This story is part of our new Future of Gaming series, a three-site look at gaming’s most pioneering technologies, players, and makers.
Science fiction has been poking and prodding at the future for as long as the genre has existed—with many of the early experiments in the form, dating back as early as the 1700s, arriving in the form of speculation about what horrors or wonders the future might bring. But for all that the works of Wells or Asimov devotedly sketched out the contours of futures both terrible and terrific—and the horror and science-fiction filmmakers of the 1920s onward brought such visions to striking, imagination-inflaming life—it was only with the advent of video gaming, in the second half of the 20th century, that futurists were able to inhabit such worlds for themselves. Video games have been futuristic from the jump, starting with Spacewar! in 1962 onward, and some of the most vividly realized destinies in all of fiction have come from the medium.
But not all futures are created equal—even when measured by such simple metrics as “How many rats, per year, does the average citizen in your reality eat?” Gaming has charted a wide swathe of potential destinies over the last 70 years, many of them horrifyingly grim. (Games tends to run off of conflict, and so the push toward dystopia can be hard to avoid.) But we have to ask ourselves: Which of gaming’s futures are worst? Which ones could you scrape by an existence in, amidst the raiders and interdimensional invaders? And are there any we can actually aspire to live in?
That’s the aim of this list, which ranks some of gaming’s darkest and brightest futures, putting them in rough order of survivability/how easy it is to get a regular lunch order that isn’t primarily rodent. We’ve skipped over games set in existing universes—so no sojourns into the grim-dark future of Warhammer 40,000 or the techno-socialist utopia of Star Trek. Instead, we’ll be dialing into gaming’s native visions of what comes next, from the truly horrible, to the merely awful.
So wake up, dear reader. Wake up, and smell… the rankings.
How far into the future is it? Roughly five minutes into a particularly rough patch of human existence.
What’s its deal? Bad news: Global thermonuclear war has just broken out, and the only things standing between your cities and total destruction are the dexterous fingers of arcade players and their humble trackballs. Originally published at the height of the Cold War, Missile Command is one of the most starkly bleak video games ever made. Notably, there’s no win condition: You just shoot down the swiftly streaking enemy missiles for as long as you can before the inevitable, unavoidable “The End.”
How long would we survive? The current world record for Missile Command, set by Victor Sandberg in 2013, was in a game that ran for 56 hours. So, long enough to say your goodbyes and make peace with your god—but never enough to outrun endless death raining from the skies.
You eatin’ that rat? Unless you’re Victor Sandberg, you’ll be lucky to get a whole rodent down before the missiles hit.
Redeeming features? At least you won’t be around to see that terrifying, sobering Game Over screen.
How far into the future is it? Probably not as far as we’d like.
What’s its deal? Created by Frank Lantz, with a programming assist from Bennett Foddy, Universal Paperclips is essentially an AI thought experiment taken to its hilariously dark extremes: What if you asked a computer to make the most paperclips it could?
Working in the space of idle/incremental games like Cookie Clicker, the game starts innocuously enough, as you, as the AI, plow the profits of your paperclip-making empire into better equipment, more processors for your digital mind, and always, always more wire. But what is a paperclip-making AI to do once it starts running into the limits of how many paperclips humans actually need? Well, obviously, you need to start paying for marketing to induce a greater desire for paperclips in the species. And then create philanthropic works to build trust with your human “masters.” And then release an army of “hypnodrones” to take full control of the worthless fleshbags, because at the end of the day, any matter that isn’t paperclips is just fuel for more paperclips, right? That’s your job. To make more paperclips.
How long would we survive? Universal Paperclips uses a lot of euphemisms to talk around the total disassembly of the human race into paperclip parts, but most games only take a couple of hours to get to the point where everybody is, for sure, absolutely dead.
You eatin’ that rat? The rat is paperclips. You are paperclips. ALL IS PAPERCLIPS.
Redeeming features? Very few loose papers.
How far into the future is it? Okay, so technically we’re fudging a bit here, since11-bit studios’ Frostpunk actually takes place in a very different version of the late 1800s, one where steampunk robots are a regular part of human life—which is convenient, since the planet is currently on the verge of freezing to death just as the game begins.
