The future can be a strange and terrifying place. In the past, creative minds like Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell have all given us glimpses of how society can descend into anarchy. Now video games are carrying on their legacy by showing us lots of different worlds that have each gone to hell in their own unique way.
All of the titles collected here present their own take on dystopia, be it resulting from environmental degradation, mass consumerism, extreme concentration of wealth, or plain old nuclear weapons proliferation. A lot of the scenarios present situations that we, as a society, have confronted at some point in the past (or will be forced to confront soon). But since, in this case, it’s all in the name of fun and games, some of the writers and developers took it upon themselves to create some pretty insane civilizations of the future. Here are 12 of the craziest video game dystopias we’ve ever seen.
12. Half-Life 2
Following the events of the first game, Half-Life 2 presents a dystopian Earth where all planetary resources, including the human race itself, are being harvested by a vicious interdimensional empire known as the Combine. All of humanity lives under a brutal police state where citizens are kept in line by an army of Overwatch soldiers made up of biologically assimilated humans. Only by rallying around protagonist Gordon Freeman do the downtrodden inhabitants of City 17 stand a chance of overthrowing their monstrous oppressors.
11. Mirror’s Edge
Unlike so many dystopian futures depicted in books and cinema, the world of Mirror’s Edge looks bright and pleasant with a pristine looking unnamed city full of alabaster buildings set against an everlasting blue sky. But beneath the immaculate exterior lies something disturbing. An omnipresent government seeks to suppress the spread of unauthorized information and maintain a watchful eye over each and every citizen. This high degree of surveillance has led to the rise of “runners”—special messengers who try to preserve secrecy by using their urban gymnastics and expert navigational skills to covertly deliver data parcels to clients.
10. Final Fantasy VII
Final Fantasy VII was interesting because it diverted from the medieval fantasy archetype common to the RPG genre and replaced it with a cool cyber-steampunk setting. Playing as protagonist Cloud Strife, you join up with a group of eco-terrorists whose mission is to topple Shinra—a mega-corporation that won’t let human suffering stand in the way of their greedy ambitions. However, it’s revealed that Shinra has far greater plans in mind than merely controlling the city of Midgar. Their ultimate goal is to find and exploit the “Promised Land,” a legendary location believed to be an untapped well of unlimited resources. In this dark dystopia, Shinra uses superior force to keep the fat-cats of Midgar in its pocket while the city’s general population live in depressing destitution with little hope of change.
9. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
In Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, the decaying ruins of civilization have been reclaimed by nature and lush greenery grows through rubble of famous New York locations like Grand Central Terminal and the Museum of Natural History. The population of Earth has dwindled, and the few survivors remaining must constantly avoid being captured by machines programmed to hunt them down for capture.
The game presents a beautifully bleak dystopia that begs the question: is it better to live as a slave in a world free from danger? Or endure the severe hardships of a life that lets you exercise free will?
The story of Transistor takes place in the city of Cloudbank—a lavish cyberpunk metropolis where golden concert halls shimmer alongside gentle canals and cosmic skyscapes. When you first meet vocalist Red, it’s on the worst night of her life as she finds her lover apparently slain by a mystical circuit-board sword. However, she soon discovers that his soul somehow still resides within the sword and that it’s actually a powerful weapon that can absorb the traces of those it slays.
As the journey unravels, little chunks of information are revealed that the player needs to piece together from cryptic messages and it’s revealed that much more has been stolen from Cloudbank. Individuality and independent thoughts are nowhere to be found in this world where the idea of freedom is masked by the sterility of technology.
If you like delving into situations where you’re presented with all sorts metaphysical questions that make you ponder the nature of reality, you should definitely check out this game.
Considering where we’re at in 2016, it’s not too difficult to imagine a world where connectivity places everyone’s information right at your fingertips. The themes present in Watch_Dogs deal primarily with media manipulation and surveillance. Although a decade ago this concept would have seemed like just another dark fantasy, recent revelations in the extent to which governments monitor citizens make this dystopia a much more pertinent and applicable example than others on the list.
Republique is an action-adventure stealth game where players communicate with the main character, Hope, through their phone or computer in an effort to help her escape. The world seems to build off of George Orwell’s 1984 and involves a totalitarian state where the media is government controlled and your every move is watched. Security cameras are everywhere and, as a hacker, you utilize them to your advantage to aid in Hope’s escape. By turning the government’s tools against them you effectively subvert their authority and deliver the message that the forms of control they put in place can have disastrous consequences.
5. Beyond Good & Evil
Hillys was a peaceful world until the alien DomZ showed up and threatened to forever change the lives of the people living there. Salvation was supposed to come in the form of a military force known as Alpha Section, but soon after their arrival citizens started mysteriously disappearing. Now it’s up to photojournalist and martial artist, Jade, to uncover the planet-wide alien conspiracy that’s been brewing under everyone’s noses.
