This article originally appeared on VICE UK
They called it SPANK, and it was everywhere.
The streets of Grand Theft Auto III's fun-size facsimile of New York, Liberty City, seemed almost paved in it. Crazed enthusiasts called into the local talk radio station to sing its praises. Mob bosses hired me to steal bags of it, or sink ships carrying it, or deliver it directly to their seaside mansions.
I might have been a naïve ten year old, but even I could tell it was a drug. What I couldn't figure out was why so many people wanted it so badly. Or—and here's the kicker—whether or not it was even a real thing.
Considering video games' lingering reputation as a form of deviant escapism, the depiction of addictive drugs in popular titles shouldn't surprise anyone. Still, even the most prudish games enthusiast would be hard-pressed to avoid indulging in the occasional virtual substance. From BioShock's toxic mutagen EVE to the Fallout series' menagerie of euphemistic intoxicants, games protagonists have been shooting up, snorting, and smoking their way through their adventures for decades now.
Most of these games don't dwell on these substances, however. In fact, by and large, they're just neutered props, designed to give texture to a game's universe, or to justify long-simmering gameplay conceits to a more sophisticated audience. BioShock's EVE is a particularly clever example of this—by centralizing its Randian dystopia around the use of magical psychoactive drugs called Plasmids, the developers behind the game not only grant the player character fun superpowers, such as shooting lightning out of his hands, they also justify murdering the inhabitants of said dystopia with these abilities. After all, they're just Splicers, just drug addicts, the game seems to say. It's not like they're people.
Few games lend the issue even this much thought; most are content with using drugs as shorthand for simple power-ups. Mario might need to chomp down on a mushroom to become Super, but it takes a hero with the maturity and guile of Duke Nukem to pop a steroid every now and then for the sake of superhuman strength. Needless to say, the issue of Duke Nukem's latent "'roid rage" has yet to become a plot element in the franchise that bears his name.
A screenshot of 'Rockstar!' via YouTube
There are many video games with drugs in them, but only a handful that actually treat them with any sort of seriousness. Since these games are willing to prickle the audience where so many simply laugh along, they're often swept into the dustbin of games history, along with stacks of PSX demo discs and legions of homebrew software. One of the earliest examples is the "abandoned" (that is, not for sale anywhere legally) PC game Rockstar!, a bleakly realistic management game that simulates the life of a raucous rock frontman, where you must take drugs and party in order to build up your "creativity" stat, all the while hastening your assured and untimely death. (The game takes advantage of the latest in 1989 PC technology in order to depict said partying; it looks and sounds like your Sound Blaster is carpet-bombing your 486 processor.) Perhaps this austere message explains why nobody really remembers games like Rockstar!: the PC climate of the era decided that living the doomed life of a member of the 27 Club wasn't as fun as the clunky platforming of Commander Keen.
Some might roll their eyes at this sort of hang wringing. After all, they're just games. So what if a game developer wants to drop in a tiny bit of drug use into their sprawling hundred-hour role-playing game? Not everything has to be pregnant with meaning, right? Some developers certainly seem to think so.
I think that people are able to distinguish between Plasmids and heroin, because Plasmids don't exist. – Alex Epstein
"I'm going to give you the standard response that everybody gives you, which is I think that people are able to distinguish between Plasmids and heroin, because Plasmids don't exist," says Alex Epstein, narrative director of the upcoming We Happy Few, a survival game set in an alternate 1960s Great Britain.
Developed by the new indie studio Compulsion Games, We Happy Few wears its Huxlean (Brave New World) influence on its sleeve, featuring a "happy drug" called Joy that all citizens are required to take, a policy the player character decides to stop following at the game's opening.
"In most games, drugs are basically magic," says Epstein, a self-proclaimed recovering screenwriter. "The gameplay designer says, 'Oh, wouldn't it be cool if you could do this?' And if the game doesn't have magic, then you have drugs."
'We Happy Few' screenshot courtesy of Compulsion Games
I ask Epstein if he views this desultory usage of drugs as problematic, or perhaps limiting to the medium. He hesitates, before replying: "I don't think gamers like to be preached at. And gamers certainly don't want the real world's morality to be thrown into their games.
"It's hard to do (realistic drug depiction) in games. Addiction represents losing control of yourself. Gamers hate that. I would love to see a game where your character is an alcoholic. Then, a certain number of times, when you go behind a bar, you wake up in a ditch with half your money gone. Then you say, 'Oh, shit! I shouldn't have gone by that bar.' Now you're thinking like an alcoholic."
I suggest to Epstein that such a game would be niche, but he disagrees. "I think it depends on how you do it. With our game, we want it to be there for both. You can go through it and smash a bunch of people with a cricket bat, or you can absorb the world and the moral implications of what you're doing. And one of those core questions is, 'If you're happy on drugs, are you really happy?' But you don't have to confront that if you don't want to."
