The Order: 1886 is, by all accounts, the rare kind of heavily hyped AAA game whose critical response borders on universal derision. Review after review has criticized the length, gameplay and plot of the Playstation 4 exclusive – the kind of totems you expect in an average game review.
Our own review didn’t hammer too hard on the length of the game, which is good, because that fact alone doesn’t detract from a quality game. In recent years there have been plenty of short but great titles like Portal, Floweror The Stanley Parable every day, just to name a few. However, the critical device has largely forgiven many games The order‘s other shortcomings: ho-hum combat with lots of oddly placed, chest-high objects to hide behind; too long cutscenes; quick-time event button prompts; and even British accents.
Aside from testing pre-release versions at a few exhibits, I still haven’t played the final release. Because those pre-release demos were so underwhelming, I found myself eager to sidestep the fact that I’d ever have to play the full game. Almost a week before The Order: 1886 reached stores, I got that chance when someone with an early copy of the game used the PlayStation 4’s dedicated “share” button to stream a full playthrough.
Watching that playthrough in YouTube archived form, without a controller to distract or occupy my efforts, I could already see that The order was a failure as an interactive product. Watching that playthrough was clearly the exact same experience as if I had bought and played the game myself, action-packed with few exceptions. And in a gaming generation where full-fledged video sharing is pretty much a standard function, those kinds of games won’t make it anymore.
“Are you still awake?”
Let me be clear exactly what type of game I am condemning here. The Order: 1886 asks players to walk through its virtual world – a very nice one, I might add – with very few nooks and crannies to poke through or make discoveries. The things you find, whether you’re walking or looking at objects on a table, will occur in almost exactly the same order for every player. A game like Went homeconversely, there’s one where the “idle” plot unfolds based on discovery, and players reveal the subplots of the story at different times and speeds based on where and how they poke around that game’s virtual home.
The order also features lengthy cutscenes with a remarkably slow pace. That means the quick-time button provides prompts, unlike the ones you might find on an action or horror series like resident evilfeeling less like they create a sense of player vulnerability and more like imitating Netflix’s “Are you still awake during your House of cards marathon” prompts. Not much changes if you miss a prompt, except you have to try again.
The more substantive missing piece comes from the game’s combat scenes, which indeed cannot be replicated by mere video streaming. After all, players have a few branching choices in terms of weapons, actions, and paths. Still, this is a game that reviewers have vilified for combat that’s as bland as possible, thanks to simple weapons, sluggish cover-based controls, and a total lack of immersive AI or tactics on either side of the battle. Skipping the game’s weakest link by streaming it actually seems like a bonus in this case.
If fate is already sealed
Successful single-player video games require learning, provide new systems, and ultimately enable mastery. These titles play out differently for each individual player, much more so than a book or a movie. The Order: 1886 sport none of those characteristics. So why would anyone care to play this game?
Many of my least favorite video games share a similar lack of meaningful player engagement. 2012 Spec Ops: The Line, in particular, received astonishing praise – even from Ars – for the ways it tried to play with plot and interactivity, but I’ve never been more enamored with the game. The main plot gimmick became apparent early on, and even after players discovered that, they were still forced to commit atrocities. That didn’t make the saddest moments more tragic; it made them less credible, as players didn’t make questionable decisions on their own. The player’s fate was sealed. Why play such a straight descent into madness – complete with what we called “competent but unobtrusive” gameplay – when I can watch it instead?
I point to that game because it was one of the first I finished watching on YouTube instead of playing. That’s a tactic I’ve since returned to for other ho-hum solo games. In the years to come, I suspect that practice will become more common, or at least a much more accessible option for the average gaming fan.
For some people, tapping a few buttons to advance through a story will always appeal, no matter how little the interactivity affects the proceedings. But that’s a shrinking minority of a growing gaming audience, and that doesn’t excuse bad game design. I make time in my life for films, books, theatre, TV and visual arts – all media that have a clear direction, and a director who directs what I perceive. Gaming, on the other hand, is the most demanding art form in terms of design. That doesn’t mean good games have to be stressful, but it does mean they have a clear bar to rise above if a developer expects me to pick up a controller – and, at best, expects me to be the human condition in a way that is unlike any other media currently possible.
As such, the Twitch and YouTube era of game development is perhaps the best yet – the era that discourages fleeting and underdeveloped examples of interactivity. It also enables a new totem for criticism of games: the designation “better watched than played”. Expect us at Ars to use those from now on, if applicable.