shhh. I'm editing a story right now. It's broken, but sort of limping along. The fixing is happening.
Back to it.
Best Games - Syndicate
Sometimes, one of these best games isn’t really a very good game. Sometimes it’s just the promise of the game. The thing it could be. What people imagine it to be.
I have played the first few missions of Syndicate many, many times. There are fifty missions in the game. I doubt if I have ever played more than twenty.
As a game, Syndicate controls pretty poorly. You point and click where you want your agents to go. You point and click where you want your agents to shoot. You point and click what you want your agents to carry. If there is a thing to do in Syndicate, you probably point and click it. While this does seem like the simplest type of interface on any computer with a mouse, this game is too complex for a simple point and click. Syndicate wants you to do a lot in a short amount of time. It gets really cumbersome, really fast.
Why then, have I played this game, or at least the start of this game, so many times over the years.
Syndicate has amazing promise.
It’s for the same reason that people bring the game up with fond nostalgia in their voices. It’s why the game shows up on a lot of classic games lists. It’s why people have tried to make sequels or successors over the years, and it’s why there is probably someone actively pitching for a new Syndicate right now.
Nothing ever comes close. Nothing ever will. Not even Syndicate comes close to being Syndicate.
The concept is the most jet black of dystopic fiction. The world is terrible. As an escape, the entire population is fitted with chips that distort reality for them just enough to not be constantly depressed. The sky is artificially just a little brighter. The earth just a little greener.
Of course, the same chips that keep people happy and docile can be used to control them. Corporations turn ordinary citizens into cyborg agents and wage wars for territory and control. The Syndicate with the most brains under their control wins.
Wins what exactly, we will never know. The world of the game is in a constant cycle of domination and control. The dominators change, but the world is stuck in an awful stasis.
It is unapologetically bleak. More important, you are not the hero of this story. You are not a savior that will free everyone from the shackles of evil. You are the evil. You are in control of a squad of agents on missions to murder, kidnap, and coerce until the world bows to you.
There is something very cathartic about that sort of fantasy. A perverse joy in being morally empty. It’s a role that very few games let you play.
Besides the setting, the world of the game is surprisingly dynamic. For a game from 1993, the world can occasionally feel alive. People and traffic follow their own patterns. Guards and police are usually quite stupid, but there are flashes of brilliance every once in a while.
But, not enough.
Syndicate is an almost game. It almost controls well enough. It almost breaks new ground for a an interactive, dynamic environment. It is almost fun enough to last for fifty levels. But it isn’t.
I think that is why it persists. Why people still remember this game. It’s a game where you can imagine all the things it could have been, but no other game has ever come close to matching that. Syndicate has never matched that.
It’s so very close though.
It’s like that movie that would have been wonderful if only they had a slightly higher budget, or that book that almost hits, but there are two chapters too many and a major plot element is unresolved.
Most games are either pretty good or pretty bad. There aren’t many ‘Almost’ games out there. Syndicate is one of them.
Is Syndicate one of the best games? No, not really. But it points firmly in the direction of greatness. The direction that games like Grand Theft Auto, and X-COM would eventually go.
I think that’s why Syndicate still lives in the memories of so many people who played it. Something about the setting and the dynamic open world really dug into players thoughts and expectations.
Syndicate might just be the best almost game.
I’m writing a story using the second person perspective. You know, the “you did this” “you went here” perspective. That’s right, like the Choose Your Own Adventure books. Except this isn’t a choose your own adventure. This is a horror story.
I don’t write a lot of horror stories. Over the last few years, I think that I have only written two. I started writing this one and nothing worked. It wasn’t scary or unnerving. I think I am going for unnerving, really. Unnerving is my center. That’s the pivot point for most of my stories. Even if the story is about something relatively mundane, I will always veer toward unnerving. Something fundamentally disquieting.
I was writing this story, and none of it worked. The images were supposed to be grim and upsetting, but they just seemed camp and pseudo-scary. Like ‘Spirit Halloween’ scary. Until I changed the perspective to second person.
Second person can be a gimmick. I don’t think it works for most stories. It works for games and game books, because, well, you are the one making the choices. For most stories, it doesn’t really land. The use of ‘You’ can be jarring. I think there are very few examples of it working.
There are a few rules that will make second person work properly in fiction. First, the narrator voice must be a character in the story, and the person being narrated to can’t be the reader. The reader knows who they are. The characters must be separate from them, and exist fully within the fiction of the story. There needs to be a little distance there.
If you follow those rules though, second person can be very unnerving. And that works well for horror.
I don’t know if this story will be successful, but I’m near finishing it. I guess I will find out when it’s all done and submitted.
I haven’t been playing the big, flashy, new Fromsoft game. I probably won’t play it for a while.
I mean, it seems great and all. I really do like their games. I think that they are tough, but not more so than old 8bit games. I will probably get around to the huge, open world spectacle that is Elden Ring, but right now I’m still enjoying Sekiro. A more than two year old game that I only just got around to playing recently.
