How the games portray America, for better and for worse
It was fun to sit on my roof and watch the fireworks over the Los Angeles cityscape for 4th of July this year, but I have to be honest – there wasn’t much to celebrate this year. Regardless of the depressing state of our country, the holidays made me think about Americana in video games and how they portray our country, for better and for worse.
Besides Japan, the United States is the world leader in video game production, so it makes perfect sense for developers to borrow themes, imagery, and iconography from their home country. Sometimes it’s to pay homage to their country of origin, other times it’s for the express purpose of criticizing the systems and ideals that run our nation, and sometimes it’s a mix of the two.
Small town life
Having grown up in one myself, games set in small town America will always hold a special place in my heart. One of the series that portrays the classic “little fluff with a dark secret” trope well is life is strange — and it does a great job of capturing on a smaller scale that America has plenty of dark secrets lurking beneath the surface, many of which have come to light in recent years. For so long, our country has pushed this narrative of being an ideal, almost utopian place (at least for some), but it was all built on a broken system to begin with.
night in the woods nail this theme as well. Most of the game allows the player to make friends, hang out around town, and deal with the fallout of bad decisions that are actually manifestations of trauma. However, there is a cult that murders people because they think they are doing their part to keep the city running. Sounds a bit familiar, right?
The American dream is dead
Another classic tale of Americana in video games is that of big corporations decimating Central America – a phenomenon so common that it’s the subject of several games, including Kentucky Route Zero, NORCO, night in the woodsand Life is Strange: True Colors. Coercion, cover-ups, and takeovers are the name of the game, and in a country that’s ruled by certain corporations in trench coats, it’s an apt narrative, to say the least.
What I like about games like Kentucky Route Zero and NORCO plus, they’re so specific to the regions they’re set in – Kentucky and New Orleans, respectively. The games settings use iconic American imagery like gas stations, highways, and factories to great effect. The creators hail from these regions and have also done a lot of research, so you can really feel both the love and the heartbreak that emanate from these titles when you play them. They may take place in vastly different parts of the country, but the story of a giant corporation that comes along and kills not just industry, but real citizens, is unsettling in its fidelity to real life.
I also can’t mention Kentucky Route Zero without evoking one of his interludes: entertainment. This sequence depicts a fictional set piece in the game world, which depicts a mundane and somewhat depressing sequence of events in a bar that has seen better days. The whole thing seems so reminiscent of 20th century American playwrights, like Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Kentucky Route ZeroDialogue is also formatted as a script throughout the game, evoking more of a theatrical setting in the rest of the episodes.
For God and Country
Of course, we can’t have a conversation about America without mentioning religion, because our country has become pretty much synonymous with evangelicalism. No other game showcases our country’s obsession with religion, American exceptionalism, and racism better than Bioshock Infinite. It dubs Americana into a video game like I’ve never seen before, and what it lacks in nuance it makes up for in style. Although it’s still a dated game and its social commentary could have been greatly improved even in its time, Infinite doesn’t shy away from the ugliest parts of our history, which is more than many games.
Then there is a game like Far Cry 5, which I still haven’t played, but it’s definitely on my list given my fascination with Americana. All I know is that it’s set in Montana and the main antagonistic force is some kind of militaristic doomsday cult. I remember when the game came out in 2018 its story felt like an exaggeration of how many in our country practice religion, but these days that feels a little too much on the nose.
Along with America’s obsession with religion is our obsession with the military. There have been dozens and dozens of games featuring the US Armed Forces to some extent, but the series that sums it up best is definitely Call of Duty. They’ve been among the most popular games since the series began in 2003, depicting wars from World War II to the present day, and some might say, glorifying them to some degree. Don’t get me wrong I played and enjoyed it myself Call of Duty games, but we cannot separate games from real life when the army directly uses these games to try and recruit players in their ranks.
man versus nature
One of the most American types of stories ever created is the western, which of course we see in the Red Dead Redemption series. These games are an extension of America’s deep love of cowboys and outlaws, which came to prominence through the westerns that were made popular in the 20th century by actors like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.
Of course, many of the games we have now put a new spin on the Western genre – The last of us is the one that immediately comes to mind. Having a deadly infection circulating definitely creates a hostile environment, and Joel is kind of a lone wolf, you might say (at least until Ellie cracks his shell a bit). I find it quite interesting that our updated version of a western makes you come away with the idea that opening yourself up to the idea of love in a harsh world might not be such a bad thing after all.
The games I’ve mentioned here are some of my favorites, or at least the ones that stood out to me, but there are myriad other titles that reflect American culture in various ways. There are tons of other games out there that deal with topics that I haven’t mentioned, especially when it comes to the stories of marginalized people, and I know I’d love to see more of those stories highlighted at future, especially because most of those come from the independent space.
The history of American media reflecting the country’s culture is long, difficult, but also beautiful, and it’s exciting to see Americana in video games being part of the canon in that regard as well. As games continue to tell innovative and compelling stories, I can’t wait to see how a new generation of developers will use this medium to express their relationship with Americana in the future.
Story Beat is a weekly column covering everything and nothing related to storytelling in video games.