All forms of art and media are littered with varied and wondrous interpretations of humanity’s future. Most of them aren’t nearly nihilistic enough for my liking, but they’re an entertaining marvel nonetheless. Among the many mediums, video games are the best equipped to convey their depictions of the future.
They can delineate every facet of human life in their futuristic worlds, instead of the glimpse a film offers. Whether you’re curious as to how economics, toilets, or homelessness functions in the future, there’s a game that lets you explore that.
This is perhaps why science fiction titles so frequently spawn franchises in the gaming world. From Mass Effect to Deus Ex to Bioshock, people become attached to those interpretations of human future. So, let’s explore the very best of them.
Honourable Mention: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream
The bleakest and most beautifully sadistic interpretation of human future across all of media was Harlan Ellison’s classic short story which actually had a video game adaptation.
Developed by The Dreamer’s Guild in collaboration with Ellison himself, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream was a point and click adventure game that put players in the place of the five remaining humans AM has imprisoned. Each ventures through a nightmare-scape of the AI’s design, confronting and eventually besting what AM considers their fatal flaws.
There are enough variations from the original short story to earn it a mention. However, as it’s more or less entirely lifted from another medium, it doesn’t belong on the list itself. If you haven’t yet, I would urge you to give it a try. It’s available on GoG.com and it’s well worth a play if you enjoy that style of game.
The overwhelming majority of post-apocalyptic wastelands are depicted as bleak, irradiated, and lifeless. A dead world inhabited by people clinging desperately to whatever miserable scrap of life that remains. Realistic perhaps, but not terribly fun.
The human colony world of Magalan is struck by a comet containing a previously unknown element, the titular Elex, causing widespread destruction and the presumed end of civilised society.
However, Elex itself allows both social and technological development far beyond what was possible before. Instead of ending society and the world, it diversifies it, expanding the ecosystem and birthing new human cultures. The central point of contention between these cultures revolves around the use of Elex. Some humans ingest it to grow beyond human biological constraints, while others disavow it and all technology it spawned, distilling it into mana to heal the world’s wounds.
The game itself received a largely mixed reception, as mechanically it’s not the greatest. However, the beauty and ambition of its setting stands out regardless of the game itself. Exploring that world and the ideology of its inhabitants is enjoyable in spite of the game’s best efforts to slow you down.
While later titles expanded both the universe and the mechanics that the original Mass Effect introduced, it was the first title that transported us into that exceptionally-crafted universe. It boasted an actual diversity of alien cultures and lifeforms that went beyond the endless amounts of semi-humans you’d find in Star Trek.
Its technology was also refreshingly unique, revolving almost entirely around the manipulation of gravitational forces. Gravity manipulation powered everything from weaponry to travel, making it a feasible evolution of human technology. We already have electromagnetic rail-guns, so it’s not that far a leap.
The first Mass Effect is also the one that featured the tamest interpretation of Reaper nonsense, leading to a universe that seemed as though it may have a future, rather than later titles, which tried to invest you in a doomed one.
There’s a reason Mass Effect spawned a franchise despite it’s vastly inferior technical polish. It created a universe and a future people wanted to play in. Couple that with Bioware’s once excellent character-work and you have a brilliant setting.
Halo 3: ODST
The Halo titles made their name on blending compelling narrative with excellent first-person shooter gameplay. It made them stand out in both single-player and multiplayer settings. However, what gets less credit is the universe the original trilogy created parallel to its narrative.
While Master Chief simply gunned his way through this interesting future, there was plenty of compelling material left by the wayside. Spin-off titles like Halo: Reach and Halo 3: ODST picked up the trilogy’s slack in this regard. Reach may be the better game, but ODST showcased this vision of humanity’s future far more effectively. It’s the only title in the series that demonstrated what human life outside of the military was actually like.
Set in the city of New Mombasa, the game’s events run parallel to those of Halo 2‘s. The High Prophet of Regret’s ship inadvertently invades Earth, provoking mass response from the UNSC. The player assumes the role of an ODST assigned to secure the AI in control of governing the city.
A nameless rookie (the player) battles through the occupied streets, which demonstrate just how advanced human society has become. It shows the beauty of the average human cityscape and demonstrates the proficiency of the AI operating them.
The main titles portray this universe as one consumed by war, either with The Covenant or the corpse-wielding Flood. Halo 3: ODST is the only one that shows us a future worth living in.
Well, that and the Halo web series, Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn. It was genuinely watchable by video game adaptation standards and it has Anna Popplewell in it. Go watch it.
Shadowrun: Hong Kong
Shadowrun is a franchise that manages to blend fantasy and cyberpunk without breaking your suspension of disbelief. That’s an accomplishment far beyond any we’ve mentioned previously. It’s even spawned a grand total of eight titles in its years.
Only the latest three manage to capture the spirit of the table-top RPG, though. Shadowrun Returns, Shadowrun: Dragonfall and Shadowrun: Hong Kong. Technically, since all three are different stories built in the same game, this entry refers to any of them. All do a great job capturing Shadowrun’s world and all that it contains.
They seamlessly blend open-RPG gameplay with XCOM-style combat, avoiding a separation between the world and its dangers. While they vary in narrative, they all manage to capture the crime and corruption inherent to most cyberpunk settings. This, coupled with the integration of the game’s more mystical elements into gameplay, makes for a unique setting. One where humans, elves, dwarves, trolls, dragons, magic, and shamanism all exist in a purely sci-fi context.
As the game itself is essentially an engine you can program stories into, it has a great modding community. While not part of the game itself, it has a few well-done custom stories. It also allows you to carry a character across between the official story and custom ones. Given that shadowrunners generally contract numerous missions, it makes it feel like a much more complete setting.
Horizon Zero Dawn
Elex may well have been a unique take on a post-apocalyptic setting, but Horizon Zero Dawn accomplishes everything it does with infinitely more style and grace. Not only is its setting far more beautiful than any mentioned prior, it blends elements of humanity’s past with its future.
The wildlife has evolved far beyond its current state, existing as hulking mechanical monstrosities roaming the world. However, humanity itself has been regressed to a primal, tribal state, clinging to survival in a world with scraps of technology from ‘The Old Ones’.
As Aloy ventures beyond the tribes’ surviving nature, so to does the technical complexity of the narrative. Blending from primal to transhuman throughout the course of the tale, as Aloy’s origins are developed. You meet the AI responsible for reseeding this mockery of human life and the subroutines responsible for damning it.
If ever there was a game that to me embodies the pain of exclusives, it would be this one. It’s a damn shame more people don’t get to play it.
And that’s our list! I’m sure there are plenty I didn’t mention here, so feel free to share your favourite futures in the comments below. And if you’d like to see more editorials from Culture of Gaming, you can see them here. Or follow us on twitter to see every article posted.