Dystopias have been around for a long time. The idea wasn’t even all the new when George Orwell first thought up Winston Smith and the rise and fall of his freedom in 1984. Or indeed when Aldous Huxley told the tale of the plight of John, the ‘savage’, in Brave New World. There is something very alluring about a dystopia, despite the very nature of the word. And we’re seeing a rise of them in games, from classics such as Abe’s Oddysee to the soon-to-be-released-on-PC Mirror’s Edge. However, I don’t think this is a particularly good thing.
It’s all about overthrowing the oppressor. It’s why so many WW2 games throw in a section about The French Resistance. It’s the reason Dystopian games exist in the first place. There’s no greater sense of achievement than managing to supplant a utterly corrupt government, something that has been a presence in the game since the title screen first came up. It’s much more satisfying than merely killing the boss, as you actually feel as though you’ve done something that’s going to make a difference. Think back to all the Bloody Good dystopian films; The Matrix, Equilibrium, even Minority Report. All of them gave you a real sense of elation at the end, because things were changing.
There’s a reason Dystopian games are on the rise. It could easily be attributed to the successes of games like Half Life 2, trend setters which have managed to create such strong narratives that they cry out for imitation, but it’s probably far more likely down to the fact that our society and culture is moving closer and closer to a police state, perhaps the most terrifying form of Dystopia. Aldous Huxley wrote an essay in 1958 called Brave New World Revisted that detailed his observations on the way the world was headed since the writing of the original book. He concluded that the world was moving towards his worrying vision at a pace he hadn’t anticipated. I’m not trying particularly to scare monger, but had he lived to see the year 2000, I should think his predictions would be far bleaker.
The point I’m slowly moving towards is that games which depict the classic version of a dystopia are unhealthy for the contemporary mind. Even though it may be subconscious, two things are assumed from the developers portrayal of their particular dystopia. The first is that our current state isn’t nearly as bad as it could be, and the second is that, should we slip into a Police State, or something worse, we’d be able to overthrow it without much more than a crowbar and an abhorrence for the spoken word.
Games are a mimesis of life. They always have been, even if in the past they were far more adventurous with their imitations. That creativity is still around, just a little more hidden. It’s seen in games like World of Goo, where the story is a largely embellished accounting of the escape and destruction of a corporation, supposedly in reference to 2D Boy’s own emancipation from EA. However, the current incline towards games that depict the growing surveillance society need to reign in the artistic license and stick closer to the truth, if they are to really get their message across.
The problems with something like Mirror’s Edge, where the player takes the (well worn) shoes of a ‘resistance’ messenger, is the fact that you only ever see the police state as… well… police. There are no true characters on either side, and acting as merely a foot soldier you’re never going to be able to influence anything in a big way. I do, however, think that the move from a dirty, downtrodden populace to one who’s crime is more apathy is a step in the right direction. So I guess Mirror’s Edge is half there.
I think the main danger comes from games that are masquerading as reality. Something like Abe’s Oddysee isn’t going to draw any great discussion about how it is educating us on the state of the world today, because it is so routed in fantasy as to render such discussion defunct. But with the rise of the Half Life‘s and the Mirror’s Edge’s, we’re seeing games that are closer to truth than not, based in reality, and as such they draw comparison against the reality they’re commenting on, often casting the actual reality in a good light, which, with things headed as they are, is only a bad thing.
It’s a very difficult issue, and there really isn’t anything that can be done by any one man at this stage. But it won’t help at all if we’re slowly being told, through games, film and literature that our current state is Nothing compared to the truly terrible dystopias. What we need are games that show us how startlingly close we are approaching the Police State, and then, the Dystopia.