Humanity’s tale: studying Dystopia in modern video games


Tasha Acres (she/her) explores the popularity of dystopias in video games, and the value of their messages

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Image by Quantic Dream Presskit

By Tasha Acres

From the zombie apocalypse to futuristic Detroit, the dystopian genre is immediately recognisable in several video games. But why is it such a popular setting?

We may say it’s because striking down zombies feels less inhumane than doing the same to humans, or because the immersion of exploring a world so unlike our own provides the ultimate form of escapism. However, like famous dystopian novels such as 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, these narratives may also be conveying their own insight into humanity.

Unlike novels, video games have interactive narratives: we are forced to make decisions, watch emotional cutscenes, and embody the protagonist in a way that a novel doesn’t allow us to, even if written in the first person. These decisions can be used by game developers to offer an insight into humanity.

The dystopian trope in games often forces us to criticise our society by demonstrating the consequences of poor decisions and making us play through them, while illuminating valuable aspects of the human condition. The high stakes environment of a zombie apocalypse, for example, can raise questions about trust and friendship, and a futuristic setting may present the ethical debate surrounding progress with technology. With the dystopian setting, developers can break down the walls of our structured society to reach the heart of human nature. Can the narratives of video games be as valuable as those of established novels in the literary canon?

The Last of Us and Detroit: Become Human are just two games that share the dystopian genre, but present different settings and problems, and explore a variety of ethical debates. The Last of Us, developed by Naughty Dog, is an award-winning dystopia; its post-apocalyptic setting is perfectly suited for its narrative, that champions the value of human relationships and hope against the merciless and perilous back-ground of an infectious neurological disease that strips people of their humanity. Joel Miller is initially introduced as a smuggler who survives by any means necessary. He is tasked with ‘smuggling’ an immune teenage girl – Ellie – across the country to a group that needs her to develop a vaccine. Of course, throughout their treacherous journey, Joel and Ellie develop a close relationship, where Ellie reminds Joel of his late daughter. He morphs from being indifferent about her safety, to saving her life – a decision that will doom humanity forever.

We question whether this decision is justified, but after the emotional narrative that we have experienced while ‘being’ Joel, we are more inclined to agree with him. This interaction with the narrative is difficult to gain from reading a novel, as it is supported by a genius soundtrack, incredible acting, and an engaging script. Therefore, the idea of operating based on fear – of losing your life, or losing someone you love – is added to the concoction of emotions at play. Crucially, though, this fear is not confined to a dystopia. These fears and emotions are always present in our daily lives, and a dystopian setting enables them to be more prevalent, as we evaluate our priorities, and the material appeal of modern day society ceases to exist. Even in a post-apocalyptic scenario, are humans destined to be in conflict with each other, rather than united against that which threatens their existence?

Detroit: Become Human tells the story of three ‘androids’ – robots built exactly identical to humans, aside from an LED light on their temples. Set in Detroit, 2038, this choice-based narrative adds an extra dimension to our experience of the game, as every consequence is a result of ‘our’ own actions in the lead up to an android revolution, where they protest for equal rights to humans. As more and more androids are becoming sentient and subverting their programming, they develop emotions as complex and undeniably real as a human’s. This futuristic setting raises questions of human empathy; if we eventually did develop robots on the same level as these androids, would we support their fight for equal rights? Or would our fear of technology lead us to antagonise and destroy them?

The answer to these questions may enable us to learn more about ourselves as individuals, and game developers have been intelligent to provoke their discussion.
So then, can a video game’s portrayal of dystopias have a narrative value, rather than just a ‘point and shoot’ system of catharsis? I argue that it can, and titles such as The Last of Us, Detroit: Be-come Human, Bioshock, The Outer Worlds, Cyber-punk 2077, Fallout 4 and many more all contain valuable messages about the dangers of totalitarianism, dishonesty, and the priceless nature of love and relationships. These experiences of a dystopian future highlight the best and worst aspects of humanity, so we can ensure to perpetuate the best, and move away from our selfish and complacent tendencies.