PBEM Forever: Frozen Synapse
I don’t know if you’ve noticed anything different, but many of us are getting our pandemic on. With everybody stuck inside, it seems like a good time to talk about something a little different — that particular strain of video games that are like board games, including how they can be played asynchronously with friends and loved ones. In fact, these games were built from the ground up with that very feature in mind. PBEM Forever is about these titles, the finest play-by-email games that aren’t merely video board games.
In action, Frozen Synapse looks like a real-time tactics game. Little men in green and red — yellow, too, if you’re playing the solo campaign — gliding across the neonscape with all the fluidity of bits of data sliding into their proper places. When they stop, it’s to aim and squeeze the trigger, sending lashes of gunfire or ping-ponging grenades across the field. When struck, they spiral and spill, native color leaching to gray. If anything, it looks like a pain in the ass to control, even when you’re only commanding a small handful of units.
But what you’re witnessing isn’t actually Frozen Synapse. Oh, it’s part of it. But this is the resolution, no more “the game” than the numerical outcomes on a combat resolution table are “the game” compared to the units pushed across a board. Rather, all your decisions come before, orders delivered in five-second increments. An entire battle in less than half a minute. In resolution-time, that is. How long you actually spend deliberating over your turns is entirely up to you.
To the unacquainted player of Frozen Synapse gradually coming to grips with its take on tactics, the planning phase looks simple, then particular, then persnickety, then simple again. It’s a game of waypoints and priorities. Your unit will move here, then there, then crouch and strafe crabwise while aiming over there, then pop back to standing to out-draw the jerk who (you hope) will pass by that window at that precise moment. There’s an entire suite of orders to consider, enough that it’s easy to forget to order one of your vatforms (that’s dystopian for “soldier”) to ignore fire, usually resulting in an awkward demise in which he stutters to a stop to aim his rifle only to get slugged through the forehead, but not so many that you can’t consider them all when you aren’t in a rush. Move, duck, pause 1.2 seconds, aim back the way you came in case somebody looped around behind you, pivot, wait another 0.4 seconds, stand at the exact moment another of your mindless vatforms rounds a corner. That’s five seconds. Now watch the outcome of your orders pitted against your opponent’s and plan the next five.
Of course, that’s also the hitch: you’re playing against a thinking mind, resulting in a he-knows-that-I-know-that-he-knows game every bit as energizing — and occasionally frustrating — as something like BattleCON or EXCEED. In one memorable match, an opponent flooded three machinegunners into the cramped quarters of a house to hopefully swamp whoever I sent in there. Unfortunately for him, two factors bent this numerical imbalance in my favor. First, that I had preempted his brute-force approach and planned speculative movements for his own troops, letting me test out various outcomes and stances and routes. And second, that I didn’t do the dumb thing by sending in my own machinegunner; instead, all three of his boys met the business end of my shotgunner’s weapon, superior in acquisition at short ranges. He may have won our best-of-five, but he sure lost that skirmish.
What makes this work is a sly determinism under the hood that belies the onscreen chaos. That unit, in that pose, aiming as long as he has at that precise spot, will always beat that unit to the punch but not that one. Rather than being entirely random, it’s a game of hard numbers and soft targets. A single bullet will end a vatform’s life, whether it’s a machinegun bullet, sniper round, buckshot, grenade, or rocket. This lends itself to paranoia, even when you’re playing a regular mode rather than the hellish “dark” variants in which you cannot see any enemies except those that are in sight of your men.
This also makes the system eminently capable of being wrought into its proper shape, although such moments may come across as bullshit or cheese to those who don’t know to expect them. Once, with only one remaining vatform, I squatted in an alcove and took aim at the sole entry point. But instead of running into hostile fire, my opponent tooled out his options. When we submitted our orders and watched the outcome, a rival vatform hopped into and then out of sight, diverting my idiot AI’s attention just long enough for another vatform to enter the room and bring me down with a single well-placed thud.
Was it cheesy? Sure. But that’s also exactly what Frozen Synapse offers, both mechanically and in terms of its fluff. You’re here to manipulate the system on your opponent’s end as much as on yours. If battles were longer than five or six turns, that constant juggle might become too oppressive. Instead, as soon as the battlefield has been deformed by rocket fire and somebody has made their supremacy evident, it’s over. If it even lasts that long. Don’t be surprised to see some matches ending after only two or three turns. To board gamers who’ve come to expect multiple rounds and catch-up systems and flexible nets to prevent anybody from getting knocked out of the running too early, this might seem scrawny. It’s anything but. Frozen Synapse is muscular, and that leanness is the result of a strict diet and toning regimen, all flab removed for the sake of streamlining. From the very moment you jump into a match, you’re presented with a fresh arena, a disparate squad, and likely a kill or two lingering within three seconds of happening. Now it’s your job to make or avoid those kills.
And if you don’t? You’ve lost literal seconds, not two hours plus setup and rules walkthrough. If anything, the one limitation to Frozen Synapse’s email play is that it’s so briskly completed that it can easily consume not only one more turn, but also one more match.
That’s what happened earlier today when I logged on with my friend John to snap a few screenshots. Before I knew it, we’d played three matches across two modes, and still it had only consumed around twenty minutes of our afternoon. It’s bite-sized like that. Sometimes too bite-sized. There’s a sequel, conveniently titled Frozen Synapse 2, but despite its added pizzazz and extra units (and a very janky attempt to stitch those nibbled battles to a larger campaign), I’ve never managed to break into it.
Still, Frozen Synapse is a rare accomplishment, a turn-based battle game that captures the hectic thrills of a firefight in only a handful of turns. But if it seems too small in scope, next time we’ll be looking at something a bit bigger.