How One Mechanic Overshadowed The Order: 1886’s Promising Storytelling Project
Video games continue to find new ways to interlace storytelling with specific game mechanics. What Remains of Edith Finch designed a set of mini-games themed to each member of a cursed family’s personal tragedies. Oxenfree’s time-based dialogue system and exploration via puzzle solving and radio communications helped illustrate the messy nature of coming of age and coming to terms with trauma. These two games are particularly significant examples that have been lauded since their release for how well they integrate their story project with gameplay. Yet there are some games whose storytelling project, no matter how ambitious, are doomed to critical scorn by trying to integrate a widely reviled game mechanic. This was the case with The Order: 1886 and its use of quick-time events (QTEs).
I finally got the chance to play through The Order: 1886 around a year ago and found out quickly that I was in the minority of players that didn’t despise or dismiss it out of hand. Just a quick glance at Metacritic or Open Critic (where its rating is a weak 63 and 62, respectively) shows you that the dark steampunk action-adventure game was a flop. Considering that Mass Effect: Andromeda, which despite its many flaws in storytelling and gameplay managed to garner a 72, The Order: 1886’s reception is dismal. Considering the fact that Metacritic scores in particular have lost developers like Obsidian a million dollar bonus and contributed to the Mass Effect series being put on ice, Ready at Dawn’s dreams of a sequel are dashed. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that the game was succeeded a month later by Bloodborne, which in addition to having a similar Gothic flair and a plot about monster hunting, was helmed by acclaimed developer From Software.
The main criticisms of the game were that it was too short for its price point, uses too many pre-rendered scenes, has overly linear gameplay, and (the sticking point for many) too many interactive cutscenes. No matter where negative feedback fell on this spectrum, the gripe about the QTE mechanic was often the keystone of the argument. One Forbes contributor even dubbed the game “the holy grail of bad quick-time events.”
Which is a shame really. While I do think there were some definite flaws with making QTEs a central mechanic in The Order: 1886, I actually found that there were instances where the storytelling wouldn’t have had the same impact if that mechanic had been absent. I would even go as far to say that the story this game was telling wouldn’t have been complete without the implementation of QTEs. I’d like to briefly discuss how this knee-jerk reaction to specific mechanics like QTEs does a disservice to the full storytelling project of a game, and how The Order: 1886 did not solely rely on QTEs to drive its plot or build its convincing alternate fin-de-siècle world.
As QTE action prompts have become increasingly illogical over the years, such as the infamous “Press F to pay respects” that was perpetrated in the Call of Duty series, a large percentage of the gaming community has become reactionary to the presence of button-mashing quick-time events. The immediate response to QTEs in the E3 2017 demo for Spiderman by Insomniac Games comes to mind. QTEs have been around for a long time in games, the earliest and perhaps the most extensive use of them being in the 1983 arcade game Dragon’s Lair. Dragon’s Lair was essentially one long interactive cutscene featuring a humorous yet cringe-worthy damsel-in-distress plot that fulfills game designer and critic Ian Bogost’s worries that video games could become “bad television shows and novels with button pressing.”
These worries are well-warranted. While QTEs aren’t inherently terrible, when used poorly they can feel like cheap tactics to up the difficulty of the game, a la Tomb Raider (2013)’s button mashing or insta-death. QTEs are often inconsequential action prompts as well, such as Quantic Dream’s fail-forward design in Heavy Rain or Beyond: Two Souls in which there’s no possibility of a game over, effectively deflating the game of any real suspense. At their worst, QTEs can frustrate the hell out of players or even reduce serious story beats to hilarious gag scenes. On the flipside, there are successful QTE-like mechanics. TellTale Games' The Walking Dead: Season Two, provides a powerful example of static button inputs in a memorable sequence where Clementine must stitch her own arm and shortly after fend off a zombie.
"Whenever you deal with QTEs in The Order: 1886, you are often dealing with the consequences of following your duty."
