Virtually Ideological: Cycles of Neoliberalism in the Video Games of 2021
It was difficult in 2021 to shake the feeling that we were standing still, repeating what we’d just done. Thanks to Covid-19 that was often the case, but doesn’t the sense of stasis stretch back further? Politically, we’ve long been told, There Is No Alternative, and while the economic scaffolding behind that neoliberal slogan continues to rust, we remain stuck in a loop where no other world seems possible. Indeed, even the transfer of power from ‘sensible’ centrism to far-right populism is no sign of neoliberal collapse, as the beneficiaries of ‘free market’ fundamentalism ally with authoritarians to ensure their power. That was always part of the cycle, too — recall that one of the first neoliberal experiments was Chile in 1973, where the new orthodoxy was forced into policy on the back of a fascist coup.
It makes sense then that video games this year have also been going in circles, literally, in some cases, as the gravitational pull of time loop stories has been hard to resist. Time loop fiction has always seemed relevant to neoliberal capitalism. Time loops, like reality, impose confusing arbitrary rules on us and demand we adapt to their rhythms in order to succeed, with the nagging sense that there’s never enough time to get everything done. They recreate the force of neoliberalism as a cultural imperative that expects everything from us at once, teasing us to imagine a ‘better version’ of ourselves that’s more successful in every respect — career, relationship, fitness, consumer choices — and exists in some future cycle that we might one day reach.
There’s an echo of this condition in sci-fi shooter Returnal, where protagonist Selene finds data logs left by her other selves, reminding her how she might be different. She may also stumble upon the corpses of alternative failures, which erupt into tentacled monsters as she touches them, like the sense of anxiety that we’ve fallen short of our ‘better self’ ideal. Selene’s goal is to return to the ‘normality’ of life on Earth rather than the hostile planet she’s trapped on. Yet she doesn’t understand, at least until a chilling mid-game twist, that even normality exists within the loop. As Selene comes to terms with the personal loss that brought her to her predicament, we might wonder if our dreams of normal time beyond neoliberal stasis are themselves constructs of the demand for personal betterment.
Equally, however, time loop scenarios are also genuine power fantasies. Where else can we find the infinite time required to really become better selves and learn to control our reality? In that spirit, Deathloop concerns itself with the hedonistic delights of this potential, shoving aside our stifling preoccupations with consequence so we can focus on clinically dispatching targets and having a groovy time. It’s a very neoliberal fantasy, where other people exist only as instruments or obstacles, work merges with play, and the errors of entrepreneurial risk are endlessly reset. Even so, it’s a fantasy we’re trying to escape, and in this way Deathloop draws an important line between the personal ‘development’ of getting better at what we do and actual human growth. Unfortunately, it stays caught in the paradox that the only way to break the cycle is to embrace it, exploiting loopholes in the system’s rules via mass murder. What kind of person remains after that?
Deathloop also raises a question about freedom. Are we freer in the ‘immersive sim’ loop, where we can do whatever we want within the confines of its framework, or freer in normal time where we can determine our lives, but forgo the power to manipulate others and may still be influenced by the pleasures of the loop? There isn’t an easy answer, and games have always been very good at playing with freedom, not least by making us feel free when we aren’t, which is relevant to how we experience consumer capitalism — the ultimate freedom to create ourselves, with the minor caveat that all choices are commodified, and many of us can afford only a limited selection.
Metroid Dread weaves this illusion particularly well, by leaning into the defining trick of its genre more heavily than any game in the series before. Its map is ostensibly open yet in practice tightly locked up, ushering us down narrow tunnels while creating the impression that multiple routes are available. Once we also factor in its sudden-death EMMI encounters, it veers close to the single-track ride of horror game Little Nightmares 2, whose overtly choreographed scares expose the falsity of Dread’s apparent flexibility. Both games use constraint as a mechanism of fear — in Dread it’s the disguised underside of free-flowing decision making, while in Little Nightmares 2, with its authority figure monsters and hypnotic television sets, that underside is laid bare. We no longer see ourselves as consumers choosing products, but the product being consumed.
