Top 10 Futurist Videogames

With the popularity of the Top 10 Futurist Movies list that I created a little while back, I figured it would be worth revisting the idea in relation to one of my other great passions: videogames.  Science fiction has had a long history in videogames (consider Space Invaders, the world’s first arcade sensation), and within its many examples we find some great uses of futurist themes and ideas.  Covering aspects such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence, transhumanism and future mega-cities; videogames truly are a perfect medium to explore possibilities for and ramifications of future technology and human progress.

If I’ve left off your favourite, make sure to let us know at the end!

10. Beneath a Steel Sky (Revolution Software, 1994)

Beneath A Steel Sky (Revolution Software)My favourite genre of games growing up used to be point-and-click adventures, and I remember being particularly interested in this game when I heard that it was based in my homeland of Australia (not many games can say as much!). Having said that, it wasn’t until years later that I actually got to experience it; and this was probably a good thing as I doubt I would have properly appreciated the depth of the storyline and setting that has been created.

The overpopulated metropolis city-scape is home to a story of totalitarianism and the dangers of forging headlong towards progress at all costs, making it an obvious choice to start off a Future Conscience list of videogames!   This dystopian environment is lightened somewhat by the inclusion of a humorous robotic side-kick, and the game contains some great artwork and well-written dialogue. Considering that it has been released on a freeware license, and thus available for free download, there really is no excuse for you to try it out and begin your adventures into futurist gaming!

Futurist Elements: Future Cities, Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality

9. Syndicate (Bullfrog Productions, 1993)

Syndicate was the first game that I can remember turning me into a blood-lusting psychopath. With that sentence out of the way, let me explain before the likes of Carol ‘videogames make you rape people’ Lieberman gets on my case.  Another dystopian game (pretty much all of them are), set in a world run by mega-corporations, this game sees you take on the role of a group of hired mercaneries.

Sent off to conduct various missions of corporate espionage and assassination, the game was well known at the time for its rather hefty dose of pixel-based violence but was also hailed as a great example of isometric squad-based gameplay.  Of course, my friends and I often found more fun in running through the cities mindlessly slaughtering civilians and police officers rather than fulfilling our actual missions; and I can still remember the incredibly satisfying sound of the minigun as it revved up and mowed them all down…wait, what was I talking about?

Futurist Elements: Mega-Corporations, Transhumanism, Future Cities

8. EVE Online (CCP Games, 2003)

EVE Online (CCP Games)For those of you who haven’t heard of the massively-multiplayer EVE Online before, look away now and put out of your mind any thoughts of playing it.  The simple reason being that if you haven’t heard of it before, and presumably therefore aren’t really involved or experienced in online gaming, then you will be swallowed up whole and spit out by ruthless players well before you even learn how to properly say ‘hello world’.

EVE has become legendary for one main reason, its developers and players alike promote an environment whereby ripping people off; infiltrating large corporations and stripping them clean; destroying people’s livelihoods, and laughing while doing it, are considered an important part of the universe that has been created and no attempt is made to stifle such immoral decisions from the player-base.  Pretty much everything in EVE is fair game, and that’s what makes it such a compelling experience for those who have the time and energy to put into it (not to mention the fact that it’s one of the most visually attractive games ever created).  It isn’t uncommon to hear about EVE heists literally worth tens of thousands of real dollars…it’s all part of the game.

It’s much more of a political simulator than it is anything else, and it can be argued that the actual mechanics of the game are less interesting then the politics between the players.  If this is our future when spread far and wide across many different star systems – then heaven help us indeed…

Futurist Elements: Galactic Civilisation, Future Weapons, Spaceflight, Human Asshattery

7. Alpha Centauri (Firaxis Games, 1999)

Alpha Centauri (Firaxis Games)If humankind wish to survive the destruction of our home planet, then we have to look to the stars for future places to inhabit. Alpha Centauri, being one of the closest star-systems with possible planets, becomes a likely candidate for this outward journey that humanity will one day have to face. Based quite closely on Sid Meier’s Civilisation games, Alpha Centauri takes the process of colonising another planet and turns it into a fascinating and thoroughly rewarding strategy game filled with science, politics, and – being human – plenty of warfare.

In many ways, it kind of feels like the Dune series in that you have multiple factions fighting for ultimate supremacy; and that definitely isn’t a bad thing. What can we learn from a game like Alpha Centauri? That no matter where we go, or how advanced we become, we’re always going to be territorial little bastards.

