Games and movies have always had a weird relationship, one that has had both its upsides and its downsides. When games attempt to emulate movies, it comes out to mixed success, with the best ones incorporating cinematic qualities while maintaining an interactive nature. What video games have over a medium like film is that there is agency on the part of the player. So when games try to give agency as well as tell a story, it becomes difficult to satisfy both ends of the spectrum. This is the crux of why The Order: 1886 is such a failure in storytelling, and ultimately loses face because of its inability to justify the medium.
Before I delve any further into discussing the game, I will point out that my skepticism existed long before I played the game. I don’t point this out as an “I told you so”, but to preface the fact that I ended up kind of excited about the game weeks before it came out. Many aspects still remained interesting to me from the setting to the presentation, but my fear was always a lack of player agency. I didn’t realize how palpable that problem would end up being until I got my hands on the game.
The Order: 1886 is a piece of historical fiction that weaves figures from history into a century-long war between humans and werewolves. Set in the year 1886, the story takes place in London during the Jack the Ripper murders and after the Industrial revolution has already given its gifts to the war. An order of knights exist since the days of King Arthur, and are the only ones dealing with the “half-breed” (animal meets human) population. The story is bleak, and injects some political intrigue into its otherwise fantastical plot, which makes it a particularly compelling, and at times, thrilling campaign.
That is, until it abruptly ends. I was enjoying a lot of the intricacies that can be found within the story, and admittedly, I am a sucker for historical fiction. But what hurts the game is that it doesn’t know where its story is supposed to end. In fact, the way it ends feels like it was cobbled together at the last minute. A character who is not noteworthy for over half the game, becomes a minor villain by the end of it, but is propped up as the main villain and deemed a satisfying enough conclusion to a game that tries to make the player ask questions. So when I am left with questions of character’s intentions, the status of the rest of London, what happened to other characters, and what will happen to my relationships with other characters, the ending of the game becomes unsatisfying.
Broadly speaking, it ends in its second act. The main character, Galahad, does not end up at an equilibrium. The game purposefully leaves him hungry for redemption, but does not provide enough to the player to leave them wanting redemption. As a character, Galahad is extremely well done and his motivations are clear, lending him nicely as a hero. The cast of characters play off of each other and do a good job at contrasting and supporting Galahad. But his character arc is not finished, and neither is the main narrative.
That being said, I was done with the game before it finished. It has its merits, generally in its technical prowess. The Order: 1886 is one of the most beautiful games I have ever played. To see it in motion is extremely exciting, and the letterbox aspect ratio does help with the seamless transitioning from cutscene to gameplay. What the aspect ratio hinders is the actual gunfights which occasionally have the player wrestling with the camera to look over cover. It is more realistic for the player not to be able to see over cover while hiding, but frustrating when there are enemies that will rush you without catching your eye. My suggestion would be that the game could maintain its letterbox aspect ratio, but in action sequences (the few moments when the game lets you move around off a beaten path), why not take the IMAX route and expand the aspect ratio so that action scenes become more engrossing and you’re not fidgeting with the camera as much?
But largely, my concerns with The Order is its incredibly skewed idea of player interactivity. I could write an entire post on how the game largely misidentifies the point of being a game. There are interactive objects which serve no purpose except to show off the fact that the game is beautifully detailed. Occasionally, a newspaper might be available to hold that tells you something that you already knew or are about to know. More often than not, these objects are simply set decoration. Something as small as this demonstrates Ready at Dawn’s misunderstanding of how a game should operate. You can have interactivity, but either it must be consistent throughout the world, or everything being touched should be important. At least most of it should be important. Letting me examine a gun before adding to my arsenal is cool, but analyzing a vase for no purpose at all, is mundane and trite.
Then there are the quick-time events, which are littered throughout the game at a freakishly frequent pace. Sometimes they are satisfying, but often they are unnecessary. It is the developer’s way of making something interactive that doesn’t need to be. Especially when you fail a sequence of button prompts and have to start all over again. However, stealth executions have a unique timer associated with the button prompt that reflects the player’s window of opportunity. If you botch it, you die, but if you hit it in time, you are treated with a violent, but effective stealth kill. These stealth sections can end with one botched kill though, so it is important to keep your cool and not immediately press a button.
My largest problem with the game, though, is as I feared; it is paced slowly, methodically, and without player agency. Sure, gunfights exist to split up long stretches of walking (the game dictates when you can run and when you can only walk), but they arrive in obvious locations at obvious times. It was the problem with Gears of War, and it is the problem here, that whenever you see a large open area with places to take cover, the game is about to enter shootout mode. The more infuriating segments are the long walks that almost always turn into cutscenes at a doorway because there is no way that a player could walk into the doorway differently – unless they did it backwards, which unfortunately, I did not attempt. The game’s markers for where a cutscene will start become transparent and harm its seamless nature by showing its seams in a different manner. You don’t see the stitching together of gameplay and cutscene, but you are painfully aware of its presence before it even happens.
The seamless transition between cinematic and gameplay is incredible, but the game hangs its hat on that feature. Which is why I don’t look at The Order: 1886 as a complete game. It lacks too much content, doesn’t end in a logical place, rarely provides unique gameplay, and misunderstands what it means to be a game. I can’t even call it a satisfying interactive movie because of its abrupt ending and poor use of interactivity. It’s an expensive tech demo that proves that games can look amazing, and makes a large step in bridging a gap between video games and movies. But by fumbling with its interactive aspects, it is hardly worth the effort of actually playing.