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The Rise of Dystopian Video Games

/ Mar 21st, 2017 No Comments

Dystopia. The word alone is sure to conjure up images of an undesirable, frightening future where mankind is in shambles and hope is slim to none. For video gamers, dystopia, though undeniably bleak, has provided spectacular and entertaining virtual worlds for decades.

The dystopian society setting is immensely popular in video games, and it is a lucrative one for game makers. As a result, dystopian games are churned out regularly. Classic, long-standing franchises like Fallout and Deus Ex are at the forefront of gaming more than ever before, and older series like Tex Murphy and Shadowrun have returned after long hiatuses.

Fallout 3 helped cement the popularity of dystopian video games in the 21st century.

But why is this? Well, to better understand the answer, a quick history lesson is in order, one which stretches back to the 18th century. In particular, its origins during this period are found in Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel “The Last Man.”

The book, set primarily in the 2090s, famously establishes much of the tropes and elements of dystopian fiction today. These include constant conflict, rampant elitism, downtrodden societies and a dying humanity. These factors are owed largely to the inability of humans to live up to their full potential, serving as a warning to readers to do otherwise.

Shelley’s dystopia and her subtle warnings were ignored, as were those of later authors such as Jack London. This is owed in large part to great optimism. Fiction generally portrayed better tomorrows due in part to the ongoing scientific revolution that saw breakthroughs in technology that cured human woes and made life in general better.

This heavy-handed optimism finally began to wane in the late 1940s. The uncertainty left by the Second World War along with the horrors of atomic war pushed fiction to finally adopt dystopian themes. This period saw the beginnings of post-apocalyptic stories that soon became a staple of the later Cold War era.

Such cynicism continued and exploded in the 1980s. The rise of elitism during this century helped fuel the creation of novels like William Gibson’s “Neuromancer.” This gave birth to an offshoot of dystopian fiction known as cyberpunk, which envisions post-industrial dystopias with highly advanced technology.

Video games by this time had become an immensely popular luxury. Developers took full advantage of technological advances to harness dystopian settings rich in gameplay. Dystopian games such as as A Mind Forever Voyaging in 1985 and Wasteland in 1987 won great recognition for their innovations and satire, setting the stage for more dystopian games.

William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” would become a game in 1988.

That growth, which began in the late 20th century, continues today. What was once a little-used setting has become commonplace not just in video games, but in other forms of entertainment. It has been used to a great extent in books, movies, traditional tabletop games, audio dramas and music. Pessimism regarding the future is selling quite well, to say the least.

The reason for this is a very sobering one: dystopian fiction has turned from a dire warning to a high plausibility. The dystopian view of the future has become almost prophetic, not to mention relevant in regards to where human societies are and where they are headed.

Current events, such as the rise of elitism, the loss of personal freedoms, broken societal structures and ever worsening ecological conditions, show these predictions have become a reality. It’s unsurprising then that cynicism regarding our future isn’t being better justified, but is a popular, profitable market.

This stands in stark comparison to previous generations, which often helped make fiction about optimistic futures for humanity so popular and lucrative. So why the shift? Well, long story short: you can blame our mental hardcoding for that.

Humans are inclined to looking to better understand our reality. Even in seeking entertainment to take our minds briefly off of these woes, we often unconsciously seek to do so. Fiction is an easily digestible means of understanding reality and where human society is headed.

Video games are unique in that they allow people to engage in future-based settings both implausible and plausible in a safe, fun and easy manner. Dystopian video games just happen to be futures that are becoming more plausible, thus they are gaining more attention.

Cyberpunk 2077 by CD Projekt is one of the most anticipated cyberpunk games.

Video games also offer that insatiable ability to become empowered to easily save and fix worlds. If ever a world needs fixing, it would most definitely be a dystopia. The ability to fight out-of-control elitism, correct societies and push humanity in a genuinely progressive direction is a guaranteed selling point because it is entertaining and empowering.

But undoubtedly the most blunt reason people find themselves more engaged in dystopian-themed video games is that kind of genuine change is becoming harder to accomplish in reality. Human societies may soon come to resemble the horrible realities contained in dystopian video games.

Our uncertain and currently worsening future shall, for better or worse, attract game creators to produce dystopian video games for those who seek a means to subconsciously deal with the world in an engaging manner.


Jonathan Anson

Jonathan Anson

Jonathan has been a lover of video games since his father brought home a Windows 95 computer. When he's not doing that he indulges in his other passion: writing. Jonathan holds an AA degree in Journalism from Saddleback College in Southern California.
Jonathan Anson
Jonathan Anson

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