The game and designer that coined and defined the QTE as it is known and groaned over today, however, was Shenmue and Yu Suzuki. Suzuki described the mechanic, originally called a “quick timer event”, as a way to achieve the “fusion of gameplay and movie”. This goal has since caused frequent schisms between players and game theorists, who are wary of leaning too heavily on the techniques of a passive medium like cinema to boost entertainment value. Pre-rendered cutscenes without any interactivity, and games that feature a lot of them like The Order: 1886, have taken a lot of flak for similar reasons. A notable exception is Until Dawn, which was mostly an interactive horror movie, but was well-received because of its well-designed choice-and-consequence system which effectively presented the life-or-death situations the eight protagonists faced.
The Order: 1886’s mission was to make a game that elevated the interactive cutscene to the next level. Playstation 4’s impressive graphical capabilities allowed the game to achieve almost photorealistic visuals, making the fin-de-siècle setting and characters feel a lot more palpable. Everything from the gaslighting, the tarnished storefronts, the print culture, the speculative steampunk gadgets the Knights of the Order use, to the rendering of hair, skin, and subtle motion-captured expressions successfully suspends the player’s disbelief. The transitions from gameplay to interactive cutscenes are seamless as result, making the fluidity of playing through such a cinematic game feel natural instead of jarring as with past games where the budget gap between cutscenes and in-game graphics was wide.
The criticism that too many resources were spent on the graphics, leading to lacklustre gameplay and overreliance on pre-rendered cutscenes to drive the narrative is fair, but too narrow in my opinion. Not every game is looking to experiment with interactive narratives in the manner of Bioware’s branching conversations, or Oxenfree’s cutscene-free gameplay. The Order: 1886 sought to immerse the player in its game world by making the entire experience whether through gameplay, cutscenes, or lore, feel plausible.
That’s why Ready at Dawn hired Kirk Ellis of HBO John Adams’ fame to pen the script for the game. Ellis granted the historical locales, events, and figures who populate the world of game an evocative gravity and ethos. Nikola Tesla, for example, wasn’t a double-agent for The Order and the rebels because it was cool, but because it suited Tesla’s political beliefs. Co-directors Ru Weerasuriya and Dana Jan set the game in 1886 and had their art and research teams pursue the portrayal of an authentic zeitgeist for the beginning of the industrial revolution. I appreciated the attention to detail given to the historical and scientific aspects of the game’s steampunk world because other games that have attempted to portray such a world (i.e. Bioshock: Infinite, American McGee’s Alice series) have mostly focused on visual stylization.
The QTE was chosen as a game mechanic to highlight because the directors didn’t want to fall into the trap of creating just another shooter set in a specific time period. They also likely wanted the player to feel that they had some control even during cutscenes, although apparently, that fell through because of the game’s short length and heavy reliance on environmental storytelling. For players that had become used to being given more and more agency over the years via various gameplay mechanics, it seems The Order: 1886 was too minimalist and controlling over its narrative for their liking.
As a player who grew up with JRPGs and games that didn’t shy away from cutscenes, I wasn’t taken aback in the least to find that The Order: 1886 was dependent on its interactive cutscenes. If anything, it felt uniquely exciting to me, because growing up I always wondered how different the impact of gameplay would be if I were playing through the artistic and gripping cutscenes I loved from Final Fantasy games, Metal Gear Solid, or Soul Reaver.
My opinions of cutscenes are similar to scholar Rune Klevjer’s in his “In Defense of Cutscenes”: they can be rewarding, offer unifying logic to the gameplay sequences, and offer brief release from particularly intense gameplay sequences. While playing the interactive cutscenes of The Order: 1886, especially when the QTEs were reactionary, it heightened my suspense because when I failed them the grisly deaths the characters met if I failed felt so much more visceral than video game deaths usually do. Similar to the QTE or death scenes in Tomb Raider (2013).
