There’s a moment early on in The Order 1886 where you pick up an issue of the illustrated gazette from a derelict shack in Whitechapel. The cartoon it depicts is of an upstanding and mustachioed member of the Metropolitan Police holding two criminals by their collars. Hung around their necks are sign boards with the words “Poverty” and “Regress” painted onto them. Whenever you find an item like this, the game encourages you to roll it around in your hand, and watch the unnervingly realistic lighting interact with the texture of the paper and the sheen of the ink, as if you were a proofer inspecting a print run. You can even flip it over, often to discover a handwritten note, or simply an equally carefully textured blank reverse. However, if you flip this document over on the back is a kind of proto-banksy stencil of the same officer and his two convicts, but this time the sign boards say “Equality” and “Liberty.” It’s a weirdly anachronistic moment, and oddly inconclusive. “London!” it seems to shout; “Look, it’s London!”, missing the point entirely.
About 3 minutes later I find a Sackboy sitting on a beautifully modelled walnut bookcase in an exquisitely rendered, decaying Victorian study. I jiggle him around and watch as the physics system makes his head bounce around in my leather-gloved hand, which is finished to a level of detailed perfection that makes me want to lick it. Sackboy himself is so damn sacky, and his button eyes are so damn buttony that I just sit there looking at him in a kind of daze. I jiggle sackboy around for a good 20 seconds before I remember there is a game I should be getting back to. Looking back on it, I think it was somewhere between these two moments when I lost track of what exactly The Order: 1886 is trying to be.
The Order: 1886 is a very earnest game. Its characters have a self-serious air, its soundtrack a confident grandeur. Under the guidance of insistent strings and through the fidelity of its digital actors, a drama of corruption and duty is sketched out across a revised history of London. As a story, it hits its predictable beats with enthusiasm and a sense of purpose. What that purpose is, however, becomes increasingly difficult to detect. As a year, 1886 is a well-chosen one. It was the year that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the first Sherlock Holmes story, Study in Scarlet. Two years later the Whitechapel murders would give rise to that figure of folklore, Jack the Ripper. London itself was in the thrall of huge population growth, and debilitating inequality. Outside of the city, the British Empire saw constant conflict, losing its grip on power after the end of the first Boer war. The Order puts itself right in the middle of this potent history, accessorizing it with technology from Victorian storybooks.
At first, The Order seems to be in communion with this backdrop, taking its characters from the gilt halls of the House of Lords (or the Council of Knights as it is known here) directly into the crooked streets of Whitechapel with a few supporting debates along the way. But its narrative drive quickly whips you out of this situation into another and then another, all the time hinting at the ideas that drove Ready At Dawn to build the setting in the first place. The violence committed by the rich on the poor, the atrocities of empire, the occult heart of London. These rich and powerful contexts are introduced and abandoned with alarming regularity. Like the issue of the illustrated gazette picked up in Whitechapel, they are merely sketches, stripped of any life and meaning. This squandered potential might not be such problem, if the narrative the game rushes to tell was more complete.
The Order’s plot is as shot full of holes as the cockneys, brummies and fenians you so often train your sights on. Theres a skill in the composition of individual scenes, both in the acting and writing, but the bigger picture is built of nonsensical twists and shifting moralities. The idea that the knights of The Order are ancient warriors guided by a code of honour goes out of the window early on, and it’s difficult not to see them as a bunch of jackbooted thugs for hire. Galahad, the player’s charge, is a singularly violent man, brutal and unthinking. His companions, though not as direct, seem equally nasty. At one point a character advises that killing guards might be a bad idea before their guilt and involvement can be proven. Yet minutes later he is encouraging you to hurry up while you stab them in the throat one by one to steal a key. “There are still more guards to search,” he says, clearly using “search” as a euphemism for “brutally murder.” Elsewhere, violence is employed for the sake of expediency and efficiency, explained away as “we don’t have time” by mean-looking men with already-loaded guns in their hands. Its not exactly chivalrous, and becomes almost inexplicably nonsensical when the knights start complaining about the difficulty of leading their “good” life.
All this seems to stem from a problem of vocabularies. The Order, despite the apparent richness of its world, is unable to find a way in which to talk about it. Instead it can only speak with the atrophied vocabulary of the shooter. The first time you hear one of the knights call out “target neutralised!” it is a jarring experience. But before long this timeworn bark is joined by a host of others. “Shotgunner on the field!” “Frag Out!”—the military language of the modern shooter fills the air during each one of The Order’s rattling gunfights. One character even uses the phrase “stealth mode” at one point, as if these terms were somehow timeless and ubiquitous descriptors of human experience.
This “standard issue” approach extends to the game design as well, with all of the usual suspects making an appearance. A cover system, blind firing, a “down but not out” mechanic are all well and good, but when combined with comically bright red explosive barrels and bullet-sponge enemies, the familiarity all becomes too much. Even the world’s central conceit of a technologically advanced Victorian society seems to exist to facilitate the cliches required for a cover-based third-person shooter. Communicators, assault rifles, air support—all present and correct, albeit with a steampunk twist. It is only in encounters with supernatural enemies that The Order takes on a more distinctive flavour; however, these moments are also some of the most mechanically awkward. The result is a game whose narrative concerns a series of immortal knights who battle supernatural powers, and yet whose design depicts a murderous special forces squad than spend their time shooting the arms off men in bowler hats. This is made all more the more disappointing by the true artistry that is on display in The Order.
On an aesthetic level, The Order is masterful. Much has been made of the technology driving its level of detail; however it is the synergy of art and tech that is its true achievement. Its soft, rich and textured look is a manifesto for a less precise drive towards photorealism in the favour of atmospheric impact. It’s testament to its visual sophistication that while a few high-impact vistas stick in the mind (the burning shell of Crystal Palace chief amongst them) it is in humble settings that the game truly shines. The entrance to the Royal London Hospital, for example, with its soft blue light glinting across faceted tiles, is so precisely observed and warmly drawn that it’s worth idling in for minutes at a time. Similarly, a muddy railway cutting at Blackwall docks, not an obvious opportunity for visual artistry, seeps with dark Thames mud and low London sun. That this work must be yoked to such an adamantly dull game feels tragic.
It would be a kind of justice for The Order to have its assets stripped from its skeleton and put into service of a more deserving project. London so rarely appears among the New Yorks and Los Angeles of big-budget videogames, and as a Londoner to see it so beautifully realised is a pleasure in itself. Perhaps the key point of comparison would be Dishonored’s Dunwall, an equally well-observed urban portrait that allowed you to bask in the city’s secrets rather than blow chunks out of them. London is a city that flows with stories. In it, I live in a hundred-year-old furniture warehouse, on top of a plague mass grave. Outside my door the street follows the paths of an ancient underground river that now trickles between foundation blocks and tube tunnels. Only footsteps away are the sites of the Ripper murders—street corners caught somewhere between Victorian terrace and glass fronted restaurants. Just nearby, beside the new Whitechapel station there is an abandoned lot, overgrown with verdant green. If you look through a gap in the wooden hoarding you can catch sight of a tunnel mouth deep below the weeds. Around this abyss faceted tiles glint, remnants of a century-old station still touched by the sun, and just beyond a blacker darkness lies, one that leads into deepest London. These are the stories The Order: 1886 might have told, and the images that it still clings to. But in the end, the only tales it knows how to tell are those that end with the hammer cocked and a twitchy finger on the trigger.