Virtually Ideological: Neoliberalism, History and Resistance in the Video Games of 2020
Sifting through emails and data shards in Cyberpunk 2077, I was surprised to come across a text bemoaning the effects of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism? In 2077? They’re still talking about that?
It’s jarring because, while Night City has elements of a neoliberal dream/nightmare, in other ways it’s far removed from anything definably neoliberal. Also because in reality today people are already questioning whether neoliberalism is becoming obsolete. Surging right-wing populism in many countries at the very least signifies a mutation of neoliberal ideas, as it relies on cultural discord to prop up the fading power of its economic promises.
Cyberpunk 2077’s critique of capitalism is oddly dated and in play folds back into celebration of its own seedy ramifications. It dabbles in issues of current significance, but stops short of exploring a future that projects from the neoliberalism we now know. Mostly it seeks refuge in talking points of late 20th century, when there was comfort in lamenting neoliberal inequality and excess, safe in the knowledge that nothing could be done about it. Its quaintly xenophobic depiction of Japanese techno-corporatocracy feels toothless against our Silicon Valley libertarianism and social media culture wars.
Sure, it’s a homage to a sci-fi genre rooted in the 1980s, but cyberpunk originally boomed in part because it encapsulated a political moment. Even when it was conservative, it described a sense of a political and technological unknown, with the dread and excitement that provoked. It’s as much cyberpunk to be politically relevant as it is to bathe in retrofuturist iconography. Today, presented with a different unknown, CDPR’s game falters at the precipice of imagination, unable to face the future.
It’s not alone. It’s not an easy future to face. And a cynical defeatist response to neoliberalism still lingers, holding that everything is basically awful and unable to change for the better — that’s just the way things are; there is no alternative. This isn’t so much an ideology as a counter-ideology, but it nevertheless emerges from beliefs and interpretations of how the world works.
We see a lot of this in satire, where incisive mockery functions as cathartic relief, rather than inspiration to act. One example this year is Journey to the Savage Planet, a colourful Metroid Prime-alike coated in anti-corporate barbs. The plot sees Mega-corp Kindred Enterprises post your under-equipped adventurer to a potentially hostile planet to determine whether the place is ripe for exploitation. The freedom of exploring the beautiful alien environs contrasts against your indentured servitude, and the plague of inane capitalist bureaucracy each time you return to your ship.
Yet Savage Planet doesn’t quite collapse into can’t-beat-em-join-em resignation. The cynicism in its satire also feels cynical about satire — it implies that mocking our corporate entrapment is part of that entrapment, a coping mechanism while we keep diligently gathering data for the company. It doesn’t offer a way out, aside from a symbolic gesture of individual disobedience, but prods us to be self-reflective on how our own cynicism helps perpetuate the status quo.
A core notion that underpins cynicism is pessimism about humanity itself — a belief that humans are primarily greedy, selfish and violent by nature, so any social system is doomed to fail. History contains plenty of confirmatory examples, of course, but this is a narrow view of human industry that serves existing contradictions by telling us it’s pointless to work for a greater good.
This conception of human nature underpins two of the year’s big sequels. In The Last of Us Part 2, it’s an antagonistic presence in the game’s depiction of violence, which emerges as both a shocking, damaging aberration and an ordinary, if not inevitable, means of interpersonal interaction. Ultimately, despite the story’s attempt to highlight the terrible consequences of past violent actions, Naughty Dog’s commitment to the action adventure genre tells a different tale.
The scenario and characters in The Last of Us series never quite justify the extreme actions we’re expected to perform. As desperate as the post-apocalyptic situation is, it’s not that desperate. It’s not The Road. And as emotionally disrupted as Ellie, Joel and Abby are, the frequency with which human encounters end in grisly murder feels chiefly compelled by the built-in rigidity of their move sets. Ellie can’t give up on a revenge trail that sees her decimate two of America’s few remaining communities primarily because the game demands shoot outs, stealth kills and explosions.
