The Order: 1886 was so conventional a shooter that it was easy to dismiss as a deeply uninspired game. A visual spectacle showcasing the power of its PS4 platform, and maybe nothing more than that. Judging by weak sales and reviews, most people reached that conclusion.
Yet its world has stuck with me, over two years since its February 2015 release, in part because I know it will forever be unresolved. It ended up being an irresistible mix of historical fanfiction, Arthurian myth, Victorian steampunk, and present-day anxiety. It was a world that fired my imagination about what other stories could have been told there, and what they might have said about the myths and poisoned nostalgia that we shape our understanding of the world.
The Order combines two fantasies that are seductive for all the wrong reasons: the chivalry of the Knights of the Round Table, and the industrial science of Victorian steampunk. It probably shouldn't lead anywhere good: "What if the symbols of feudalism's most flattering self-mythologizing were hunting vampires in the heart of 19th century London, but with airships and submachine guns? Oh, and let's make them the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen so we can cram the Marquis de Lafayette in there, too."
At first it seems exactly like what you might be dreading: What if this Round Table owed more to Tom Clancy than Malory and Tennyson? They are reimagined as a kind of magical SAS, supremely well-trained and equipped compared to the hapless criminals and rebels they gun down en masse. If things do get hairy, help is only a radio call away, and then the omnipresent airpower that orbits overhead is brought to bear. It's all fetishized and fascistic: Oiled leather and polished metal against field-gray coats and gold braid, Galahad and Percival reimagined as Gestapo stormtroopers.
But then The Order does something unexpected: it actually stares at the history and legacies that its influences often elide. The feudal order of Arthur's Round Table is revealed to be waging literal class war as they invade and then demolish the poor parts of London, little more than self-flattering thugs serving the interests of a United India Company that, in this fantasy, has pretty much become synonymous with the British Empire. The illusion is only punctured by a pair of Indian warriors, Queen Lakshmibai and her aide / consort, who arrive in London waging their own war against the Company. They pull your Sir Galahad into the fight by revealing to him that the Company is in fact run by honest-to-God vampires who want to take over the world.
A bit on the nose, but I admit I need less subtlety in my anti-colonial, anti-oligarchy fiction these days.
The other part of it is that the Order isn't really full of all the Arthurian Knights, but is continually replenished through history by people it deems awesome enough to join its ranks. So you get Lafayette trying to square the ideals of the American and French revolutions with the more illiberal aspects of this new cause in which he has become enlisted. You have Nikola Tesla as the Q of The Order, building gadgets in the basement, disillusioned and embittered from his feud with Edison. And then there is an immortal Lakshmibai, fighting the vampiric India Company long after her real-world namesake perished in the 1857 rebellion.
The Order ends just after all its themes burst into the open. The next act, Wherein Our Heroes Try to Deal With All This, is about to begin. But it likely never will, and so The Order ends on a mournful and ambiguous note.
I'm surprised how disappointed I am by that. From unpromising beginnings, The Order managed to convince me that it largely understood its own complicated inspirations, and how we should relate to them today. I'm curious where the developers at Ready at Dawn and Sony's Santa Monica Studio would have taken that story next, and regret we'll likely never see the answer.
Do you have any universes whose premature death you mourn? Series that didn't catch on, or games that didn't inspire sequels, that you find yourself wondering about for a long time afterwards? Remember, the more dubious the thing that inspires you, the more points you get.