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Dystopia Now

Syndicate

StarBreeze Studios, 2012

By the time Bullfrog’s 1993 game Syndicate reached the Mac of my adolescence, it was hardly cutting edge. Repackaged along with a number of other games they developed – a collection of classics like Populus and Theme Park – the game’s audiovisuals had long been outstripped by continuing advances in computing, redshifted into early antiquation. With midi-sound quality, and animated sprites resolved in formerly-lush 256 colors, one wouldn’t expect it to have aged well.

Bullfrog’s best, however, are all testaments to the triumph of design – a well made game does not go out of style. And, of the eclectic assembly of games that littered my own personal teenage wasteland, Syndicate held a special fascination for me. Ruthless missions, carried out in a world of dystopian darkness – and this is not the darkness of Doom or Dead Space, where desperate humans fight ravenous monsters. Here the player commands the monsters – ‘post-human’ cybernetic agents programmed to serve their corporate masters – waging war against your fellows, while humanity is by and large relegated to the status of ‘consumers,’ ‘soft assets,’ or merely collateral damage. It was a dreadful, compelling vision ripped right out of the works of William Gibson, but bereft of the ’80’s legacy of Japanophobia. The central power-player of the game’s setting – EuroCorp – begins as a distinctly Western European affair, demonstrating that the zaibatsu is not the only bogey in the rising epoch of globalization.

And now, in 2012, this vision is back.

/ORGANIZATION PROFILE
NAME: EUROCORP
TYPE: GLOBAL SYNDICATE
CENTER OF POWER: GENEVA

ARISING FROM A MUCH-PUBLICIZED SUPER-MERGER BETWEEN BIOTECH MARKET LEADER EUROLINE MEDICAL AND PETROCHEMICALS GIANT KADER INDUSTRIEEN, EUROCORP WAS OFFICIALLY FOUNDED IN 2017 – THOUGH UNOFFICIAL RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN THE R & D WING OF EACH COMPANY REACH BACK AT LEAST INTO THE PREVIOUS DECADE.

MARKET CAPITALIZATION IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING THE MERGER WAS ESTIMATED AT 7.8 TRILLION EUROS. ATTEMPTS BY EUROPEAN UNION ANTI-TRUST LEGISLATORS TO PREVENT THE MERGER WERE SHORT CIRCUITED THROUGH AN AGGRESSIVE AND INNOVATIVE LOBBYING PROGRAMME. //TOTAL COST 41.2 MILLION EUROS; EIGHTEEN DEATHS; TWO CLINICALLY INDUCED COMAS; ONE CHEMICALLY INDUCED MENTAL COLLAPSE//.

The Syndicate of 1993 is an isometric, squad-based tactics game. The player takes on the role of a mission coordinator, directing a squad of up to four agents on a variety of industrial espionage missions: assassinations, forced ‘recruitments,’ combat sweeps – all in the name of increasing market share. Syndicate, like so many early PC games, has only so much regard for the smoothness of its learning curve; I’ll admit I never beat the original. The final level, a free-for-all set on a massive floating research station, proved too much for me.

The Syndicate of 2012 is not nearly as demanding. A first person shooter as opposed to a squad tactics game, it involves much, much less micromanagement. Its graphics are up to date, with sleek surfaces and luminous light sources that bloom so brightly, the playerbase has complained of eye strain. Some of the intricacies of the original’s gameplay – research and development, team tactics, logo-design and by some reports difficulty – are preserved in the new Syndicate’s multiplayer. Rather than commanding a squad of their own, players form squads and cooperate to accomplish objectives across nine mission maps. For those of us preoccupied with literary worlds, however, it’s the single player campaign we should look to for relics of the past.

The appropriately technical term for this newest foray into the world of Syndicate is ‘reboot.’ The new game is not a sequel, prequel, or a remake – it is a fresh start with new software, though in the same setting. The new game is, in fact, replete with references to the original series, but in no way reliant on them for an of understanding the world and its events. Thus we have a game which relies on recognition rather than continuity. Reboot – a proper starting over to allow new players unimpeded entry.

And indeed, the game’s first moments find us – embodied in EuroCorp agent Miles Kilo – rebooting after a deactivation and upgrade. Strapped into a chair, we are initially helpless to defend ourselves as a corporate security grunt pummels us, getting his jollies from laying into a prone super-soldier. The pleasures of power don’t last long, however: a well-placed head-butt and a neck-snapping kick neutralize our attacker, and it becomes a matter of brief effort to break free of the chair’s arm restraints. A voice in our head, the voice of the wireless chip nestled in the depths of our brain, tells us what we need to know to survive as we race past and through the opposition, following orders without any clear goal: means without obvious ends, save hardware integrity – survival, in effect.

