The Order: 1886 was not a well-received video game. When it was released at the start of this year it was decried as boring, confining, and in one particularly memorable dismissal I found on Metacritic, a “leaden, unimaginative waste.” Ouch.
To be fair, I echoed a lot of those same criticisms when I reviewed it. The Order is a game that felt like it desperately wanted to be a movie, with cramped, brief gunplay tacked on every so often to remind you that you had a controller in your hand. It’s largely forgettable, and, months later, my opinion on that hasn’t really changed.
That is, with one notable exception. Every once in a while, I think of the game’s opening with something like fondness. See, much of the criticism of the game being glacially paced and willfully dull seems to have been aimed at the first hour or so, where a brief prologue session gives way to an uneventful slow walk from a London townhouse to the game’s first set-piece.
There’s something to that opening, though—not its prologue, a clumsy tutorial/prison break, which I would not defend with all my family’s honor at stake, but that early walk through The Order’s steampunk-ified late-Victorian London. There’s something conspicuously like an idea there, shining through the rest of the game’s mediocrity, and it’s worthy of excavation and defense. It concerns the way we pace blockbuster, action-packed media, games and film alike, and it suggests that maybe, just maybe, it’s okay to hit the brakes now and then.
WELCOME TO THE DINGY CITY
After that en media res opening, which involves a lot of shaky-cam as you run through a disturbingly wet prison, the game flashes back a few days to the opening proper. It finds the protagonist, a member of the pseudo-immortal Order of the Round Table, Galahad, lackadaisically observing the weather (cloudy, with a chance of smog) from the roof of a London townhouse. Here, any narrative tension developed during the prologue dissipates into almost nothing, as a voice over the radio instructs you to look for a building on the horizon and the on-screen tutorial tells you how to zoom in on distant objects.
The next sequence of the game, which takes anywhere from ten to 25 minutes depending on the player’s mastery of direction and desire to poke around the environment pointlessly, is a slow walk to the ground floor of the townhouse, through some back alleys, and across a plaza. This is The Order’s true opening: Galahad’s morning commute. Thrilling, right?
What the game gains for the loss in tension, however briefly, is a narrative of place. Galahad’s London is a mixture of high and low tech, dazzlingly advanced airships and regal weaponry juxtaposed with industrial revolution factories belching soot. And Galahad himself is a man that doesn’t quite fit in with his surroundings, dressed in high martial fashion, all embroidered regalia and lethal weaponry, walking through a nearly colorless smoke-stained building, nodding perfunctorily at servants cleaning the rooms and fixing an elevator. You can sense, however briefly, the game reaching for a sort of steampunk Dickensianism here, trying to characterize a version of London that is touched with hints of utopian futurism but still stratified, ugly, and oppressive.
It’s a potential statement of purpose that the rest of the game never quite lives up to, but for the player willing to sideline their impatience to get to the shooty bits, this opening can be a nice little ode to the merits of good atmosphere.
DON’T STOP, NEVER STOP
Most blockbuster games don’t open this way. Gears of War, a 2006 shooter which The Order apes heavily in terms of gameplay, opens with a character breaking you out of prison, handing you a gun, and telling you to run. And in the intervening decade, it feels like games are more and more in a rush to get you straight into the action. If major game scripts have rules, then rule one seems to be that something needs to explode in the first five minutes. It’s not just games, either—every action movie I’ve seen this year has been in a rush to get to the action, barely running the credits before the punching starts. Remember Age of Ultron? That movie hardly took time to breathe. In my mind, 2015 is a year of running, shouting, and shooting in popular entertainment. And with the fall game releases breathing down our necks, it’s likely only going to get worse.
The Order’s first level seems like an antidote to the hurried, restless pace of most mainstream action games. It’s careful and deliberate in its pacing, attempting to draw the player into a world before they start blowing it up. It gives the player a chance to stretch their metaphorical legs, find some bearing in the game, and start to draw opinions about the characters and the setting. Before the first shootout begins, you’ll probably have an opinion on the protagonists and the role they seem to be playing. Whatever else you might say about the game, it seems clear that the developers put thought into the way these types of games flow, and tried to create something that moves differently.
To be fair, The Order might go a bit too far the other way. Even Half-Life, notable for its lengthy opening trainride and office jaunt, maintains more tension than this, layering that journey with hefty foreshadowing and a general sense that the shit is about to hit the interdimensional fan. Galahad’s morning walk, in contrast, is absolutely bereft of drama, and from a pure narrative standpoint, that might be one of this game’s many missteps.
But, months after playing it, I find myself looking at this section fondly. At the very least, I can remember it, which is more than I can say for a lot of the more bombastic games I’ve played in my day. It gives you time, and tries to get players to care before it puts a gun in their hands. That wasn’t a mistake, and it’s a decision worth reflecting on. More games should follow suit.
Jake Muncy is a writer, editor, and poet living in North Texas. He’s a contributor to Wired’s Game|Life and the Games Editor of writer collective Loser City. His writing also appears on The AV Club, Vice, Kill Screen Daily, and anywhere else he can convince people to post it. You can contact him by email or Twitter, where he tweets regularly about video games, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches.
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