I’ve been floored by everything shown to me of The Order: 1886. It is a gorgeous game with inventive weapons and a story that is both intriguing and entertaining. My excitement dropped a little when I realized that the E3 2014 trailer was doing what all the other trailers had done. And that frightens me. The Order: 1886 is taking away the player’s agency on a frequent basis. It is tearing away the controller, in exchange for cinematics. It is essentially nullifying its reasoning to be a video game.
That might be a harsh way to put it, but what makes video games unique is their ability to tell stories through the player’s interaction. A film tells a story by showing us something. It conveys emotions through pictures. A video game is far more interesting because it allows the player to create those emotions and share them with their avatar. A story is only as good as its narrator, when it comes to video games, so it is only fitting that the player be given an abundance of control. It’s a double-edged sword of course, because it relies on the player being devoted to the narrative and becoming connected to how the avatar would react in a situation.
Cinematics are the developers way of ensuring their narrative is presented in a wholesome manner. I love a beautifully rendered cutscene that you’d find ever-present in something like a Final Fantasy or an Infamous. It is satisfying to see all this money on a screen, presenting a spectacle and conveying emotion. The Order: 1886 made people fall in love with it at E3 2013 because of its gorgeous trailer which showcased the setting, some weapons, and our cast of characters. There was no gameplay. But then, little by little, gameplay was shown. Frames were counted and aspect ratios were criticized. The game was clearly going for a hybrid of cinematics and gameplay, with the two ideally blending in a seamless manner.
The problems with that objective are that it relies on visuals as the only form of presentation. If it were a movie, The Order: 1886 would be a damn fine looking one. If a controller was not present when playing the game, it might be a more engaging experience. But a controller is there, and no matter how seamless a transition is between cutscenes and gameplay, there is the noticeable absence of input. The problems with this comes in the frequency with which Ready at Dawn takes the control away from the player. I have not touched the game at all, but in their E3 2014 demo at Sony’s conference, The Order: 1886 had four moments within four minutes that involved the player transitioning from gameplay to cinematic. The cutscene may not last extraordinarily long, but there’s a greater loss happening here than just my own interactivity.
The loss is in the player’s ability to care about what is happening. Frustration is bound to set in with any game where the player is constantly being taken out of the game. Think about how infuriated you were in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, when the game made you watch lengthy cutscene after lengthy custscene. The game gave you long enough moments of gameplay though, where you might get stuck or want to explore. The Order: 1886 from everything that has been shown, appears to be a linear experience, and one where the developer’s hand can be felt immensely, dragging the player through their narrative.
A game like BioShock is filled with plenty of cinematic moments, but the game rarely takes away control from the player, instead allowing them to do whatever they want with some restrictions. They could miss the big moments of the game by simply not paying attention and roaming around. The reason The Order: 1886 does not do this though, is because it wants the player to experience the story. It’s linear because it has something it wants to say. If you’re already making that conceit, you should figure out a way to balance the amount of gameplay and cinematics that players will need to endure.
There are the moments when gameplay does seem to be a focus for the developers, but it then highlights where gameplay should be emphasized. The E3 demo at Sony’s conference showed a scene that involved slowly walking and uncovering the environment, and the mysteries within it. The demos being shown outside of that conference include that scene, as well as the scenes we’ve gotten used to: thermite rifles raining fire down on the world. Action set pieces seem to be where the gameplay is going to show up more frequently. That then builds expectation, in the same way that Gears of War built expectation by having large open areas with plenty of opportunities for cover.
Ideally, I’m being cynical. As someone who has not actually played the game, I am not an authority on how the game plays and flows. But my fears are things which others may have picked up on as they watched these previews of The Order: 1886 and maybe were unsure what to think. The game still remains one of my most anticipated games of 2015, but I have my reasons to be skeptic, and it is in one of the features which seems to be the focal point of the game. If the major marketing bullet point is that seamless transition from gameplay to cinematic, it would be foolish not to exploit that as frequently as possible. But hopefully the game doesn’t act as a fancy tech demo, and is something far more engrossing when it launches February 20, 2015 on PlayStation 4.