Every game released before 2005 is being destroyed. We only have time to rescue one game from each year. Not those you've played to death, or the classics that the industry has already learned from. We're going to select the games that still have more to give. These are the Saved Games.
Mercenary III: The Dion Crisis is a first-person open world game with vast environments in which you can travel between multiple planets. That made it remarkable upon release in 1992. What makes it still remarkable today is that your goal is to stop a politican from being elected to office and your methods extend from bribing the press to building prisons.
Spanning not one but several planetscapes, Mercenary III [Wikipedia] lays forth a sprawling universe for its titular protagonist to explore and every planet offers potential for surprise by discovering and interacting with its inhabitants. Upon arrival in Eris, a “mix up” sees the Mercenary held in a detention cell. Things immediately seem off. You’re released, given a half-arsed apology and told to visit a chap named PC BIL.
It turns out the esteemed President Margaret has reached the end of her political tenure. There's to be an election. You’ve been away for some time, it seems, and the sinister BIL character has risen to prominence in the interim. He’s now running for office, but you immediately suss him out. His guise of benevolence and boundless ambition is but manufactured pretense and the Gamma system, you discover, is going down the tubes by his hand. BIL’s at the heart of the downfall, twisting the screw to suit his perverse agenda. He must be stopped.
That’s where you step in. There’s a few ways to make this right but by far the most interesting and rewarding method involves you running as BIL’s opposition. Part of the joy is exploring the world on foot, by space shuttle, taxi or bus - the latter of which operates designated routes and timetables - and whilst there is an underlying set of objectives to be worked through, the open universe offers you the ability to approach each goal from multiple angles, depending on where you choose to head for or where you end up happening upon first.
From hereon unfolds a quest that uncovers BIL’s gross criminal activity whilst presenting you with the chance to stray from the path of righteousness yourself. BIL’s up to his polygonal neck in tax evasion, illegal mining contracts, and manipulation of the press to name but a few of his dark enterprises as he champions an implacable smear campaign against your best intentions. Suddenly, he knows where you are and where you’ve been. His fleet of privately-owned spacecrafts line the horizon, watching your every move. The newspapers print screeds of lies challenging your character. BIL’s got you in his back pocket.
So fight back. Pay off the press, the publishers, the broadcasters. Hire a private investigator to dig up some dirt on this bastard. Why stop there? Rig his casinos and bankrupt him; pay off a construction firm and planning executives, build a jail, and imprison him against his will; gather explosives and carry out an assassination plot. How far do you really want to go? Do you become as bad as him, or even worse still?
“One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship,” says O’Brien to the bewildered Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984.
So it is here. In this sprawling sandbox playground, it’s not so much understanding the rules of the world, as realising you’ve very little power to change or even influence any of them - unless you engage in criminal activity. And if you don’t, BIL will get to you. He’ll pursue you until you’ve nothing left. He’ll denounce your character and make you public enemy number one. You’ll be escorted to the same vacuous detention cell with the sloping black walls and huge spider’s web in the corner.
Back to where you started. The cruel cycle complete.
Mercenary III: The Dion Crisis is a video game that reflects our reality. It holds a mirror up to the dishonest and redundant aspects of our political spectrum. It questions the effectiveness of democracy and the complicated, and at times illegal, relationship politics has historically shared with the press. Superficial doffs of the cap to the real world have been confirmed in subsequent Novagen interviews - the departing President Margaret apparently a nod to ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who hadn’t long left office upon the game’s release; Lawson’s Bank a similar gesture to Nigel Lawson, Thatcher’s chancellor of the exchequer until 1989 - but its fiction mimics western democracy and its political systems as much as it mimics Orwell’s 1984. You, the Mercenary, are as much Winston Smith as you are any other inconsequential pawn on Damocles, Oceania, or anywhere in the real world.
Without thought or reserve, PC BIL departs from the company line. He plots and lies and cheats in his quest to grow his public persona. He pursues agendas and vendettas behind the hollow facade of positive public opinion polls and high profile media appearances. His invisible web of lies, tax evasion, deceit and corruption spans Damocles’ inter-planetary system: he spins an invisible web of unscrupulous connections and corruption that strikes at the heart of his manufactured and finely tuned shadow state. BIL represents Big Brother, dictatorships, the misgivings of the NSA, Watergate, the MP’s parliamentary expenses scandal, the abhorrent practice wrought by the phone-hacking red tops of the British press.
Mercenary III is crude in many ways, but modern video games would do well to learn from its deep and complex themes, and the agency it offers you to engage in the politics and powers of its world beyond simple acts of violence.
What can we learn from Mercenary III: The Dion Crisis? If history has taught us anything, absolutely everything, yet absolutely nothing.