Celebrating Syndicate: the ultimate videogame dystopia

It was violent, thought-provoking and insidiously addictive. Ryan looks back at Bullfrog's 1993 tactical classic, Syndicate...

Through the 90s, a string of videogames hit the media in a sudden wave of fear and loathing. Mortal Kombat was singled out for its gory array of finishing moves. Tawdry full-motion-video adventure Night Trap was castigated by politicians and columnists for its lurid deaths of young women – even though the object of the game was to protect the young women, not kill them. Doom was condemned for its gore and violence, while Grand Theft Auto was lambasted for its criminal revelries – a dance between developer and media which continues to this very day.

The 90s was the era when journalists and politicians suddenly became fearful of those odd bleeping, colourful things their kids were playing in their bedrooms. It seems odd, then, that Syndicate didn’t get more negative press than it did. This was, after all, an amoral sandbox game which came out at the height of the videogame moral panic in 1993 – several years before the infamous GTA – and allowed players to do everything from stealing cars to gunning down bustling city streets full of ordinary people.

If Syndicate didn’t spark much controversy, that’s probably because of the cerebral, almost nonchalant manner with which the British studio Bullfrog presented it. Syndicate wasn’t influenced by the toxic American dream of Scarface, but by the cyberpunk writing of William Gibson and the impersonal 2019 landscape of Blade Runner. The violence was a by-product of its cool, minimal dystopia – a grim future world where rival corporations vied for the control of cities, and ordinary citizens were frequently caught in the crossfire. 

Bullfrog was already famous for such games as Peter Molyneux’s Populous and Powermonger by the early 90s, and Syndicate, the brainchild of designer and programmer Sean Cooper, was both a logical extension of those games and a bold contrast to them – this was a realtime strategy game that emphasised action as much as planning and tactics. The overall goal in Syndicate was to take control of the entire planet one territory at a time by completing deadly missions in each area. Having successfully completed a mission, that part of the map came under the control of your burgeoning corporation.

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The missions themselves were viewed from a remote, isometric perspective, the player controlling a small team of up to four cyborgs, kitted out in anonymous full-length coats, Rick Deckard style. Missions were varied but ultimately quite simple: assassinate a politician, kidnap a political dissident, rescue an ally, or, best of all, clear an entire city of its rival cyborgs.

What brought Syndicate to life was the fluidity of its action and the technical detail in its cities, which were, for the time, quite unusual. As you guided your cyborgs through the streets, cars hushed by, police patrolled the pavements, and civilians ambled to and fro. Pull out a gun, and the civvies would flee in terror, while the police – with their own inferior firearms – would attempt to take you out, often to little effect. 

Within minutes, the eerily-lit city streets became warzones – either because a detachment of rival cyborgs had just marched round a corner, or because you’d opened fire on a train or police car to see what the reaction would be. It seems like a simple thing now, but at the time, the way the various civilians and law enforcers would react to your presence was quite mind-blowing.

There was one mission, in particular, which summed up the elegance of Syndicate’s design. The aim was to take out some public figure or other, marked by a glowing point on the city map. As your player’s cyborgs trudged to the target’s location, you realised that your mark was standing on the steps of a civic building of some sort, with several dozen members of the public all standing around in front of him. Now, given the limitations of 90s computers, there was no back story to this mission other than a line or two of text, and no voice samples to illustrate who you were killing or what was going on. But seeing those tiny stick figures standing in front of the person you were supposed to assassinate immediately conjured up a miniature drama: you’re going to have to walk straight up to this man and shoot him right in front of an assembled group of innocent people.

Now, there were at least two ways you could do this. You could send one cyborg up the steps, take the target out with a (relatively) quiet pistol shot, then hop into a stolen car and escape in the confusion. Or you could take the noisy and far more murderous approach – which involved all four cyborgs letting rip with miniguns – knowing full well that the police will be turning up en masse in either scenario. More often than not, your humble writer chose the latter tactic, even if he did feel a little bit guilty about it afterwards. 

Syndicate missions often resulted in a landscape full of corpses and burned out cars. Its violence was both gratifying and oddly chilling; there was something about the detached perspective and the cold-hearted brutality of completing your missions, irrespective of the damage or loss of life, which said more about Bullfrog’s dystopia than cut-scenes ever could.

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The game was also a nail-biting one at the best of times. Early on, your cyborgs were woefully armed and armoured, and it was only through successfully completing missions – and earning tax from the countries you’ve captured – that you could research and buy new equipment for your army. This made the early missions, as you were still getting used to the game’s tactics, incredibly tense: here, a pistol shot from a cop could leave a cyborg seriously damaged. But as the hours ticked by, your cyborgs become better armoured, and armed with increasingly devastating weaponry, including missile launchers (called the gauss gun here), those aforementioned miniguns, and flamethrowers – the latter having a horrifying effect on non-player characters, who would walk around screaming before collapsing in a heap of ash.

There’s one particularly useful weapon in your arsenal: the Persuadatron. This was a gadget that allowed your cyborgs to hack into civilians’ brains and turn them into mindless drones, who would follow you around and even fight on your behalf if they happened to pick up a weapon from a fallen law enforcer. That assassination mission we wittered on about earlier? There’s another approach you could take there. You could use the Persuadertron to ensnare all the people hanging around on the government building’s steps, and use them as a human shield after carrying out your assassination. It was another example of the game’s captivatingly nasty logic. 

More than any other game released before 1993, Syndicate captured the lizard-brained essence of a corporate dystopia. The corporation was only interested in eliminating its rivals and gaining power for its own sake; all other concerns were secondary. Civilians were, at best, malleable pawns. Personal freedom meant nothing. Its operatives, which were kept in check with a cocktail of drugs, were mere tools. Even Syndicate‘s perspective said something about the world in which it was set: it’s the view of a CEO, looking down from the top floor of a skyscraper at the people scurrying around like ants at ground level.

It says a great deal about Syndicate that, even though it’s now a little over 20 years old, its legacy still lingers on. An extremely difficult expansion pack (American Revolt) was the last we saw from the game’s original incarnation, but the 1996 sequel Syndicate Wars, designed by Mike Diskett, captured much of its bleak essence. EA’s 2012 shooter attempted to press Syndicate into the modern FPS mould, meaning that all of the 1993 game’s top-down detachment was lost in the mix. An indie game called Satellite Reign, currently in its pre-alpha stage of development, appears to come closer to capturing Syndicate‘s spirit.  

There’s still something oddly irresistible, it seems, about taking control of four cybernetic tools of an amoral, control-obsessed corporation. Even when played today, Syndicate’s flow of logistics, planning and violence pack a satisfying punch. But there’s also the same disturbing sense of futility, too. As that garbled, inhuman voice kicks in at the end of each encounter – “mission completed” – it’s a stark reminder that there are few things more corrupting or empty than the pursuit of power for its own sake. Two decades on, Syndicate is still the ultimate videogame dystopia.

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