By Ashton Starr
As award shows and publications announce their choices for the best video games of 2020, a game’s politics rarely get considered. Yet every video game has implicit politics, whether it’s telling a story about survivors of a post-apocalyptic zombie virus, or a seemingly friendly raccoon inviting the player to live on a deserted island.
Here at The Leveller, we’re interested in anything that embodies liberatory politics. And over the last five years, some noteworthy video games have been released that include honest and realistic depictions of socialist struggles in fantastical settings with enjoyable mechanics. So here’s a list for gamers looking for some explicit political content, or left-wing people interested in playing a video game.
Every video game has implicit politics – why not play games with liberatory ones?
The name of the game says it all. Democratic Socialism Simulator puts you in the US president’s seat as you attempt to bring democratic socialism to the country. Its release was appropriately timed for Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic Party presidential candidate nomination.
To play, the player swipes left or right (like political Tinder!) on a decision suggested by an advisor, news reporter, and labour union, who are depicted as cute little animals on a card. Each decision impacts three gauges that need to be appropriately managed in order to win, by increasing the power of the people through social changes, properly managing the state’s treasury, and reducing the government’s carbon footprint.
What’s more, these decisions will either draw or push away prospective voters, impacting the next congressional and presidential elections. Failure comes when voters outright reject you as president or your party from the congress, which may force the player to make some hard and not-so-socialist choices.
Each playthrough randomizes the order of events, which means two simultaneous playthroughs will not be the same. This also means that there can be dozens of failures before the president can actually bring democratic socialism to the American people.
The developer of the simulator is well-versed on leftist politics, and in their 2003 manifesto wrote that “Molleindustria advocates for the independence of games from the market’s domain” and to transform games into “media objects able to criticize the status quo.”
Last year also saw the debut video game published by the gaming wing of Means TV, “the world’s first worker-owned, post-capitalist streaming service.”
Tonight We Riot feels like it could have been released in the early 1990s, as it displays 8-bit pixelated graphics, blasts retro synth-pop, and boasts gameplay in the style of the era’s popular beat ’em up genre.
The player controls a group of revolutionaries that grow as they liberate workers from their jobs. They fight with bricks and molotovs through lines of police and white power gangs to achieve the goal of beating the final boss — a Jeff Bezos-type capitalist that controls the working class with a technocratic iron fist.
The title falls into a growing subgenre of action-strategy games that simulate participating in a riot against an authoritarian capitalist enemy as part of a revenge fantasy, where a ruling class is directly confronted by an armed and tactical group of rebels. Here’s a few other recent examples.
- 2019’s They Came From a Communist Planet gives a first-person perspective on the streets of an extraterrestrial-influenced revolution.
- 2017’s Riot: Civil Unrest is another low-definition, pixelated, single-screen interpretation of real-life international anarchist and socialist projects as they are being stomped on by riot police.
- 2016’s Anarcute is an incredibly cute and colourful depiction of animals liberating groups of other adorable critters throughout cities around the world and turning police weaponry back on squads of robotic police.
Disco Elysium is one of the few recent games that was produced by an independent developer but beat out its big budget competitors to win accolades and multiple Best Narrative Awards. During a speech for another win at the Game Awards, the developers thanked Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, authors of The Communist Manifesto.
This shout-out makes sense once you understand the game’s setting. The city itself functions like an extensive character, and is beautifully drawn in a style similar to painted watercolour expressionism. It has a history of feudalistic monarchic rule, which fell to a communist uprising, which then failed when a coalition of nation-states launched a counter-revolution to control the region.
Its narrative follows the player character, a detective investigating a murder who suddenly succumbs to amnesia, forgetting who they are or what they were doing. This blank slate allows for players to choose what kind of cop they will be, which deeply impacts their relationships to all characters and the world around them.
The available roles include a corrupt, fascist cop; a former pop-star turned hypersexual detective; or an apologetic communist-sympathizing officer. This role then takes on a life of its own, talking to the player’s character in a simulation of internal debate, or even interrupting and speaking on behalf of the player, as the cop tries to solve different cases around the fictional post-revolutionary city.
The appeal of trying out these roles in a game is that other characters respond accordingly to your character and the actions they take during the investigation. The results of the investigation and other cases are dependent on the character’s role and the player’s choices, opening up new dialogue options or unlocking a dice roll to take an action or speak.
The developers recently announced an expansion to the game and console edition will be released in March, 2021. This new addition encourages a revisit — or initial visit — into this world designed with subversive politics and a realistic depiction of a fantasy revolution.
Taking place in a fictional American small-town, Night in the Woods discusses capitalist alienation and its failed promise to bring prosperity to workers. This theme isn’t immediately apparent, but gradually surfaces from under the game’s depiction a group of cool animal characters making jokes at parties.
The player takes on the role of Mae, a cat headed home to stay with her family after dropping out of college. While the character struggles to reconnect with her parents, old friends, and the townsfolk, mysteries grow around Mae, her history, and a figure that seems to be following her.
The game is played like a 2D platformer, where Mae can jump around the town, choose her conversations with people, and make plans for the night with friends. Accompanying this story is a series of mini-games, including Guitar Hero–like sequences where the player can jam out indie rock songs with her friend’s reunited band.
The game’s political themes are only hinted at until the bigger mysteries of the game begin to unfold, and further explanation would only spoil surprising and exciting plot lines. Suffice it to say, the music, art style, characters, and adventure should be enticing enough to encourage gamers to visit this one, before they even get to the interesting denouement.
Continued hope for a leftist video game future
The video game medium, like any, can be a playground for politically creative thought and storytelling. As workers in the industry begin to form cooperatives, just as many of the developers behind these titles have, more stories from workers about workers’ struggles can come to light.
The potential of games to deliver socialist messages has already broken through dramatically in the past decade, with leftist titles like these winning dozens of accolades and selling upwards of at least half a million copies. This has come in spite of traditional industry voices and fans that have insisted that video games are fundamentally apolitical – or that the good ones are apolitical, anyways. This recent recognition suggests we can look forward to more of what this list celebrates: candid leftist politics in outstanding video games.