Syndicate borrows its core structure from the same father-son struggle that BioShock uses as its central model. In essence, Agent Kilo and the silent protagonist from BioShock are the same sort of creature – a weapon, a puppet, a human being redesigned to be perfect (and thus, perfectly loyal). Moreover, the worlds they inhabit are shaped by comparable ideologies. BioShock’s city of Rapture was an Ayn Randian paradise of capitalism unbound – Syndicate’s corporate future, bereft of ethical constraints or humanist illusions, seems like a more stable and successful fulfillment of those same Objectivist ideals. Gleaming cities with bright lights obscure the ruins of the ‘Downzone’ that lurk beneath the polluting smog below, which marks a literal class divide.

The Syndicate’s plot arc also resembles that of BioShock. It is ultimately a quest to regain Kilo’s ‘humanity’, by which the initial actions of the game – defeating a relentless abuser (imagine a boot stomping a human face – forever) and breaking free of restraint (you have nothing to lose but your chains) – are translated into an existential mode as Kilo moves from corporate agent to free agent. With the help of brilliant young scientist, Dr. Lilian Drawl (voiced by and modeled on the exquisite Rosario Dawson), Kilo breaks the hold EuroCorp has over him and confronts his own false father, CEO Jack Denham (portrayed by Brian Cox, creating a productive inter-reference to his roles in the films The Bourne Supremacy and X-2), while the upper echelons of New York’s mile-high superstructure burn. To be fair, BioShock performs this aggressively Oedipal gesture with more power, but the experience is compelling enough and suits the setting and theme.

That theme is more to the tune of one of my other favorite games: Deus Ex – a near-future dystopian conspiracy theory game where you play an elite, nanotech-augmented agent working for the UN’s anti-terrorist operations. By the end the terrorists turn out to be liberators, and FEMA is a major front for the big baddies – a move that was probably a less risky-sounding proposition when the game was released in 2000.

Syndicate replicates this move, in casting the terrorists as freedom-fighters, but it eschews the initial fake-out: there is no attempt to hide the nature of the world you inhabit. From within the hellish degradation and neglect of the Downzone the desperation of the unchipped and thus disenfranchised population is all to evident, and the potentially revolutionary force of their discontent is vied for by TWB (acronym for ‘Towers Will Burn’) and the newly emerging ‘Church of the New Epoch’.

/DATA ENTRY
ENTRY: TWB BROADCAST
TYPE: TERRORIST PROPOGANDA

INTEL FEED
/ UAV CHIP_HACK.BROADCAST: TWB
EXCERPT:

THEY CALL IT CREATIVE DESTRUCTION, BUT HAVE YOU NOTICED, BROTHERS AND SISTERS, WHO IT DESTROYS EVERY GODDAMN TIME? HAVE YOU NOTICED WHO IT IS THAT PAYS THE PRICE FOR EVERY FRESH CONSUMER ADVANCE AND NEW MARKET OPENED?

HAVE YOU EVER NOTICED HOW THE PROMISE OF THOSE ADVANCES AND MARKETS GET SIPHONED OFF, HOW WHEN IT COMES TIME FOR THE BENEFITS TO BE SHARED OUT, WE’RE SOMEHOW NEVER INVITED TO THAT PARTICULAR PARTY? BUT WHY SHOULD WE BE? WHAT, AFTER ALL, COULD WE BRING TO THAT PARTY?

WE HAD NO CAPITAL TO INVEST, NO CREDIT RATING TO COMMEND US TO THEIR WORLD. WE ONLY GAVE BLOOD, SWEAT, TOIL AND TEARS TO BUILD THIS NATION – AND THOSE, MY FRIENDS, ARE CHEAP MATERIALS, MATERIALS THEY CAN ALWAYS GET MORE OF, SOMEWHERE ELSE

OUR ACCESS TO THIS FUTURE THEY SAY IS OURS HAS BEEN STOLEN FROM UNDER OUR NOSE. WELL, NO MORE! CREATIVE DESTRUCTION IS THE RULE? THAT’S THE RULE? THEN LET IT BE SO. LET THEM SEE THE CREATIVE DESTRUCTION WE WILL BRING TO THEIR DOORS. LET THEM FEEL IT! LET THEM FEEL THE RISING FORCE OF OUR RAGE. LET THEM UNDERSTAND WHAT IT’S LIKE WHE JUSTICE IS SUBORDINATED TO PROFIT. IT’S ONLY GOING TO END ONE WAY.

Only one way. A bleak outlook, but one justified by the bleakness of the world it looks out upon.

Syndicate is not a pleasant game. There are some vistas of beauty, particularly when we see the glittering heights of the skyscrapers, the consumer paradises that lay claim to all the ‘advances’ and ‘benefits’ of profit-driven progress. And there are moments of spectacle, a Futurist view of aesthetic warfare and the visceral satisfaction of bottom-line brutality; it’s not without reason that Australia’s classification board banned the game, though it is no more and often less graphically violent than numerous other examples of its genre.