Who's gonna come out and say, 'I'm going to make a socially responsible video game that's going to empower'? There ain't too many people who can do that. When people are money hungry, they don't give a damn. – Andre L. Johnson
As I listen to Epstein talk, I find it hard not to think of Rockstar!, sitting on an abandonware portal somewhere, lonely and ignored. His line of thinking certainly makes good business sense, especially for a game as ambitious as We Happy Few, which has been featured on-stage at some of the gaming industry's biggest press conferences. But attitudes like this stoke the ire of substance recovery professionals, such as Andre L. Johnson, the President and CEO of the Detroit Recovery Project, a recovery agency.
"They don't care," he tells me, referring to games makers. "It's capitalistic society. They're trying to make their money. They see their competition, and they know they have to include this kind of stuff. Who's gonna come out and say, 'I'm going to make a socially responsible video game that's going to empower'?" He laughs a husky, charming laugh. "There ain't too many people who can do that. When people are money hungry, they don't give a damn."
All this isn't to say that Epstein and the rest of Compulsion Games are craven capitalists trying to Frankenstein together the perfect indie hit in a lab somewhere. But segments of my conversation with Epstein seem to echo the same set of stale assumptions about games and the gaming audience that so many big-name developers like to parrot. And these assumptions are the same ones that kept games like Epstein's hypothetical alcoholic simulator from getting made. Luckily, that seems to be changing.
Austin Jorgensen, better known as Dingaling, didn't plan to be a game developer. But when his first game, LISA: The Painful RPG managed to clear a hundred thousand copies, he knew he had found his calling. "I guess this is what I do now," he says, chuckling. "Somehow."
'LISA: The Painful RPG' screenshot via the game's official website
Indeed, LISA is an unlikely success story. Released in late 2014, it's a delightfully nettlesome and punishing Japanese roleplayer in the style of cult classics like the Shin Megami Tensei series, featuring a cast of mostly irredeemable drug addicts and misogynists who can be killed at a moment's notice. An indicative scene: a few hours into the game, you're captured and forced to play Russian roulette with the lives of your party members. You pick the victim, and you have to win three times in a row; losing someone is almost a statistical certainty.
Similar to We Happy Few, the protagonist in LISA, Brad, suffers from a dependence on an apparent "happy drug," also called Joy. (Jorgensen laughs off any apparent plagiarism on the part of Compulsion: "What else could you call it?") However, Brad's disorder isn't just plot fluff—it's one of the game's core mechanics.
"I really thought the importance of the mechanic was first and foremost, and then the character came out," says Jorgensen. "He's a sad sack, so it made sense to make him a drug addict."
I think about this stuff a lot, and for my next game it's going to be huge. I want people to see the positives and negatives and everything else. – Austin Jorgensen
In most battles, Brad is the best character in the game, able to deal unrivaled amounts of damage with ease. But as you explore the world, he'll occasionally go into Joy withdrawal, which totally debilitates his combat capabilities. While this may seem like a minor change, in a game as unforgiving as LISA, Brad going into withdrawal at the wrong time usually means certain death for the party. During the game, Brad can find Joy and take it to satisfy his cravings, but doing so has dire consequences.
"For me, it was like, if I was going to put a drug in a game, I think it was okay, because you take it, and it's clear the side effects are really, really bad," says Jorgensen. "In Fallout, I'm not sure if using the slow-mo drug even has negative consequences. Maybe that's the wrong message."
To me, this sounds like the sense of social responsibility that Johnson was talking about—perhaps not the purest strain, but certainly a variety of it. I ask Jorgensen if he feels that. His answer is quick and direct.
"Living in the United States, in Colorado, I smoke weed; I live right next to a legal dispensary. For LISA, it was an afterthought. Now, I feel a huge responsibility. I think about this stuff a lot, and for my next game, Ninja Tears, it's going to be huge. I want people to see the positives and negatives and everything else."
Jorgensen sighs, and then laughs. He sounds exasperated. "[Incorporating] Joy [into the game] wasn't 'good' game development. It sucked. It wasn't fun. But, dude. If it's gotta suck, it's gotta suck. You aren't gonna get the message otherwise."
Considering the current treatment of substances in big-budget games, it's hard to argue with Jorgensen's logic. As the medium matures, perhaps we'll get more Dingalings, more people willing to make games with these themes baked in, rather than just sprinkled on top. And while those games may not make much money, or garner much acclaim, I'm not sure they'll care. If the medium truly is the message, then it's fair to say that the Dingalings of the world have a dense, crusty layer of Super Mushrooms and Nukem-brand steroids to cut through before games like LISA or Ninja Tears can start to leave a lasting impression. As if they can't, to return to Jorgensen's sentiments, how else are we going to learn?
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