This article contains spoilers.
The last few years have been pretty terrible for many reasons, but if video games have taught us anything, it’s that things can always get worse. This is a list of games that have crafted worlds that you probably don’t want to visit, but at least these dystopic visions of the future are a ton of fun to play through and can take your mind off your real-world problems if only for the briefest of moments.
20. Papers, Please
2013 | 3909 LLC | PC
Most dystopian video games put you in the role of a freedom-fighting good guy, so it’s unusual to find one where you play the role of the bad guy, especially one with such a mundane job. The goal of Papers, Please is to simply check passport documents, determining who is legitimately crossing the border of your fictitious militarized country and who is using forged documents. And if you do catch fake papers, you always have the option of taking a bribe before letting the visitor pass. It’s about as close as you’ll ever get to being a Soviet-era border guard without all the pitfalls of Soviet communism.
19. Costume Quest 2
2014 | Double Fine Productions | PC, PS3, PS4, X360, XBO, Wii U
Double Fine is known for its light-hearted games, so it’s odd to find a title that paints a bleak future. Admittedly, the future world of Costume Quest 2 wouldn’t be the worst place to live, but then again, living under the rule of an evil dentist who hates Halloween and outlaws candy isn’t really anyone’s idea of fun either.
18. Mega Man Zero
2002 | Capcom | GBA
It’s been more than 100 years since Zero has been seen. Reploids are on the run, hunted down at the command of a totalitarian leader. His name? X. This is the story that begins the Mega Man Zero quadrilogy, the darkest and easily most underrated series in the lengthy Mega Man franchise. It’s kind of jarring to see such a bleak future in a Mega Man game after the optimistic utopia portrayed in the earlier franchise, but this is a rare case of the darker tone helping to elevate the sequel over its predecessors.
17. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
2014 | Sledgehammer Games| PC, PS3, PS4, X360, XBO
The Call of Duty series strives for a certain level of realism, but Advanced Warfare is straight up terrifying. The game centers around a powerful private military company called the Atlas Corporation. At first a powerful ally to the world’s powers, it soon becomes the planet’s worst nightmare when Atlas grows into the strongest military force the Earth has ever seen. The rest of the title is the standard Call of Duty formula of shooting guys while lots of things explode, but Advanced Warfare is worth experiencing just to see how PMCs could one day become so powerful that they can fight their own wars.
2011 | Kaos Studios | PC, PS3, X360
Speaking of ridiculous military shooters, there’s perhaps none sillier than 2011’s Homefront, the story of North Korea suddenly becoming a superpower under Kim Jong-un and invading the United States in 2025. Yeah, two minutes on Google will tell you that’s about as likely as North Korea developing the next great video game. Still, the game does relate the uncomfortable realities of living under a military occupation well, particularly in the early chapters. It’s just a shame that the recently released sequel did nothing to follow-up on the few things the original Homefront did right in that area.
15. Metro 2033
2010 | 4A Games | PC, X360
Nuclear wastelands are the ultimate cliché when discussing dystopias in fiction. Still, 4A Games crafted a title (based on a Russian novel) that did something different with a played out formula. Rather than wandering a bombed-out wasteland, the characters of Metro 2033 must survive in the cramped tunnels below Moscow. The underground world of Metro 2033 is easily one of the most detailed of the past few years (especially if you pick up the remastered edition), and there’s real tension in navigating tunnels and getting into firefights with rival survivors. The latest installment, Metro Exodus, actually takes players out of the metro system and out into the mutated wilderness.
2007 | Microsoft Game Studios | X360
At first, Pacific City doesn’t seem like such a bad place. Yes, there’s a lot of crime, but you play as a special agent tasked with stopping criminals and saving civilians. You’re there to take out the city’s rival gangs and make it a better place. That’s what you think almost the entire game at least until it’s revealed in the final cutscene that your employer actually created these gangs as part of a plan to scare the public into accepting totalitarian rule. You spent the entire game not fighting crime, but laying the groundwork for a 1984-style dystopia. This is one of the better twists in gaming that the disappointing sequel did absolutely nothing to address. Here’s hoping we find out more about The Agency’s master plan in Crackdown 3.