Embedded in the action is an assumption that civilizational collapse returns us to a mindless state of conflict. The two main factions you meet in The Last of Us 2 seem to be killing each other over territory that neither has need for (they’re also the ingredients for a clumsily patronising metaphor for the Israel-Palestine conflict). The final payoff then needs us to invest in the idea that acts of love, altruism or forgiveness are so miraculous that they can redeem even the most pathological killers. It only works if we don’t think much of ourselves to begin with.
The other big sequel that espouses a similar view of human nature is Spelunky 2, albeit with a cheery embrace of Darwinist hyper-competition. Existence in Spelunky 2 is a state of nature without apologies, a refusal to bow down to the fashionable softer conventions of Roguelike design. It’s the gaming equivalent of a boorish traditionalist, endlessly holding forth about learning life’s lessons the hard way and why you shouldn’t get prizes just for taking part.
It’s right in the sense that, with sufficient perseverance and skill, Spelunky 2 can be highly rewarding. It helps that you’re fighting against automated systems of traps and monsters, not other people, and most failures are forgotten with a quick restart. In the end its try-try-again diktat may even lead to a victory and untold riches, at least until the next botched attempt. But that’s life according to Spelunky — you can’t change the system, only keep plugging away, perhaps together with a friend who shares your aims, hoping for the odd success before it grinds you down again.
Spelunky 2’s philosophy is the polar opposite of the year’s most celebrated Roguelike, Hades. Together they represent two contrasting takes on a theme that’s always under the surface of a design approach built on randomly generated level layouts and constant restarts — human progress.
In this sense, there’s something more edifying beneath Spelunky 2’s dog-eat-dog exterior. It emphasises the importance of learning from past experience to stand a chance of progressing, even if sometimes the world in its current state makes big steps forward impossible. Under Spelunky’s cold materialism, progress can happen, but only when the conditions are right. And the only way to know if the conditions are right is to try anyway and find the value in failure.
Hades uses narrative to similar effect, turning your cycle of effort into a singular story recorded in the memories of its characters. Yet at the same time it deals in a currency of inevitable iterative advancement. Despite its mythological setting, it resembles a kind of confident scientific humanism that sees human history as a steady upward curve of self-betterment. Each run in Hades should see you better equipped for the next one, in terms of knowledge, tactical rationality and technology.
There’s an arrogance in the truth of such thinking. Modernity has dramatically reduced human toil and suffering and increased access to the basics of survival. So it may seem that progress is on an unstoppable march. But it’s easy to then forget that progress is uneven and never guaranteed. Just as you might smash a pot in Spelunky 2 and find a deadly scorpion inside, there’s a Donald Trump or Covid-19 hiding in the pot of human endeavour. And, to stretch the metaphor further, these dangers are often side effects of our attempts to progress.
The gods of Hades act as a warning here. The laidback demeanour of immortal protagonist Zagreus exudes a complacency that things will naturally improve. There’s no urgency in his quest as he reforms after each death with only the merest hint of frustration. But he has all the time in the world. Humanity doesn’t. We can’t be so relaxed about solving our own political, economic and environmental problems.
Talking of learning from the past, there’s also plenty to think about in this year’s big historical epics, Ghost of Tsushima and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. These open-world adventures are propped up by mountains of cultural research into the times and places they depict, but it’s an authenticity that sits awkwardly next to their power fantasies, creating an experience of history that’s part museum, part theme park.
These games pile on the information about Samurai and Viking culture respectively — Did you know they did this? Did you know it was called that? — but it’s hard to get a sense from them of the wider social situation in which Samurai or Vikings existed. What actually was a Samurai, ultimately, if not a feudal lord representing hereditary privilege and rigid class hierarchy? An orientalist mysticism leaves these figures immune to the critical eye we might apply to European knights.
What’s most apparent when you play both games close together is that, beneath the costumes and architecture, they’re oddly similar, homogenising our entire past into one long blob of invasions and honour battles, until modernity came along and told everyone to get a job. The protagonists in these worlds, meanwhile, are individuals with modern sensibilities beamed back in time — shrewd negotiators who aren’t afraid of new ideas and can shake civilisation out of its stagnant lethargy.
