The dystopia, specifically a society that has become terrifying and dehumanized, is plentiful in video games because the breakdown of society offers a great excuse to shoot things in the face.
Consequently, many of our favorite games are set in depressing, oppressive worlds that we would never want to visit in real life. To celebrate the latest in the groundbreaking cyberpunk series, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – and a return to its dystopian-near future – here are five types of dystopias that we’re glad are confined to their video games.
As seen in: Mad Max, Rage, parts of Fallout, Jak 3, the future in Chrono Trigger.
Gaining popularity during the Cold War, the concept of an endless, lawless nuclear desert is disturbingly easy to imagine. Modern weaponry means that humans are one bad day away from irreparably damaging our world (or potentially causing it to be damaged by outside forces like Chrono Trigger’s Lavos). If anyone survives this cataclysmic upheaval at all, you can bet it’s a dystopia.
Ninety-nine percent of people from before will have died anyway, and those who remain will be forced to be self-sufficient. A world without countries means no more police, and a lack of arable land means food is hard to come by. No video games to write about, either, unless you have your own generator.
Most inhabitants of the Wasteland use gas-guzzling buggies and motorcycles to get around, leading to all manner of car chases and gruesome monster truck battles. In games at least, nuclear fallout also results in mutated creatures, besieging the little pockets of humans that remain.
As fun as the high points of the Wasteland are, the fact that all the people you used to know are dead makes it less exciting (and if you made your money doing anything with computers, forget it).
The United States of Suckage
As seen in: The Last of Us, parts of Fallout, some westerns. See We Happy Few for suckage across the pond.
Only slightly more civilized than the Wasteland, the United States of Suckage might be during the days of the wild west or a future where the government has gone out of control. Either way, personal safety is at a premium beyond the frontiers of law.
Gunslingers, race wars (not the car kind), ghost towns, and bandits preying on the innocent make your life expectancy quite short if you’re anywhere outside of a city. Even inside the city might not be a walk in the park, with paranoid police and taxation without representation.
At least the United States of Suckage has a government, right? Well, instead of threat of instant death, under this government you’re threatened with censorship, discrimination, and torture. Some people would rather choose the Wasteland, but either way there’s a high price to pay.
Society’s Blue Screen of Death (aka Zombie/Mutant/Monster Apocalypse)
As seen in: The Walking Dead, System Shock, Bioshock, Alien Isolation
Maybe this society used to be a utopia, maybe it was always rotten to the core, maybe somewhere in between – but recently, things just got a whole lot worse.
Whereas the other dystopias on this list could have been that way for many years, a society gone BSOD is the immediate degradation that happens after a virus, invasion, or terrifying monster has torn through it. You don’t even have the security of the sparse settlements across the Wasteland, or the massive city walls of an oppressive government regime. Danger is around every corner: the infected, a xenomorph on the hunt, or just desperate survivors.
Among this social garbage fire, you’ll spend all your free time scavenging for food, making shaky alliances, and running from the enemy. Try to rebuild, for sure, but until you can find an island in the middle of nowhere or destroy the evil computer that’s in charge, you will never truly be safe.
Unending Cyberpunk Nightmare
As seen in: Hard Reset, Deus Ex, Invisible, Inc., any other classic cyberpunk game
This is the dystopia seen in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, the upcoming Detroit: Become Human, and pretty much every smoggy future city since Blade Runner.
In this world, enormous corporations control the flow of information. Privacy is dead, and people with prosthetic limbs are treated as second class citizens. At the same time, the media draws attention away from the spot fires of Armageddon around the world by distracting the unthinking populace with the latest fads in technology and style. The rich get richer, the poor get more desperate and – wait a minute, are we living in the cyberpunk nightmare right now?
The cyberpunk dystopia will always be a relevant setting (whether you view it as commentary on consumerism, privatization, disability, transhumanism, or other themes), but actually living in such a neon hell might be just too much to take. Some of us might be there already…
As seen in: Half-Life 2, Homefront, Star Wars, WWII games, many JRPGs.
Similar to the United States of Suckage, only this time the oppressive government is an invading foreign force. This kind of occupation has happened in our world many times, with Europe in World War II being a well-known example.
Whether by space ships, regular ships, inter-dimensional portals, or horses, your nice little country is now within reach of a much more powerful state. They could be Nazis, elves, or aliens, it doesn’t matter; your home country, or planet, or universe has just been occupied.
Living here, you’ll probably be arrested for pulling a funny face. Don’t even think of singing your national anthem. Good luck trying to leave, because as much as the occupying force seems to hate you, they want to keep your people around for some reason. And in the case of aliens, enemy collaborators might lose more than their honor; they could be transformed into inhuman creatures as part of the army or police.
Good luck hoping for your new overlords to mellow out in the video game version. They are more likely to start engineering your biology and culture to purge the parts that they find inconvenient to their rule; such as Half-Life 2‘s “suppression field” that reduces the birthrate to zero. Yep, we should be happy that sex, drugs, and rock and roll are still legal.
This has been a state-approved message.