Sci Curious event reviews... PAX AUS utopian/dystopian worlds in gaming

Event reviews by our Sci Curious members

Utopia // Dystopia: Environment-Driven Storytelling

Utopian perfection. Dystopian worlds. Our perceptions of our future environment is shaped by differing narratives in scientific research outcomes and pop-culture musings, which we are exposed to in many written and visual forms.

With video games using these perfect environments as key storytelling drivers; from Mirror’s Edge idealistic urban environment to Fallout’s bleak wastelands- are our actual future environments easily acknowledged thanks to repeat representation in our game worlds?


Review #1 by Jue

Perhaps the most important theme I picked up from this event was that artificial intelligence (AI) probably played a more significant role compared to the environment in a game. As pointed out by one of the speakers, the future of gaming environments does not lie within the graphics of the game worlds but rather the AI. Based on that statement, it seems like it doesn’t really matter if the game has a utopian or dystopian world. This is due to the fact that AI may have the ability to evoke emotions at a higher level as it is the element that shapes the characters in the game, which leads to the birth of character-driven storytelling. AI is also said to be essentially the drive of the story in a game rather than the environment as horror games, with its lack of environment is still able to convey an emotion-provoking story. In my opinion, the main takeaway message of this discussion was that character-driven storytelling which strives on real emotions may be the key to quality storytelling as compared to environment-driven storytelling which only depends on beautiful graphics as its key drive.

The event wasn’t entirely relevant to me as I am not an avid gamer myself. However, I’m glad that I got to learn about another form of storytelling through this discussion. Being exposed to the development and thought process of video games, I’ve become aware that game developers do have a huge responsibility in shaping the mind of the society as gaming is indeed a very popular sport. Therefore, despite its irrelevancy to me as a non-gamer, it was still somewhat relevant to me a member of the public to take interest in the influence it has on the society. 


Review #2 by Ana

The meandering discussion covered many themes in the hour, but the one that stood out to me was a discussion about the role of utopias and dystopias as projected/feared/anticipated futures.  It reminded me of the role of storytelling more generally, and resonated with ideas presented through speculative and science fiction about the nature of humanity and our constructed universes, particularly within dystopian fiction (including games).  There was discussion about the “dark underbelly” that drives a story forward, so even the most utopic games are not true utopias. This was another theme that stuck with me.

Towards the end of the panel Anna Tito mentioned Romanticism and I was reminded of what I love about gaming and worldbuilding. I have a very Caspar David Fredrich approach to gaming and exploring, and love to play games with painterly worlds. When it comes to utopias within gaming, my ultimate utopias are set within words that are beautiful and ready to explore - from fantasy worlds like Skyrim, to something more familiar like Firewatch. If games are about escapism, Romantic worlds are the ones I want to escape into.


Review #3 by Celeste

The panel discussion on environment-driven storytelling gave an in depth outlook on the exploration of perfection in games. The idea of perfection is taken to extremes in game narratives to create a far more sinister setting. In Horizon Zero Dawn, players are able to traverse a beautiful open world that is dominated by evil machines who are programmed to harvest biomass as fuel, including humans. The game explores the idea of how the AI we create could potentially become corrupt and turn on humankind. Something that is designed to perfect and make our world safer could in fact do the exact opposite if we are not careful with how we proceed in the advancement of technology. Therefore, these types of exploration in games can provide a very real outlook to our future and our quest to achieve a perfect world.

On the other hand, perfection in game environments isn’t always important. Humans seek experiences in various forms that allow themselves to be or feel perfect. For example, a game such as Minecraft isn’t what many would describe as graphically beautiful, but it is the way players interact in the world and give it meaning that makes the experience enjoyable and almost perfect to them. Players immerse themselves into a game’s imperfect world to resolve a conflict in the narrative. This action and resolution of conflict allows players to feel like they’ve made the world perfect again in the game.

As a game developer, I think it’s important to explore the idea of perfection to the extremes and see where it leaves the world. Do we end up with a utopia or dystopia? Exploring areas we aim to perfect in the world through games provides us with many possibilities of what could go wrong if something has not been done right. This allows us to be cautious of our actions in what we create in order to achieve perfection. If we are working on creating robots with AI to protect the human race, we need to be weary of the possibility that it could backfire and become a threat to humankind as seen in Horizon Zero Dawn. Games aren’t often used as a medium to advocate for existing issues in the world. There is a common misconception that games are just a fictional pass time and add no value to the world. However this perception needs to be changed as some game narratives explore very real scenarios of how our future would turn out.