In most video games, ultra-violence is synonymous with gore — how many limbs can be ripped off, how much viscera and arterial spray can go flying across the screen with every kill. It’s pure spectacle, heightened like B-movie grindhouse fare, but it’s rarely shocking or disturbing especially because it's a core aesthetic language in video games, one many of us recognize.
Take Syndicate — both the original Bullfrog Productions isometric shooter and Starbreeze Studios' 2012 Xbox 360-era FPS remake. The former was ultra-violent, but only through context. It wasn’t a spectacularly bloody game (its perspective and distance from the action rendered that challenging) but it was horrifying because of the indifference to its violence. Its Micro Machines-scaled cities were full of pedestrians hustling around sidewalks and transit stations, and cars making circuits around its streets. When your squad of syndicate agents opened fire in those spaces, the bullets ignited gas tanks and mowed down dozens of NPCs, leaving the streets littered with charred dead and debris.
The remake is similarly brutal, even though nearly every other aspect changed in the development process. It opens with a simulated training mission that drives home the inevitability of civilians getting caught in the crossfire of corporate shooting wars, and it quickly tops that with a sequence where you follow a fellow agent who executes countless civilians before your very eyes. Not to stop there, you then use a mind-control device to force a man to shoot his colleague. He screams in horror before turning the gun on himself. A series of massacres as senseless as Modern Warfare’s “No Russian” level unfolds before your eyes and nobody in the game acknowledges it as relevant to the action. You just proceed to your objective marker, waiting for security forces to belatedly respond to the bloodshed.
I’ve been trying to figure out why I find Syndicate’s grim, cold violence so arresting. Is there actually anything interesting there or it is just speaking to the inner child who felt like he was doing something dangerously transgressive playing the original Bullfrog shooter? That’s definitely a part of it, but I’ve also come to understand why that transgressiveness persists, even in an era where we are deeply desensitized to the spectacle of violence as entertainment. Syndicate’s world is amoral, and it uses violence to immerse you in that world and its sensibilities. The original left you in so little doubt about the scale of your villainy. Here, humanity was an abstract lesser creature that existed on the battlefield, like animals and livestock in an RTS, and nothing more.
Syndicate isn't telling a story about how that world can be redeemed. It's barely telling a story where any character finds the state of this world objectionable, and it’s not making some kind of point about violence as entertainment. It’s just telling a story in a world where human life is meaningless to corporate kings and their royal bodyguards.
That’s not the norm in games or in most media, to be honest, even ones that pretend to have gritty brutality. Cyberpunk 2077, like most of CD Projekt Red's work, is deeply sentimental and principled despite taking place in a cruel world dominated by amoral or evil forces. Cyberpunk’s main character V spends a lot of that game helping friends out with personal problems, taking stands against corpos and mercenaries, and being a general do-gooder who is forced through circumstance to rub elbows with the worst elements of Night City. V always feels like their perspective is closer to ours, as if they're looking at Cyberpunk 2077 as an alien society as opposed to the one they grew up in. Watch Dogs: Legion's starting position is the idea that the inherent goodness of humanity and its innate resistance to tyranny would cause “the people” to rebel in the face of a violent surveillance state captured by corporate interests. I'm not sure if the game's optimism is either warranted or interesting.
Most games in this space don’t really want to locate the player within their dystopias, nor do they want to tackle the notion that morality itself would grow twisted by them. Syndicate is closer in this regard to 1984 than Mr. Robot. There’s no grand conspiracy to uncover, nor is there a villainous cabal you can defeat. The system has created a pliant, apolitical hierarchical body that lacks resources or even the language required for meaningful critique and resistance. Class awareness only exists in the form of downward-looking fear and hostility. Nothing is really hidden, nor does it need to be, because everybody who matters is fundamentally on board with the project of affluent corporate tyranny. The basic empathy that undergirds moral actions has been done away with in favor of the conception of individuals as economic actors and employees.
