Memories of Syndicate – Corporate brutality

10 Feb 2012  by   Paul Younger
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Unlikely as it may seem, Syndicate fans are in a much stronger position than they were before the announcement of Starbreeze’s FPS ‘reinterpretation’ of the title. I share the same weary disappointment as many of the older Syndicate players over the manner of this re-birth (more on that later), but circumstances have actually been pretty kind to us.

Last month, Good Old Games put the original game up for sale, free from Digital Rights Management and compatible with modern operating systems. It was missing the American Revolt add-on (which was stupidly hard in any case) and the superior European box art, but was otherwise complete. Elsewhere, Paradox Interactive announced Cartel, a game which is sounding suspiciously (and excitingly) like a ‘true’ Syndicate remake. And, yes, there’s the FPS one too. Three versions of Syndicate where previously we only had one. Not too shabby, right?

It’s somewhat ironic that a game about imposing a global corporate monopoly is soon to be offered to us in three different forms. Provision of ‘choice’ is the inherent paradox of capitalism; each business strives to maximize profit and marketplace control, but in doing so must necessarily damage the competition and (if taken to the logical conclusion) establish a monopoly. In Syndicate, the public’s only choice was which brand of corporate dictatorship they preferred. The world portrayed in the game was one where naked capitalist greed had united with private military contractors and cutting-edge cyborg technology.

The player’s mission was morally reprehensible. You were an arm of a corporation whose ambition was a total world monopoly, regardless of the civilian cost. From your airship above the mission zones (eerily foreshadowing modern day military ‘drone’ operators), you directed mindless agents as they carried out political assassinations, corporate turf warfare and brutal acts of collateral violence. Nothing about your goals was noble. All other global interests were secondary to the will of the company. You were basically Goldman Sachs, but with a cyborg army.

My main concern for EA and Starbreeze’s version of Syndicate (the single player side, at least) is that it won’t have the courage to portray the ultra-libertarian business dystopia found in the original with such stark, uncompromising honesty. It isn’t the change in viewpoint itself which worries me, it’s that, by changing to a first-person perspective, the single player plot is now personality-focused. It’s no longer about corporate disassociation from the consequences of immoral actions, it’s about an individual; hilariously named ‘Miles Kilo’.

In some ways, this has the potential to make the game even more powerful. If, at the end of Syndicate (2012), it’s made clear that every single one of your actions was unforgiveable and that you’re pretty much a horrible monster (or, more to the point, that the person controlling you is a horrible monster), then I will be suitably impressed. But I have serious doubts about that happening. Giving players control in an FPS and then not making them a ‘hero’ is the kind of brave design decision rarely seen in titles from major publishers. Far more likely is a standard narrative arc of Miles’ gradual disillusionment with his company (EuroCorp), his redemption as he joins some kind of ‘resistance’, and an ultimate climactic showdown with his former paymasters.

When I spoke with Syndicate creator Sean Cooper back in 2009, he was clear about the game’s ethos: “The essence of the game was killing people – and that was it. Big guns. Strong dudes. Terminators essentially. If I have to kill everyone, I will. That to me was the essence of the gameplay”. On the face of it, that sounds perfect for an FPS, but it was fellow Bullfrog developer Peter Molyneux’s wide-eyed ideas about living cities that gave the game its edge.
Thanks to the smoke and mirrors of the automated civilian AI, you’re not just shooting ‘stuff’. The illusion is powerful enough to convince you that you’re killing people on their way to work, or an unfortunate policeman who got caught in the crossfire. Casualaties matter. You’re either going to feel slightly sick about what you just did, or gleefully murderous. Either way, it evoked a strong response.

My first encounter with Syndicate came in Christmas 1993, when I was fortunate enough to receive an Amiga 1200 ‘Desktop Dynamite’ bundle. The two games in that set, Oscar and Dennis, were pretty godawful, so it was lucky that either my parents or one of my brothers had taken it upon themselves to canvas family friends for some ‘extras’. One of those definitely-not-pirated-at-all bonuses was a demo of Bullfrog’s Syndicate.

As someone used to the graphics of the 128k ZX Spectrum, Syndicate blew me away. Then I started blowing the citizens away. Here was a title that could simulate (convincingly enough for my 11 year old brain, anyway) a dynamic city full of people. The demo was one of those now-rare efforts that gives the player a level that isn’t actually in the game. I recall that it gave you most of the weapons to play with (a shrewd choice on Bullfrog’s part), including the mighty flamethrower. If my parents could hear the screams of the civilians as I experimented with my agent’s arsenal, they were probably wondering if this whole Amiga 1200 thing was such a good idea.

With a few months I had my hands on the full game, and was gleefully mowing down innocents left and right (what can I say, young boys are sadistic murderers in waiting). As I grew up though, it was a title I’d keep coming back to and finding new aspects to appreciate, be it the cyberpunk overtones or visions of an ultra-corporate world. If either of the new Syndicates can come close to grabbing me in the same way, I’ll be ecstatic.

You see, I don’t believe a ‘proper’ Syndicate game has to be a top-down squad RTS, I don’t insist that it needs to be made by Bullfrog; but it does need to cast you as an amoral prick. No-one with any power in the original Syndicate was a ‘good guy’. They were all utter, utter bastards. My world of Syndicate is not about Hollywood voice actors or fucking dubstep or press releases using the word visceral like it’s going out of fashion: it’s about the amoral brutality of unstoppable corporate aggression. If Starbreeze can’t give us that, at least we’ll always have the original.

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