As with their prior Lords of the Fallen, German video-game developer Deck13 Interactive channels the deliberate combat and experience-point system of Dark Souls in The Surge. But whereas Lords of the Fallen didn’t distinguish itself much from its recent ancestor, right down to the fantasy setting and the mutterings about demonic forces, The Surge introduces a body-part targeting system that complements a sci-fi vision of human workers made unrecognizable by a technologically savvy megacorporation. While the action of this game isn’t as mind-blowing as it could be (as usual in the genre, the player waits for an opening before attacking and dodging, then repeats), the story’s prediction of a violent worker-versus-worker future is hauntingly plausible given the “us and them” insults that now typify U.S. politics.
The Surge’s opening strikingly imagines a down-on-his-luck protagonist getting the job opportunity of a lifetime. At first, the camera only allows you to see that a man named Warren is sitting down while listening to a talking head from CREO, a company that fits machinery to the human body for enhanced labor capability. Soon the game’s tutorial kicks in, and when you use the left analog stick to move Warren, you learn that he’s actually been in a wheelchair the entire time. And as Warren wheels himself around, a synthesizer-driven track bathes the scene with serenity, as if hawking CREO’s quality-of-life promises. But during a surgery sequence when a neural link is implanted in Warren’s head, any sense of hope is drowned out by a type of body horror that gave José Padilha’s RoboCop remake so much uncomfortable power.
When the player controls a walking Warren after he wakes up to a reality where flying bots and machine-clad co-workers force him to kill or be killed, the Dark Souls comparison takes hold. Anyone with decent knowledge of recent pop gaming history will recognize the potential for a common strategy by the player: Press a button so that you always face (“lock on”) your enemy, learn the enemy’s patterns, and attack and dodge when necessary. In a new wrinkle to this video-game formula, The Surge allows you to lock on to specific body parts of the foe: the head, torso, right arm, left arm, and so forth. Although this mechanic recalls the turn-based body-part annihilation of the Fallout series, the innovation lies in the purpose of one needing to target different things: to gather parts that can be equipped as an addition to a larger exoskeleton or used to upgrade existing weapons and armor.
This idea of crafting one’s own half-human, half-machine body is morbidly alluring in how it speaks to science and humanity’s untapped potential and to a future where we see each other as antagonistic killing machines. The game does dampen the excitement of the concept from an action standpoint, as it might take hours and hours of trying and dying—again, that Dark Souls blueprint—to salvage parts that aren’t the same old things you’ve seen dozens of times. Yet after you hear a friendly computerized voice say, “Look out for your fellow workers, they look out for you,” the fighting reflects a current political truth, as “fellow” laborers are as likely to despise one another as they are to identify as political allies who might face similar economic struggles.
The Surge’s more obvious theme of corporate exploitation isn’t necessarily served by how one is lured into a familiar cycle of upgrading, but the game’s message about labor remains honest. The “hours played” section of one’s save file simply reads “Employment,” which acknowledges the numbing effect of, say, initiating automated finishing moves when an opponent is weak enough for dismemberment or decapitation. And in the bases that provide sanctuary for leveling up and augmenting one’s exoskeleton, a modern country song plays, with the chorus ending with “there must be something more.” This emotionally potent tune points to the thrill of advancing in a slow-building RPG, with no clear answer about whether the experience can fill an emptiness most people have in their everyday lives on the grindstone.