Video games tend to reveal moral order through violence: its nature, who is subject to it, and how that violence is treated within the world. Bad guys are recognizable because of their excessive violence and who they choose to target, while good guys are defined by their opposition to the bad guys and frequently by the game’s hostility to their targeting non-combatants. Syndicate throws all that out the window: after you have gone on that murderous rampage through the Aspari corporate offices in the game’s first section, you return to your home base in the Eurocorp Spire and find all the same kinds of people. They go on with their lives knowing that syndicate agents might, at any moment, burst through the skylights and start massacring people, and that agents from their own company are likely already doing it elsewhere. They know, dimly, that most of humanity is abandoned beyond high-tech barricades, living in poverty amid the crumbling infrastructure of the 20th century, and they don’t care because those people don’t count. The deserving among them are identified for their talents and lifted into corporate training programs, but most of them are left to rot.
And you know that the game doesn't care if you kill people like this or not. When the shooting starts, it doesn’t matter if your erstwhile coworkers get cut down in the crossfire. They’re not relevant, except if you decide to care about them as a player. But then, seeing what they are a part of and their oblivious privilege, it’s also worth asking whether they should even be worth caring about in a story like this, set in a world like this.
When we do get an inkling of what resistance in this world might look like, it’s pretty nihilistic, though not without good cause. The conspiracy that you do uncover involves the Eurocorp researcher who oversees its cybernetic agent program linking up with her old partner and ally from the underclasses to help trigger a massive war among the corporations, one that is guaranteed to have a breathtaking amount of collateral damage. But as her partner explains, in his view it was never the moral force of anti-imperialism, nor the force of indigenous resistance, that broke up the colonial empires of the 19th Century. It was their exhaustion in the aftermath of two World Wars that made the maintenance of their empires impossible in the face of the resistance that had always been there. His plan is to trigger corporate World War Three and, in the ruins, create a wind of possibility for something else to arise.
The ease with which your agent buzzsaws through those rebel forces is an indicator of just how hopeless direct confrontation is for these rebels, tacitly suggesting that the plan of making the corporations fight among themselves might indeed have been the only viable one. When you return to Eurocorp and find it in the midst of a massive invasion from another corporation, it’s hard to imagine both organizations not being profoundly incapacitated by the damage they have sustained, damage that only another corporation could ever have inflicted.
There’s one last element in this portrait that Syndicate paints that’s worth talking about, and that is the way in which its violence highlights the solipsism that is this kind of society's ultimate destination. Each rung of the ladder is defined by who it considers people and who is excluded from that definition. But as an agent, what you see from the start is that only the corporate leadership, embodied here by Jack Denham (Brian Cox), regards itself as a human worthy of protection and freedom. The agents themselves are corporate guard dogs, conditioned to have reflexive and total obedience to their corporate executives but to have absolutely no concern for anybody else. The corporate security forces who serve as the grunts you battle across the rest of the game are just that: heavily armed mall cops who provide illusory protection for the denizens of its company towns. The NPCs you encounter at Eurocorp are nothing but serfs in suits. Scientists and engineers are more privileged but are also living, breathing repositories of corporate IP, and are also surveilled and assassinated by their corporate masters and rivals as a matter of course. Only the people at the very top get to live with the assurance of privacy, liberty, and security.
In a world where corporate executives order massacres and kidnappings on a daily basis, carried out by private armies and assassins for whom slaughter is as much a part of the corporate routine as documents for signature, humanity has become the ultimate corporate perk. By denying you the capacity to meaningfully direct Kilo’s actions or transform him into a hero, the game forces the player to draw a sharp distinction between themselves and Kilo. He is not standing in for us, he is not reacting alongside us. He is a golem we control, but we're not invited to roleplay him. So if we are not Kilo, then Syndicate is implicitly inviting us to ask where we think we’d fit in this world and, by association, to reflect on where we will fit in the world that’s being built for us.