Making A Statement: Political And Social Commentary In Video Games

Video games are often a form of escapist entertainment. We play to have fun, lead lives that are different from our own, and forget our real world problems for a little while. But what happens when you combine fictional stories with today’s commentary about current events? Can we still view these games as pure fun and escapism when these messages, subtle or overt, become unabashed in their intention to drive a point home?

I’m the type of gamer who prefers to play games that have thoughtfully written stories and are emotionally resonant. Whether I’m slaying dragons or having a regular conversation at a small town diner, I need to connect with my games at a heart level. If I’m not engaged with a game, it’ll be far more difficult for me to continue, let alone finish it.

Most of the games I’ve played so far have often been sweeping, grandiose fantasies that puts you in the role of hero or heroine to save the world from a sinister evil. Among the best and memorable games I’ve ever played are BioWare’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect series. These games give you the exciting escape you seek, while hitting all the right emotional beats to get you attached to the characters you meet and spend your time with. When you encounter other games that start to feel less like a fantasy and gets uncomfortably close to reality, it’s hard to completely disconnect from the issues being addressed. There are two games I’ve been playing lately, Far Cry 5 and Life Is Strange 2, and what these games seemingly have in common are how they both bring up topics that are relevant to today’s hot button issues.

[Credit: Ubisoft]
Far Cry 5 has been a game I only play whenever my friend and I get together to play online. As a first-person shooter, action adventure game, all I knew about the Far Cry series is that you assume the role of someone placed in exotic locations only to have to survive harrowing predicaments your character later find themselves in. I started playing Far Cry 5 because I received it as a birthday gift from the same friend who I play with online. She thoroughly enjoyed the game when she played it solo and decided to get it for me after learning that the entire story can be played in co-op mode.

When we began playing Far Cry 5, I knew it would be set in the fictional town of Hope County, Montana, placing it firmly in the United States rather than in Asia or Africa, like in their past games. Since the threat your deputy character goes up against are cultists known as Eden’s Gate, the game starts feeling like they’re making statements on American extremism with a hint of far-right politics. For example, one of the answering machines you can interact with in the various homes spread throughout Hope County contains a message that sounds like a veiled reference to Trumpian politics without calling it out by name. While a reference like this one is on the nose and impossible to ignore, Far Cry 5 has been heavily criticized for being a game without anything meaningful to say.

Polygon noted that the problem with Far Cry 5 is that it seemed to have an identity crisis:

“The game has no idea what it wants to be, which allows it to collapse into a meandering, defiantly inoffensive mess.”

Joseph Seed, the head of Eden’s Gate [Credit: Ubisoft]
I haven’t finished playing the entire game yet, but I can’t help but feel a mixture of emotions each time I play it. Should I care that Hope County is overrun by dangerous cultists who will torture or kill those who don’t comply with their doctrine? Or should I not care and pump bullets into these bastards who shoot at me first, and then revel in the fun I’m having being the savior who will liberate this town and everyone in it from these religious looneys? I think this is where the problem lies. Because the game doesn’t really know what it wants to be, I, as a gamer don’t know how to react to it. The story isn’t bad, it’s just superficial. Despite the relevant topics being posed in the game, there isn’t a sense of needing to reflect on them seriously. Just as quickly as the issue has been brought up, I’m just as quick to largely forget about it in favor of looking for more loot or petting the new cougar we recently acquired as our pet.

Am I looking for more from Far Cry 5 than what I’ve been getting so far? Maybe if Ubisoft put more thought and care into the story I might have sat up and paid attention. Once I complete story mode with my friend, I’m going to remember this game as enjoyable to play but nothing that stands out as one of the best gaming experiences I’ve ever had. It’s pretty much how I feel about most Mario games—extremely fun to play but not one I would come back to often unless I’m looking for mindless entertainment. Life Is Strange 2, on the other hand, is going to greater lengths to be more than just an entertaining game.

Dontnod Entertainment’s newest entry in the Life Is Strange series introduces us to a new set of characters and different issues. The main characters this time are 16-year-old Sean and his younger brother Daniel Diaz, two brothers from Seattle who go on the run after an escalating situation that ends in tragedy forces them from their home and the life they knew. The very first episode, “Roads,” doesn’t shy away from hitting the heavier topics early. While the first Life Is Strange focuses on suicide, bullying, substance abuse, and a school shooting, this game touches on racism, a police shooting, and views on immigration.