If anything, the most horrible thing about Syndicate is the helplessness the player experiences during non-combat interludes, in which our agent enters ‘standby mode’. In one scene, we follow as our partner – the psychopathic Agent Merit – strolls through a civilian train, casually emptying pistol rounds into passengers. He kills them with a mix of boredom and relish that is the fruit of impunity. And we could kill them with impunity as well – though I assiduously and sentimentally avoided civilian casualties whenever I could. I saved my aggression for actual combat encounters.

Most encounters involve a group of targets, and success hinges upon the elimination of each in rapid succession – a wrong step out of cover, and you’re dead, a too-hasty lunge towards an enemy position, and you’re dead. Luckily an agent has numerous moves in his repertoire. Using the ‘DART overlay’, a digital-visual skin that identifies threats and slows perceptible time down to an underwater crawl, one can steal moments from between moments, firing carefully aimed bullets, or deploying one of your agent’s gruesome behavioral countermeasures. After a brief infiltration, cerebral chip to chip, a ‘hacked’ former enemy will turn their gun on their fellows, and then on themselves.

As enemies vary in number and ability – some sporting advanced armor that resists damage, others countermeasures that block chip-hacking, some new, more powerful weaponry – the intensity of the dance increases, transforming a combat engagement into a elaborate routine that spins you from cover spot to cover spot, doling out and dodging death, improvising and revising plans in the suspended moment. The game’s upgrade system allows the player to optimize their preferred method of engagement, a versatile set of modifications that augments the game’s replayability by encouraging new means and methods.

A perfectly executed combat encounter in Syndicate often feels like an elegant mix of puzzle solving and choreography. It has the aspect of a lethal dance, as you flicker from partner to partner, serenely dealing out death. This very serenity has a chilling effect when juxtaposed with the violence it necessarily accompanies. Like the sheen of a brand logo or the sober Helvetica that spells out a toneless corporate name, an innocuous appearance belies the brutal, pragmatic reality upon which it is founded: sweatshops, oil spills, ’disappearances’, dirty wars.

I said before that Syndicate, as a reboot, relies on recognition rather than continuity. I’d like to amend that statement, for the game’s rhetorical thrust relies on both. Recognition I assigned to the old-time player of 1993, who would see the past game in the present iteration. There is also a second kind of recognition operating, one not restricted to classic gamers – seeing the present in the game’s future. This is, of course, the underlying purpose of all dystopian representation: to serve as a warning of things that might come. But what is most troubling about Syndicate is not simply the recognition of our present in their future, but continuity with it:

/ORGANIZATION PROFILE
NAME: MAO-MURDOCH LTD.
AFFILIATION: INDEPENDENT

INTEL FEED
ACTING OUT OF ZURICH, MAO-MURDOCH LTD. WAS FORMED IN 2012 TO FACILITATE THE ECONOMIC STIMULATION PACKAGE, GIVEN TO MEMBER COUNTRIES OF THE EUROPEAN COUNCIL OF COMMERCE, BY THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT. THE ECONOMIC TURBULENCE IN EUROPE HAD DESTABILIZED COUNTRIES TO THE EDGE OF BANKRUPTCY.

KNOWN AS AN INVESTMENT AND BOOKKEEPING FIRM, MAO-MURDOCH WAS LATER REVEALED TO BE A FRONT FOR CHINESE WEAPON MANUFACTURERS, WITH THE PRIMARY BUSINESS TO DEVELOP, FIELD TEST AND SELL ADVANCED WEAPONRY TO THE EUROPEAN MARKETS.

IN 2016, AS THE CIVIL UNREST OF NORTH AFRICA SPREAD PAST THE BORDERS OF SPAIN AND GREECE, A NEW LINE OF ARMAMENT WAS INTRODUCED BY CORPORATE FORCES.

It’s not difficult to imagine just whom this ‘advanced weaponry’ was turned upon during this spreading civil unrest. Nor whom the latest advances in military hardware may next be directed at, with the US already leading the way with new ‘crowd control’ weapons such as the Active Denial System. Let’s not forget that two unelected technocrats currently sit at the head of the countries that were once the centers of civilization – and empire – in all of Europe. And that erstwhile-center of the largest empire in human history is considering turning over the enforcement of law and order to private institutions. Meanwhile, just across the channel, the cradle of modern liberal democracy is considering phasing in an ineffective, civil liberty-pinching ID system at the behest of biometrics companies seeking to create domestic markets.

From this perspective, grounded in the present, what we confront is no longer just a game. This is the potential ending of our own history. What we see is not a dystopia. It is the not-too-distant, all-too-imaginable future. One hopes that Syndicate does not fully avow the revolutionary fatalism of its anti-corporate ‘terrorists’ – one hopes that the purpose of depicting such a future, in which there is only one way things can end, is to suggest that we are not yet that far gone. But this puts a question to the players, to us:

How is this really going to end?

____
Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous video game reviews for Open Letters can be found here.