I have always been obsessed with the idea of dystopia. As I only recently discovered, almost to my own horror, I was writing the beginnings to dystopian stories as young as five years old. These involved endless wars, prison camps and mutated monsters; yes, I know, I was a strange kid. Some of my favourite books and films are also set in these grusesome realities: The Road, Children of Men, Mad Max, The Handmaid’s Tale and of course 1984. And, while books allow us to be engulfed and films allow us to witness, it is only #VideoGames that allow us to fully experience dystopias.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what entices me by them, but I believe (apart from how engrossing they can be) that it has something to do with one of the core elements in the sub-genre. Essentially, any #SciFi must have connections to our world and a certain level of plausibility for it to be classed as science fiction. In other words, dystopias could happen. These five video game settings, like all dystopias do, serve as warnings to planet earth (something we could do with right now). On top of that, they also serve as hugely rich and imaginative game worlds albeit dark and terrifying.
You might think it strange that I didn’t start with any game from the Fallout series, as today they are (no doubt) the undisputed kings of the dystopian video game genre. But, Wasteland, which you may or may not have heard of, is the natural predecessor of that series and probably the most important dystopian game ever. It is considered one of the main inspirations in the development and creation of the Fallout games, and it is quite easy to see the similarities.
The game, published in 1987, is set in an impossibly bleak post-apocalyptic setting—a world that has been flattened and intoxicated by the full arsenal of nuclear weapons from the two, now dead, super powers. This nuclear fallout ensued at some time around 1998 after growing tensions between the US and the Soviet Union. Sparked by a newly built US space station sending a distress signal down to earth amongst the silence of recently wiped out satellites, both powers were left in a blind panic. It is quite obvious to see the connections the developers were making, especially as the game was created during the Cold War.
It is set after this apocalypse in 2087, and you play as a group of rangers who are attempting to explore and investigate the remnants of civilization that has survived. Despite the game being almost 30 years old, its persistent universe, deep RPG gameplay and writing still stands against the test of time. However, as you can imagine, it’s a difficult, dangerous and pretty grim game to play through.
Without Fallout 4 this list will always be incomplete. It is, quite easily, the best and most immersive dystopian setting that any video game or game series offers. Set along an alternate history timeline, the game takes place in a fictionalized United States that became locked in a 1950s atomic golden age with nuclear powered cars, vacuum tubes and 1950s telephones and computers. The world’s major powers also failed to halt their addiction to petroleum as their main source of energy. This inevitably led to a period in history called the “Resource Wars” culminating in the “Great War”, which involved barrages of nuclear weapons and only lasted two hours.
You actually witness the last moments of life before the war, standing on the vault door before the first shock waves of a nuclear explosion approach. Then, you emerge into this torn apart world from the vault in which your character spent over 200 years in cryogenic stasis. The alternate reality combined together with the apocalyptic wars that ended civilization on earth as we know it, surprisingly make for a thoroughly rich and colorful game setting.
You are thrust into the remnants that the war left behind in search of your family. These remnants are full of death and desperation, mutants, bandits and cannibals, growing factions of survivors and monuments of the old world that have been left to time. Playing it feels exactly how a post-apocalypse should feel like: familiar and yet horrifyingly exotic—believe it or not, this wasteland is home.
The reason why the idea of living in either the Fallout setting or the setting of its predecessor, Wasteland, is so horrific links directly to the definition of dystopia. It is clear that these game settings are harrowing, but it is because they were reached not through natural disaster or by accident, instead through human actions and choices that make them so harrowing. BioShock taps into these fears too, but from an altogether different angle.
Although post-apocalypse is an important area and aspect of the dystopia, it is only one of many branches of the genre. As with films like Elysium or In Time portray, inequality as the root of a society can also be used as a strong dystopian theme. It is not immediately clear, but the story behind the setting of BioShock is actually based upon the dream of building a utopia for society’s elite. The elite who lived in this underwater elysium had also been genetically enhanced by the sea born material, “ADAM”. The idea behind Rapture, which is the name of the underwater city, was to protect and distinguish the elite from the poor, or “parasites”, that lived on the surface.
Far below the surface, the individuals that lived in Rapture were free to create a pure capitalist society away from the controls and anxiety of government, religion, unions, left wing collectivists and a post-WW2 world. However, before long, this ‘utopia’ slid quickly into dystopia. Class distinctions led to conflict and on New Year’s Eve of 1958 a huge battle left the city in ruins. Unlike in Fallout, you play as a character that wasn't part of the society before it fell into disrepute. Instead, you play as Jack, a survivor of a plane crash in the Atlantic Ocean who stumbles upon the city completely by accident. That is where the game begins and how it ensues, with the player exploring the terrifying remains of this lost utopia-turned-dystopia from an outsider's perspective.
In Deus Ex, inequality and class divisions are ever present as in BioShock, but this doesn't define its dystopia. To get off to a quick start, all of the major real world conspiracy theories are true, including those of Area 51, the ECHELON network and the Men in Black. On top of that, the Illuminati, the Knights Templar, the Bilderberg Group and several other mysterious associations are all real and play a central role in the organization and control of society. In this reality, the Illuminati was founded at the time of the American Revolution and was dedicated to protecting those at the very top. Elections, revolutions, fashion trends, wars, morals, values and the direction of progress were all controlled by them. With all that in mind, it is not the details of Deus Ex's reality which are most significant, but the fact that they have been controlled for hundreds of years.
However, the power and control of the Illuminati began to waiver with the invention of the global information net. This breakthrough meant that access to information and the exchange of knowledge was freed from the Illuminati. This, as well as plague and disaster, led to a confused and chaotic half-controlled society. A man called Bob Page (not the most fitting of names for world domination) rose up from his massive wealth determined to shackle humanity once again. To do this, he undermined world stability by constructing and offsetting a pandemic that would go on to kill billions of people. He also constructed the cure, so he had the power to choose who lived or died. With the world in complete chaos, Page decided it was time to cement his power through the establishment of several agencies as well as through the power of nanotechnology and the information net.
The Deus Ex series began in 2000 (our 2000), introducing players to this unnerving but vibrant cyber punk reality. In the original game you play as an anti-terrorist agent employed by one of the agencies that Page setup, called UNATCO. You are on a mission to take down enemies in this deeply unequal and poverty stricken world set in the near future of earth. However, as you play, you slowly uncover the things that you would probably have been far better off not knowing.
Which of these four game dystopias would you least like to live in?