Building A Better Dystopia

Devoid of lasting meaning, minimally encroaching on real-world issues, and ignoring problems in their own societies, game dystopias are a mess.

A bit different than the post-apocalyptic setting, though somewhat similar in certain aspects, the dystopian video game has rarely ever made impressive strides since the likes of BioShock, Deus Ex, and Mirror's Edge. Devoid of lasting meaning, minimally encroaching on real-world issues, and ignoring the exploration of the problems in their own societies, recent dystopian games have all but floundered in this industry. It's about time for a revival, especially with those rumors of a BioShock 4 floating around.

But what exactly is the dystopian genre, anyway? Is it post-apocalyptic, action-adventure, horror, or is it something completely different? More or less, it's a combination of these concepts with some extreme political overtones. One of the most critical and highly recognized dystopian works of fiction is Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (unironically the very novel that inspired BioShock.) There's also the well-known classics of 1984, The Giver, Fahrenheit 451, A Clockwork Orange and The Handmaid's Tale. The common thread shared between all of them is a society, once having been utopic, torn and ravaged by a kind of gradual oppression.

Some might say contemporary society reflects this, yet it's far more complicated than that.

The Fallout of Dystopia

One of the best iterations in dystopian gaming is actually often criticized for its ignorance of the world around the characters. Kieth Stuart states in his The Guardian article:

"People who argue that The Last of Us is as much Ellie's story as Joel's might be correct in a pure narrative context, but in terms of identification and raw experience, we're with Joel all the way."

Though the game has garnered widespread praise, and is often heralded as among the best narrative experiences in the medium, it still has its flaws. Stuart argues that too much of a focus on the male (and particularly white) identity is at the heart of the issue, though it's far broader. The relationship between the characters plays a huge role in the story, yet what about the underlying world writ large? There's a mixture of zombies and untrustworthy people in a society turned upside down. Players are never given any substantial evidence as to why society has crumbled beside the zombie outbreak. Maybe more of the world will be revealed in The Last of Us Part 2, but many dystopian games suffer from this very ignorance: favoring big action set pieces over in-depth analyses of their settings.

Most of the Call of Duty titles following Modern Warfare 3 have dystopian backdrops, such as Ghosts, Black Ops III and Advanced Warfare. All of them were relatively well-received, thanks due in large part to their name in the industry, but what they lacked were grounded stories that did deep dives into their narrative placements. In effect, these games were merely designed as dystopian to give players bad guys to shoot and a villain to chase after. Just look at the lackluster Days Gone, which may have effectively killed the dystopian zombie genre. Most recent dystopian games work in this manner, serving as mere action for missions. Not only do they fail to highlight anything meaningful about their societies but they also utilize the genre as nothing more than a tool for violence and progression.

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The Book is Always Better...

Instead, dystopian titles should expound upon these notions of big-corporations, corrupt political systems, and other forms of overruling tyranny, conveying pieces of truth within the real world, much like the literature it tries to emulate. One of the most revered works in dystopian storytelling is 1984, which describes a near-future reality wherein war, propaganda, and government surveillance reign supreme. The book was influenced and encapsulated by the Tehran Conference, which sought to divvy the world into separate sections of influence. Through imagination, Orwell was capable of portraying a dark future that many in the aftermath of World War II believed wasn't merely possible but probable beyond a doubt.

Video games should be able to capture this very same insight, if not more so, utilizing immersion, interactivity, and breathless storytelling. It's not easy creating a drab and dreary world suppressed by the higher classes. Fallout: New Vegas was one of many that could have hit the mark, yet seemingly missed by way of the all-too-familiar "nuked-out world" trope, along with a slightly bland narrative that could have been wrapped up in less than 2 hours of gameplay. Like many similar titles, Fallout needs less story. These games should, instead, focus on emulating negative aspects of real-life dilemmas, while also challenging the ways we experience these concepts on a daily basis.

While some may not contend with the idea of politics and gaming mixing, when it comes to the dystopian genre, this idea is at the very heart of the story. Without political insight and its thematic representation, there would be little of the dystopian idea in its DNA. It doesn't have to be an outright mirror of the real-world (in fact, it shouldn't), but the game should use imagination and the narrative to express similar political undertones that haunt the real world. The reason 1984 became such a hit was for this very reason, striking a chord by underlining the problem in society: relying too much on the powers that be.

...But Games May Well Prevail

In his article on Gaming Illustrated, Jonathon Anson says:

"Current events, such as the rise of elitism, the loss of personal freedoms, broken societal structures and ever worsening ecological conditions, show these predictions have become a reality. It’s unsurprising then that cynicism regarding our future isn’t being better justified, but is a popular, profitable market."

It's true that the dystopian game needs a reawakening and a resurgence, but many of us forget that it's there on the horizon. Look at the upcoming titles of Cyberpunk 2077 and Death Stranding, two extremely anticipated games that will not only test the industry but also the state of the world. Their underlying message isn't dreary and apocalyptic, but the exact opposite. They plan on asking the gamer the question: "what are you willing to do to change this world," rather than building missions around the dilapidated setting. Games with similarly perfect renditions of the dystopian world include Metro Exodus and Papers, Please.

Despite the reality of current lackluster dystopian games, there is hope for the future. As an applauded realm of narrative fiction, the dystopian game should be designed correctly, that is rather than fitting the gameness of the title, it should say something about current society. They should move us in such a way for action, inspiring more people to stand up for their beliefs, rather than cower behind a screen or bend to the will of the supreme.

In all fairness, though, maybe we all really do live in a modern dystopia...

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