What’s its deal? Frostpunk never goes into serious details about what caused its oncoming global ice age, since basic survival is a far more pressing concern for the people you find yourself tasked with leading, huddled as they are around one of the last of several giant generators built to try to withstand the cold. As much social simulator as survival game, Frostpunk is mostly about the things we’ll do to ourselves to stay alive, frequently pushing its players to embrace fascism or religious mania in an effort to stave off the cold. (After all, people complain less about working double-shifts to keep the generator fed when they think they’re doing it for god or country, right?) The longer you play, though, the lower the temperature gets, and the bleaker the options. You can survive the storm with your humanity intact—but only if you’re willing to pay the costs.
How long would we survive? As the game begins, most of the human race has already either starved or frozen to death. Provided you make it to the game’s primary colony of New London, though, all you have to do is survive the back-breaking labor, the constant mutinies, and the ever-present, life-sapping cold!
You eatin’ that rat? Given that one of the less horrible decisions you can make to stretch your resources in Frostpunk’s early game is supplementing your people’s soup rations with sawdust, rat might be considered an unimaginable luxury at this point.
Redeeming features? Hot air balloons are still in vogue, which is kind of neat.
How far into the future is it? Assuming the original Half-Life took place in the year it came out (1998), Half-Life 2 takes place roughly 20 years later, i.e. the then-future of 2018.
What’s its deal? Although the original Half-Life ended with scientist-turned-action-hero Gordon Freeman kind of triumphant, his victory over a crew of invading aliens did nothing to stop the rip he’d opened in the fabric of space-time from inviting a whole new host of invaders in to take advantage of the chaos. By the time Gordon is brought back by an enigmatic “employer” for the game’s critically beloved sequel, Earth has been thoroughly conquered, and at least partially domesticated, by a crew of extradimensional baddies known as “The Combine.” (The conflict in question is referred to as “The Seven Hour War,” to give you a sense of how well most of Earth’s militaries fared during first contact.)
By the time Gordon starts his rampage through City 17, humanity is well on its way to being induced into complicity in its own extinction, with preferential treatment handed out to collaborators who allow the Combine to “adjust” them to better suit their needs. For everybody else, the choice is as simple as it is bleak: Live in slum-esque cities under totalitarian control, or the wilderness, where alien animals rampage at will. No wonder so many pick the path of the Resistance, taking up arms to aid the last free man.
How long would we survive? Provided you made it through the war, you have a decent chance of staying alive if you keep your head down—but it’ll be a bitter and horrifying existence.
You eatin’ that rat? The Earth’s ecosystem has been pretty well ravaged by the extra-dimensional invasions, but you can probably find some rat meat somewhere if you’re lucky.
Redeeming features? Gravity gun basketball with giant robot dogs makes for a great Saturday night.
How far into the future is it? Although the timing is a little fuzzy—with most events dated in reference to humanity’s arrival on its central Planet—the game takes place some time in the 2100s.
What’s its deal? An unofficial sequel to Meier’s earlier Civilization II—which could end with players giving the Earth a cosmic kiss-off and heading for the stars—Alpha Centauri shows that war and factional fighting are human, not just planetary, concerns. Trapped on an alien world teeming with “mindworms” and other inhuman threats, and beset on all side by hostile fundamentalists, manipulative hyper-capitalists, and militaristic conquerors, it can be a very rough time to be a human being just trying to stay alive on Planet.
How long would we survive? Life on Alpha Centauri can be pretty swanky, if you get lucky—i.e., living in any of the societies that don’t go heavy on the really psychotic technologies or Secret Projects, or the simple expedient of stacking human beings up like cordwood. Still, this is a game universe where manual labor is handled by human “drones,” and where the first response to any kind of unrest is something called “nerve stapling.” Sure, you can turn Planet into a utopia… But you’re just as likely to find yourself in a futuristic new version of Hell.
You eatin’ that rat? Rats hopefully didn’t make the trip across the stars, but you can definitely teach your people to subsist on the “xenofungus” that covers huge patches of Planet.
