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Home >Lounge >Features >70 years of ‘1984’: Digital dystopia in the world of video games

While Fallout 3 and Mirror’s Edge—two popular gaming titles—were released within a month of each other in 2008, both followed different concepts that are now hallmarks in the representation of dystopia in video games. Fallout 3 was a prime example of a “post" city—a region pillaged by war and the extremities of modernization. Mirror’s Edge is what a “total city" looks like—a place where all information and data is monitored, everyone is under surveillance and prohibitions strangle a citizen’s freedom: all wrapped in the promise of a utopian city.

Dystopia has always been a central theme in video games—be it in the pixelated gameplay of the 1992 game Wolfenstein 3D or the modern-day graphics marvel Cyberpunk 2077, which will be released worldwide next year. Dystopia is also critically important as a structural element that helps build the gameplay and storyline in a video game.

In recent times, researchers and academics in game studies have debated whether the dystopian complexities in a video game help users (or gamers) better understand political and social realities.

In his 2018 book, Playing Dystopia: Nightmarish Worlds In Video Games And The Player’s Aesthetic Response, author and digital culture and game studies scholar Gerald Farca writes how “play naturally interweaves" game-world considerations with those of the “empirical" or actual world. Farca adds, importantly, that it allows for the formation of hitherto unexpected connections between the dystopian game-world and the opaque nature of society.

HALF-LIFE 2 (2004)

This science fiction first-person shooter serves as a sequel to the 1998 game Half Life. The plot moves from the Black Mesa facility (part of the first game) to City 17, a dystopian planet taken over by the Combine—an intergalactic alien species. Gordon Freeman, the game’s primary protagonist, must lead the resistance against the Combine before it succeeds in devouring all of Earth’s resources.

The game’s depiction of prisons, urban centres and a fortress-like citadel gives it the look and feel of a future many would not have dreamt of.

BIOSHOCK SERIES (2007)

Set in the 1960s, BioShock follows the travails of a castaway, Jack, in the underwater metropolis of Rapture. Jack must go against Andrew Ryan, the business magnate who created Rapture. What was once intended to be an isolated utopia falls into the throes of civil war and chaos after the discovery of a mysterious genetic element, ADAM, which is the key to superhuman abilities.

The game uses narratives that draw on concepts like objectivism and American exceptionalism. Developers of the series also took inspiration from 20th century utopian and dystopian thinkers like George Orwell and Ayn Rand. In fact, Ryan, the game’s primary antagonist, gets his name from Rand.

DEUS EX: HUMAN REVOLUTION (2011)

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Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a prequel to the original Deus Ex. It is set in the year 2027 and follows Adam Jensen, the security head of Sarif Industries—a leading company known for its (controversial) work in artificial organs, or augmentations. Jensen undergoes extensive augmentation after an attack and must use his new-found cybernetic abilities to hunt down the perpetrators.

The game is known for its use of futuristic themes like trans-humanism, and cyberpunk culture.

PAPERS, PLEASE: A DYSTOPIAN DOCUMENT THRILLER (2013)

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This 8-bit themed puzzle game leaves the user with one simple question: What would you do if you had the power to allow or deny someone admission to a country? In Papers, Please, you play the role of an immigration officer who must monitor the flow of people trying to enter the fictional dystopian country of Arstotzka after war with a neighbouring nation has ended. It was developed by the American video-game developer Lucas Pope.

The winner of multiple awards, the game also spawned a short film with the same name in 2018.

CALL OF DUTY: ADVANCED WARFARE (2014)

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What more do you say about a game where the reveal trailer begins with the words: “Democracy, democracy? Democracy is not what these people need. Hell, it’s not even what they want." These words come from Kevin Spacey, who stars as Jonathan Irons in Advanced Warfare. Irons heads Atlas Corporation, a private military contractor in the year 2054 that goes rogue and decides to use its resources against the US government. Users take the role of Jack Mitchell, a young marine working for Atlas.

The game features exoskeletons, drones, politics, technology and tactics. It’s described best by these concluding lines in the trailer from Spacey’s character. “People don’t want freedom…. They want boundaries, rules—protection, from invaders and themselves."

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