Heads up: this piece contains story spoilers for Doom (2016) and Inside.
Playdead's Inside and Id Software's Doom were lauded on release for smart game design, sharp aesthetic execution, and for some pretty clever mechanics. But both also have something to say about the way we recklessly allow technology to consume ourselves in the name of progress.
Over the last century, new technologies have again and again transformed the daily lives of billions of people in positive ways. But along the way, those technologies have also left wounds in the earth—wounds that are often a little too easy to ignore, footprints left behind by humanity's rapid development.
And on the front lines of the oily splashback of wreck and environmental ruin are people, and more often than that, those people are the poor and working class. Nearly 27 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill (itself, the result of a compromised employee), the fishing industry of Prince William Sound, Alaska has yet to recover.
Increased hurricanes and severe storms caused by climate change predominantly affect the lives of the poor and working class. In the Gulf states of America, where much of our severe flooding occurs, black families have historically been forced to live in treacherous high water-table geographies due to centuries of systemic racism and housing discrimination.
It shouldn't be too surprising that Inside and Doom both find ways to address these issues—after all, sci-fi has a long history of intertwining unbelievable worlds with familiar problems. Even though one is a quiet game of reflection and the other is a metal-filled murderfest, both Inside and Doom offer analogies to the real-life workplace hazards and environmental degradation that come along with modernization. Both also allude, through their characters and setting, to the ways in which environmental disasters impact society's have-nots most.
All Inside screens courtesy of Playdead
Inside, a minimalist platformer, has you piloting a small boy through a ruined world rife with class hierarchy and industrial metastization. Humans in Inside are transformed into golems, husks piloted invisibly to carry out the dirty work of industrial labor.
Because Inside doesn't feature any dialog or written narrative, it instead uses the familiar environments and textures of dystopic fiction to to deliver its message. Much of the game takes place in post-industrial, dilapidated spaces: We move from ruined agricultural fields, strewn with the carcasses of pigs—an animal strongly associated with factory farming—to poorly lit warehouses, cavernous mines and sunken laboratories, all places linked to industrial labor. The game sandwiches these locations between natural landscapes, reinforcing the notion of paradise lost.
Inside's lobotomized masses, in one scene, are marched in orderly fashion, like cattle, in front of prospective buyers wearing protective masks; imagery disturbingly reminiscent of a slave market. When these upper-class buyers finish up and take their speedy, modern trains home, your character follows the cattle cars full of husks as they descend ever deeper into the darkness and the toxic muck.
When it comes to our profit-driven economy, the body is seen as insignificant collateral damage to be used in whatever way is most cost-effective. Sinclair's The Jungle describes the way human bodies are bent and broken into shapes that can interface with the ceaseless machinery of a meat processing plant.
"Here was a population, low-class and mostly foreign," writes Sinclair, "hanging always on the verge of starvation, and dependent for its opportunities of life upon the whim of men every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as the old-time slave drivers."
The human-golems of Inside are reappropriated to serve the invisible processes of the factories you sneak through. By forcing us to interact with, walk among, and observe this golem class, Inside asks us to reflect on the way modern industry forces workers to fit into unnatural and inhuman molds.
All Doom screens courtesy of Bethesda
Doom, the fourth entry in the long running first-person shooter series, takes you on a similar trip, albeit down a more hyperbolic and cartoonish route. Humans in Doom are sacrificed and made thrall to demons through the treachery of a disgruntled project manager. You navigate through a mining facility on Mars, a world devoted to the task of industry. The planet's surface is windswept and barren, its factory innards dank, greasy, full of flame and brimstone.
On top of this aesthetic scene-setting, Doom provides us with plenty of monologuing by main quest-giver/company CEO, Samuel Hayden. At one point, he proclaims: "We balanced their hell energy with our science making it usable and safe. We solved an energy crisis the world had no answer for." The idea of "hell energy" is goofy, sure, but the point is salient.
The game depicts a future in which humanity's unstoppable growth, having depleted Earth's resources, forces us to cast our lot on dangerous speculative energy ventures (I mean, it's literally called hell energy). The Lazarus Wave disaster that transforms the majority of humans into undead thralls—and sets up the game's main conflict—is the result of deliberate risk-taking by a ruthless and opportunistic super-capitalist in the form of Hayden.
