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America is complicated, to put it mildly. Writers, filmmakers, songwriters, and other artists have been grappling with the complexities of this multifaceted nation for as long as it has existed. And in recent decades, games, too, have begun engaging with what America stands for, what it strives to be, and what it really is. Here are ten games that, deliberately or inadvertently, speak to the beauty, the potential, the aspirations and shortcomings of the United States of America.
Fallout began as a franchise that was critical of the society that inspired it, but over time, suffered a fate similar to Black Mirror. There are still aspects to love, and every so often it’ll still hit it out of the park. But everything about how the franchise exists now feels too facile, like a Vault Boy that will never stop smiling. The shift to first-person open-world gameplay with Fallout 3 meant ceding all the aspects that made 1 and 2 brutal and effective, all in the name of mainstream, crowdpleasing design. In the older games, you could spend too long out in the world, exploring its dangers, only to find out you’d lost it all in the process. Imagine getting penalized for doing all the side quests in 2023? Players would riot.
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And yet, as one of the earliest open-world games to invest in our modern sensibilities, Fallout’s story is as American as it gets. The perfect game never ends, always says yes, always makes you feel good, always has something new to offer, lets you build it however you see fit. Hey, that’s what you paid for, and in America, the customer is always right.
Fallout and the idea of “America” are intrinsically connected in the series’ frozen-in-time 1950s culture and aesthetic. It’s the vision of a more idyllic America, pies and family values, all belying a more horrific reality about the people putting up those white-picket fences. But Fallout is most American to me in its trajectory and impact as a franchise.—Patricia Hernandez
It’s often been remarked that people who live outside of a culture can see it more clearly. Whether that’s true or not is debatable, but in favor of the argument, I’d submit the Grand Theft Auto franchise. With it, the Brits at Rockstar have repeatedly skewered our empty consumerism and love of guns with razor-sharp wit, and shown remarkable versatility in distilling different eras of late-20th and early-21st century America down to their most recognizable cultural signifiers, attitudes, and mores.
However, I’d say Grand Theft Auto IV offers the most bracing, honest commentary on our great nation of them all. That’s largely because its protagonist, Niko Bellic, is an immigrant who arrives in Liberty City (which is clearly just NYC) with all those quintessential immigrant dreams: a fresh start, a better life. And it does not take long for reality to begin disabusing him of the notion that such an existence is within his reach. With GTA IV, the series didn’t sacrifice the biting satire that had defined the trilogy of III, Vice City, and San Andreas, but it did pair it with something deeper: a poignant story of a man who comes to the United States in pursuit of the American dream, only to learn that for him and for so many others, that’s nothing but a fairy tale.—Carolyn Petit
Though the word has its origins in Japan (a taikun was a lord or prince), “tycoon” is so very American. What image comes to mind when you think of a tycoon? It’s probably one of those lauded 19th century “captains of industry” like Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller, whose lives are consistently pointed to as proof that capitalism isn’t terrible, actually, you’re just not doing it right.
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That’s why Tycoon games feel as American as mass shootings and corrupt politicians—it gives you the chance to build your own mega-lucrative zoo or amusement park or shopping center and capitalize on the desires of the sad, loser masses. They can barely afford their homes because of rising interest rates, and they need a break from the banality of their daily lives, so we, the benevolent barons and architects of society, will give them a little cotton candy as a treat.
So what if the roller coaster track isn’t properly designed and an entire ride’s worth of people fall to their untimely death? They already paid for their tickets. Good look taking us to court for a wrongful death lawsuit with your podunk lawyer—I’ve got a team of Harvard suits waiting to counter sue the pants off of you.—Alyssa Mercante
Polish developer CD Projekt Red might be behind Cyberpunk 2077, but the game has American ethos running through its veins. The cyberpunk genre is marked by capitalistic greed in dystopian futures, which can be applied throughout the world. Still, the U.S., with its for-profit healthcare and Silicon Valley worship, always feels directly in the crosshairs of the genre’s commentary. Cyberpunk 2077 is no exception, and its Night City is situated in California. But beyond the in-game corpro greed is a larger story existing in the real world. CD Projekt Red’s hubris leading to a disastrous launch is quintessentially American. —Lisa Marie Segarra
Game director Ken Levine said it himself during the marketing campaign ahead of BioShock Infinite’s 2013 release: The game’s world is rooted in the concept of American Exceptionalism, or the idea that America is inherently more special, more blessed than other countries in the world. It’s a valiant concept to tackle in video games, but Infinite’s ham-handedness only manages to (accidentally) make an even more poignant observation about America: We can’t be fucking subtle.
