Brain Freeze: Frozen Synapse

Frozen Synapse Logo

IMAGE: Frozen Synapse (Mode 7 Games)

In many ways I have a thoroughly unhelpful and disappointing brain.  Reactive, more emotionally intuitive than coldly logical, motivated by comfort and sanguinity and introspection rather than the practicalities and planning that builds a society and keeps the lights on.  No one should ask me to build a house.  Or fix anything.  Or work out why my computer is not speaking to my printer…  I mean, shouldn’t that just work?!  I put the plug in the thing!  It says that it’s on.  The light is even blinking!

Come on!

Simply put, I’m the lazy, vague, distracted type that enjoys sitting on a sofa sipping a warm cup of tea, my thoughts drifting through the resplendent vagaries of imagination, more than I am the enterprising strategian, artfully mapping out complex manoeuvres and schemes.  When I play chess (and I play it badly), I get caught up in narrative, anthropomorphising everything.  I mourn for every fallen piece, find myself drawn into demonstratively ill-considered plays, motivated in completely irrational ways to seek vengeance for a captured rook and lamenting the soldier cut down (usually through my abject idiocy) before his time.

Oh, little horsey guy.  I will avenge thee.

So everything about my brain, my psyche, the very fabric of my being, is wired completely wrong to enjoy an experience like Mode 7 Games’ Frozen Synapse.

As a top down, turn-based strategy game in which the entire conceit is to predict, outthink, and outplay your opponent, Frozen Synapse is perhaps something of a spiritual successor to works like the original XCOM (someone, anyone, with more knowledge of these strategy games will know how accurate or otherwise this statement is).  In Frozen, you command a small squadron of drones with primitive AI – reactive pawns who obey simple, yet intuitive commands – and you are attempting to manoeuvre around a playing space – one designed to be reminiscent of a digitised circuit board – by issuing orders on where to move, where to look, how to stand, how relaxed or trigger-happy to behave.  Meanwhile, you compete against an aggressor who is concurrently trying to wipe your men off the board.  It is strategic, orderly, regimented, and requires focus and planning.

Gun to my head, I can scarcely think of a game more antithetical to my personality, less aligned with my interests…

And yet.

There is something about this game – something that ticks every box in my mind that I never knew went wanting.  Something that lies beyond that simple, petulant urge to have one-more-try…

What differentiates Frozen Synapse from other similar turn-based game designs is its innovation of an asynchronous planning stage and a parallel resolution.  You are afforded as much time as you like to plot out your move, and your opponent (either another human player, or the game itself) is offered the same; but once you both commit to the manoeuvre, time restarts, and for several seconds all of this strategy is enacted simultaneously.  Suddenly the enemy soldier you were moving to intercept has already spun off in the opposite direction; now two soldiers are heading to the same piece of cover; in a twist, the guy you were flanking has flanked your flank with his flankety flank (…I’m using that word right, no?)  And with each of these semi-intelligent playing pieces having snappy, reactive trigger fingers, things get explodey fast.

It becomes evident that unlike many strategy games, you are not prey to the whims of dice rolls and stat upgrades.  Indeed, ultimately you are not even playing the lay of the board, but rather where you predict that your opposition will move next.  It adds a whole component of projection and bluff into the objective, as you know that once you have locked in those behavioural patterns, you will be watching their routines engage with each other beyond your direct influence.  Rather than control every action, you are therefore striving to craft the most fortuitous scenario through which your little agents can succeed on their own.  You become a god of opportunity, tweaking determinism to give your rudimentary bots the greatest possibility of success.

And not surprisingly, this proves to be utterly absorbing.

Having to methodically plan out each move, watching your soldiers follow your dictates (for better or worse), scrambling for cover, peering into a room, avoiding a line of sight, blowing the snot out of half the map with a rocket launcher (that’s a good one), is profoundly addictive.  Because when it comes together, when a move does in fact accurately predict the enemy’s momentum and get the drop on them in a cathartically fatal (if momentary) triumph, the sense of achievement is quite intoxicating.  There is a genuine sense in which you have legitimately overcome, have outplayed and outwitted, a system – even in instances where (as has far too frequently been the case for me) it clearly wasn’t entirely foreseen …some in which, in truth, it was just dumb luck.

