header is screenshot from The Order: 1886
Emma Kostopolus

When I first played The Order: 1886, I remember being incredibly frustrated with it. The cutscenes were interminably long exposition dumps punctuated by quick-time events that were seemingly random—sometimes low-stakes (pulling a lever) and sometimes incredibly high-stakes (resisting an attacker). The actual combat sequences were relatively good, but they were few and far between, and felt more like they were present to maintain the engagement of the player as opposed to serving a cohesive purpose. It felt sort of like a cell phone game that makes you stop and watch ads every few minutes, except I couldn’t tell which part was the reward and which was the obligation. I went through the motions of play, but ultimately gave up before finishing, which is saying something for a game with an under ten-hour total runtime. 

Why I stopped playing before the end befuddled me for a long time, because I’m typically someone who gives media the benefit of the doubt. I’ll chug through whole seasons of television that I don’t particularly care for, chasing a payoff that more often than not fails to appear, because I recognize that even things that are not universally great can have great moments. I can only think of a handful of media that I did not see through to their end in the last decade or so, and this game is one of them. My confusion was further compounded by the fact that The Order is, nominally, a horror game, or at least horror-flavored, which are typically my favorites. So why the reluctance?

Obviously, in the interim between playing The Order for the first time and writing this piece on it, I continued to play videogames. One of those games happened to be the interactive, branching choice slasher, Until Dawn. Throughout playing Until Dawn, I actively enjoyed several parts (the quick-time events prompting Hayden Panettiere’s character to either run or hide from a monster in pursuit really stand out as high-stakes decision making) and while I would not go so far as to say I liked everything about it, I at least felt like it was doing something interesting. It wasn’t until I was contacted to write this piece that I put together that both games are trying to do the same thing. They’re both trying to reframe the way players interact with a game, and how the story is conveyed. The only difference is that Until Dawn and other later games like it manage to do so more effectively. The Order: 1886, it seems, walked so that later horror experiences could run.

So what, exactly, is The Order: 1886 doing? In order to answer that question, we need to think more broadly about what we think games in general are doing. When we play a game, we commonly, but not always, expect to be told a story. This isn’t universal and is actually fairly recent in the development of videogames, with most early work having only the barest of narratives, and many successful games even today deciding to take a “story-lite” approach. The drive for deep and detailed narrative in certain games is, I feel, partly the product of decades of insecurity—critics such as Roger Ebert who turned their nose up at games and claimed that they were not art, largely because the lack of linear narrative meant that the form could supply no deeper meaning. So certain developers and artists began to think about grander narratives, thus blending the genre lines between games and film in a way that could perhaps give games more credibility. This is, I think, how we can understand The Order. The story clearly has aspirations of being a sweeping epic, and there are interesting glimpses of character depth and clever narrative devices throughout.

The issue here, of course, is that it’s incredibly hard to communicate any sort of in-depth or cinematic narrative during play, because of how play shifts the power to control the experience away from the developer and to the player (this seems to be, essentially, Ebert’s argument, albeit one that I think he did not give developers a fair chance to solve before passing judgment) . But play is still an incredibly important part of the experience—without it, players will disengage. So a game interested in telling a story must shoot a very specific gap—give the player a sense of control and engagement, but also allow plenty of space for exposition and detail.

The Order: 1886 attempts to solve this disconnect by interspersing moments of interaction into the cinematic exposition, such as the aforementioned pulling levers or fending off attackers. While it’s clear that the goal is for the player to stay tuned in so they can push a button or succeed at a quick-time event instead of zoning out during the cutscenes, the effect of this ends up being the opposite. Since there is absolutely no visual or tactile cue in the cutscene leading up to the interaction, you can never tell when something is coming. After several minutes of uninterrupted cutscene, you put the controller down to check your phone or to take a sip of your drink only to find that in your absence of a few seconds, the game suddenly demands your attention again. Many of these interactions are also entirely inconsequential to gameplay; pushing a button to pick up an object, only for the game to return to a cutscene, does not feel like I have done anything meaningful. Many of these interactions, instead, feel irritating or like a waste of my time, because they remove the very thing that makes interaction meaningful: choice. 

But that is not to say that I’m writing this game off entirely. Following this second pass at The Order, I actually feel far more generous towards it than I did on my first attempt. I can see within the game the seeds of the ideas about interactive narratives that would lead to some truly excellent experiences. For example, many of the momentary pieces of interaction involve atmospheric storytelling, where the player is allowed to examine an object or observe a landscape for as long as they want. While this might appear to some to be disrupting the flow of the cinematic moment, it allows the player to become more fully involved in the world and to examine for details that provide much-needed depth to the experience. A similar idea is teased out even further in Until Dawn, with optional clues players can seek out—the difference being that finding these clues can meaningfully change the way you make choices later, while interacting with an object in The Order gives you information that you are powerless to use. But the basic idea is the same, and it demonstrates an alternate method of exploring the idea of interaction in games. 

Both games came out close to one another, so we cannot claim direct inspiration—rather we can think about this as two games responding to the same broad zeitgeist, one more effectively than the other. The Order: 1886 attempted to make a narrative, cinematic experience but failed to respect the core goal of why many people play games, unlike the work done by the folks over at Supermassive, who took the idea that interaction does not have to exclusively sit within combat and found a way to make those moments impactful to the player in Until Dawn. While I can’t say I’ll return to The Order frequently, I think it deserves some recognition for testing the waters.


Emma Kostopolus often writes things about scary video games for Unwinnable Magazine. When she is not doing that, she is spending time with her cats and breaking glass on purpose to turn it into art. She can be found online nowhere.