Stephen Hawking, when asked in a talk earlier this year about the likelihood of humanity's future survival, answered: "We face a number of threats to our survival …The number is likely to increase in the future, with the development of new technologies, and new ways things can go wrong."
Doom is set somewhere along that timeline, where humankind's place on Earth has become a troublingly open question. Again, it's taking a wildly over-the-top view, all screaming guitars and cartoon demons, but the parallels with actual human history and current events are just beneath that veneer.
Privilege allows us to benefit from the good parts of technology and ignore the toxic side effects. While the ruling class of the Doom world willingly choose to remove their minds from their sick bodies—both Samuel Hayden and lead scientist, Olivia Pearce are in some stage of cyborg transformation—the minds of Doom's working class are ripped unwillingly from their bodies, leaving only husks to carry out Hell's bidding.
The primary victims of the Lazarus Wave in Doom are the working class factory employees and soldiers. It is established early on that their lives are expendable, via announcements over the company PA asking for human sacrifices for the "Soul Harvest" voiced as pleasantly as if they were announcing a company picnic.
Both Inside and Doom cast you as an outsider to these systems so that you can observe them in their totalities. In Inside, you play as a mysterious little boy who resembles the mindless husks that populate the world. Unlike them, this boy seems to have motive and direction—he acts with courage and (seemingly) purpose, towards some goal the player may not understand. He runs left to right and jumps across scary chasms. He hides from an unknown but deadly authority. This mantle of Protagonist, this player-driven will to advance, marks him as different.
Doom casts you in even starker contrast. Being the fourth game in a famous series, Doom's Space Marine is instantly recognizable, and for many players this is sufficient characterization. But to engage with the world on a purely mechanical level, for both games, is to be somewhat complicit in the systems that degrade the oppressed classes of both settings.
The same energy that rips the body from the mind of a UAC employee gives you health and power-ups in Doom. You need to use the same mechanisms that Inside's elite use to manipulate the husks in order to advance. Like the assumed player—someone with the expendable income to actually buy and play these games—these player-characters benefit from the positive aspects of this technology, and can elect to ignore the bad.
(In fact, in Doom it goes even further than that: If you read the up on the lore hidden deep within the game's menus and sub-menus, you discover that your character is basically the "Lucifer" of this sci-fi interpretation of heaven and hell. Your original betrayal is what first allowed the demons in.)
It's far too easy to skirt along the surface of a deeply troubling system without ever examining the rot within. As Danny Huston's bourgeois character in Children of Men describes his detachment from the troubled world: "I just don't think about it."
It's so easy to ignore if it's not in your face every day. We buy a new cell phone every year without thinking about how and where the minerals in it are mined. We throw out clothes we've barely worn without thinking about the children that spend their lives at sewing machines to replace them. We eat food without thinking about the animals and workers that suffer to bring it to our supermarkets.
Or we can dive deeper, read all this stuff, and still feel stuck in the hopelessness that comes with seeing the unstoppable magnitude of a system that has been running this way for decades.
History is afoul with cases that illustrate humanity's penchant to exploit and oppress whole sections of our population. The advent of the industrial revolution and modernization has only served to speed up and automate many of the processes that had already long been in place. But it has also facilitated the interconnectivity of regular people; our ability to learn new things and see outside of our own circumstances.
By aiming their games at us, the vast swath of people who have no desire to live in the worlds depicted and who have the capacity to effect change, perhaps the developers of these games seek to subvert the ill effects of technology. To use it to remind us of what the end result looks like when an uncaring and dehumanizing mentality is allowed to fester and grow.
The alternative—continuing to go forward uncritically—is grim.
Inside features a scene that can only be reached if you diligently collect objects hidden throughout the world, tracing wires that lead off into the game's darkest corners. Eventually, one wire will lead you to a secret door, and behind that door, a secret room. The boy walks in to find a bank of computer monitors in the deep background, connected to a huge bundle of wires in the center. He moves towards the wires, and with all of his strength, yanks on the cords, unplugging them all at once. As he does, the boy slumps to the floor, suggesting that there truly is no difference between him and the other husks, after all.
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