Because the more I think about it, the less I’m sure we’ve ever had an actually political game before.
So let’s back up. Here’s what quest designer Patrick Mills said when talking about why Cyberpunk 2077 is a political game:
"Cyberpunk 2077 is a game about people with power at the top and people at the bottom with none. That power can come from money, hierarchies, technology and violence. The original Cyberpunk 2020 setting, like the setting of The Witcher stories, was a complex critique of the author's world, and we don't shy away from that in our games. On the contrary I think it's one of the things that sets us apart [...] Cyberpunk is an inherently political genre and it's an inherently political franchise."
Now, at first glance, anyone – myself included – would agree that a story about class inequality and power structure and money would be a political one. But when I was thinking about it earlier this week, I started wonder: what exactly are the politics being discussed here? Because if you were to pull someone aside and ask them “is inequality bad?” or “is homelessness a problem?”, then just about 100% of them, regardless of their political leanings, would say yes to both of those questions. What they would disagree about, on the other hand, is how to solve it.
People on the right would probably say, for example, the best way to solve homelessness is to strip away safety nets to incentivize people to work hard, as well as encouraging strong economic growth so there are always jobs available for those who need it. On the other hand, people on the left would say that we need a larger safety net so people can have an easier time getting back on their feet, and that we should provide programs to make it easier to find work you’re qualified for if you should find yourself out of house and home. As far as we or anyone is aware, not one of these solutions is more valid than the other (although I’m sure you have your own ideas), and that’s why we argue about them, and issues adjacent to them.
That’s sort of the lynchpin that’s been missing from this talk of political games: politics was never acknowledging an issue. Politics is how we think it should be fixed. And while not everyone agrees what’s an issue and what’s not (for example: the left would see nationalization and climate change as an issue, while the right would see regulation and globalization as a threat), at the end of the day the politics is still the solution to the problem, even if not everyone thinks that “problem” is in need of a solution.
So looking back at Cyberpunk 2077, it’s impossible to know if the game will actually be political, because simply saying “we have class inequality and violence” isn’t enough to make that true. If the game will point the finger to certain policies and say “this is bad because X, and the solution is Y”, then yeah: it could be called ‘political’. But if it merely uses inequality and violence as the backdrop for the story, and has nothing to say about them beyond that they’re bad, then it’s not political in the slightest. It’ll just be a fairly straightforward and agreeable observation that no one wants to be a slave to super-powerful corporate entities.
But let’s take a step further back and take a look at the last game I discusses this issue with, Far Cry 5. I accused that game of being not political enough because while it had all the trappings of a game that had something to say about gun culture, separatists, religious extremism, and the fragile state of worldwide politics, it lacked the follow-through to deliver any satisfying commentary on those issues. But now that I’m looking back on it, maybe I overcomplicated the issue. Maybe Far Cry 5 simply failed to deliver its promise because the only thing it had to say was “nuclear war is bad, extremism is bad, here have a gun and sort it out”. And just about everyone can agree with at least two of those three points. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who’s really glad we can wipe out the planet with the click of a button, or that people exist who can’t be swayed by logic or empathy.
But while Far Cry 5 teased at the edges of being a political game (such as “DO YOU SEE WHO’S IN CHARGE?!”), it can’t be a fully political game because it doesn’t offer a solution. I mean… okay, sure, you “solve” the problem of the cult with guns and well-trained bears, but politics is about systemic change and solutions, not immediate ones. There’s nothing you do in Far Cry 5 that, in theory, would prevent the rise of a new religious cult. It might talk about the things that inspired the cult’s creation, but it never offered a systemic solution on how to fix those problems. No one even offers an opinion. The narrative’s only concern is solving the immediate problem, and then having the whole world blow up in your face anyway. Which, I suppose, is at least a philosophical commentary on the futility of action.
Let’s take an even further step back to a game you probably forgot about: Deus Ex Human Revolution. As with earlier games in the Deus Ex/Cyberpunk genre, the game sets itself up to be a game that tackles political issues: specifically, class inequality (a favorite of futurist fiction), privacy, and corporate responsibility. And while the game uses these issues to frame the story, and it wrestles with them in a unique and interesting way, it can’t really claim to be political because there are no solutions to be found in the story. It says Class Inequality will cause these problem, but it never voices an opinion itself as to how that could be fixed. It says privacy is at risk when we all have machines all around us, but when does it spare a thought for ways that risk could be mediated, or if it should at all?
And in the very end, it does something so many political and moral games do: it simply reduces the problem to a multiple-choice question and gives people the option to click the button and solve the problem their own way.
And you know, maybe that’s the way to do it. Games are unique in the world of media in how they let their users engage with them, adjust them within the confines allowed within the game, and even draw their own conclusions. And the moment you force one method to be “better” than the others, you’ve either got a bad case of metagaming or, worse, you’ve got a propaganda game on your hands, which I’m pretty sure nobody wants. And in that respect, simply showing the issue and letting the player decide how they would fix it, or merely just to think about it when they next encounter it in real life, is the kind of experience unique to games.
On the other hand, it does leave me slightly frustrated at the idea that games and politics seem truly incompatible. Granted, this could all stem from my own lack of experience with this genre of game: maybe the battling warlords of Far Cry 2 or the geopolitical ponderings of Spec Ops: The Line offered some solace or solution to the people who had the stomachs to endure them. But if I’m right, and a truly “political yet non-propaganda game” doesn’t exist, it has troubling implications for the limits of games… and, perhaps more importantly, the state of our politics. After all, if any piece of interactive media who makes the claim that one method is superior to another, even if it can be verified and proven, is a work of propaganda… it just might mean we’re polarized beyond repair.
But hey. Maybe Cyberpunk 2077 will be the first really political game ever made, and this whole meditation will be built on a false assumption. That’d be a lot of fun, right?