To get the full neoliberal twist on this image of freedom, however, we can turn to another game — Last Stop. This trilogy of London-based life stories with a dash of the supernatural is driven by dialogue choices, but the only choices it really allows us to make are superficial, such as selecting between more or less polite responses that feel most in-character. Potentially life-changing options are almost always fake — if we call the game’s bluff and select the ‘wrong’ one, it simply ignores us. As with defining ourselves and our politics in neoliberal democracies, we’re formally free to choose anything, with the unwritten condition that we actually select from a limited subset of ‘socially acceptable’ options. Still, the real devil in Last Stop comes at the end, when it suddenly lets us really choose how the stories resolve, too late to achieve optimal outcomes. Having denied us any meaningful agency all along, we become responsible for the fates of these characters, just as neoliberalism makes us responsible for the state of the world and our own lives, despite the fact that most important choices are made way above our heads.
Genuine free choice thus lies elsewhere, either in insisting on the option that’s not supposed to be taken, or declining to choose at all. In a very small sense, this possibility is touched upon in Unpacking, which tells the story of an unseen protagonist through her possessions over a series of house moves spanning childhood to motherhood. On one hand, Unpacking focuses on continuity, as some of the same objects — souvenirs, DVDs — return again and again, and with that attaches strong sentimental value to objects, mixed with nostalgia for the technology of the 90s (where the game begins) and childish concerns. It’s a clever storytelling mechanism, but to an extent can’t help defining its character through her lifestyle choices rather than personality or convictions.
There’s additional texture in the gaps, however, or what isn’t there. Why, for example, do some toys or souvenirs not survive from one move to the next? Were they lost, discarded? What made them expendable? But also — more importantly — why does the character not consume more voraciously? She never has an overflowing wardrobe, nor is she fazed by technological obsolescence — sticking with a bulky laptop and Gamecube and Wii consoles long after they were current. Of course, this is the game’s way of maintaining a sense of identity and keeping the quantities of items manageable, but as a side effect one of the character’s defining traits becomes her resistance to excessive consumerism. There’s something quietly radical about that and how (one notably misjudged relationship aside) she seems content with who she is and what she has — an attitude that would cause the neoliberal waste economy to quickly wither if it became widespread.
At the opposite end of the freedom scale in games is the choice that’s too open. There’s something absurd in grand moral decisions that put the fate of the world in our hands, with none of the weight. This year’s exemplar is open-world adventure Biomutant, where deciding to align with different tribes effectively boils down to either saving the planet from environmental collapse or supporting genocide. Biomutant never tires of reminding us that our choices have consequences — the neoliberal superego telling us everything’s our fault — yet rarely do the dilemmas it poses escape the extreme yin-yang of basic decency and psychotic violence. Most hilariously and alarmingly, however, is that both are presented as reasonable options, with their own pros and cons, and while it would be nice to think the game is merely making a point about moral relativism, the result feels more sinister, like moral equivalence, or a Trumpian ‘good people on both sides’ as one sets about eradicating the other.
Biomutant makes its pitch like a naïve proponent of the ‘marketplace of ideas’, which takes humans to be model capitalists making rational choices with perfect information. By presenting genocide as a thing to consider, it gives the subject a basic sense of legitimacy, and ignores the reality that no marketplace is a level playing field (ask anyone competing against Amazon in the marketplace of books) because power is an essential component in success or failure. As we so often see with conspiracy theories and populist scaremongering, those in power profit from helping to propagate divisive ideas. Did this year’s hysterical backlash against Covid vaccinations, for example, thrive because it gained traction in rational discussion, or because social media algorithms are designed to create maximum engagement through conflict? Shorn of any comparable context in its world, Biomutant’s facile choices feel empty.