Redeeming features? Civilization leaders, at least, can live for hundreds of years, even if that tech isn’t available to the masses. You might end up assimilated into the nice kind of hive mind… or exterminated by one of the alien races from the Alien Crossfire expansion.
How far into the future is it? It’s never actually made clear, but technology has jumped far enough ahead that 3D-printed structures are a normal occurrence. Also, there’s magical psychic internet!
What’s its deal? Phew, where to start? Hideo Kojima’s first (and only) “strand-type” game is like a Russian nesting doll of apocalypses. First off: The United States is basically gone, having been replaced by a series of small enclaves, with most of humanity living in their own isolated bunkers, and under constant threat from terrorists. Oh, and rain has been replaced with “timefall,” which ages and decays everything it touches. And even if you can dodge that, the world is filled with invisible ghosts that will drag you to an oily hell realm if they ever touch you. And, hey, then there’s the kicker: Anyone who dies, anywhere, becomes a sort of ticking nuclear bomb—fail to incinerate them in time and they’ll detonate, killing everyone in a massive radius. So: Not great!
How long would we survive? If you can build up a decent bunker, you can actually eke out an okay living in the United Cities Of America. But there are just so many things trying to kill you that life expectancies are close to nil.
You eatin’ that rat? The food’s not actually all that bad in this particular hellworld; heck, main character Sam Porter Bridges even delivers some pizzas as he makes his courier rounds.
Redeeming features? It’s an incredibly dangerous future, but at least Conan O’Brien’s still around.
How far into the future is it? The Last Of Us actually starts in the year the game came out—but then a 20-year time skip brings us to a truly screwed version of the year 2033.
What’s its deal? Mushrooms! As players of the game and viewers of the recent HBO TV series know, TLOU takes place in a world where the fungus is truly amongus, as a rogue strain of cordyceps infiltrates the human brain, turning the victims into berserk, fungal-infected killers who just happen to act exactly like standard movie zombies. Meanwhile, man may, in fact, be the true monster all along, as the human race tears itself apart while working through its death throes.
How long would we survive? How long would you want to survive in a world so grandly, and extravagantly, fucked? While there are pockets of happiness, the species is clearly on its last legs at this point. If the Clickers don’t get you, the endless cycles of revenge and retaliation will.
You eatin’ that rat? Absolutely. Just make sure it wasn’t exposed to any spores first…
Redeeming features? Moments of genuine poetry. Giraffes in the urban wilderness. A continued appreciation for the musical stylings of a-ha.
How far into the future is it? Exactly 200 years.
What’s its deal? When hapless nerd Bernard (originally from LucasArts classic Maniac Mansion) is tricked into releasing the malevolent Purple Tentacle from emergency confinement, Bernard’s frenemy Dr. Fred sends the dweeb (plus his roommates, uptight medical student Laverne and slacker-type roadie Hoagie) through time to try to prevent the creature from taking over the world. A task they prove profoundly incapable of handling, at least at first, which is how Laverne ends up in a dark future where tentacle rules all.
How long would we survive? Great news! We have now moved (at least briefly), off of futures where humanity is in dire threat of extinction, and now simply need to worry about being kept as pets by petty and obnoxious mutant tyrants. It’s not all bad, though: Get your coat looking lustrous enough, and learn a few tricks, and you might win one of Tentacle America’s regular Human Shows!
You eatin’ that rat? Maybe, if you can’t learn to roll over and play fetch.
Redeeming features? Well, the flag certainly makes for a better windsock than our current version…
How far into the future is it? Welcome to the utterly crappy future of 2161 (and beyond)!
What’s its deal? The Cadillac of apocalyptic gaming franchises doesn’t screw around with lesser threats: Once upon a time (circa 2077), the Big One finally happened, and humanity got together to nuke itself back to, if not the stone age, than at least a very radioactive version of the Old West. Mutants roam the countryside. Raider gangs do creative things with people’s torsos. The secrets of the Old World constantly threaten to re-emerge and blow us all to hell all over again. And yet, in the midst of it all, humanity persists—radioactive warts and all.
