While exploring one of The Surge’s several dim, uninteresting factories, we meet a fellow worker, kneeling on the ground and unable to move because his robotic exoskeleton has run out of power. Provided by our mutual employer, the sinister CREO, these mechanical suits supposedly enfranchise us to work harder and achieve more – at the beginning of The Surge our character is confined to a wheelchair, and may only walk thanks to the assistance of his own company-provided machine. But as the game continues, and we battle incessantly against androids, environmental hazards and other CREO employees, it becomes evident the corporation is interested more in our subjugation. Our repeatedly dying and reviving is analogue for social immobility: ostensibly in service to the capitalist institution, often in The Surge we are progressing nowhere. Likewise, killing fellow workers and taking their belongings – armor, weapons, money – is synecdoche for age-old, economic competition. When jobs and opportunities are few, and personal status is synonymous with ownership, people will step over one another to get ahead. This is the world The Surge implies. As we take our loot, insert it into a processor and use it to improve our own exoskeleton, we are almost literally using the blood of workers to support CREO, the company. Like the man in the factory, forced to kneel by the very machine that purportedly empowers him, we are driven to submit to a falsely benevolent system.
The Surge isn’t influenced by Demon’s Souls. It steals from it. And by adherence to various genre tropes (extreme difficulty, diffuse narrative, free-form exploration) the game’s satire is dramatically undercut. One might call it parody. By emulating so completely the Demon’s and Dark Souls games – bleak, obfuscated horrors in which ardour is currency – The Surge more loudly casts its aspersions about materialism and the modern workforce. But although it impresses something about attrition, to die and instantly revive in The Surge betrays exactly the deprecation of human life, at the hands of a dispassionate system, that the game purports to abhor. The amount of time dedicated to literally retreading old ground, the sporadic plot beats and out-of-place contrivances render The Surge too long and too capricious to be called discerning. From its overtly allegorical, nuts-and-bolts world, a fantastical convenience like Demon’s Souls’ fog doors would be better left out. Albeit re-imagined, when they appear, the game seems produced not by original, perceptive provocateurs, but the very opposite – copycats.
Nevertheless, above most games of similar size, The Surge boasts cohesiveness. Determined there is something ugly about both social competition and the acquisition of wealth, it is not satisfied that players simply pick objects up. To collect better weapons, during combat we must specifically select our enemies’ most vulnerable body parts and steadily hack them off – getting what we want is a much more gruesome, and less passive act than pressing a single button. The game’s aesthetic, comprising incredible machines, dystopian landscapes and unfailing interfaces, might threaten its relevance to now. But a couple of flourishes – our protagonist, who wails in pain when it’s installed, seems at first as unfamiliar with the exoskeleton as we are; a sorrowful 20th Century country song plays unendingly on our base camp’s radio – ingratiate The Surge to the present-day. Its sheer length and body count overwhelm its finer points, but the game manages to familiarise its character and his concerns.
To the Demon’s Souls formula, it also makes various additions. The ability to store “Tech Scrap,” the resource used for both leveling up and modifying equipment, frees one to take greater risks in combat and explore The Surge more rashly – in a sense, this is a looser, faster game than its progenitor. On the contrary, The Surge is less enjoyable than Demon’s or Dark Souls. Without the threat of in-game bankruptcy hanging over each of them, the battles and forays into new zones are comparatively unexciting: the most frustrating element of Souls’ is also its most vital and by cutting it The Surge sacrifices more than it gains. A lower number of bosses however (The Surge has five, Dark Souls 3, by comparison, 19) helps the game’s drama. Misinterpreting their initial appeal, the Souls series turned its boss fights into extravaganzas – where the gigantic enemies were once fearsome, they became part of the games’ marketing, and happily anticipated by players. The Surge treats bosses with more reverence. Their rareness imbues them with mystery and then power.
Visually, the game is less interesting. Comprising destroyed industrial areas encroached upon by slowly returning nature, The Surge resembles Destiny, Titanfall, Borderlands, Enslaved and ReCore – a litany of bland blockbusters. Despite the sequences of bloody dismemberment, often captured in voyeuristic slow-motion, battles are a temperate process of slowly wearing away numbers from the enemies’ health bars. The Division was similarly hypocritical: another game concerned by various societal what-ifs, apparently on the behalf of individuals and the disempowered, it represented human pain, and death, using cold figures. Whatever The Surge’s solicitude for the modern employee, it generally depicts him as easily, unemotionally quantifiable.
And so, helped and hindered by an association to Demon’s Souls, The Surge both condemns and condones disparaging treatment of the working person. Its depiction of a passive-aggressive corporation, benefiting from the pain of helpless, sometimes oblivious employees, feels astute. Its often unfeeling treatment of its protagonist and his adversaries, and its rehashing of a popular videogame formula make it resemble precisely the dehumanization and cynical commercialism it alleges to distrust. Cogent beyond most of its peers (sandbox games rarely posses a story, let alone any tangible “point”) The Surge also has an admirable interest in real-life and a rare anger that manifests in excellent scenes of violence. But as well as being racked with contradictions (not to be mistaken with nuances) its length and the genre conventions into which it so heavily leans dramatically undermine what could have been a potent satire.
Ed Smith is a writer from the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed and find more of his work at bulletpointsmonthly.com.