The concept of dystopia has fascinated human minds for centuries. Often used as a critique of current times, dystopian settings for novels, films, and TV shows allow us to explore ‘what ifs’ based on nightmare scenarios of political or religious fervour, corruption, invasive technology, or epidemics taken too far. Games are no stranger to these dark places, often placing the player in the role of the hero fighting back, a person simply trying to survive, or, perhaps most fascinatingly, a perpetrator trying to keep the ‘dystopian dream’ alive.
With news stories of political upheaval, terrorism, business scandals, and the breakneck pace of technological development dominating our lives, it is perhaps no surprise that recent years have seen an increasing number of these games released. In this article, we look at six of our favourites from recent. Welcome to your future…
A key feature of several dystopian tales is the level of control the state exerts over its citizens. Details about individual lives, routines, actions, and opinions are sought from a network of ‘concerned citizens’ to identify and root out sedition. In Beholder, you play one of the informants, a landlord directed to spy on his tenants and send reports to the State. You can eavesdrop on conversations, get gossip from the neighbours, search apartments when nobody is home, and install surveillance equipment, all to find out who is acting against the State (or even who might potentially do so).
But will you follow orders? Or will you warn your tenants and help them evade detection? Or will you go down the path of corruption and blackmail them? All are possibilities in Beholder as you must balance the demands of the state with the needs of your own family and the weight of your conscience. Just hope the state does not turn its attention towards you…
Dystopian settings are usually bleak and dark (the art style of Beholder being a classic example). Mirror’s Edge forgoes all that, showing us a city of towering skyscrapers, crime and poverty-free living, and bright daylight. However, this ‘utopian paradise’ is not what it seems. It is run by a totalitarian regime that has total control over the media, spies on its inhabitants, and enforces draconian policies.
You play as Faith, a ‘runner’ who traverses the heights of the city parkour-style to deliver messages away from the prying eyes of the city’s rulers. This is a classic story of fighting back against the oppressors while also trying to save a loved one, and it makes for a classic game.
Read our Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst review here.
Our thoughts are possibly the only thing that we as individuals truly own, and that is why having those thoughts and memories accessed by an interfering party is often a feature of a dystopian story. Observer puts us in the shoes of Neural Detective Daniel Lazarski, whose job is to hack into the minds of reluctant people of interest to gather evidence on crimes. Rutger Hauer provides the voice and face of Lazarski, adding to the futuristic dystopian feel.
Set in 2084 (the last two digits referencing George Orwell’s 1984, of course), the game boasts all the hallmarks of a futuristic sci-fi world – a backstory of deadly disease and catastrophic war, a backdrop of advanced technology, omnipresent corporations, addiction to their products, and a foreboding sense of darkness. The story goes to dark places too as Lazarski must delve into disturbed minds in an effort to find his estranged son. The twists in the story will make our ‘thought detective’ question both his own sanity and his own reality.
Read our Observer review here.
As the name implies, this game features a ‘Big Brother’ scenario, with the state able to access and monitor the digital lives of its citizens. You play as a researcher investigating terrorist suspects after a major attack. You have access to web histories, social media profiles, and even private emails and records as you hunt for any incriminating evidence. You decide what gets passed on to the powers that be, and that will ultimately decide the fates of the suspects.
This game highlights the possible consequences of having so much of our lives online. Are we setting ourselves up for this kind of interference? Would you accept intrusion into your personal data in the interests of national security? What happens if the information is misrepresented? You will find yourself pondering these questions and more as you dig deeper into the digital lives Orwell directs you to.
This game guides you to a more mundane aspect of a dystopian state as you are tasked with enforcing the bureaucratic machinery through a border checkpoint. You live the daily grind of manning your booth, checking passports and visa documents, and adhering to the ever-expanding list of rules, regulations and exceptions.
That may not sound very exciting but, as with Beholder, the attraction of this game comes with the choices. People will plead their cases to be let through, even if their papers are not quite in order. Guards will encourage you to earn more bonuses by placing people under arrest. Superiors will ask you to bend the rules on their behalf. A mysterious resistance group will approach you seeking help. All the while, you have a family to support and a job to keep. Too many warnings for letting through people that you shouldn’t have, and you will lose money or be taken away. Do too well through bribes and bonuses, and you will attract suspicion. Play everything by the book, and you risk poverty and/or the ire of your bosses for refusing their requested favours. Who said life was easy?
This game does not focus on a world dominated and controlled by the actions of a regime or state. Instead, it explores a world decimated and devastated by disease. You control the spread and mutation of a bacterial or viral infection with the ultimate goal of wiping out the human race. It all begins in a region of your choice with a simple illness that leaves people feeling a bit run down. As you gain DNA points, you can mutate your disease to become more infectious, deadlier or both.
The are many gameplay options for destroying humanity – different types of diseases, different scenarios and settings, and even multiplayer modes. Unleash two deadly diseases on the world at once and compete to cause the most devastation, or play co-op to eradicate humanity together. Either way, this game is about destruction not control, and there can’t be a bleaker vision of the future than that – just make sure you get those stubborn humans hiding out in Greenland!
Read our review of Plague Inc.: The Board Game here.
Any other digital dystopian delights that you would like to share? Feel free to do so in the comments, but be warned – we will be watching!