13. Chrono Trigger
1995 | Square | SNES
The SNES wasn’t much of a powerhouse compared to modern systems, but Square had such talented programmers and artists on staff in the ‘90s that they easily conveyed the despair of a doomed world in Chrono Trigger’s future. Set hundreds of years after the emergence of the evil alien parasite Lavos, this future world is home to only pockets of human life, who while technologically advanced, must survive wandering tribes of angry mutants and robots while constantly fighting off hunger after Lavos destroyed all food sources. Chrono Trigger’s future is most definitely not somewhere you’d want to live, but at least you’re eventually able to avoid it.
12. Phantom Dust
2005 | Microsoft Game Studios | XBOX
A mysterious dust covers the land. Not only has it made it impossible for humans to live above ground, but it’s also stolen all of their memories. Your goal in this forgotten world is to recover these memories and find out why no one can remember the past. Phantom Dust is a melancholy game with one of the most unique and enjoyable card-based battle systems ever devised. Sadly, it was released near the end of the original Xbox’s life cycle and received little attention. In 2017, Microsoft re-released the game on Xbox One, so now is as good a time as any to explore this dystopic vision of the future.
11. Freedom Wars
2014 | Sony Japan | VITA
Thousands of years from now, overpopulation has ravaged the planet. Existence itself is a crime, and criminals face million-year sentences. The only way for hundreds of millions of people to win their freedom is to kill giant monsters that roam the world. Freedom Wars might have the most depressing story in all of gaming. Still, it’s a lot more interesting and mature than the Monster Hunter games it takes its inspiration from, and the gameplay is very entertaining. Freedom Wars is one of the best reasons to pick up a Vita long after Sony has given up on the system.
10. Wolfenstein: The New Order
2014 | MachineGames | PC, PS3, PS4, X360, XBO
The horrors of the Nazis practically define dystopia. While there’s been a lot of speculative fiction over the years about what would have happened if Nazi Germany had won World War II, The New Order adds its own twist to make that hypothetical world just a little more terrifying. In this version of Wolfenstein, not only did the Nazis conquer Europe, they also developed mechanical monstrosities – including killer robot guard dogs – and supersoldiers created in gruesome experiments. Series protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz is on a mission to make the Nazis pay…
9. Remember Me
2013 | Capcom | PC, PS3, X360
Just from a gameplay perspective, Remember Me is probably the worst game on this list. It gets overly repetitive, and it’s just not very fun. That being said, it does have a great art-style and one of the best visions of a dystopia in any video game. In 2084, the evil Memorize corporation has developed a technology to track, store, and delete all memories at will, creating a police state patrolled by drones and heavily armored soldiers. The quest to take down Memorize is memorable, as are the sections where you can edit memories. It’s just a shame the rest of the game isn’t so great. Still, Remember Me is worth a playthrough if you’ve worked your way through your backlog and are looking for something different.
8. Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
2010 | Ninja Theory | PC, PS3, X360
Decades after a war has wiped out most of humanity, the planet is ruled by mechanical life forms seeking to eradicate what’s left of the human population. In this world, one man and one woman go on a quest that ultimately leads them to a difficult choice about what’s best for the future of humanity. Really, it’s best to not spoil the ending of Enslaved if you haven’t played it, but once you’ve seen it, you’ll never forget it. This is a really underrated gem from the last generation, and considering how many inferior games have already been ported to the PS4 and Xbox One, it’s surprising that Enslaved hasn’t yet made its way to those consoles, too.