Indeed, it’s hard to avoid the reality that conspiracy theory is now lodged like a splinter in modern politics, with the toxic combination of Covid and Facebook mutating it once again into an even deadlier strain. Traditionally, conspiracy theories mainly signalled a form of defeatism, summed up by the X-Files fantasy of solving the riddles of a world order that doesn’t make sense, only to slam against untouchable shadowy powers behind the scenes. ‘They’ were all-knowing and capable of anything — faking moon landings, hiding aliens, setting up 9/11 — apparently without leaving behind irrefutable evidence, and therefore couldn’t be stopped. Now conspiracy theories are the basis of reactionary political resistance; a response to an establishment class that obscured and indulged capitalism’s destructive tendencies by desperate people snatching at tangible answers.
In this sense, this year’s zeitgeist game may well be Scarlet Nexus, an anime action game/visual novel in which every outlandish conspiracy theory turns out to be perfectly true, and we have the weapons to combat them. Psychic powers, government brainwashing and secret moon colonies are just a few parts of a convoluted plotline that can barely follow its own logic. It’s perfect for a high-octane action game — all the twists and allegiance switches between the cast of super-powered characters fuel the dynamic fight sequences. Yet it’s also a reminder that the last thing we really want is for conspiracy theories to become more than cathartic means of interpreting an overly complex society. Believing they’re real is one thing, acting as if they’re real is very different and destructive. The real-world version of Scarlet Nexus is the nihilistic lashing out at endless loosely connected targets; a violent anger born of the social order’s own refusal to explain itself.
Critically motivated political opposition is often then lost in the mayhem or, so often in games, reduced to a kind of depthless performance. Far Cry 6, for instance, offers a kind of politics without politics, apparently covering the relevant angles in its tale of modern-day Latin American revolution while resolutely saying absolutely nothing. Its not-quite-Cuba setting, in which we’re tasked with mounting a strangely amorphous resistance against a fascist dictator, is a ripe scenario for diving into the achievements and failures of the real Cuban revolution, the imperialist regional influence of the USA (including, of course, on Allende’s Chile), and the broad and creative range of anti-neoliberal movements that have emerged in its wake. Instead Far Cry 6 romanticises guerrilla warfare, clumsily linked to some vague notion of Latin warriorhood, including a laughing adventurist Che Guevara/Fidel Castro analogue who’s forgotten the seriousness or trauma of revolutionary struggle. Latin American politics is transformed here into a nostalgic fantasy for consumers in the global north — a corporate gift to neoliberalism’s disenfranchised, at the expense of its exploited.
Nostalgic political aesthetics has popped up elsewhere, too, as it so often does when games cloak themselves in the trappings of cyberpunk. The Ascent was the latest to call back to an 80s’ canon while ignoring much of its social relevance, an isometric shooter that went to great lengths to recreate the outer shell of a Bladerunner landscape, but forgot to leave the ghost inside. Visually, The Ascent is stunning. It’s almost impossible to take in the detail within its architecture, lighting and alien crowds. Animated holograms and great ornamental dragons, hurried pedestrians wielding transparent umbrellas, it’s all there. It’s so much, in fact, that it gives itself away. This is a place that exists almost exclusively to host routine shootouts with various street gangs and robotic villains, until all that craft feels like a movie set waiting to house another production — an RPG, perhaps, with sophisticated systems and plotlines and things to say that make use of the furniture.
The hollowness is even more pronounced when held up against a game that treats cyberpunk as a concept rather than a style of décor. If there’s any doubt that cyberpunk can still be relevant, we can look as far as Cruelty Squad, which quickly proves that modern cyberpunk often betrays itself by trying too hard to be beautiful. Cruelty Squad is ugly by design — lurid and blocky. In The Ascent, there’s not enough dirt in the textures. Cruelty Squad makes us feel filthy just existing in its world. In The Ascent, upgrades and augmentations make us more powerful. In Cruelty Squad they carve out chunks of our body and our humanity. In order to earn the money we need, we become sub-human, then once we have plenty of it there’s barely anything to spend it on. This is cyberpunk for today’s gig economy fuelled consumerist misery.
