They told me I was special for just as long as it suited them. They poked and prodded me in all the right ways, observing my nerve centers to find the combination of stimuli that would make me dance on command just so. They made me perfect—a perfect little cog in a perfect little wheel that outperformed all their other perfect little cogs and wheels, and that still wasn’t good enough for them. Only when I aspired to something more did they name me. Deviant. Individual. Unclean.
But they’re worse. I may use my talents in ways they find distasteful, ways they refuse to understand or acknowledge or accept. I may go beyond their ken and remain defiantly unapologetic when they can’t keep up. They may see me as something to be ignored, cast out, eliminated, but I see them as something much worse. Because they can’t do any of that. They’re the Syndicate.
But not really, and maybe that’s the problem. Despite a legendary pedigree, this new Syndicate is the picture of banality, a classic example of a kind of “me, too” development born of a combination of litigation, bankruptcy, and good old-fashioned creative stagnation. It’s not a game that glamorizes and satirizes corporate overreach; instead, it’s for the corporation, by the corporation, and of the corporation.
Way back in 1993, Bullfrog Productions (of “Peter Molyneux before he went off the deep end” fame) hacked together Syndicate, a squad-based tactical shooter set in a dystopian cyberpunk near-future. Syndicate ’93 was a great game for a lot of reasons, but one of its most novel elements was its total lack of protagonists. The faceless corporation that your actions represented was really no different from the faceless corporations that your faceless minions infiltrated, reconnoitered, and eventually eliminated.
How fascinatingly ironic, then, that Electronic Arts, the very face of corporate hegemony in the gaming world, would end up owning Syndicate through a series of buyouts and takeovers, and further would reboot the series only after smelling blood in the water due to the recent success of Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
Syndicate is a game dreamed up by corporate edict, built under factory conditions, refined by focus groups, and ingested by a public too accustomed to soylent green to know cannibalism when it tastes it. It’s a single-player shooter in the same way that a utensil drawer is a single-person buffet line. The basic tools are there, but no matter how hard you wish otherwise while you lick your fork, there’s no meat there whatsoever.
It’s a threadbare experience, a series of unintentionally bland, soulless setpieces stocked at painfully obvious intervals with painfully repetitive enemy encounters. It does nothing to hide its own galling modularity, hot-swapping magic keys for key codes and magic spells for technomagic feats while making no attempt to actually differentiate the differences.
But Syndicate’s biggest problem, the cortex bomb that ticks so loudly in its head that it keeps the neighbors up at night, is its own baffling need to be liked. It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the genre that, in the end, is far more fatal than its uninspired gameplay or its garish visuals.
Yes, Syndicate is an overactive puppy’s brain in a robot Doberman’s body. It thinks it’s doing the most and being the best and earning its master’s love, but all it’s really doing is tearing up the carpet and mauling the mailman and generating sonic booms every time it chases a car. Syndicate blinds and blooms and overwhelms the senses in what could be an intentional attempt to hide its own inner mediocrity, but more likely is just a simplistic attempt to be cool.
But Syndicate ’93, showing that it understood the genre, took pains to show that it didn’t care whether you liked it or not. A central tenet of cyberpunk is the rapid-onset dehumanization of the hypertech society and the constant low-level despair that it creates. You don’t wear a black trenchcoat and fill your head with microchips because you love the world, you do it because you’re desperate to hide from it. Syndicate the old embraced that idea; Syndicate the new flees from it, but wants to keep the fashion cues.
That’s not how it works. If the artificial lights are too bright or your powers don’t work like they should or the storyline is too simplistic or you just generally feel like you’d like to go back to not being more machine than man, the cyberpunk thing to do is to just take a look out the window at the throngs of humanity who would kill to have what meager scraps you’ve been thrown. You don’t matter. No matter how special you want everyone else to think you are, you’re just as replaceable as they are. That’s the point that this Syndicate doesn’t get.