Published on December 12th, 2012 | by Liam Dean3
A love for dystopia
What is it exactly that draws developers towards the idea of dystopian societies when they’re designing a game? When you really think about it, there is a remarkable number of game franchises that rely on this idea in some form or another. Whether it’s the zombie fuelled mayhem of games like Resident Evil, Dead Rising or Zombie U, or the bleak science fiction futures of Bioshock, Binary Domain or Deus Ex: Human Revolution, we’ve really got a thing for them. Even games like the seminal PC classic Half Life 2 thrive on the idea of things going wrong for us as a species. Is it just our grim dispositions as gamers that make such settings entertaining for us, or is there something more to it?
For a long time, people have had a macabre fascination with what could happen to us in the future. Society itself is a bit like a tower of playing cards. If there is a weak link in there somewhere, then it could conceivably result in the whole deck falling to pieces. All of our moral and social etiquettes could be abandoned, forcing us to resort to our baser instincts in order to survive.
In this weakened state, who knows what sort of terrifying regime could rise to take control of us? Would they offer us some sort of utopian ideal that we would embrace out of fear? What sort of catalyst would be needed in order for such a collapse to take place: A war? An epidemic? A console generation that outstayed its welcome? I don’t know for sure, but I do know that it would be kickass if it involved shot-gunning zombies or killer robots in the face.
Okay, perhaps there is a certain amount of juvenility to dystopian societies in video games, but peoples’ penchants for all things apocalyptic actually have a far more extensive history in literature and film. George Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the most widely known examples of this. His bleak satirical vision of a totalitarian future in which the government terrorises its citizens to gain control over them has become an iconic work of fiction. So too has Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It is a different side of the same coin in which the government seeks to control the masses through genetic engineering and regular drug doses.
We cannot reasonably expect games to have such deep running social commentaries – I mean, come on, they’re games! – but a few have managed to use similar techniques to films such as Twelve Monkeys, Blade Runner and Gattaca to depict crumbling cities, advanced technology and oppressive regimes functioning within the same world. This imagery captures our imaginations because it depicts environments that are drastically different to our own, but are still recognisable. What makes them so engaging though is that they offer a new set of social rules that lend themselves very well to video games.
Dishonored is an excellent recent example of a game that had a dystopian world which was essentially a playground for the gamer. Like Bioshock before it, we didn’t need to be explicitly told what was wrong with the bleak industrial steampunk world of Dunwall in a lengthy social commentary. Instead, we were drip fed information as we adventured around. Before long, it became apparent that the city was hanging by a thread because of its warring political factions vying for control, its stark contrast between rich and poor and the plague that was eating away at it from the inside. Without realising it, we had been given about as much information as a film or small novella would give us, but we had been able to make our own choices within the constraints of the fiction’s morality system.
All of this was incredibly fun, but these choices felt quite arbitrary when looking at the story as a whole. Sure, the ending changed based on the amount of people the gamer killed, but Dishonored is essentially just an incredibly fun bastard simulator set against an engaging dystopian narrative. It is more about the different methods you can employ to assassinate a target than character development. In order for the decisions made in a game world to really feel like they are intrinsic to the experience, they really need to affect the course of the story.
The Walking Dead certainly achieved this remarkably well. Between its dialogue heavy design and interesting moral choices, it actually made me feel as if I had been on an epic journey and that my actions had resulted in a tangible outcome. The fact that it was set against a dystopian world full of zombies certainly helped spice up those moral choices too. It would have felt much less engaging, for example, if Lee was simply trying to arrange a fishing trip with his comrades. He still would have needed to travel towards the coast and find a boat, but securing gas and supplies within the safety and tedium of normal society would have made the game a mind numbing ball ache. And at the end of the day, who wants to play that?
The fact is that the idea of dystopia is just plain fun. Sometimes it can involve intricately crafted and rich environments like Bioshock or Deus Ex, and sometimes it can simply involve decapitating undead foes like in Left 4 Dead or Day Z. One of them isn’t necessarily better than the other just because it’s closer to the experience of reading a novel. There are many ways for the romantic idea of the world falling down around our ears to entertain us. Perhaps we haven’t found all of those different ways just yet. All I know is that the imaginative use of a dystopian environment can go a long way towards satisfying the pessimistic science fiction junkies in all of us. Unless of course the environment is MotorStorm: Apocalypse. That game was just plain lazy.