Everything is dead or, at least, on the point of dying in The Order: 1886. Its London is by turns grubby and grand, its dispossessed classes rotting and rioting in rain-damp cobblestoned alleyways or broken-down hospitals, its rulers inhabiting gloomy halls and luxury airships soon to be spoiled by splashes of gore or wrenched apart in spasms of architecture-breaking violence.
As a depiction of late Victorian Britain—even one contorted by the plot’s injections of fantasy monsters and tweaks to real-world technology and history— this funereal atmosphere is appropriate. The game’s version of the East India Company may have metastasized into the yet-more-predatory United India Company, werewolves may stalk the streets and vampires terrorize the night, but The Order’s version of 1886 still captures the diseased spirit of imperial grandeur that characterizes its setting.
Players are cast as the mutton chop-framed, perpetually scowling Sir Galahad, a semi-immortal Knight of the Round Table that prowls London with his compatriots on the hunt for monsters. These monsters are, crucially, intelligent and scheming, their desire for death and destruction led as much by material greed as a taste for innocent blood. A plot twist partway through the game reveals that the werewolves encountered through the story up until that point are guided by a vampire: a Lord Hastings, chairman of the United India Company. Hastings’ goal is to unleash a plague of bloodsuckers on India and, Galahad learns, bring their plague to the Americas, too.
It’s at this point that the player (and Galahad) realize that The Order is a company of witless foot soldiers, deceived to serve the malign interests of the United India Company’s stranglehold on global trade.
The second half of the game’s plot deals with Galahad’s attempt to reckon with and verify this discovery. His search involves a partnership with the “rebels” he previously gunned down in the streets in order to maintain law and, well, order. He sees these rebels—who burn Queen Victoria in effigy and protest the power of the United India Company over their lives—emerging from squalid rented bunkbeds in nearby shacks to take up arms against the agents of power who massacre them while calling themselves protectors of the realm. Like a decades-early Orwell having his eyes opened by a tour of his society’s slums, Galahad begins to understand the system he’s acted as strongman for as he journeys through the world of those who power the Industrial Revolution’s engines.
His guide in all of this is, notably, a subject of the colonization that the Empire relies upon to expand its influence: Rani of Jhansi/Lakshmibai, the Indian leader of a rebellion drawn from the English gutters. (Rani, like a number of The Order’s characters, is based on a historical figure: a fictionalized version of a leader in the 1857-58 Indian Rebellion against the East India Company). She brings home to Galahad the realities of the monstrous power he serves, leading him toward revelations he’d rather avoid.
Alongside this, the story reveals further details of The Order’s composition—namely that the group passes forward Arthurian titles with the death of its members and the induction of new knights. We also learn that the knights live long-extended lives. They swig from vials kept on chains around their necks, imbibing a magical elixir created from their own blood in order to heal all but the most severe wounds.
All of this is rendered in Hammer horror tones—ominous flashes of lightning on wet, dark nights and growling man-beasts leaping out from the shadows—but, like the best genre fiction, The Order uses its fantastical trappings to say something about mundane reality.
If the main characters+ of a fantasy horror like The Order are going to represent a dying, rapacious empire that colours its domination of the world in the romantic, sanitized terms of imparting civilization, why not have those characters be calcified recreations of Arthurian legend, their existence speaking to a mythical tradition that imbues their predations with the dignity of ancient cultural values? In a horror game that wants to feature werewolf attacks and scheming vampires, why not have those creatures be servants of the British Empire made into actual monsters by their actions? Make the superhuman knights of The Order unnaturally long-lived but have them extend their authoritative influence over the world by an explicit act of auto-vampirism: swigging mouthfuls of magical blood to keep the carcass moving, vital enough to gun down the opposition.
More than just an evocative, grim setting, The Order also depicts London, the nucleus of British power, as sickly, moribund—an imperial core whose riches are drawn from plunder and shared unequally among its citizens. It uses the contrast between aristocratic glamour and street-level misery to illustrate the stakes of its villain’s plans. And the evil schemes of its monsters, enacted in the twilight years of the 19th century, add to a sense of spreading death and decay.
When the rot of the streets grows to envelop the Isles and the glittering palaces finally collapse in yet another outbreak of violence, The Order shows the literal monstrousness that’s extended its tendrils to India, and that will begin anew in the former colonies, an evil exported into the Americas as the 20th century approaches. The empire, we know as a modern audience, has reached a zenith it will not regain. The future lies across the ocean, a fertile new ground for the vampires and werewolves to conquer and through which to extend their power for centuries to come.
Despite the success of its metaphors and tone, The Order: 1886 never really gets around to making much of a point beyond the obvious judgement made about its setting—it ends abruptly on a sequel-tease, Galahad renouncing his name in a totalitarian London ruled by the United India Company, before it can do much other than establish its mood and the thrust of its plot. But, in the space it has, the game still manages to present a fictional take on history that’s enjoyable both as mindless action spectacle and as commentary.
If mainstream games are going to be pitched, created, and sold on the easily identifiable hooks of genre fiction—of various fantasies—then it’s worth expecting a degree of substance beneath all the monsters and spacemen and elves; of the deployment, at least, of some kind of thoughts about the real world that inspires our strangest dreams.
+ It might be a stretch, but there’s a hint of a bigger cultural and historical point to Galahad, the English knight’s, barely contained rage, his sublimated libido, and his relationship with Lady Igraine, a couple who are remarkably sexless, even by videogame standards.
Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Polygon, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.