Does anyone like megacorporations? Whether it’s their knack for avoiding taxes, exploiting employees, privatising essential resources, polluting nature, corrupting democracies, manipulating us through marketing, or straight up imploding the economy, there are plenty of reasons not to. As wealth steadily flows upwards, leaving the rest of us more vulnerable and in debt, it’s hardly surprising that corporations and the people who run them often become the villains of popular culture.
There’s nothing new in that, either. Corporate greed and corruption have long been the target of satire and social critique in novels, films, TV shows and games. So much so, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine it has much impact anymore. Isn’t it too normalised, too obvious, too easy to tune out – even something corporate publishers themselves can include in their wares to appear self-critical and relevant?
So we might well applaud the takedowns of capitalist excess in the scattershot satire of Borderlands and Grand Theft Auto V, or the deeper social machinations of RPGs like The Outer Worlds and Cyberpunk 2077. But we might also find them more comforting than challenging. They take us into dystopian worlds, but ones where our power, wealth and influence grow as we play. For all the swipes they take at big tech, pharma, media and so on, they don’t provoke anger that lives on once the escapism ends, and often ultimately turn into playgrounds of capitalist fantasy.
In the Borderlands series, for example, we play as lone mercenaries (or a small team) shooting hostiles to accumulate loot and weapons. The core game is about watching the numbers rise on our damage output and bank accounts. We may take down the heads of corporations like Handsome Jack, but only by playing his game, and enjoying it. Meanwhile, the potshots Borderlands takes against corporate social control are all part of the fun, an easy way to get us onside.
Something like The Outer Worlds is more nuanced, of course. Its depiction of a privatised space colony includes some disturbingly believable scenarios, especially relating to worker exploitation and failure to invest in infrastructure. But here in the land of moral dilemma RPGs, the need to equivocate every choice you can take dilutes many of these issues into matters of conflicting interests and a quest to balance what seems like a fundamentally unbalanced society. The different outcomes we might trigger for each colony arrive like menu options from the mythical free market of ideas, and we’re the customer who gets to decide the best argument.
One problem with games like these is that they stick to genre norms without reflecting on how their mechanics might actually reinforce corporate logic. In The Outer Worlds, the setup of dialogue trees and quest-giving NPCs reduces human interaction to a series of coldly corporate transactions and calculations. While it contains many observations on capitalist hubris and dehumanisation, what’s missing is something that breaks through the comfort of the game loop itself. Without that, the satirical commentary feels like mere catharsis, confirming what we already know.
So what’s the alternative? How do games create a sense of discomfort or cause for thought that sticks? Well, one recent example is Cruelty Squad, which contrasts against the routine dystopian imagery of Cyberpunk 2077 by presenting us with a genuinely hideous cyberpunk reality. Nothing in 2077 captures the banal horror of consumerist waste like Cruelty Squad’s walls textured in images of Funkopop boxes. But more than that, the whole game world is ugly, incomprehensible and unfair, and succeeding within it feels less empowering than degrading.
Satire in Cruelty Squad is less a part of the narrative framing, then, than a friction in the experience itself. For instance, it makes currency scarce early on, and deducts a sizeable chunk each time you die, which can happen all too easily. To get ahead you need to harvest organs from dead guards, then purchase a range of disgusting, disfiguring cybernetic implants and upgrades – like ‘gunkboosters’ that give you an extra jump by spraying bodily waste out from your heels – a mile from the cool chrome modifications of Deus Ex or Cyberpunk 2077. Then eventually, you have piles of cash and nothing to spend it on, underlining the dehumanising obscenity of the whole endeavour.
Similarly, we can look to last year’s Paradise Killer, which also employs sickly, garish visuals to make a point. Its Vaporwave aesthetic of bright yet washed-out blues and pinks, combined with a blandly catchy synth soundtrack, jars against the island regime of mass slavery and ritual sacrifice. It’s absurd and extreme, but that’s what makes it work. It’s only in games like Cruelty Squad and Paradise Killer that the dark sides of consumer capitalism are shown not merely as morally bad things to disapprove or mock, but aspects of truly insane and intolerable systems.
Paradise Killer also asks us how we react to systemic injustices and the opportunity to do something about them. Your role in the game is to investigate the brutal murder of the ruling council, and you gather evidence, decide who’s responsible and carefully present your case at trial to convict the culprits. But along the way you’ll equally learn about the deranged fanaticism of the ruling-class Syndicate, so you might decide instead to use your legal power to get as many of them executed as possible. The dilemma here isn’t about which side is right, just whether you’ll kill old friends who help oversee a genocidal economy.
Corporate power isn’t only about murderous excesses, however, and games are equally well-suited to exploring how it affects us routinely, in ways we may not even be aware of. Return of the Obra Dinn, for example, is a fine study of capitalist bureaucracy, without announcing anything of the sort. Here, you take on the role of an early 19th-century insurance investigator working for the imperialist East India company, with the task of determining the fates of the crew of a long-lost merchant ship that’s mysteriously reappeared unmanned in Falmouth port.
Using a magic stopwatch, you trigger freeze-frame dioramas revealing the scene at the exact moment each crew member died. And what you discover is horrific. Yet because events are shown in monochrome stills and because you’re focused on figuring out who’s who and how they died, the terror barely registers. Obra Dinn thus has you act out the kind of low-level complicity of ‘just doing our jobs’ that helps corporations thrive. The cause-of-death records you make reduce scenes of massacre to simple facts stripped of context or emotion and may lead to harsh results. You might correctly note that a crew member was killed by a cannon lit by his mate, although there was no intent – the cannon was knocked from its carriage by a giant tentacle just before it fired. Yet from your paperwork the company will rule the death as murder, and refuse compensation to the ‘culpable’ crewmember’s family.
Finally, when it comes to potentially imagining how to tackle social inequalities, too often games simply turn us into super-powered characters who reorder society through our individual might. An easy fantasy that steers away from the difficulties of real change. In that sense, while it isn’t specifically about combatting corporate power, we might find more inspiration from something like Death Stranding. Repairing its world is a long, slow walk to link together isolated people, one step at a time, with plenty of potholes and pitfalls. It’s also a game where success comes more easily by collaborating with other anonymous players, building an infrastructure of ladders, shelters, roads and ziplines to gradually gather momentum. Rather than merely depicting a mass co-operative effort to overcome isolation, it makes us part of one.
Of course, these games haven’t suddenly changed our lives, but they are challenging in ways that the average corporate satire isn’t. Critique is more fundamental to them as games, and doesn’t simply dissolve into background noise once play begins. And in whatever small way, pushing the boundaries to help us subvert or question familiar thought patterns and genre routines can only be a good thing. The issue then is that as game development itself becomes more corporate, the less likely it is to leave the safety of focus-tested routines and plot points. Whether games contain effective criticisms of corporations and modern capitalism thus starts with how they are made and who gets to make them, and challenging the worst corporate excesses within the industry itself.
Jon Bailes is a frequent contributor to NME.