Framing Dystopia

The sci-fi games of 2016 were full of dystopias -- and full of in-universe art created to support or destroy those dark worlds.

Ever a popular videogame genre, science fiction made a strong (and often pessimistic) outing in 2016. From the total domination of Overwatch, to the quiet spectacle of ABZÛ, many of these games incorporated artworks – that .jpeg painting on the wall, let’s say – to develop a more complete vision of an unnerving future. But this art-within-art isn’t simply set-dressing. In grouping some of 2016’s sci-fi games into four themed galleries – Command, Control, Condemn, Collapse – it becomes apparent that the artworks they contain are more than pretty props. They actually complement the dark subject matter these games explore.

Command

Fascist zealots in the east and west, cameras pointed every-which-way, near infinite data watched over by a highly vetted few. These games tinker gently with our present reality, or project along the path it is shaping. We are free to go shopping or sprint across rooftops, but all within the strictures of a paranoid and regimented society, where choice may just be an elaborate illusion.

Orwell (Osmotic Studios)

The player is enlisted by The Nation’s government as part of an outsourced datamining program, and must monitor citizens’ private communications in search of supposed security threats. Despite the intrusive, PRISM-like surveillance measures, a terrorist bomb destroys the capital city’s iconic Freedom Plaza monument. Players help locate early suspect Cassandra Watergate, who quit her corporate job to become an artist – a very deliberate character design choice, according to Osmotic Studios co-founder Melanie Taylor, “which expresses her rebellious and emotional personality very well, and also [lets] her escape from a world that would not allow her to free her thoughts and let her mind wander about.”

Watch Dogs 2 Watch Dogs 2

The Freedom Plaza statue’s design – inspired by the independence monument in Riga, Latvia – is mocked by Cassandra as ugly. Yet she also mourns how it became “a dry, uninspiring symbol of conservative thinking, instead of being a symbol for revolution and change,” Taylor says. “She asks the question, whether the symbol still represents what it had originally stood for – and whether society still holds these values dear.”

Watch Dogs 2 (Ubisoft Montréal)

We follow Marcus Holloway into the ranks of hacktivist group DedSec to destabilize the all-seeing ctOS 2.0 network that runs San Francisco. As a visual counterpoint to the social homogeneity around it, DedSec decorates its safe havens with a brash blend of graffiti, posters, and video art – something akin to wildstyle on impure MDMA that has been crushed in a dot matrix printer. When Marcus posters over corporate and political symbols with DedSec’s motif, he is reminded by a fellow hacker of the artistic act’s revolutionary importance.

But as street art curator Christian Hundertmark has noted, the medium’s popularity has produced homogeneity in its own right: “Some drips here, some sampling of pop art there, some punk attitude and there you have the street artist the audience expect to be the next Banksy.” Sure enough, the real driver behind DedSec’s postering campaign is a desire to increase its follower count, to groom an audience into repeating its slogans and wearing its t-shirts – a mere revision of the corporate branding it purports to despise.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (Eidos Montréal)

After mechanically augmented humans kill millions of their unmodified counterparts, Interpol agent Adam Jensen fights to repair the schism between old and new in Prague. The game’s setting aptly blends the past and future, layering modernist buildings onto the city’s gothic, renaissance and baroque architecture.

The density of artworks also pay homage to Prague’s enduring cultural resonance, contrasting 3D printed sculpture exhibitions and politically-charged street art with classical forms, like the 17th century painting by Werner van den Valckert that hangs in Jensen’s apartment. An example of the schuttersstuk style that depicted elite militia groups of noblemen, the painting is a nod to Jensen’s privileged status as a roving authority, highly augmented for his mission. Yet so many of his fellow augmented are oppressed, and cling to art as a sign of hope, like the scrap metal whale sculpture that brightens an augmented ghetto, or the painters who yearn for the artistic utopia of a purpose-built city – until they are murdered by corrupt local police.

Inside

Control

The illusion of choice is gone entirely, and although we might push the buttons and steer the character, dark forces tell us when to jump, and exactly how high. While our avatar weathers the punishment, we lack the agency to save them as we, in turn, are bound by the strings of a puppet master.

Inside (Playdead)

The boy creeps through a bleak and desolate world left to rot by a cruel authoritarian regime. What little human life remains is indoctrinated to commit ruthless violence, or has been stripped of all consciousness, shuffling about as empty husks that wait only for their master’s input. Humanity is so stifled that a rare instance of artistic expression is literally hidden away in a fallout shelter beneath a cornfield. Yet even this photographic darkroom suggests a sinister purpose, the lone visible image being a murky silhouette.

When we do finally experience a hint of artistic color, it is – ironically – the regime’s creation, an elaborate diorama of a seaside forest. But this sliver of creativity serves only to foreshadow the boy’s miserable – and perhaps inevitable – fate.

Asemblance

Asemblance (Nilo Studios)

We are trapped in a test chamber run by a condescending AI, which virtually recreates old memories for us to revisit. The first simulation is a fond memory of hiking in a beautiful forest, but the AI soon forces the player to explore more uncomfortable memories, locking us into a hellish loop of sadness and misfortune. Thus an apartment becomes a recurring source of trauma, despite its nice furnishings and fine paintings by American artist Robert Addison.

Nilo Studios creative director Niles Sankey became fascinated with Addison’s work during his lonely childhood: “His artwork conveys a sense of quiet isolation and introspection, which resonated with me,” says Sankey, who photographed his private collection for the game. Addison’s 1976 serigraph Betsy In The Attic was specifically chosen for its thematic overlap with Asemblance: “For me this image shows the introspective act of looking through a portal to a place that holds a greater truth of the world and one's self in that world.” Due to the game’s limited scope, Sankey says, environmental details beg scrutiny: “Instead of purely being background elements, the artwork becomes a subject of focus...Ultimately this translates to closer examination and interpretation of the artwork.”