These open worlds are to an extent a kind of neoliberal fantasy, where we get to indulge our present individualist ideals and desires in the type of unfettered paradise that neoliberalism falsely promises. They’re worlds where you can run around slicing people up and bagging their treasure without concern for the social cost of your actions. As long as your exploitation obeys the arbitrary rules (in Valhalla you can strip monasteries bare of supplies and massacre the guards, just don’t stab the monks), they won’t make you feel bad.
The fantasy is replete with a sanitised class and gender equality that erases the politics of difference. Valhalla’s choice of male or female hero is exemplary, reducing identity to an aesthetic selection, leaving no room in the plot for other characters to register your decision. There is a sense of empowerment here — why shouldn’t a woman be a strong warrior — but it’s robbed of meaning because it lacks context and involves no fight for recognition. Female warriors are accepted as honorary men in a world whose organisation remains overwhelmingly masculine.
This treatment of equality highlights a distinction between marginalised groups being given certain opportunities within existing social relations and the struggle to challenge those social relations, which produce and support inequality in the first place. There’s a hint of this dichotomy in the otherwise frivolous No Straight Roads. Here, main character Mayday is desperate to overthrow the tyranny of Electronic Dance Music with the power of rock. But does she really care about the injustice, or just want to ascend to the elite herself, enjoying the fortune and public adoration the EDM artists receive? Eventually, Mayday finds a wider perspective, leading to mutual acceptance.
However, No Straight Roads’ musical odyssey avoids the more problematic realities of healing social division. Its implication that culture wars are a distraction from a common enemy is worthwhile, but in its cartoon world there’s no genuine hate to overcome. For radical thinking that does face the future by engaging with right-wing toxicity and capitalist power structures, we need to look elsewhere.
Watch Dogs: Legion is an obvious starting point, with its premise of organising collective, society-wide resistance against an authoritarian state. For once, it’s a big budget game that claims a political stance, paying attention to the rise of modern fascism. Still, the concept of collective organisation is compromised somewhat by its single-player focus, while rebellion finds itself funnelled back into an in-game consumerist economy. Legion seems to want us to return to the ‘normality’ of late capitalist societies, which side-steps how that normality incubates the fascist tendencies it stands against.
Final Fantasy VII Remake feels more committed with its tale of urban guerrilla warfare. It’s an old-fashioned approach to resistance, which understands its own futility, but challenges us to consider how such resistance emerges as the last resort of the desperate. As with the 1997 original, it’s rare to see a major release tackle the subject of revolutionary violence and refuse easy conclusions. The arc of this instalment concludes as Cloud and friends leave the city of Midgar, their activities having achieved little. But crucially a shift from the original story here carries the implication that the future is open and the revolution lives to find another way, as yet to be determined.
Finally, one game this year actually explores how varied ideological fantasies and worldviews can support a state of horrifying inequality — Paradise Killer. The characters in this indie detective game embody some of the mentalities mentioned here and others besides, from architects of social perfection to religious zealots, cynical social climbers to disillusioned lovers. As immortals, these personalities have co-existed in a state of mutual tolerance for millennia, yet that social inclusivity only thrives on the back of an enslaved and dehumanised citizenry.
As harmony finally collapses with the murder of the governing council, your investigation slowly peels back the full horror of capitalist paradise. Unearthing clues and interrogating the elite suspects, you’re left with the question of how to evaluate their guilt. Are any of them, even your old friends, even you, innocent? What should become apparent here is that it takes all sorts to maintain systemic injustice — true believers, hedonists and sceptics alike. Anyone who enjoys its privileges, even passively accepting the terror that blights the majority, is guilty in some sense.
Once you’re done investigating, it’s up to you to construct the truth of events and administer the punishments. What does justice look like for these people and what comes after? Paradise Killer is a test of your own ideological leanings.