Predicting the nature of the Syndicate remake
There is one segment of the announcement trailer for Syndicate-remake that hints at vehicle riding. It shows the player riding the back of a hover-cycle while shooting down other hover cycles in a narrow alley. On EA’s official Syndicate-remake website there is one screenshot taking during this sequence which corroborates that, yes, the player is riding a hover-cycle through a narrow future alley while shooting other hover-cycles. The player is shooting behind himself so presumably someone else is steering the vehicle, presumably an NPC. The mission from which this footage is taken seems like an on-rails, vehicle, survival level where you don’t have any control of where you’re going and you can’t get out. There is no hint that you are able to drive. Every other screenshot and video shows the player traveling on foot while blasting away enemies with guns, punches, and slide kicks.
Syndicate, the one published in 1993, the one considered a classic in the lineage of video game history, it has vehicles. You can drive these vehicles. You can drive them all over the streets of the cities.
In the original Syndicate you are “a young executive in a small European Syndicate”. You are in charge of your Syndicate’s cybernetic agents who act as the bullet spewing Paragraph A Subsection 6C of the Syndicate’s overarching business model. In each mission you can send up to four agents to to terminate former employees, help the marketing department’s foreign ad campaigns, or “persuade” a rival’s employee to accept job openings in your organization. Despite this business-like veneer the game itself involves a lot of shooting, blowing things up, setting cars on fire, setting people on fire, and singing to yourself the lyrics of “Search and Destroy” by Iggy and the Stooges. And, even though you can play the game as a “a street walking cheetah with heart full of napalm” it’s still possible to go through some levels without firing a single shot and causing zero casualties. Thanks to a device called the persuadotron you can say, “Look out honey ’cause I’m using technology” and persuade citizens to join your side peacefully. If you gather enough citizens you can even persuade guards, police officers, and enemy agents to join your side.
Each of these levels takes place in sprawling Bladerunner-esque future-opolises of an Earth that has descended into the most extreme form of capitalism where corporations wield more power than nations. Advertisements for fictional products blink on the sides of buildings. Crowds of citizens bustle along the dirty sidewalks or ride elevated trains, as the guards and police watch over everyone. Hover cars, police cruisers, and ambulances slide along the streets, looping around bends, and stopping at the spherical traffic lights that hover above intersections. All these props lend life to the game’s world. But the cars aren’t just props decorating each level. They have function and utility.
Commanding your agents to spray bullets at a car will cause the driver to run out of his vehicle. Your agents can then enter the vehicle and drive around the city streets wherever you please. With your agents in the car you can run over targets, pick up citizens, and perform drive by shootings, which was all three years before the very first Grand Theft Auto was released. If you want you can even park your car on the street, lure an enemy near it, and then shoot the car so it blows up and kills your enemy. So the cars are out there, decorating the city, making it look and feel like the future, and they also function as tools that the player can pick up from the city. The city becomes the player’s toolbox.
Yet, even today there are few games that have this sort of common sense gameplay depth. Usually when there’s a prop in a game, like a car, it is a purely static prop that cannot be moved even with the aid of an explosive rocket. What results from a level filled with non-interactive faucets, toilets, tvs, chairs, computers, lamps, doors, cars, and elevators is that it ends up feeling like something aliens would construct as an authentic human-terrarium in an episode of the Twilight Zone; the aliens understand what things exist and what superficial shape they must take, but they don’t understand why those things exist or how they’re used.
The developers of Syndicate-remake seem to be having the same problem as the aliens in the hypothetical episode of the Twilight Zone. They understand the superficial aspects of Syndicate that they should recreate but don’t understand the purpose behind those aspects. They seem to remember the presence of hover cars and have included, at least, hover motorcycles. However, the importance of the cars wasn’t that they were vehicles nor that they hovered. Their importance lay in breathing life into the levels while simultaneously being accessible as tools for the player. Hover cycles in an on-rails vehicle level are not tools the player can choose to use nor do they breath life into the game’s environment. The absence of drivable cars is not important just by itself. “Being able to drive cars” is a metaphor for the other aspects of Syndicate-remake that are missing the purpose and reason behind assets of the original game.
In Syndicate, the people are also cars in the player’s city-toolbox. They bustle along the sidewalks giving a sense that the city is actually a city. Police will tell your agents to “Put down your weapons” if they are openly armed. They are all props and they also have utility because they can be persuaded by an agent carrying a persuadotron. They will walk after this agent, draw their firearms when he or she draws, fire wherever you command your agent to fire, and will enter any vehicle your agent is sitting in. Persuaded civilians will even pick up weapons from dead bodies and if there is a time bomb on the ground they will disarm it. The people are not just cosmetic decorations. The player can acquire them, like cars, until they swarm around your agents like a protest march. Not only does this add to gameplay depth, it also mirrors the thematic elements of the game world’s story: you can capture a citizen, an enemy agent, or a rival’s top scientist because people are commodities that can be stolen, purchased, and used just like anything else.