Futurist Elements: Galactic Civilisation, Genetic Research, Spaceflight, Future Weapons

6. Mass Effect Series (Bioware, 2008/2010)

If you want a fully realised world, filled with augmented reality; powerful weaponry; towering mega-cities and other wonderful futurist technology then the Mass Effect series is something that must be experienced.  It has been very carefully crafted to feel like a coherent and well-detailed universe, a sign of which are the pages and pages of backstory and encyclopedia entries included in the game that are completely optional.

From a futurist perspective, it explores the issues that humanity might face if we ever have to interact with other lifeforms; as well as looking at how technology such as augmented reality and artificial intelligence might be utilised in the not-so-distant future (Avina, the holographic information ‘tour guide’ being a great example).  This is the closest videogames have ever gotten to containing an epic science-fiction story the likes of which Heinlein or Asimov would be proud.  If you truly want to see how far gaming has come in recent years, and you want a bit of future technology and space opera on top, then you can’t get much better than the Mass Effect series.

Futurist Elements: Transhumanism, Galactic Civilisation, Augmented Reality, Artificial Intelligence, Future Weapons

5. Fallout Series (Black Isle Studios, 1997/1998, Bethesda Game Studios, 2008/2010)

Although it certainly has a steady stream of fantasy elements in it, what with the inclusion of many different types of super mutants and what-not, the Fallout series (including Wasteland, considered by many to be the originator of the series created by Interplay in 1988) is by far the best depiction of a post-apocalyptic world that videogaming has seen.  Purists will always choose the isometric Fallout 2, but the level of immersion gained with the new technology available for Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas truly puts you right in the middle of a post-apocalyptic landscape and leaves you to fend for yourself.

The steady stream of brutal human behaviour – from slavery to cannibalism – that is a staple part of the world depicts quite well just how far our humanity could digress if put into such an extreme situation (minus, perhaps, the super mutants).  Thankfully, it’s also served up with a very hefty dose of dark humour which makes the whole experience an intensely enjoyable one from start to finish.  If you’ve ever wondered just how you might fare in an apocalyptic wasteland, then the Fallout series are not to be missed.

Futurist Elements: Post-Apocalyptic, Future Weapons

4. Blade Runner (Westwood Studios, 1997)

Blade RunnerIt wouldn’t be much of a Future Conscience list without some reference to Philip K Dick now, would it?  Well, thankfully this one isn’t just a self-indulgent addition (if that were the case I would have included the Xbox version of Minority Report, or perhaps the Amiga version of Total Recall – both games are text-book definitions of the word ‘average’) but is one that truly deserves to be included on this list for the wonderful atmosphere and story that it produces.

Blade Runner is considered amongst the best point-and-click adventure games ever created – lofty praise indeed in a genre filled with the likes of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Gabriel Knight etc. etc.  It doesn’t even really adhere to the traditional puzzle-based format of these kinds of games, relying much more on conversation and detective work.  Rather than attempting to mimic the plot of the book or movie, the developers chose instead to create a different story within the same universe; and the game excels because of it, bringing you into the cyberpunk world so loved by PKD and his fans and yet ensuring that you cannot have any preconceived ideas of where the plot will go.  The fact that the game also has multiple endings, along with a very high standard of voice acting and cinematography, means that it is worth at least a few play-throughs and comes very highly recommended if you’re at all  into the adventure genre.

Futurist Elements: Artificial Intelligence, Transhumanism, Future Cities

3. System Shock 2 (Looking Glass Studios & Irrational Games, 1999)

I was originally going to include this and its spiritual successor Bioshock – but was reminded whilst looking up details online that Bioshock isn’t technically a game set in the future (although it is one that contains many great dystopian motifs), so here we have the game that caused all the fuss to begin with.  And what a fuss it was!

A wonderful, cautionary tale of artificial intelligence gone hay-wire; System Shock 2 was a truly terrifying game when it first came out.  Blending the genres of first-person-shooters and roleplaying into a whole new experience at the time, the game brings with it a fantastic sense of isolation and ominious doom that continues to escalate until its wonderful conclusion.  It’s one of the only games that has ever had me cowering in fear when I first played it; hiding in an air vent to escape detection for minutes on end before I was brave enough to venture out.

Beyond the dangers of hostile A.I., System Shock 2 is also filled with motifs of genetic engineering and human augmentation and combines all of these futurist themes into a game that is often considered amongst the best ever created.  It is so loved and reverred, that fans have even created a high-definition texture pack to update the now out-dated graphics somewhat – and people still write fan fiction and come together on message boards dedicated to this legendary genre-buster.