For anyone who has read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, you’ll probably notice a few similarities in the story. Even though Animal Farm is allegorized using horses and pigs to represent the workings of a corrupt and malicious government, it still presents one of the most frightening dystopian visions. Beyond Good & Evil takes the idea one step further by combining it with Nietzsche’s philosophy as it relates to slave morality. That, and it also features a talking pig.
4. Remember Me
Set in Neo-Paris in the year 2084, Remember Me revolves around a corporation called Memorize that has developed a brain implant that allows people to upload and share their memories with the internet for others to experience. Clients can also choose to have any painful memories removed if they so desire.
With access to vast data banks full of people’s real memories, Memorize gains incredible power that they use to spy on the state and seize control. The only thing standing in their way of total dominance is your group of renegades known as “Errorists” who seek to put an end to their business. But, after you’re captured by Memorize, you get all your memories erased and need to go on a quest to recover them.
This dystopia takes hyper surveillance to a whole new level by seeing a corporation with the power to shift the very fabric of the collective memory. Being given the opportunity to erase pain and regret is certainly a seductive promise that many people would find alluring, but Remember Me serves as a good reminder that it’s better to have unpleasant memories than no memories at all.
3. Bioshock (Series)
Both Rapture and Columbia are remarkable dystopian settings from the Bioshock games that make you question the societal foundations that would need to be in place to realize such a vision. Columbia, the city in the sky from Bioshock Infinite, is a pseudo-Christian militaristic society permeated by racism. Early on, you come across a public shaming event where citizens can “win” the chance to pelt an inter-racial couple with a softball. And, later on, racial tensions in the city become so fevered that it sets off an outright civil war.
On the other hand Rapture, the underwater city from the original Bioshock, is a place that has fallen into delusional chaos. Founded by Andrew Ryan (a play on Ayn Rand, whose philosophies comprise a central theme), the city was created as a refuge where society’s elite could escape the oppressive government restrictions imposed on surface dwellers. It seems there was once a period of time when Rapture experienced great prosperity, achieving incredible advancements in science that weren’t hampered by government interference. But this autonomy would eventually lead to its downfall as class distinctions grew and eventually culminated in a civil war where genetically enhanced armies were sent into battle. Now this once great civilization is nothing more than a madhouse, and its few remaining inhabitants are forced to live like rats in constant fear of the mutant splicers who will kill anything they come across.
2. Chrono Trigger
When you travel to the post-apocalyptic future of 2300 A.D. in Chrono Trigger, you learn that humans and sentient robots have been in a constant struggle for survival ever since 1999 A.D. when a powerful alien emerged and rained destruction upon the planet. The dystopia is presented in a grey/brown palette that seems very much devoid of life. The most interesting feature of the future in existentialist terms is the Enertron—a device that keeps the last remains of human civilization alive in a world that is without edible food. The clear implication is that the miserable remnants of humanity endure a perpetual starvation that is made all the more torturous by a machine that can sustain life indefinitely but doesn’t do anything to satisfy hunger.
The designers of Chrono Trigger weren’t content to have their dystopia be a simple descent into war and barbarism. Instead, the idea they came up with was total stagnation. In 2300, the only way to continue existing is literally inside a bubble of technology that provides protection from the terrible dust storms that constantly rage across the land. No one still living carries on any hope for a better tomorrow. All anyone can do is rely on a relic from the past to keep them tied to an existence that’s utterly void of happiness.
1. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
In a world where corporations have more power than the governments in which they reside, advancements in human augmentation enable companies to exert control over populations through people’s reliance on a special drug known as Neuropozyne that’s needed to sustain their cybernetic implants and prosthetics. Without the drug, people with augmentations run the risk that their bodies will reject the new additions.
This difference between the augmentation and the lack of it is clearly one of social status. While mercenaries, like protagonist Adam Jensen, have their bodies fully augmented, regular citizens have much fewer alterations—an aspect reflected by the idea of Neuropozyne. One side of this idea is that it widens the division between the haves and have-nots by blaming the corporations that control and sell the drug. But from the perspective of the individual, while those outside the society might fear the rejection of their implants, all of the most highly augmented workers are forced into compliance so that they can keep up with the Neuropozyne expenses that their livelihoods and survival depend on.
The themes presented in the game ask a number of important questions related to transhumanism such as: What dangers could arise if we’re able to enhance our human abilities well beyond normal limitations? What direction will our species head in once we take an active role in our own evolution? And who will be in charge of making decisions if we choose to proceed down such a path?