The Division

Condemned

All the malice and mistrust reaches a volatile crescendo, and we are drawn into a destructive spiral of conflict and death. Although we might labor to save the wounded and try to rebuild what we’ve lost, the damage could be well beyond repair.

The Division (Ubisoft Massive)

In the wake of a devastating global pandemic, human society drifts towards a chaotic abyss, and elite US Government agents desperately try to restore order in New York. Yet the symptoms of state failure are chronic, and perhaps irreversible. The city is still filled with cultural symbols – flashy Times Square billboards, bright alleyway murals, bland paintings in office buildings – but they are fast losing ground to the menacing graffiti of violent gangs.

As Nathan Glazer remarked in a 1979 essay on New York subway vandalism, graffiti reminds passengers “that the authorities are incapable of controlling doers of mischief...[and] of the awful indignities visited upon them by a city apparently out of control and incapable of humane management.” In The Division, graffiti defies authority by criticizing relief efforts, or overtly threatening to kill government officials. Beset by a terminal illness, it seems the writing is on the wall for traditional governance.   

Overwatch (supplemental art) Overwatch (supplemental art)

RimWorld (Ludeon Studios)

Three space travellers crash land on a distant planet, and must scrabble together a colony from the debris. With some careful management (and good luck), a harmonious microsociety is perfectly achievable. One colonist happily tends the crops, another trains a wild hare, another spreads artistic joy with a lovingly crafted sculpture. “RimWorld is designed, above all else, to generate stories,” explains Ludeon Studios founder Tynan Sylvester. “Having colonists create art of their own stories gives a reason for the player to remember past parts of their story. Each piece of art recounts some past event in the colony; reminding players of these knits together a whole tale in the mind.”

Yet this tale often follows an unsettling pattern – a wildcard crisis, the beds full of sick and injured, the shortage of critical resources, the guy with an unrequited crush who snaps into a killing spree. Despite the promise of a fresh start, apparently even the fledgling societies of RimWorld are prone to the classic human trap of self-destruction.

Overwatch (Blizzard Entertainment)

The bright palette of Overwatch belies its basis in total war. On the walls of Volskaya Industries, posters and murals invoke Soviet propaganda to remind players of a redundant enemy, the Omnic, that produced the Overwatch heroes in the first place. But these saviors of humanity have been consumed by factionalism and in-fighting, plunging the world once again into a vast global conflict. We may respawn a thousand times over, but a violent death at the hands of our former kin is always certain. 

Eagle Flight

Collapse

The power plays and social posturing have all come to nothing. Civilization lies in total ruin, while broken monuments deliver a sombre, silent eulogy.  We may explore these decaying spaces and reflect on what has passed, or what might have been – regardless, we are just visiting history that nature is reclaiming, piece by shattered piece.

The Witness (Thekla, Inc.)

The story of The Witness is as much of a puzzle as the mazes that weave through its crumbling architecture. The player is treated to occasional vignettes by stone sculptures, which often allude to past unhappiness – the bodyguard who stands ready to defend a regal couple, for example, or the man frozen in agony as he is crushed beneath a towering pile of office furniture.

But could the mazes also serve as puzzle pieces in unravelling the island’s fate? After all, mazes themselves are an art form, designer Adrian Fisher argues: “...like approaching a piece of sculpture, it is a transforming experience for the visitor, as they engage, become involved, gradually discover hidden aspects, and then find that their perception changes, of the three dimensional reality they find themselves in.” By drawing a line between those black and white symbols, then, are we simply following a ruleset – or are we also mapping the division and disharmony that seems to have befallen the island?   

Eagle Flight (Ubisoft Montréal)

Dense overgrowth has turned Paris into a lush ecosystem that teems with exotic animal life. Thick trees spiral up a mossy Eiffel Tower, while elephants graze in the Notre-Dame gardens. We are given a privileged vantage point over this transformation through the eyes of an eagle that patrols the urban wilderness.

While the city at large stands as a powerful testament to the humans who once lived here, the species’ fate is unclear. On the walls of a riverbank, a bold stencil proclaims DÉFENSE D’AFFICHER, reinforcing an 1881 law that prohibited unauthorized bill posting on public spaces to protect democratic and journalistic integrity. Yet the official notice has been covered with graffiti, suggesting defiance and rebellion in the closing stages of humanity’s presence in Paris.

ABZÛ

ABZÛ (Giant Squid)

Drawing its narrative cues (and title) from a Babylonian myth, ABZÛ lets us explore a lost civilization beneath the sea. Its artistic legacy describes a culture that worshipped the ocean with grand sculptures, intricate mosaics, and meticulous pottery – even its hieroglyphic language is filled with aquatic symbolism.

Of course, swimming among the abundant sea life is itself an aesthetic indulgence, as Sir David Attenborough describes: “It’s bliss. An extraordinary experience, like going into space. There’s no equivalent anywhere else in the natural world of such splendour: all of these things moving through an architecture of coral.” But in ABZÛ, the beautiful by-products of creativity and evolution have been crushed by a mechanical invading force. The intruders’ hard geometry and sinister red glow looms large among the destruction as an allusion, no doubt, to the catastrophic potential of climate change. But ABZÛ also offers the hope of redemption and regrowth, that harmonious co-existence with the natural world can once again be achieved.