7. Beyond Good & Evil
2003 | Ubisoft | PC, PS2, XBOX, GC
Beyond Good & Evil may be set in a dystopia, but I could still play it multiple times without getting tired of it. This classic title embraces its sci-fi setting much more than similarly-themed games. Rather than being set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, Beyond Good & Evil takes place on the planet Hyllis, which is ruled by a military dictatorship locked in a war with an even worse alien threat. But the real highlight is the tight Zelda-inspired gameplay throughout that adds a few twists of its own, like photography and a spaceship. Designer Michael Ancel has long-promised a sequel, and Ubisoft has confirmed one is in development, but exactly when we’ll see it is anyone’s guess.
6. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
2008 | Konami | PS3
The Metal Gear Solid franchise has jumped around its timeline so much and revealed so many bizarre plot twists that it’s easy to forget just how disturbing its universe really is. Yes, there’s a lot of cool technology to play with, but those toys come with a price. The world’s armies and private contractors are constantly at war for the sole purpose of propping up the world’s economy, and Snake must survive this never-ending battlefield in the penultimate MGS game. The world of Metal Gear Solid may be a great place for old soldiers, but it’s a literal hell on Earth for everyone else.
5. Mirror’s Edge
2008 | EA DICE | PC, PS3, X360
It’s easy to make an oppressive game environment with drab colors and hulking soldiers on every corner. It’s much more difficult to make a world that at first seems perfect but is actually a nightmare to live in. The unnamed city of Mirror’s Edge is bright and glistening. At first, it seems like the ideal future. It’s only once you’ve delved into the game that you realize how tightly controlled everything is, and just how steep the price is for dissent. Few games have nailed such a unique atmosphere so well. Even Mirror’s Edge’s recent sequel struggled with it, yet it’s still worth checking out the original to get a view of a very different type of dystopia.
4. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
2011 | Eidos Montreal | PC, PS3, X360
Of course, if you’re going to do a more stereotypical dystopian game, you better do it right. Deus Ex has never strayed too far from its cyberpunk origins. There are mega corporations, conspiracies, and all sorts of cool, futuristic weapons and gadgets. But the freedom that the game gives you to accomplish goals any way you see fit is what’s always made it stand out from similar games. While all of the Deus Ex games are great, Human Revolution is easily the franchise at its very best, as the world of the future is divided between those that have biological augmentations and those that don’t.
2007 | 2K Games | PC, PS3, X360
So many of the great dystopias in fiction began as utopias. At least that’s what happened with Rapture, the undersea paradise founded on Ayn Rand’s objectivism philosophy. While many first-person shooters have tried to copy BioShock’s plasmid-based gameplay and emphasis on story over the past decade, virtually none have emulated what really made the game great: its unique setting. Rapture initially showed so much promise before it was torn down by the inherent flaws of mankind and thrown into a bloody civil war full of monsters, psychopaths, and addicts. If more games tried to tackle philosophical concepts like that, rather than just copying gameplay gimmicks, they might see the same success as BioShock.
2. Half-Life 2
2004 | Valve | PC
It’s been more than a decade since Half-Life 2 came out. Hundreds of first-person shooters have been released in that time, and many of them have featured oppressive, futuristic settings. But none of them have come close to topping Valve’s masterpiece. From the depressing arrival in the alien-controlled City 17 at the game’s onset to the final assault on the Citadel to the weird science throughout, few games have better conveyed a sense of place and urgency. If you’re reading this, you’ve almost certainly played Half-Life 2, and you’ve probably beaten it. Still, now is as good a time as any to remember just how great Valve’s dystopian masterpiece really is.
1. Fallout: New Vegas
2010 | Obsidian Entertainment | PC, PS3, X360
Perhaps no gaming franchise has become so synonymous with the idea of dystopia as Fallout. The great thing about Fallout is its realism. No, there likely wouldn’t be any super mutants or laser weapons after a nuclear war, but there would be people trying to survive in the ashes. Some of those people would be soldiers. Some would be psychopaths. Some would just be normal citizens just trying to get by in a terrible situation. While the setting of the Fallout games has always been depressing, the series has never forgotten this basic tenet of humanity, and the writing in New Vegas displays this better than any other game in the series. Fallout almost makes life after the nuclear holocaust enjoyable.
Chris Freiberg is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.