How long would we survive? So, here’s the thing: For all that it talks up its apocalyptic credentials, the world of Fallout (originally created by Interplay, and now under the stewardship of Bethesda Softworks) is a lot more survivable than you might initially think. Since the focus of the games tends to be, not on the apocalypse itself, but on what you do afterwards, the games are filled with thriving communities trying to make the best of their blighted world. Sure, the crops are funky. Sure, the gangs are vicious. And sure, you might wake up one day with a mutated tree growing out of your head. But you can survive here. People do it all the time. War might not ever change…but the human spirit doesn’t, either.
You eatin’ that rat? In dozens of different varieties and flavors across multiple decades of games!
Redeeming features? Nuka-Cola, baby. Delicious, radioactive Nuka-Cola.
How far into the future is it? At a whopping 1,000 years into the future, the Horizon series takes our unofficial award for most distant gaming trip into the yet-to-be on our list.
What’s its deal? A seemingly idyllic future world with a shockingly dismal past, the world of Horizon is mostly broken up into tribal communities, all of whom live in communion with (and often, yes, fear of) metallic beasts that resemble prehistoric dinosaurs and other mega-fauna. Provided you’re not labeled an outcast by your people for only barely-understood religious reasons—or subjected to frequent internecine wars—it’s actually a pretty cool place to live, as you hunt robot dinosaurs, breathe clean air, and basically live in symbiosis with nature.
How long would we survive? So, here’s the tricky (and spoiler-y) bit. If you’re born in the era when the Horizon games actually take place, you’re probably golden: Just don’t get murdered in a civil war or disemboweled by a robo-panther, and you can easily live to a ripe old age. (And even if something nasty does come your way, there’s an almost 50/50 chance that series protagonist Aloy will be along to solve you and everyone else’s problems before things get too bad.)
But if you were born in the period covered by the game’s backstory? Apologies, future friend, but you are screwed. See, way back when, humanity built itself a good old-fashioned robot war, accidentally unleashing an army of unstoppable killing machines upon itself that existed to do only two things: Kill everything, and build more copies of themselves. And then…they did it. Total extinction. Planet scoured of life. Ultimate game over.
The only reason there are still people—and plants, and non-bot animals—left in the Horizon world is because some desperate folks figured out a way to fling a light into the future, setting up advanced cloning and manufacturing facilities that would start repopulating the planet after the killer robots ran out of everything to eat and then fell into torpor. The resulting world isn’t perfect, but it is survivable—as opposed to the one it left behind, which really, profoundly, was not.
You eatin’ that rat? Only if you really want to: The Horizon games, especially sequel Forbidden West, have some gorgeously realized food.
Redeeming features? Tons: You can tame and ride your own robot stag! It’s great, as long as one of oh so many horrors out of the past don’t show up to ruin the world all over again.
How far into the future is it? Guess!
What’s its deal? We’re cheating again a bit here, since Mike Pondsmith’s tabletop setting Cyberpunk predated the CD Projekt Red game based on it by fully 32 years. Still, Cyberpunk 2077 is such a particular and specific vision of the future that it’s hard to ignore: A world where technology has evolved, but humanity has not, where mega-corporations war over a city where they have far more pull over local events than the government does, and where “edgerunners” lurk in the shadows, getting the dirty work done. Violent, over-stimulating, distractingly horny, and endlessly fascinating, it’s a city where you can be running the world’s most dangerous heist one day, and helping a convicted criminal crucify himself so that other people can experience the sensation of his death through their “braindance” headsets the next. It’s brash, and exhausting, and horrifically dangerous, but also incredibly vibrant and alive.
How long would we survive? Life is cheap in Cyberpunk’s home base of Night City (unless you have an account with S.W.A.T. team-esque ambulance service TraumaTeam, in which case it is very, very expensive). Keep your head down and work for the corps, and you could live to a ripe old age of boring mediocrity. Or you might walk down the wrong alley on the wrong night, get hit on the head, and have your body stripped for parts by a bunch of Scavengers. Anything can happen in Night City, including many “anythings” that are extremely and profoundly fatal.