Futurist Elements: Artificial Intelligence, Genetic Research, Spaceflight

2. Shadowrun (Beam Software, 1993; BlueSky Software, 1994)

Shadowrun (Genesis Cover)Shadowrun is another of those games that, if people wanted to get quite pedantic, one could argue veered a bit too far away from the usual futurist boundaries in that it includes elements of magic and fantasy.  Whilst it does have its fair share of orcs and sorcerers, it also definitely deserves a mention on this list for covering the virtual world of cyberspace better than almost any other futurist game that I’ve seen.  Beyond this, these two games are just great console roleplaying experiences; and at the time were truly a breath of fresh air amongst all the dungeon delving that we had to put up with.

Almost for that reason alone, they rank very highly on my personal list.  But when you combine the fact that Shadowrun is also a pen-and-paper RPG with an incredible amount of backstory and world-building behind it that has built up over decades of source books and fiction, it truly is a futurist treasure trove of ideas (albeit mostly rather extreme in nature!).

But as a videogame, it was placing virtual reality as a central component of the plot whilst also including aspects of corporate espionage and dystopian cities that made it one of my favourite gaming experiences.  Unfortunately, it has also seen an incarnation recently on the newer generations which moves much too far away from this wonderful mix of roleplaying and cyberpunk – so avoid the newer version and get out the old Genesis or SNES (the Super Nintendo version by Beam Software is the superior of the two similar but quite different games), you won’t regret it!

Futurist Elements: Virtual Reality, Transhumanism, Future Weapons, Future Cities, Mega-Corporations

1. Deus Ex Series (Ion Storm, 2000/2003)

Deus Ex (Ion Storm)The original Deus Ex was one of the first games that I can remember in which I truly felt a part of a future society.  Not just exploring one, like I was in the Shadowrun games, but an active part of it.  The game universe is very well detailed, and the sense of freedom given to you when approaching various obstacles gave it much more depth than your average videogame experience of the time.

Exploring themes of human augmentation through biomechanical means, coupled with futuristic terrorist threats (the first game, published in 2000, even had the World Trade Centre being destroyed by terrorists), the plot has some in-depth moral dilemmas and  extensive futurist dialogue and optional text at its very core.  Nanotechnology sits side-by-side with totalitarian paranoia; genetic augmentation alongside robotic surveillance systems; shadowy cabals work in league with multi-national corporations to control the world.

Deus Ex: Invisible War follows this trend, continuing the examination of a world run by mega-corporations, and is only really overlooked because the impact of the first game is somewhat lost the second time around.  A fantastic series filled with plenty of direct philosophical musings about the nature of the human condition and our possible future.  The first game edges out its sequel for a number of reasons, but we also have a fantastic looking third entry to look forward to coming out in the very near future.

Futurist Elements: Transhumanism, Mega-Corporations, Augmented Reality, Future Cities

So there you have it.  Those are my picks, what are some of yours?


9 Responses to Top 10 Futurist Videogames

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  2. Anonymous says:

    The Longest Journey and Dreamfall. This series has megacities, personal robots, virtual reality with neurological interface, flying cars, genetically engineered humanoids, space colonies….

    The Longest Journey:

  3. Not having played a lot of the games on that list, I can’t really complain about you putting Syndicate at 9, but I will anyway. Honorable mentions should go Crusader: No Remorse/Regret, Freelancer and the MechWarrior series (not as fully immersive as those games listed above, but you did get to have fights with massively oversized robots that fired lasers, and that’s gotta count for something).

    • Anonymous says:

      Yeah, the hardest part I always have with these lists is ranking them. It’s hard to put one thing above another, for example the Shadowrun games aren’t as good now as they used to be – but the sheer nostalgia factor, coupled with the awesome source material from the long-running RPG, makes them rank so highly (particularly the SNES one, loved that game!).

  4. Anonymous says:

    Of course! Excellent picks (although I’ve never played Dreamfall) – can’t believe I forgot about them…probably would have inched out Beneath a Steel Sky, although that is free now.

  5. Noah says:

    EVE!! FTW!!

  6. Diego says:

    Half life 2, and the Mass Effect series are pretty cool futuristic games.

  7. Hellen says:

    You won’t be scratching your head so much as doing your best to not die.

    While it did not offer anything new, Halo: Reach proved to be a
    refinement of the clever designs and concepts game developer
    Bungie made since 2001. It’s basically a game where you can do pretty much anything you want to with
    the car you’re driving.

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