From the evil George Washington robots to its egregious violence, BioShock: Infinite is as subtle as a MAGA hat. I can’t even remember most of it because I played it while high on Percocets recovering from knee surgery, but what I do remember is red, white, and blue: the blood-red puddles, the white fluffy clouds, the blue of Elizabeth’s dress. Nothing more.
Like Leigh Alexander wrote for Kotaku: “It has something to say, certainly. It just says more about its own self than about the ideas it wanted to explore.” That’s America, baby.—Alyssa Mercante
You’re out on your own for the first time with no money to spare. You hop off the train (or bus, or taxi, or plane), and the first non-person you meet is a filthy capitalist ready to take all your optimism and use it against you. Yes, many have tried to make the point that Tom Nook is actually helping you by giving you a place to stay, at times giving you a job, and not charging you interest. But let’s be clear, he’s typically the only resource in the area for goods and shelter (some entries have a bit more options in terms of stores). He’s not bringing the communities up with him. Instead, he’s got nepo babies Timmy and Tommy by his side. And what could be more American than that?—Lisa Marie Segarra
Death Stranding is one of the most divisive big-budget games of recent years, and while I love the game, I don’t care to relitigate whether it’s bad or brilliant. For now, I just want to comment appreciatively on its hopeful vision of America.
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A wonderfully sincere game, Death Stranding sees you, as Sam Porter Bridges, effectively reuniting the United Cities of America (and the people in between) as you travel on foot across the game’s heavily compressed, dreamlike version of this vast nation’s geography. All the while, you can help other players—and they can help you—as you contribute to infrastructure that can make your future travels that much easier. It all feels very collaborative and, well, unifying. The game’s director, Hideo Kojima, uses gameplay mechanics to make us feel connected to other players while we play as someone who is connecting characters with each other. It’s a simple, earnest, and beautiful enacting of an ideal that feels very American, albeit one we very often fail to live up to.—Carolyn Petit
The United States was founded on high ideals and untold bloodshed. From colonial genocide to chattel slavery to global hegemony, it’s always been a land of radical promise stalked by incredible cruelty. Mafia III occupies that deadly nexus in a couple of ways. Its anti-hero, Lincoln Clay, is a returning Vietnam veteran thrust into a war with the Italian mob. And its open-world systems revolve around fighting for control of territory and influence in a fictional version of 1960s New Orleans, the birthplace of the court case that legalized segregation. As the player you feel like you have the power to do almost anything in this world, while the game itself slowly dismantles those possibilities as you grind through one firefight after another.
Like most open-world shooters, it’s a game about violence, but unlike most open-world shooters, it situates that violence in a historical context that provides clear stakes and a more poignant catharsis. Lincoln’s quest for revenge is rooted in a criminal underworld that provides those denied equal participation in the American Dream with the opportunity to create their own outside of it. Mafia III’s sprawling world and janky systems just add to the chaos, eventually setting up Lincoln for a final showdown, pitting the man he wants to be against the one Louisiana would turn him into. It’s brutal and absurdly violent at times without being condescending about it, confident in the knowledge that even when violence is inescapable, it’s never all-defining.—Ethan Gach
An unconventional adventure game that’s deeply cognizant of adventure game history, Kentucky Route Zero is a multilayered American tale shot through with profound concerns about debt, capitalism, and societal collapse. It’s also a rollicking road trip narrative about an unlikely bunch of traveling companions who find themselves on quite an adventure and who learn that a better world is possible, if we learn to leave the old ways behind.
Originally released in Acts that were spread out over the better part of a decade, Kentucky Route Zero’s release schedule tested my patience, but also took on larger significance because of its prolonged duration, as it almost seemed to be commenting in real time on the cracks in our society that were growing ever clearer throughout the 2010s. Kentucky Route Zero is a grand American epic, one that defies characterization and that certainly can’t be adequately summed up in a slideshow blurb. There are too many moments of lyrical beauty, of wondrous strangeness, of desperation and hope, loss and renewal.
But when I think about America and all the complex, contradictory feelings I have for this country, the simultaneous adoration and fear it stirs in me, this is easily the game that speaks to all of that most deeply and most truly. Kentucky Route Zero knows that this country exploits and dehumanizes so many of us, uses us up and casts us aside. It also knows that the ideal of promise and equality at the core of what this nation stands for is worth trying to actualize, together, and it dares, in its own way, to imagine what that might look like. It’s an American masterpiece.—Carolyn Petit
What games do you think have offered some insight, deliberately or otherwise, on the American experience? Let us know in the comments!