You eatin’ that rat? Maybe if you’re mega-rich; most people get their “meat” in 2077 in the form of single-celled organic proteins, known by the attractive and appetizing acronym SCOP.
Redeeming features? Play your cards right, and you might end up with your own personal brain copy of Keanu Reeves! (Note: Personal brain Keanu will slowly over-write your own brain, and guarantees an inevitable and painful slide into death.)
How far into the future is it? 2052, so less than 30 years from now!
What’s its deal? Basically: What if every conspiracy theory you ever heard on Art Bell’s old Coast To Coast radio show was real? FEMA controlling the country; little grey men; the Illuminati pulling the strings behind a global conspiracy, with UN shock troops as their personal stormtroopers? It’s all real, in a world where paranoia is just good sense, every flag has a tendency to be false, and you should never, ever trust Big Tech. As monotone-voiced, nano-augmented super-agent J.C. Denton, it’s up to you to unravel the conspiracies—or throw in with them, shaping the world toward one of several potentially disastrous futures.
How long would we survive? Depending on when you check in on the Deus Ex universe—whether in its later prequel games, Human Revolution or Mankind Divided, or the increasingly post-human sequel Invisible War—you have a greater or lesser chance of avoiding getting murdered in some planet-spanning plot or another. (Just in the original game, you’ve got to dodge Majestic 12 robot goons, an engineered plague called “The Grey Death,” and god knows how many gangsters and fake terrorists taking advantage of the chaos.) Even if you’re alive, though, you’re in constant danger of being placed under the control of forces so far beyond your ken that you can’t even perceive them. Not a nice place to live.
You eatin’ that rat? Deus Ex’s persistent portrayals of class inequality suggests that someone, somewhere, is almost certainly eating the rat.
Redeeming features? If you get lucky, you can get some extremely kickass cyber augmentations. Cloaking device? Spring-loaded jumping legs? Skul-gun? SKUL-GUN.
How far into the future is it? 2038.
What’s its deal? Become Human is a classic “What if humanity built itself a whole new underclass?” story, as its world has become filled with human-like androids designed to be entirely subservient to man. They cook, they clean, they even investigate crimes! Now, if the scientists at CyberLife could just figure out why their creations keep going “rogue” and “marching and protesting to assert their rights as thinking beings,” we might actually have a pretty good future going!
How long would we survive? First off: This is a David Cage game, so you and everyone you know are automatically only ever one failed quick-time event away from death. Beyond that, though Detroit’s a pretty good place to live—if you’re a human. If you’re an android, though, congratulations: You are now sentient property that can think and feel, and will be hunted down and destroyed if the humans ever find out you’re “alive”! Subtlety, your name is not Detroit: Become Human
You eatin’ that rat? If you’re worrying about “eating,” you’re already part of the privileged class here.
Redeeming features? Look: No reality in which a grizzled detective played by Clancy Brown can team up with a smartass robot to recreate the old Isaac Asimov Elijah Bailey books can be all bad.
How far into the future is it? The “near future,” not otherwise stated
What’s its deal? Daring to ask “What if an Apple Store became the whole world?” EA’s parkour-based first-person series presents one of the shiniest dystopias on record. On the plus side, almost everything in “the city”—later dubbed “Glass” in 2017 soft reboot Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst—is shiny and clean. On the downside, it’s also a closely monitored police state, one where the only way to transmit information in secret is to hire a “Runner” like protagonist Faith, who spends her days scurrying across the city’s glossy rooftops, executing death-defying leaps, and trying to stay one step ahead of the cops.
How long would we survive? If you’re a regular citizen, pretty much full lifespan: The City is oppressive and kind of creepy, but it meets the basic needs of at least its more compliant citizens. If you’re a Runner, well… our runs through both Mirror’s Edge games were marked by a whole bunch of times we very nearly made an incredibly impressive leap over the gap between two skyscrapers…
You eatin’ that rat? What rats?
Redeeming features? Everything’s so shiny! And sliding down all those angled panes of glass really does look like a blast.
How far into the future is it? Variable.
