How do you get away with releasing a super-violent real-time tactical shooter, where trenchcoat-wearing cyborgs blow away civilians without consequence, where people are depicted on fire and screaming, and mind-controlled innocents become human shields...
DEVELOPERS BULLFROG PERSONALITIES PETER MOLYNEUX, SEAN COOPER RELEASED 1993 NUTSHELL ISOMETRIC REAL-TIME TACTICAL SQUAD- BASED ULTRAVIOLENCE, TOTAL AMORALITY, SEMI- DESTRUCTIBLE ENVIRONMENTS, UPGRADE YOUR SQUAD, GET GAUSS GUNS, USE CHEAT CODES TO FINISH THE FINAL MISSION ( ATLANTIC ACCELERATOR), ALSO SOMETHING ABOUT CORPORATIONS PUTTING CHIPS IN PEOPLE’S HEADS. YOU KNOW, GOOD SOLID CYBERPUNK STUFF, EARLY 90S- STYLE.
have been controversial since the early 1970s. Ever since Atari decided to build an arcade cabinet where the joysticks were replaced by pink domes designed to look like boobs which the players... twisted around? (Fact-checks doubtfully... yep, it’s true)... certain types have made it their mission to tell us videogames will destroy the Earth.
But grotesque torture game Chiller was a 1986 arcade cabinet, and Death Race only had stick-figures, so proper ranting-in-the-press controversy had to wait for 1992, which hit the moral majority with the double-punch of Doom and Mortal Kombat.
One of the clearest signs of gaming’s coming-of-age as an art-form was when it took over from “violent movies” as the go-to scapegoat. You know, the thing to blame every time another American goes nuts with one of the easily purchased high powered firearms they have over there.
Like us, you can surely rattle-off the titles of the games that copped the lion’s share of the blame: Mortal Kombat had the gory fatality moves; Doom had demons screaming and collapsing in piles of blood and gore; Carmageddon let you run over pedestrians; Postal was, well, Postal; even Kingpin copped some flak for its encouragement of, I guess, brutally murdering the violent gang that was trying to brutally murder your violent gang.
But there’s a game missing from that list. A game that made you dress four badasses in black trenchcoats, equip them with high-powered weaponry, and then make them shoot up public spaces in pursuit of various mission objectives - and if a few (or a hundred) civilians got caught up in the firestorm, well the game just didn’t care.
THE OLD ULTRAVIOLENCE
This was what made Syndicate, Bullfrog’s 1993 cyberpunk(ish) indulgence, so compelling. That you - the operator of a team of agents, out to further the interests of your megacorporation - were given the kind of power and influence to be able to cut absolutely sick in a major metropolitan area with no consequences... assuming your agents made it out alive.
It made Syndicate a very different kind of “violent” to games like GTA, Postal, or even Carmageddon. In those games, killing innocent people had an effect. Go nuts in GTA, pretty soon you have actual tanks chasing you. In the original Postal, the playercharacter is clearly insane, and ends up in an asylum. And in Carmageddon, the entire premise is so bonkers that even Australia’s pre-R18+-equipped ratings board cleared it for publication, pedestrian blood and all.
But out of all of these, only Syndicate replicates what it’s like to genuinely not have to care about “collateral damage” and the lives of innocent bystanders. It goes even further: The game includes a device called a Persuadertron that causes civilians to gather around your four-‘borg team in a tight cordon, grabbing weapons off fallen foes. Target a new enemy, and the civvies will open-up or even try to take them out with their bare hands, providing a useful hit-point soak for your guys. The civvies work as human shields, basically.
POWER OF LIFE AND DEATH
And yet, no matter how many civilians you kill, or spare, there’s no real impact on the mission. While this is fundamentally due to the technical limitations of PCs in 1993, it paradoxically forces the player to make actual moral decisions. You don’t just not kill people because sparing civilians will prevent more baddies from spawning. Rather, the reason you choose to not blow up passing cars is because the sight of people crawling out of the wreckage, on fire, and screaming, feels bad, man.
Certainly for this gamer, Syndicate is the first time I can remember watching a panicking sprite-person run jerkily right underneath the crosshair of my minigun... and me deciding not to shoot them. To be clear: shooting them would have made no difference to the mission. Shooting them
would have done nothing more than replace their badly-animated panicky-run sprite with a dead-on-the-ground sprite. And yet, I didn’t shoot.
It was the lack of consequence that stayed my hand, the knowledge that it was a real decision. Spare them not because it was in my interests, but spare them because it’s the right thing to do.
Syndicate, even with its 640x480 borderline-abstract graphics running in 16-colour with dithering to give the illusion of more colour on graphics chips that couldn’t handle those kinds of crazy resolutions, made early-90s gamers grapple with real moral choices - and it’s not just kill or not-kill.
Sure, it’s easy to spare a civilian when you’re just walking down the street and no alarms have been raised and your team is not under fire. But what about when everything is going off and there are dudes with flamethrowers coming for you? Can you justify risking one of your squaddies - dead cyborgs were very expensive to replace - simply for the sake of something that is, in many ways, just a background animation?
ROTTING OUR MINDS!
Given all this, and given the way the player’s team all wear long black trenchcoats, it seems incredible today that Syndicate isn’t on the list of blame-games.
Perhaps it was the timing. Back in 1993, there hadn’t been a mass shooting in a US school since Charles Whitman climbed a tower at the University of Texas in 1966. It remained the deadliest school shooting in the US until Columbine, in 1999.
In other words, there wasn’t that much violence to blame games for.
Mortal Kombat and Doom were targeted because they were monstrously popular, and had “realistic” graphics (for the era) and their who think all new media and art forms are here to destroy the world.
But I like to think it’s a bit more than that. See, Doom you can look at the box, or see a kid play it for 30 seconds on a demo 386DX at Brashs, and go “Aaiee demons and blood! Ban it!”
Syndicate, while basic by today’s standards (and the standards of its spiritual successor, the Kickstarter-backed Satellite Reign), was one of those games that straddled the line between proper PC hex-grid wonk turn-based strategy, and arcade shooter.
In some ways, Syndicate did for actionstrategy what Dune II did for RTS. Neither game was technically the first in its genre, but both streamlined - while avoiding dumbingdown - the gameplay, paring it back to something that had a level of complexity that could only work on PC.
HOW BASIC ARE YOU?
Watching Syndicate playthroughs on YouTube today, it looks even less complex than the average free-to-play mobile game. Equip your dudes with a couple of guns, run around an almost-empty town shooting everything until the mission suddenly ends.
Yet back in 1993, the mere fact you could run around town, in any direction, and assassinate or kidnap or convert targets, or... well, it was pretty much just those three options... while choosing to slaughter, spare, or even temporarily enslave the general populace, was mind-blowing.
It also provided a lesson that perhaps too few developers who came after it followed: if you don’t want people complaining about the violence in your game, just make a game you actually have to sit down and play before you see any violence.
Far Cry 2, that fire animation is NOT.
Nostalgia is all well and good, but... the graphics hardly stand up today.