Speaking of visceral, as I mentioned above, Bloodborne was released a month after The Order: 1886. As such, comparisons are inescapable between the two titles. Where the latter title relies on environmental storytelling and interactive cutscenes largely to tell its story, the former is much more traditional in terms of leaving the interpretation/configuration of the story up to the player. From Software has spawned whole YouTube channels and books discussing the philosophy of its “show-don’t-tell” gameplay. Most of their games’ storytelling is revealed via the lore of items, and brief interactions (some of which must be unlocked through specific player actions) with NPCs, and cutscenes that are often silent. Both games have something in common, however, and that is a love of environmental storytelling and intertextuality. The difference between the two, however, is in what texts are being shared.
There have been discussions amongst From Software fans concerning Bloodborne’s intertextuality with the Dark Souls series, although this is very tenuous and suggested via environmental storytelling cues that shore up Lovecraftian themes of Great Old Ones or Bram Stoker-esque vampirism. The Hunter’s Dream, a setting that the player character returns to between main levels in Bloodborne is populated by pillars that resemble Arch Trees from the prologue setting of Dark Souls apocalyptic world. The Order: 1886’s intertext is much more explicit, with the protagonists bearing codenames referencing knights of the round table and phonograph cylinders you find scattered throughout London telling you snippets of Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. Both series deal with monster hunters and creatures that could easily populate the pages of Penny Dreadfuls and delve into what such a duty means ethically for all those involved. QTEs play an important role in this regard for The Order: 1886.
Whenever you deal with QTEs in The Order: 1886, you are often dealing with the consequences of following your duty (or betraying it later on in the game when Sir Galahad decides to side with the rebels). You kill Lycans, also known as half-breeds, of which there’s been an outbreak in Whitechapel. You protect noblemen like Lord Hastings from a rebel bomb plot, only to find out he’s a vampire and the reason for the half-breed outbreak (essentially, this world’s version of “Jack the Ripper” terrorizing the poor of the quarter). You save rebel leader Lakshmi from Lord Hastings, who offers a non-Eurocentric view of the outbreak and the colonialist and genocidal actions of the United India Company as they unleashed Vampires and Lycans in India to wipe out dissenting voices. Finally, and perhaps the most telling example of a QTE, is when Sir Galahad is forced to execute one of his own Order, Sir Lucan, who was colluding with Lord Hastings and is a Lycan himself.
The climax scene when you execute Sir Lucan is proof that The Order: 1886 did not take its incorporation of QTEs lightly. The Lord Chancellor orders you to keep the secret of his adoption of a Lycan from a clan he killed long ago, in order to keep The Order from dissolving into chaos but leaves you to be the one to pull the trigger. As Galahad raises his weapon to Sir Lucan’s head, the player is given one last QTE prompt that communicates the gravity of your duty: you must be the executioner and the martyr for sake of The Order. There’s no other choice for player to make, and for the moral gray area the game is exploring through a character with a complex code of honour, I can’t imagine it ending another way.
Yes, The Order: 1886 isn’t perfect, far from it, when you compare it to games like Oxenfree and Bloodborne, which know how to walk the line between their narrative and ludic aspects. But its game mechanics, especially its QTEs, weren’t subject to as much ludonarrative dissonance as games like Bioshock have been in the past.
I believe The Order: 1886 is an important notch on the timeline of game narrative design as it matured in video games. The game was aware of how mechanics could help communicate its storyline and put the player in a position where they could perhaps empathize with the character they play and the decisions they made. The game may have failed by taking away so much agency from the player, but if games like it hadn’t pushed the boundaries between cinema and gameplay, games that much more aware of the proper balance wouldn’t have had a proper roadmap forward. For that reason, I think we should always measure our displeasure of a specific mechanic against whether it was the appropriate mechanic for a game’s storytelling, instead of disparaging it wholesale for including that mechanic.
In conclusion, it’s good to be critical of video game mechanics and their effectiveness, but we shouldn’t fixate on mechanics and ignore the merits of a project. Sometimes I feel as though reviewers are making snap judgments as quickly as the QTEs that they despise.