I get to a lot of games late, but I have found that they are usually still pretty good by the time I play them. I think the same will probably be true of Elden Ring.
Every time I play a Fromsoft game, I am always amazed by the things that they can get away with, things that probably wouldn’t be tolerated from other developers, but I think I know why. Lets just break some of them down.
The interfaces are usually terrible.
Everything is heavily animation driven.
Those animations don’t have interrupts.
They can be janky as hell.
Signposting is usually pretty bad.
Sometimes, they are ridiculously difficult.
From the top, one of the main complaints levied against From games is that their interfaces are bad. And they are. Except that depends on what people are referring to as interface. Equipment menus and character stats screens in from games can be needlessly opaque or cluttered. You usually have more crap in your inventory than you know what to do with, and there is never a great way to organize it. The actual interface that you use to play the game, the camera controls, character controls, and buttons you need to press to get things done, those are great. The games feel great to play. There should be almost no reason for you to jump out to the inventory menu while you are playing. That’s stuff you manage in the quiet times between fights.
So, could those inventory menus be better? Of course. Should you be spending a lot of time in there rather than fighting or exploring? No. Do what you need to do in there, and get out. From just didn’t put that much thought into the parts of the game you are not meant to be playing.
The next two sort of go together. Things in From games, at least the recent set of them, are extremely animation driven. What do I mean by that? If you hit a button, your character will run through the same animation every time. The wind up, and the follow through, will always be the same length. They will take the same amount of time. Sure, most games do this, but the Souls series takes it to an extreme. There is often no way to cancel out of a move after it starts. You can’t tap another button and interrupt your sword swing with a dodge or shield swing. If you hit those buttons, you better mean it, because there are no take backs.
This goes extra for the enemies. Every enemy in a Souls game has a strict set of moves and times that they will launch them. The bad news is, even if you hit an enemy at the start of an attack, they will likely not stop or be interrupted if you slip a standard attack in before they hit you. They will just keep on rolling right over you. Those animations don’t stop for nothin’ baby.
While there is usually some sort of parry move that will deflect an attack, some stuff will just hit you no matter what you do. The only way to avoid being hit, is to just not be there.
While that isn’t very dynamic, it does mean that you can learn every single move and combo that an enemy has on tap. You can see them coming and respond accordingly. This is an extremely old-school way of designing fights, pulled right from the 8 and 16 bit era of games. It still works, so why not milk it for everything it’s worth and put new graphical clothes on it.
All of Fromsofts games have a slightly loose feeling. This is that jank I’m talking about. And also the signposting. If you see a ledge, you can probably figure out some sort of combination of jumps and roll that will get you there. If you walk up to an edge, you will probably fall off of it. The pathway from one area to another might not always be obvious, and the architecture seems to have been built, ramshackle, one thing on top of another over centuries. It’s all an accessibility and safety nightmare. You will never have any idea where to go, but you will usually be able to tell if you are somewhere new, because nothing looks the same from place to place.
What it does do, is it gives you an unending torrent of tiny corners to explore and dead ends to examine and explore. The Souls worlds feel like they are filled with adventure and danger. Nowhere is safe, but everywhere is a new opportunity. Finding out what treasure, or horror, sits waiting around the next corner, is why people play these games. Sometimes things will just glitch through walls or floors, and that is part of the fun too. What sort of weirdness, intentional or otherwise, will this game offer up today.
The last one is difficulty.
The Souls games can be tough. Sometimes frustratingly so. They are also incredibly generous. More than most games.
If you want to stop and catch your breath in any of these Fromsoft games, go right ahead. If you aren’t actively in a fight, just put the controller down. The game will wait for you. There are rarely any wandering monsters, or at least not many that travel any distance from their arenas. If you want a fight, You are going to have to go looking for it.
If you need to take a break, just stop right where you are. The games save all the time. If you don’t restart right where you were standing, you will only be a few seconds away.
When you engage with the game, it can be demanding, but the how and where you do that, is entirely up to you. You only need to focus on your terms.
Boss fights in any From game usually get my heart going, but the parts in between can be quite relaxing.
So why does From get away with making opaque, difficult games with terrible menus, when every other game maker would get roasted for doing the same. It’s because they get the core extremely right. They make interesting adventure games that feel like adventures. They make difficult games that let you chill out and wait for you to be ready before presenting a challenge. The menus that don’t really matter are sort of clunky, while the parts you actually interact with on a regular basis are extremely polished. Enemies will ignore your hits and throw unblockable attacks at you, but they are always the same so you can learn them and learn to exploit them. And most of the time, you can exploit the hell out of them. Seeing what cheesy nonsense you can get away with in a souls game is a lot of the fun.
Fromsoft gets away with all of this, because they make good, videogame-ass video games.