And in contrast to Far Cry 6, how about Road 96 — a narrative-led Roguelike about fleeing a dictatorial regime? The fiction here resonates more than anything in Ubisoft’s game, as we play vulnerable characters relying on determination, kindness and luck to reach and cross a secure border. Each time we reach the crossing, there’s added tension as we have to risk a new approach every time, with no foreknowledge of the dangers. Yes, the politics espoused by the game’s recurring characters are wishy-washy, gesturing vaguely towards democracy as the middle road between revolution and authoritarianism (still, it’s not another instance of moral equivalency — at least it’s an ethos). But political relevance comes not only from its subject matter — border walls and surveillance states — but in a structure that successfully links personal journeys to everyday political agency and threats from above.
Of course, it’s often the products of smaller development studios that provide more critical perspectives, and in a year when many larger games have been delayed it seems even more appropriate to give them the final word. Curse of the Dead Gods is perhaps not the most obvious to mention — a Roguelike dungeon crawler in which we seek treasure and eternal life in the ruins of Mayan temples. Yet its message is very much a modern one, about sacrificing our humanity to gain power, directed at the pursuit of technology advance for its own sake. Like the cybernetics of Cruelty Squad, it asks whether the sacrifice is worth it.
Or there’s Minute of Islands, a narrative-led platform game about work and duty, which carries with it some of the baggage of neoliberal individualism. Its protagonist, Mo, is tasked with maintaining an archipelago suffocating under clouds of deadly fungal spores. She refuses help from the last few survivors, her family, with a stubborn sense of personal responsibility and resentment, excising her from dwindling human relationships. In a society that so often discourages communal effort and mutual reliance, this ‘no one is an island’ theme can’t but feel pertinent.
Perhaps most effectively, however, games have dabbled with the power of surrealism this year, not merely to create the thrill of the bizarre but — as with the 20th century surrealist art movement — to spark connections lost in the unconscious or reveal the unsettling presence in realities we take for granted. Such estrangement is certainly the watchword for Mundaun, a Swiss Alps folk horror tale whose vistas and inhabitants are sketched entirely in pencil. Simply seeing the green hills and blue skies rendered in scratchy greys changes our understanding of this landscape, while expectations of a light puzzle-based investigation are confounded by clockwork manifestations of slick FPSs and driving games. It’s a portal inviting us to question what we think we know.
The Eternal Cylinder, meanwhile, serves up an endless alien plain littered with predators that look almost but never quite anatomically possible. These are joined by malevolent machines that meld human torsos with metal wheels and mechanical heads, and the cylinder, a giant rolling pin-like entity that periodically flattens all before it, forcing us to race to safety. The game’s narrator explains that this is a story of opposition, between the homogenising ‘one’ — the cylinder — and the diversity of the ‘many’ — the meek little Trebhum creatures we must help survive. He also slips in a version of Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci’s observation that ‘The old [order] is dying and the new cannot be born,’ and for much of The Eternal Cylinder, there’s nowhere to escape; at best we stay just ahead of the cylinder, avoiding incorporation into a dead mass. But as with Gramsci, there remains hope of rebirth, as the Trebhum, like us, have a unique ability to adapt to their conditions and learn from their past.
With The Eternal Cylinder, then, comes the possibility of creating new time, not by succumbing to neoliberal notions of change, but by dreaming alternative fantasies. It also feels appropriate given where we started that The Eternal Cylinder was made in Chile, the location of that early neoliberal experiment, but also a country that recently elected a new president on an anti-neoliberal platform, rather than cycle back once more towards Pinochet’s legacy. Whatever the future holds, it’s a statement of intent. A rejection of nostalgias of resistance for a new social vision. A refusal to accept that we’re stuck in a loop.