventually. Moreover, it’s full of derivative or cliche language in its dialogue that’s not tolerable in a film. Shame me for using Bram Stoker’s work as a base. Need I name the hundreds of other Victorian, Gothic writers in obscurity they could have used as muse or out right pilfered?

Does it measure up to being an okay genre film at least?  Well… no. Being a fan of Gothic horror and playing a game that allows me to enter that world as a player, I expect more than just a dip in the pool of Gothic tropes, which is as far as I can assess this game took me into that world. It gave me werewolves and a look into that lore, but never did I get to experience the fear of being consumed by that transformation or a threat of what a full moon entails. It’s laughable how much vampires were a mere affectation to a story purporting to be Gothic.

SPOILER ALERT: There’s a scene that unveils a room full of casketed vampires being shipped into London. I expected to be able to hunt these vampires or be one of these vampires eventually in the story. It lacked any shred of this opportunity. I’ll save you from spoiling the nothing that amounts of that scene, but I expected a lot more after they teased me with vampires that never amount to anything. END SPOILER ALERT.  

This story mostly takes place in the White Chapel district of London two years before Jack the Ripper. Unless this is a planned prequel, why not set it in 1888, the year of the murders? Then I could be involved in solving the White Chapel Murders. Jeez, it could’ve at least been a side quest, but this wasn’t designed to be like a game so it lacked side quests. It only hinted at the lore surrounding Jack the Ripper but never fully gave it to me. Yet, as I write this I know this is nitpicking too far, but none of the Gothic tropes introduced were developed enough. Pardon the pun, but the game was at most a dilapidated Frankenstein of Gothic elements, none of which were fully developed. At most, I expected this story to reveal something completely original about Victorian, Gothic London that I can’t look up quickly on a wikipedia page. As I progressed further, I started to attach a higher, literary level of expectation to the sixty dollar price tag, especially if I was going to be paying for a sixty dollar film based on Victorian literature. For instance, a very satisfying sixty dollar “game” I played as of late is Assassin's Creed: Rogue. Yes, it has a filmic story, mostly consisting of cliche plot threads. I will say most of the AC games have incredibly rich cut scene performances, with characters ripped right from the annals of film, but they are so entertaining to watch. Sure, I acknowledge that Ubisoft churns out these titles out yearly and sometimes that haste leads to a decline in quality (AC: Unity namely), but I don’t expect the story to be anything more than derivative. One thing that is consistent in all the AC games is that they don’t short a player on hours of gameplay drudgery if the story sucks. There’s plenty of bullshit to collect - I say that with the utmost loathsome affection and complete ambiguity. I mean… I paid sixty dollars for Skyrim and was able to put over 400 hours into one save file. That’s not including my replays. This is the kind of rife lunacy I expect in sixty dollars.  

 Elements from DISHONORED could've helped THE ORDER: 1886's Emergent Gameplay.

Elements from DISHONORED could've helped THE ORDER: 1886's Emergent Gameplay.

Does The Order: 1886 measure up to other games like it? At quick glance, it fails as a game because it lacks basic conventions expected by gamers like multiplayer, full interactivity with the world beyond a straight line and emergent choices similar to what we’ve seen in games before it. Even 2012’s Dishonored, by Arkane Studios and Bethesda Softworks, most like The Order: 1886, which I would define as a game “on rails” set in a alt version of the 19th century, offered the player choices by allowing the player to complete each level entirely with stealth or without it. Dishonored also contained an emergent opportunity to play the “rails” of the game with a vertical option. There’s a power a player can unlock that allows blink teleportation to most heights above the ground. So a thrill unfolded I hadn’t imagined - the ability to hunt from above. This kind of choice gave the game an emergent quality that made traveling from point A to B feel less constrictive. In addition, a player later unlocks the ability to blink into a rat or low level human in order to increase the intensity of the strategy through mind control. The only interesting schism in the formula of The Order: 1886 that’s awesome is the assortment of unique weapons developed by Nikola Tesla. The Thermite Rifle should be in every game. It’s not just mildly entertaining to combust human beings, it’s damnably joyful. Once again, I digress to the dark side.

 The Thermite Rifle - So. Much. Fun.

The Thermite Rifle - So. Much. Fun.

The Order: 1886 is a game lacking quantity of choices, so it isn’t a great game. It also lacks a completely developed set of characters or story based on more than just a derivative glance into the world of Gothic horror, so it fails to have the quality of a great film in that genre. It is the best looking game I’ve played this generation, has an assortment of cool weapons to mess with and has a building narrative that gets you involved. However, it doesn’t offer an emergent experience, multiplayer or hours upon hours of time wasting collection, consistent with modern titles. Regardless, I believe what Sony Computer Entertainment is doing is a progressive step toward what the future will offer. I embrace the convergence of film and video games as I believe Sony does. However, I also believe The Order: 1886 is a game that misfired because it is a game that lacked features, OR I believe it is a film that misfired because it isn’t complete or original enough for my expectations. Either way I look it, I needed something more.

Felix Hergood is a co-host of The Emergent Gamer Podcast.  You can find him on Twitter at @felixhergood or send an email to felix@theemergentgamer.com to contribute your thoughts.