So I should make clear at this point, lest I give entirely the wrong impression: I still suck at this game.

I’m terrible.

So many times the game screen ends littered with the fallen wreckage of my shambling discordant schemes, little geometrically primitive bodies laying shattered and inert in pools of their synthetic blood.  I’ve not quite grappled with the mechanics of how swiftly a shotgunner can outpace a machinegunner; if I have to escort someone in missions I have a tendency to charge off into farcically useless cover, completely out of their line of sight; and I have little to no idea what the ‘duck’ feature does.  But wonderfully (and this is a sensation that is true of all the best videogames), here even failure feels like progression.

Even as you watch your plans go awry, you are still gradually learning the game’s mechanics, watching their logics play out.  Winning, it reveals, is not about memorising rote patterns or cracking AI routines, but about incrementally familiarising yourself with this pocket universe’s action and temporal flow.  And once you have got these jumps and starts and tactics subconsciously woven into your technique, a curious poetry of motion starts to emerge.  Suddenly line-of-sight becomes second-nature, the splashback on a grenade and destroying cover is commonplace, the sight of a missile threading doorways to ignite a distant encampment has an almost balletic grace.

On top of all this, the single player experience impressively does include a serviceable cyberpunk narrative about a dire dystopian future in which warfare (of the kind played out in the game) is conducted by synthetic programs in virtual reality.  You are effectively a hacker, using the tactics you develop to dance these algorithms into visceral combat in the artificial ‘shape’ world – the threat of death nonetheless remaining compelling despite these soldiers being overtly reduced to winking pixels and shaders.  You are vying for control of Markov Geist, a city as blessed with an overabundance of terms like ‘infographics’ and ‘vatforms’ and ‘knowledge nexus’ as it is sprinkled with suitably romantic descriptors like ‘The Shard’, ‘The Brightling Core’, ‘Fortune’s Glave’, ‘Torpor’, and the ‘Cortecan Eye’.  There are oppressive regimes, resistance movements (why, you’re a member of one, of course), cults, splinter groups, propaganda engines, totalitarian philosophies being ironically toppled by dispassionate inhuman programs.  And with the optional dossiers that accompany each mission you can dig as deeply as you wish (or not at all) into the game’s welcomingly robust world-building and fiction.

Perhaps its most ingenious design choice is the way in which it incorporates the player’s own interaction with the text into its conceit, as you, through the input of your computer, stir these digitised beings into action.  In this abstracted play-space – part Tron, part Wargames, more than a little Matrix – the game simultaneously dehumanises and invests with meaning this world, these vatform bots, and the player themself, binding them all into a necessary symbiosis.  These algorithms grant you subservience and a complete devotion of will to complete your mission; you supply them with the attribute that for the time being – at least until the inevitable robot uprising* still separates us from artificial intelligence: the capacity to imagine.  Because this game lives and breathes in that moment of projection – in that ability to fantasise oneself into a possible future, and to try to plan for its innumerable potentialities.

So with that in mind, perhaps I should look into playing the new version of X-Com: Enemy Unknown.  After all, with my penchant for getting overly invested in games of strategy and poise now totally under control, it seems to be the next logical step.  And from everything that I’ve heard about it, I’m sure I won’t get attached to those soldiers, right?  I’m sure they’ll be just like my faceless, Frozen Synapse bots.  There’s no way I’ll obsess over their every dash for cover and each foreboding engagement with the unknown.  It sure won’t matter if I name them after my friends and family and most beloved cultural icons…  Surely there’s no way I’ll feel anything when Major Springsteen is eviscerated before my eyes.  Right?

…Right?

Frozen Synapse Game Screen

IMAGE: Frozen Synapse (Mode 7 Games)

* ‘Don’t tase me, Wall-E.  Don’t tase me.’

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