I like myself a good dystopian scenario. A scenario that screams, “Humanity is bad!”. We’re a rotten species, aren’t we? The only animal stupid enough to populate an entire planet, only to seriously risk its own distinction AND to drag other species down with it. Humanity is bad and will be bad, our future will be miserable and we’ll have ourselves to thank for it. Good riddance when, finally, we do go down.
It’s thrilling, thinking about ourselves like that. It feels almost cleansing, like we’re allowing ourselves to revel in these thoughts about ourselves that we’ve always felt to be true: We’re not the good guys. We’ve fucked up, and we will fuck up more: The worst is yet to come. Experiencing these ideas through a game is cathartic. We get to dive into this world that we feel our species deserves, greedy and selfish and cruel as it is, and that we, despite being given some agency, cannot really change.
I’m glad that media, and particularly games, that play with such thoughts exist. Imagining how tendencies observable in the present can build into something worse in the future provides us with a vocabulary that I’m sure is helpful. But I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps dystopia may have served its purpose, at least the way it is often used in videogames, at least for now. Imagining yet more ways in which humanity is going to fuck itself over (climate disaster, robot uprising, nuclear war, corporate hellhole? Take your pick!) starts to feel unimaginative. It’s as if these scenarios become devoid of meaning because dystopia is being used as a trope, a cool backdrop that sells well, instead of interesting food for thought that can actually serve to move a conversation forward.
That doesn’t mean there cannot or shouldn’t be more dystopian games. Remember, I enjoy them myself. A lot of them are really cool and a lot of fun! But as an intellectual exercise, they tend to be the easy way out. And as a political statement, they may be useless, because chances are, what one dystopian game is saying has been said before. If we want to create games that enable us to think new thoughts, we cannot let ourselves off the hook here.
Well, but does every game have to be an “intellectual exercise“ or a “political statement“? Absolutely not! But it’s cool if some of them are, isn’t it? If we actually want to do something about any of the problems we are proud to play around with, if we don’t want to just delight in our own cynicism and call it a day, we need to create games that allow themselves to be hopeful. Games that, instead of dreaming up ever new variations of messes we as a species get ourselves into, focus on how we can get out of such messes, or not get into them in the first place.
Admittedly, that’s not easy. Optimism is hard, especially if you want to create a game around it that doesn’t feel clichéd or shallow. Dystopias lend themselves to games because they come ready packed with conflict and conflict makes a game interesting. But,
of course, “optimism“ doesn’t mean “lack of conflict“. It just means providing an outlook that’s not fundamentally pessimistic and dismissive about the world. One that doesn’t stop at pointing out problems, but cares about imagining solutions. That dares to hope. It might require a bit more work than your run-of-the-mill dystopia to make it plausible and engaging. But I’d say it’s worth a shot!
That being said, if you still want to create a dystopian game, go for it! If you just want to put out a game that’s entertaining or cool or dystopia is simply what’s most true to your current state of mind, that’s fine! All I’m saying is that, if you want to infuse your game with some kind of deeper meaning or message, then darkness and dystopia is not your only option. If you’ve never created a game before that was unapologetically hopeful about the human species and the world we live in, maybe just try that for a change, and see how it goes.