I was originally going to write a full analysis of The Order: 1886, but I think the game has already been well-covered by others. Everyone knows that it’s the epitome of misaligned game publisher standards. It has possibly the best current graphics of any game currently available, but some of the drabbest, most boring gameplay available. The Order was a huge critical disappointment and a commercial failure. Fine.
But I don’t think critics paid enough attention to one particular component of The Order’s awfulness: its story. Shamus Young at “Twenty Sided” describes what he calls “story collapse,” or the point at which a story makes so little sense that the player feels like he is no longer “in” the story, but exists purely “outside” it. There is no doubt in my mind that The Order suffers from complete story collapse. The plot is nonsense on stilts. The characters have no consistency and have the things they say make no sense given the setting. It’s not just a badly told story, or a bad story in and of itself, it’s a consummately lazy story. The writers put no effort into making this damn thing come together, and I suspect this occurred for the same reason they built an absolutely gorgeous looking game with the most mundane mechanics in existence: the developers had ass-backwards priorities.
The Order was created in a manner meant to hit the broadest and most shallow possible goals to reach the widest audience possible. That meant creating a super-gritty setting, a gruff protagonist, using shooter mechanics, going heavy on QTEs, being one of the first exclusives on a new generation console, having absolutely top-of-the-line graphics, and finishing it all off with a mirror-sheen polish. Of course some story is needed, after all, The Order is a super-generic action-filled third person shooter and the developers needed some pretense to string the shooting together. But the story didn’t actually need to make sense past half a second of scrutiny to be shown off in dazzling CGI trailers, so it doesn’t. I mean, why waste money and manpower on writers when there are never-ending physics objects to be crafted in the game’s endless sleep-enduring, shooting corridors.
I am going to lay out the entire story of The Order: 1886, and explain what’s wrong with it, bit by bit. Writing this ended up taking me so long, that I decided to break it into three parts. That is how terrible The Order’s story is. Needless to say, spoilers ahead:
The Order: 1866 takes place in a steam punk Victorian London swept up in the explosive growth of the industrial revolution and global imperialism. The protagonist, Sir Galahad, is a member of an Order of knights (cunningly referred to as “the Order”) tasked with protecting the realm by fighting lycans (ie. werewolves, not the stuff on rocks and dead trees). In addition to using modern assault rifles and futuristic laser weapons, The Order’s members have access to the fountain of youth and can drink from it at any time to recover from any ailment, thereby making them invincible as long as they aren’t killed suddenly. Recently, the Order has been sidetracked from lycan fighting by a rebel insurrection (cunningly referred to as “the rebels”) which wants to… do something bad to the stability of Great Britain.
Other notable characters in the Order include Sir Percival, Galahad’s hotheaded mentor; Lady Igraine, the daughter of the Order’s leader, Galahad’s mentee, and a potential love interest; Marquis de Lafayette, another of Galahad’s mentees and a hopeful entrant into the Order; Augustus, the head of the Order; and Lucan, Augustus’s son, Igraine’s sister, and a guy who very obviously serves no clear purpose in the plot until a twist everyone can see coming from miles away. Also relevant is Lord Hastings, the head of the United India Company, a stand-in for all of the combined India Companies in real life and the largest corporation on earth.
The Order starts in medias res with Galahad being tortured in a dungeon at the Order’s headquarters underneath Westminster Abbey. He kills the first of his many, many victims, and escapes by jumping off the top of Westminster after making brief contact with almost every other character in the game so the player knows the stakes. This introduction serves absolutely no point in the story except to give away the shocking twist that the powerful, wealthy forces which the Order serves are not what they seem, and the impoverished, downtrodden rebels aren’t the real bad guys.
The game flashes back about a week to Galahad being called upon to help quell a breakout at a mental hospital, which is apparently connected to rebel activity. After slaughtering dozens of mentally ill people trying to escape forced 19th century mental health treatment, Galahad stumbles upon some lycans and suspects that there may be some connection between the ostensibly separate lycan threat and the rebel uprising. No shit.
At a meeting of the Order’s council (which consists every single member of the Order, so I don’t know why it even needs to be called a “council”), Galahad and Percival request to investigate Whitechapel, the center of rebel activity in London, to find a lycan connection. Augustus is outraged for the first of many, many times and refuses the request for no real reason. So Galahad and Percival go to Lucan for permission, since I guess being the son of the Order’s head automatically makes him the second in command because the Order is a monarchy or just has really bad nepotism. Lucan gives the greenlight. Remember this decision, because later twists make it completely nonsensical.
Galahad, Percival, Igraine, and Lafayette set out for Whitechapel, which is surrounded by more rebel territory. Shortly after entering the rebel-controlled districts, the knights are spotted and identified as supporters of the government. A shootout ensues which leaves hundreds of rebels dead in the streets of London.