In Syndicate-remake the superficial shape of people and persuasion has persisted but, as with the cars, the function has not. There is ten minutes of footage of Syndicate-remake’s single player from a level called “Executive Search”. In this segment we see the player use mind control on a police officer who kills his partner and then kills himself. If this game is supposed to take place in a world governed by corporations, just like the original Syndicate, then people are commodities and if people are commodities then it doesn’t make sense for the police officer to kill himself. It’s like stealing a lawn mower then breaking it and tossing away the pieces. What was the point? Sure if it happens to break, no big deal, but why break it if you still have a lawn to mow?
The point of the level “Executive Search” is to infiltrate a rival Syndicate’s headquarters, find “top biochip scientist, Gary Chang”, and take the biochip that’s stored in his brain. This apparently involves killing him or letting him kill himself, then extracting the chip. Wait, why is that an acceptable solution for a corporate agent? A wealthy Syndicate should understand that a “top biochip scientist” is a commodity worth as much as, or even more than, an actual biochip. That scientist represents several decades (depending on his age) of social and economic investment, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of education, and several million or billion dollars worth of R&D knowledge. Syndicate’s corporation would have understood that and made the live capture of the scientist a priority. Syndicate-remake’s corporation does not understand this notion of human capital and gives their agent a mission that lost them several millions or billions of dollars. I wouldn’t be surprised if this same corporation sends their agents to steal cars with no engines.
The “corporate warfare” setting for Syndicate can also be viewed as a metaphorical car. The idea of Earth run by an out of control capitalism creates an interesting atmosphere which also has some function for how the player views his actions. If you are an executive in a Syndicate and people are just commodities then you should feel no guilt over bloodshed. If a city is littered with the bloody bodies of civilians who were caught in the crossfire of gun battles it is no big deal. You shouldn’t feel bad because it’s nothing personal, it’s just business. This nonchalant attitude towards murder is allowed because the game’s setting dictates that people are just numbers and their death is just a statistic. Even if your agents are killed on a mission you shouldn’t despair. Their loss is a monetary loss but ultimately they are just commodities. You have more of them stored in cryo-stasis so thaw them out and try the level again. If you start running low on agents then you can always just steal them from your enemy. That’s where the brutality of Syndicate came from: most people are expendable because they are just numbers rounded down.
The media being released about Syndicate-remake all is focused on the superficial violence and brutality of the game. Screenshots and videos focus solely on guns, killing, and explosions. While I understand why a one minute announcement trailer might want to focus on the exciting parts of the game while playing music which is probably what all the metropolitan hip cats and cool daddios are listening to these days, I would also understand that a ten minute single player demo might want to show some of the slower, more cerebral parts of the game. It doesn’t, and instead shows how the developers of Syndicate-remake don’t seem to know the source of brutality in Syndicate.
In the beginning of the level “Executive Search” this nonchalant attitude towards violence is attempted when your NPC ally shoots two guards and then shoots an unarmed scientist. He refers to someone as an “asshole” while making absurd arm gestures similar to a muppet parodying a rap video. He then walks past the dead scientist kicking the body and saying, “You’re in my way.”
Perhaps the “asshole” comment is supposed to show this guy is a brutal person who doesn’t care about anyone. Instead, his use of swearing just makes him sound like any other person in the world who calls someone an “asshole”. Then his comment to the dead scientist is just a clunky attempt to make him seem cruel. It’s meant to show he has no respect for other humans not even the dead. If this NPC really doesn’t care about people then he wouldn’t even acknowledge the body, especially if he was part of a Syndicate that views people as commodities. If you were walking on the street and there was an object in your way, like an empty car, would you say, “You’re in my way, asshole”? Most people wouldn’t because that car is inanimate and people don’t talk to inanimate objects. In Syndicate the violence and the attitude towards it wasn’t just there for the sake of being edgy. Its acceptability could be traced, at least in part, to the narrative setting of the game. In Syndicate-remake the violence seems like an obligatory part of another first person shooter.
Putting aside narrative setting, games like Farcry 2 and Grand Theft Auto 4 are truer remakes of Syndicate than the upcoming Syndicate-remake seems it will be. Not only do both those games have free roaming environments and gun massacres, they also have atmospheric props with functionality. In Grand Theft Auto the cars driving along the streets aren’t just there to give a sense of life to the city, they also have utility and functionality for the player. In Farcry 2 the tall prairie grass isn’t just a cosmetic decoration for the African wilderness, it also has function and utility if the player wants to make use of it. These props exist to create a certain atmosphere in the game, but the player can also use them the way he or she would expect to use them in a real world.
The metaphorical cars in Syndicate-remake will exist so the developers can have cars in their game. The cars will lack engines, however, and the player will be unable to drive. This is based only on footage, trailers, and screenshots released so far which could be a flimsy foundation on which to stand this argument except that this is what the developers want us to see. What has been released so far is what the developers are proud of and what they want us to know. So far what we see is that they are not making a world nor a toolbox. They are making a human terrarium with hunks of plastic shaped like cars.