Syndicate creates an interesting world and places you in an interesting position within that world: There are no more countries, just giant corporations. It’s a set up primed to offer social commentary by showing you different facets of everyday life filtered through a corporate lens. You play as an Agent, essentially a spy but nowhere near as subtle. It’s a great role for the player since it justifies our travel to multiple syndicates and our access to sensitive information. From this position we can easily watch a conspiracy unfold.
Syndicate could have offered social commentary by way of a political thriller, but it doesn’t. The great world building is undermined by a plot twist so hackneyed and lazy that it turns Syndicate into a prime example of how not to tell to a story.
Predictably, a game built around the idea of giant corporations controlling the world ends with you turning against your corporate overlord, EuroCorp. The justification for this betrayal is the twist that hobbles the game, but what is also disappointing is that this predictable turn occurs right when the plot is threatening to do something daring.
You learn that Lilly, the standard employee-turned-revolutionary, has been acting as a triple-agent, feeding other syndicates false information in order to start a war. She believes the only way to destroy this corporate controlled world is to have the corporations destroy each other. A clever idea, though uncomfortably extreme. The syndicates are bad guys, yes, but a global war between every superpower in the world is also pretty bad. At this point, the game seems to be setting up an interesting moral dilemma. Which is better, a brutal corporate dictatorship or global warfare? Even if the game didn’t offer you an explicit choice, even if it just picked one side for you as part of the standard linear shooter campaign, picking either option would lend the game an intriguing moral message. But it cops out. Instead of confronting this dilemma, the story gives you (out of nowhere) a personal vendetta against EuroCorp.
So it turns out that the CEO of EuroCorp killed your parents when you were a baby, then adopted you in order to raise you as a spy. Never mind the character inconsistency (even though you obviously never knew your parents, this reveal is enough to turn you against your employer and boss), this twist undermines all of the previous world building.
First of all, it’s unnecessary. You already know EuroCorp is bad. After all, the game doesn’t shy away from presenting the syndicates as immoral. Hidden notes show examples of EuroCorp spying on people, killing rival scientists, and just being generally evil. If these acts aren’t enough to justify your character’s revolt, then a sudden tragic back story shouldn’t either. It doesn’t make sense for the character.
Second, introducing a personal grudge into the story turns EuroCorp into a clichéd villain. They do so many other awful, tyrannical things that this past double murder is really just a drop in an ocean. To make this twist the tipping point that turns you against them is to make their least interesting evil into their greatest evil—now the game turns its focus to your relationship with the CEO instead of EuroCorp’s societal evils. Syndicate sets up a world that begs for social commentary, but then it ignores all those possibilities in favor of something clichéd. It’s as if the ending was written by a different person who didn’t understand what the rest of the game was about.
Finally, this personal grudge allows the developers to turn you against EuroCorp without making you choose a side in the grand moral dilemma: dictatorship or war?
The problems with Syndicate highlight the conflict between plot and world building. A game needs to do both, and while I believe that the world building is more important, the plot at least needs to supplement the rest of the fiction. The plot of Syndicate actually damages its world building.
Syndicate represents a weird contradiction for its developer. It’s a narrative low point for the studio but a mechanical highpoint, since it is (in my opinion) the best shooter Starbreeze has made and maybe my favorite of the year. But boy is that story bad. For the rest of this year, no matter how bad a game’s story is, no matter how bad its dialogue or acting is, no matter how many plot twists appear out of nowhere, and no matter how many mysteries go unanswered, as long as the plot doesn’t completely undermine its greater fiction, it’ll be better than Syndicate.