While playing this part of the game, I was trying to give the developers the massive benefit of the doubt that the rebels were laughably underexplained because they were going for subtle world building instead of exposition dumps. Clearly I was being foolish. Pretty much no group or organization in the game, including the rebels, the lychans, the United India Company, or the Order itself are ever adequately explained to the player so we can understand their structures and actions within the context of the game.
For instance, do the rebels actually run part of London as de facto sovereign territory? I mean, literally hundreds of armed rebel soldiers charged out and tried to kill Order soldiers, who work directly for the British government, in broad daylight in the middle of the city. And it wasn’t an ambush or anything, Galahad and his companions were actually trying to be somewhat stealthy, but when they were spotted the rebels immediately tried to kill them, and raised (and lost) an army in the process.
What do the rebels even want anyway? It’s at this point in the game that we finally get some sort of clue through a bunch of signs and banners decrying inequality, poverty, and industrialism. So the rebels are basically socialists; at least that makes me feel less bad about killing them. Well, that and self-defense. At the same time, we still have no idea what the rebellion’s practical goals are. Do they want to overthrow the monarchy? Separate from Britain? Who knows?
Eventually, Galahad and co. make their way to Whitechapel, only to find that the rebels have taken over the Royal London Hospital and turned it into a headquarters. What? Did this happen recently? Did the British government (which is supposed to be at the apex of its historical power) really not do anything about anti-government advocates taking over a presumably government-funded/run hospital in the center of its capital?
Either way, the team ventures into the hospital and – Surprise! – it is filled with lycans. After dispatching the lycans, Galahad investigates the headquarters and discovers that the rebels are planning on launching an attack on the United India Company’s elite flagship blimp in an attempt to kill Lord Hastings (the Company’s chairman). Galahad, Percival, Lafayette, and Igraine confer with each other about what to do to stop the attack. The following conversation is utter nonsense.
Galahad suggests alerting the ship’s security detail to the threat. Percival counters that the guards could have been infiltrated (while there were fake guard uniforms in the rebel hideout, Percival never saw them so it’s unclear why he suspects this), and then says “we need to unravel this without arousing suspicion.” Despite promising Lucan that they would conduct their activities quietly, Percival announces that the best way to get to the airship is to call one of the Order’s own airships and enact a daring mid-air boarding. Because nearly crashing one airship into another above a busy port would never “arouse suspicion.”
Igraine suggests telling the Order council about the imminent attack. Percival counters that they don’t have the “luxury of seeking the council’s permission.” I’m not sure to which lack of luxury Percival is referring. It’s certainly not a lack of time given that they all have short wave radios on their shoulders, so surely they must have a way to call the council directly in this futuristic steam punk world. I also can’t imagine he’s referring to a lack of willingness on the council’s part to approve this plan given that Lord Hastings was at the last council meeting, seems to be connected to the council, and I’m pretty sure preventing the demolition of the largest airship in the world over British soil falls within the proper duties of the Order.
The game cuts to the crew already having jumped onto the United India Company’s flagship, and they make their way aboard. Lafayette asks Percival for the rules of engagement given that they are covertly boarding a company’s private ship guarded by the company’s own employees. Percival, continuing his nonsense streak, says, “Do what you must. We don’t have time to distinguish between rebel conspirators and the company guards.”
Ummm, wow. The Order exists in the world of movies and video games where people can get knocked out safely with single blows to the head (it actually happens in the game, also Galahad and Igraine use non-lethal weapons at the start of the game). Does Percival think just maybe his team could knock these probably innocent guys out rather than murder random security guards trying to earn money to feed their families? Nope.
The squad moves through the ship sneaking up behind and brutally stabbing probably innocent people to death until they find Lord Hastings. By looking for discrepancies between legitimate and fraudulent guard uniforms (the knowledge of which is yet another reason they didn’t have to indiscriminately kill the guards), Galahad spots the rebel assassins and takes them out before they can kill Lord Hastings. Hastings and the rest of the passengers evacuate the ship while Galahad proceeds to kill dozens of more rebels (this airship must have been filled to the brim with real and fake guards, how did none of the real guards ever notice that there were so many fake guards?) until he and Percival encounter a rebel holding a bomb. Percival tries to talk him down, but the rebel just babbles about Percival having no idea what’s really going on and then blows himself up. (I don’t know much about airship crashes, but why didn’t they just blow the ship up in the first place instead of trying to shoot Lord Hastings? Or were they doing both, and the rebels just have dozens of kamikaze fighters on hand?).
Anyway, the ship crashes, Percival dies, and Galahad becomes determined to figure out why all of this happened.