Every person has an imagined perfect society. Everyone has their own vision of what an ideal world would be and how it would function, but, as anyone who watched Fox’s show Utopia knows, it usually ends in a bickering disaster. It’s a tough job to make everyone happy, while also making sure the society is a productive and secure one.
Creative minds such as George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, and Aldous Huxley have all explored how a society can fall into such disarray. Video games have adopted the themes each of these authors present in their respective dystopian books to show alternative scenarios of good worlds gone bad or bad worlds crumbling all the more.
The video games that present dystopias, like the ones listed below, show worlds that have fallen out of whack in some way. Each one of these games presents its own spin on the dystopia: hyper surveillance, militaristic oppression, false information to create fear, corporate power, etc. They may ask you questions that poke at you well after the credits role or leave you with a chill of fear. Whatever the reason, these dysfunctional societies are memorable in their own way.
1. Beyond Good & Evil
Hillys is a peaceful world, but the alien DomZ threaten to end their way of life. But a military force known as the Alpha Section has swooped in to save the day, promising to protect the planet’s citizens. Seems like everything will be OK, right? It does until people start disappearing — if you’ve ever read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, you may see some similarities in the story.
Photojournalist and orphan caretaker, Jade, uncovers that the Alpha Section has been helping the alien DomZ, trafficking the Hillys people, so they can siphon energy from their souls. As a reporter, she’s in a position to unravel the conspiracy and spark a revolution among the people.
2. Bioshock series
Rapture and Columbia, both awe-inspiring settings, make one wonder what kind of society could build such monumental cities. Columbia, from Bioshock Infinite, is a militant, pseudo-Christian society, but players don’t know that until well-into the game. Booker, the main character, stumbles upon a public shaming event where citizens can “win” a raffle to pelt an inter-racial couple with a softball. While you’re there, the racial tensions become so high in the city that it sets off a civil war with Booker caught in the middle.
Rapture, from the original Bioshock, is an underwater city that has fallen into madness. The society was created as a refuge where society’s elite could escape the government’s oppressive controls. If it’s beginning to sound a lot like Ayn Rand philosophy, her ideals were indeed the basis for this society, and the founder’s similar name, Andrew Ryan, hints at that notion. The city flourished for a time, scientific advancements went unchecked by governmental regulations, but this free-reign would ultimately be its downfall. Class distinctions grew within the underwater city and a civil war broke out, using genetically-enhanced armies to do battle. Many died in the process and the few citizens who have not gone mad, barricade themselves from the splicers that roam the halls of a once great beacon of civilization.
3. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
This game shows a world where corporations are more powerful than their governments. Advancements in human augmentation allow companies to control populations, not by the prosthetics themselves, but through people’s reliance on the drug needed to sustain their new additions. Without the drug, people with augmentations fall under the risk that their body’s will reject the implant.
The themes presented in the game ask the questions related to transhumanism: What are the dangers associated with man enhancing his or her body past normal limitations? What does it mean for us to deliberately redesign the human body and take an active role in our own evolution? Who decides how we move forward — if we move forward?
4. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
Nature has overtaken decaying cities where the memories of its former inhabitants live as echoes of the past, scattered amongst the ruins. Machines hunt the last remaining survivors on Earth, who must scratch a living off what’s left while constantly struggling to evade capture. By the end it asks an important question: Would you rather live free, but survive day by day or live in a utopia where your world is devoid of choice? Would you make that choice for someone else?
5. Final Fantasy VII
Like its predecessor, FFVII eschews the typical medieval fantasy of the other games in the Final Fantasy series in favor of a more steampunk setting. In this game, the protagonist, Cloud, faces up against the mega-corporation Shinra with a band of eco-terrorists that seek to end the company’s oppression on their city. However, Shinra has far deadlier plans than controlling Midgar, setting its sights on finding the “Promise Land,” which is said to have an unlimited wealth of resources. Shinra keeps citizens of Midgar living in squalor as the fat-cats rule the city with an iron fist.
6. Freedom Wars
It’s the year 102,014 and mankind has been driven underground. Resources are scarce and the populations are under strict surveillance. Anyone arrested for a crime — guilty or not — serves a sentence of 1,000,000 years.
Under this strict state, your character has been arrested for the crime of being alive, as newborns are seen as a waste of resources in this harsh world. But you can reduce that sentence and regain your personal rights through labor for the state, battling against giant monsters known as “Abductors” that inhabit the surface world and have a tendency to kidnap civilians.
7. Half-Life 2
“Welcome, welcome to City 17. You have chosen, or been chosen, to relocate to one of our finest remaining urban centers.” Quite a curious first introduction into a new city. The kind of line that cues you in that something isn’t right with this world you’re entering into. Indeed, the planet and humanity are living under a police state where the oppressive multidimensional empire, known as the Combine, is harvesting the world’s resources (including humans).
8. Infamous: Second Son
Those with special abilities have been labeled as “bio-terrorists” by the United States government and hunted by the D.U.P. The description is compelling piece of propaganda to set citizens on alert and rat-out any conduit that displays their powers. After the major events of Empire City and New Marais, the D.U.P. wants to suppress and contain all the remaining conduits by any means necessary — even if it means torturing an entire community of innocents.
9. Mirror’s Edge
The unnamed metropolis of Mirror’s Edge is one of the most striking dystopian cities (next to Colombia). Its minimalist, white high-rises with fleck of color make it seem like a utopia drawn up by Apple’s design team. But this image of a high-functioning, beautiful world is rotting from within, where an omnipresent city seeks to oppress the distribution of information and keep all citizens under the lens of an every-watching eye. Enter Faith, a runner that uses her urban gymnastics to skirt across the tops of the city skyscrapers to deliver parcels of data to help protect the information her clients so desperately want to preserve.
10. Papers, Please
You play a border control official for the great nation of Arstotzka — a fictional country that rules its citizens through oppression. It’s not the most glamorous job, but it’s something to feed your family. But every day the qualifications for getting into the country get all the more strict and the people seem to get more desperate. You have a choice to let your family starve or save another by letting them in, look out for your own or help an underground movement to overthrow this nation. In this world, mirrored on reality, being a hero won’t put food on the table for your family, it’s all about living day-by-day and the repercussions of letting a desperate woman in can have deadly consequences.
11. Remember Me
In the year 2084, a corporation called Memorize, has developed a brain implant that allows people to upload and share their memories with the internet for others to experience as if they were their own. User can also remove painful memories if they desire. Because of the company’s ability to access and store these memories, it has given Memorize immense power to surveil the state and take control. However, a rebel group called “Errorists” seeks to bring it down, of which your character is a part. But your job is now reliant on a voice in your ear, telling you what to do. The Memorize has gotten ahold of you and shown its devastating power to you first-hand, whipping you of all your memories.
The world builds off of George Orwell’s 1984 — a totalitarian state that watches your every move and controls what you read and thereby what you think. Players sit on the outside, helping a recently detained woman escape by using the very cameras the government uses to monitor and oppress its individuals. Security experts often say that another device to secure is just another door for hackers to get in. So governments may seek to control by posting cameras to monitor and manage the behavior of their citizens, but it’s also another means for unintended surveyors to peek in.
It’s not hard to imagine a hyper-connected world where everyone’s information is at your fingertips. When it released, its timing couldn’t have been better. The game’s themes deal with media manipulation and surveillance in a way that American citizens are coming to grips with it. There’s even a question of whose really controlling the strings as the game is set in the same world as Assassin’s Creed.
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