Ha­gio­naut: Syn­di­cate

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...

PCPOWERPLAY - - Contents - AN­THONY FORD­HAM

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.

Videogames

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.

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