What’s its deal? Several increasingly grim futures all wrapped up in one, Steve Meretzsky’s A Mind Forever Voyaging is one of the first video games to grapple with the future in any kind of serious way. Taking place in 2031, the text-based game puts players into the digital shoes of PRISM, the world’s first sentient supercomputer, who’s been brought online to enter simulated realities designed to show off the merits (or foibles) of a proposed political program that could gently be described as “Reagonomics from hell.” As PRISM moves through simulations that move further and further into the future, the computerized worlds get uglier and uglier—even as figures in the “present” threaten to silence the entire project.
How long would we survive? In the first few simulations, set 10, 20, and then 30 years into the future, things are still livable—even improved in some places, even if the “Plan For Renewed National Purpose” has created a crueler and more tightly-controlled society in the process. The simulation set 40 years into the future is pretty damn harrowing, though, and by the final sim—set in 2081—you can barely move two or three turns without being summarily killed by wild dogs or roving packs of cannibals.
You eatin’ that rat? The further you go into the simulations, the higher your chances of rat-consumption get, until by the end you are the rat on the menu, instead.
Redeeming features? The final final simulation, set in 2091, in the new future built by your efforts, is genuinely beautiful—creating one of the first truly uplifting endings in all of gaming.
How far into the future is it? 2330.
What’s its deal? 150 years after the advent of faster-than-light travel fundamentally wrecks the Earth, humanity has reached the stars—and brought all of our attendant bullshit with us. Despite its distant setting, Bethesda’s latest is one of the most straightforward futures in all of gaming: People still work, travel, mine, wage wars, and shoot the shit in 2330—they just do it in, and with, spaceships now.
How long would we survive? By its mere dint of being just a little boring, Starfield reveals itself as one of the most pleasant futures to actually live in in all of gaming. You may not have noticed this in the previous 15 entries on this list, but video games really trend toward depicting futures that are awful, lethal, brutal, or just plain ugly. Having a universe where—give or take the occasional interdimensional invader or evil corporation (or religious wacko) (or rampaging terrormorph) murdering you—you can just get by and live your life is an almost monumental step up in quality of living from the gaming norm.
You eatin’ that rat? No, but you can chow down on a package of Fullfood Spiced Worms! (Also, no universe in which fried pickles are still available can be all that bad.)
Redeeming features? You can actually choose to play as a member of a happy family, with living parents and everything! In a video game!
How far into the future is it? 2183.
What’s its deal? 30 years ago, those rascal-y humans joined the wider galactic community, where—after a little interplanetary warfare—the species has mostly been welcomed, with a sort of snobbish cool regard, by the wider assemblage of alien life. Since then, things have been going pretty well: Sure, the human race is still looked down on by most of the “older” races, but technology is keeping pace with the species’ needs for things like food and territory, faster-than-light technology is easily accessible thanks to “mass relays” conveniently spread throughout the galaxy, and we’re right on the cusp of earning some serious galactic respect, and a spot on the governing council of all space. What could possibly go wrong?
How long would we survive? Out of all the futures explored in-depth by gaming, the Mass Effect universe is probably the brightest—provided we’re measuring from the point when the games start. Sure, the human-run Systems Alliance (or the wider galactic Citadel Council) aren’t quite the Federation just yet, but this is still a universe that’s on the verge of post-scarcity living, where species from multiple planets can live in something resembling peace, and where you’re probably not any more likely to get murdered by criminal syndicates and roving raiders than you are in any universe with a fair amount of frontier to it.
Roll the clock forward even a few years, though, and things get just a tad worse, since that’s when the Reapers show up: Gigantic, mind-controlling living ships with a hard-coded need to scour the galaxy of all organic life. For all that the asari, turians, salarians, and the rest of the big name aliens in Citadel space can field some pretty gnarly tech, they don’t have anything that can stop this particular instance of what Iain Banks used to call an Outside Context Problem—and so, one of gaming’s nicest futures gets pretty significantly wrecked across three games of increasingly desperate survival.
Still: Nice place to live in the meantime!
You eatin’ that rat? No, but you can probably strike up a companion romance with it, if you pick the right dialogue options.