Not Dream Worlds: Dystopias in Science Fiction Games

Games 22.12.2016

Often games take players into strange and exotic worlds where they can experience adventure beyond their wildest dreams. However, sometimes these worlds are actually places where one would never want to end up in real life, especially when developers send players into post-apocalyptic worlds or monitoring states in so-called playable dystopias. This is the antithesis to utopia. While utopias draw visions and social systems in a way to relay an ideal world, dystopias are the pessimistic alternative, where everything goes downhill. What has had a great attraction for some time now in literature and film, is also increasingly moving into the gaming world, within the genres of science fiction games and horror games.

Dystopian Sci-Fi Games – The Darkest Visions of the Future

Whether the premise is contagions infecting humankind, turning them into mindless zombies; a mysterious virus that threatens and nearly exterminates humanity; a world after complete nuclear destruction; or an oppressive world wherein political regimes tyrannize their population – the range of background stories in dystopian science fiction games is wide. We have therefore compiled a list of the most impressive (and simultaneously frightening) visions of bleak and dystopian worlds. Here we introduce you to several of the best titles for playable dystopias.

The Bioshock Series

Whether deep under the sea or high up above the clouds: The Bioshock games draw frightening scenarios in which companies have withdrawn into monumental cities and are isolated from the rest of the world. Bioshock Infinite tells of the flying city of Columbia and its strictly pseudo-religious community, which is characterized by a two-tier society, racial conflicts and a concomitant civil war. The original Bioshock plays in the underwater city of Rapture, where once the rich and famous fled to escape the governments of the world and to create their own utopia. However, scientific progress without regulation and the increasing class differences within this society provoked a civil war that set the city in ruins and drove most of the population to madness. The entire Bioshock series was available as of September 2016 as a remastered version for the current generation of consoles.

The Last of Us

The Last of Us is set in the year 2033 and the bulk of humanity is either dead or transformed by mutant Cordycep contagions into zombie-like creatures. The undead are particularly aggressive and dangerous as they prey on people who have not been infected with the virus. Governments are fully collapsed and the remaining people have retreated into quarantine zones controlled by the military. Those who do not live in these areas are grappling daily with problems such as food shortages and control, as this dystopian world is also occupied by bandit gangs who can be even more dangerous than those infected with the contagion. The gloomy setting and the new interpretation of the zombie-apocalypse is complemented in The Last of Us by a poignant story with very realistic characters. A must-play for all PlayStation owners.

Deus Ex

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (2016) is already the fourth part of the cyberpunk thriller series and will revisit political, ethical and philosophical themes, all packaged in an exciting action-packed horror game. In the universe of Deus Ex, society is split into normal and augmented humans with high-tech prosthetics, which increase their performance in every aspect. In addition, large corporations and secret societies, like the Illuminati, steer the development of the world from the shadows. The Deus Ex games broach complicated and controversial issues such as transhumanism, state surveillance and racism, and call repeatedly into question the real essence of humanity and what it actually means to be human.


Similar to The Last of Us, humanity in Metro 2033 and the successor Metro: Last Light is confronted with the consequences of the Apocalypse. In the Metro-games, based on the eponymous novels by Russian author Dmitry Gluchowski, people in Moscow have withdrawn into the tunnels of the subway line after a nuclear war. The surface is not only contaminated, but is also haunted by monsters that have arisen through the nuclear fallout and subsequent mutations. In the different stations of the metro, small settlements have formed that are totally overcrowded, dark, cramped and stuffy, all representing different political and economic sentiments. So there are, for example, in the tunnels of the metro disputes between fascists and communists, but also neutral stations which serve as a hub. The oppressive atmosphere of the society under the earth and the conflicts between political ideologies within it makes the war-fractured world of Metro, in all of its facets, a particularly gloomy yet exciting dystopian world.

Half Life

This classic cannot be left off list – even if we are all painfully waiting for signs of life of Half Life 3. The first Half Life game of 1998 opens with the protagonist Gordon Freeman accidentally entering a portal into another dimension which he then must defend against invaders. In the 2004 release sequel, Half Life 2 – set 20 years later – the multidimensional Empire of the Combine has conquered the earth and has subjected what remains of humanity to be placed in conurbations; however, that is until the player returns to the role of Gordon Freeman and instigates a revolution against the invaders. Although the Half Life games are now getting on in years, both games are still included within the best sci-fi games of all time. The second part particularly outlines a bleak future of a dystopian world where humanity is oppressed by alien invaders.

Papers, Please

Long live Arstotzka! In 2013 the indie game Papers, Please appeared, in which players take on the role of border guards of a fictitious state. The totalitarian state Arstotzka has strict rules regarding entry. As a border official, you must comply with these rules, with new requirements being added every day. What initially sounds boring soon turns out to be a challenging puzzle game that simultaneously exudes a very oppressive atmosphere. In the game you have to feed your family, pay rent and pay for the heating costs; since you get paid per head, it is important to bring enough people through the border control. However, one has to always be extremely vigilant, since you operate under the threat of penalties if you bring people across the border whose papers are missing or incorrect. As a player, you are always clashing between the fate of the virtual family and your individual fate with the inhuman controls and suicide bombers at the border crossing. At first glance one does not believe that an 8-bit game in which you play a border control officer can create a credible dystopian world; however, Papers, Please is a masterpiece and this indie series is an absolute gem as far as playable dystopias go.

Remember Me

Set in 2084, the people in Remember Me can upload their memories to the internet and share them with others so that they re-live those memories as their own. At the same time, it is possible to erase unpleasant memories. Of course if such technology is controlled by a single company, abuse of that power and control is most certainly inevitable. Released in 2013 and highly underrated, DONTNOD Entertainment’s debut of Remember Me portrays a bleak future wherein this memory technology is used by all, allowing for the rise of a surveillance state that can easily influence and manipulate people by altering their memories.