[Credit: Dontnod Entertainment]
In one scene, an encounter with a store owner gives both Sean and the player a taste of what it’s like to experience ignorance and racism firsthand. As Sean, you’re subject to assumptions and unfair accusations based on the color of his skin. The owner will accuse him and his brother of stealing items from his store and even spit out a hateful remark, such as “this is why we need to build a wall.” The scene is both hurtful and appalling, which is exactly the point.

The first episode of Life Is Strange 2 wants you to know exactly how someone in Sean’s situation would feel. It doesn’t skate over the sad reality of our current social and political climate of our country—it confronts it head on. The episode holds a mirror to what’s currently wrong with our country and invites you to reflect on these issues with an open mind and an empathetic heart. Maybe you’re lucky enough to never have experienced such racist and hurtful language, but for others, this is their reality.

Only one episode of Life Is Strange 2 is currently out at the moment. It’s too early to know how Dontnod intends on exploring these issues further through the eyes of Sean and Daniel. But if their first episode is any indication, Dontnod Entertainment is treating these topics with a measure of reverence and sensitivity amidst the supernatural storytelling elements the studio is known for. Unlike Far Cry 5, playing the first episode of Life Is Strange 2 has been difficult at times. I treated Sean and Daniel’s story seriously, and the scenarios they find themselves in forced me to think about similar situations that may have happened to real people, like the racism and police shooting. It got way too real really fast and it almost feels disrespectful to call this game “fun.” If you take away the part of the story where one of the brothers discover their newly awakened telekinetic powers, you’re essentially playing an interactive movie that details the lives of kids trying to navigate a world where there are people out there who won’t see or treat them as human beings because of how they look or their father came from the wrong country.

Daniel (left) and Sean (right) Diaz [Credit: Dontnod Entertainment]
What do I think about video games that try to incorporate some of the topics that have been our country’s latest national headlines into their narrative? I like when games have something to say, but I can’t always say I want that to necessarily take up most of my game experiences all the time. There’s a time and a place for games that make you think, just like there’s a time and place when you can switch off your brain. If every game tried to mimic real life, it wouldn’t be enjoyable to play any more. Why am I going to play a game about real life when I can go out there and live that reality? But if I want to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and understand their experience and their truth, I’m glad more and more games are opening itself up to tell those stories. I’d like to believe the world would be a better place if we allow ourselves to take the time to understand one another. We’re not so different than we think. Games should be fun and entertaining, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be meaningful and try to teach you something in the process.

Do you think video games are a good medium to explore social and political topics, or should they stay out of games all together?

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4 thoughts on “Making A Statement: Political And Social Commentary In Video Games

  1. I finished Far Cry 5’s story, and while I don’t want to spoil it for you, I have to say I am disappointed.

    As for video games making statements, I think you would enjoy Spec Ops: The Line and Detroit: Become Human for some interesting commentary on real world issues. While I think both games were a bit on the nose and had some downs, I liked the fact that they tried to say something.

    1. I’m still looking forward to getting to the end of Far Cry 5, but at the same time, I’m not expecting it to be mind blowing storytelling either. But my friend did like it when she played it on her own. I guess we’ll see how I feel about it.

      I did play Spec Ops: The Line a long time ago but not Detroit: Become Human. I got Spec Ops as a present too, and one of my friends knew I’m into story centric video games with a choice gameplay mechanic. I like the message behind Spec Ops and I thought it was very well done. You come in expecting one type of game, only to come out with something else entirely. The twist in the end definitely blew my mind and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days when I finished it. One of my top favorites.

  2. I don’t mind when games take jabs at social and political mores — i.e. GTA V takes a few good swipes at our social state — but I don’t know that I’d care for a game where the commentary comes off as heavy-handed. There’s enough of that in real life! If politics and social commentary are well-woven into a game’s story, that’s fine, but like you said, that story has to come with some level of emotional attachment. Make things too real, and it can be off-putting; not real enough, and it comes off as fake. I don’t envy the writers who have to find some sort of balance.

    1. You’re absolutely right! That balancing act is hard and I wouldn’t want to be the writer tasked to do that. I can kind of understand why Far Cry 5 had a problem with that. Maybe the intention was to be a game with something to say in their story, but at the last minute figured the plot was getting too real and decided to pull back to not offend anyone, like the Polygon article mentioned. It’s a risky move to be THAT game to go there when there’s so many different beliefs out there. You may satisfy one set that has the same thinking as what’s being said in the game, but then you risk isolating the other set who don’t agree with those opinions. I think it would be interesting to see a game take that chance. I’m all for hearing different opinions, ideas, and perspectives. I may not always agree with them but surely there’s a way to present controversial ideas without the developers/writers making it seem like they’re taking sides. Talk about a nightmare in the writer’s room!

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