Why Are Drugs Always So Lame in Video Games?

There are maybe five games that get it right. The rest look they've got their narcotics advice from an eight-year-old.

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Nov 5 2014, 11:48am

Michael hitting his kid's bong in GTA V (Screen shot via)

For most people, the intersection of drugs and video games occurs outside the virtual world. Whether that's FIFA 15 and a fresh half ounce; constantly taking cocaine and playing GTA IV for three entire years; or doing a big line of K and seeing how long you can play that DragonForce song on Guitar Hero before it feels like your fingers aren't attached to your hands.

Inside game worlds, drugs are treated with about the same thematic diversity and sensitivity as sex - which is to say, not much. Basically, video games' general opinion of drugs is that they are Very, Very Bad, unless used in a trippy dream sequence, in which case they are momentarily acceptable, before becoming Very, Very Bad again as soon as the protagonist has reached his necessary revelation.

This tone was set by 1988's Narc, a game in which you are a steroid-pumped super-soldier who is literally called Max Force and mows down wave after wave of shuffling barefoot junkies. This game was said to have a "strong anti-drugs message", because drugs are terribly bad. But ultra-violence? No problem!

A screen shot from Rez, a 2001 rail shooter music game that looks a bit like your brain firing synapses

Happily, it's not all been that stupid. I believe there's a natural affinity between video games and drugs, in that they can both do weird and interesting things to our brains and bodies. You don't need any chemical assistance to feel somewhat changed after a playthrough of Rez, or a three-hour Titanfall session that leaves you suffused with adrenaline and sweating profusely.

Mostly, though, it's been terrible.

Throughout video game history, drugs and sex have essentially been used by developers to say, "LOOK HOW GRITTY AND GROWN UP WE ARE!!", imbuing games with the kind of maturity that only 13-year-olds actually believe is mature. They are also a very handy narrative device: make the bad guys drug dealers, and it's totally fine to mass-murder them all.

The Grand Theft Auto series has often used drugs as a shortcut to edginess. The DS version, Chinatown Wars, caused predictable moral outrage with a drug-dealing mini-game, but usually drugs are the things that you're supposed to pick up somewhere after murdering some people and then deliver to somewhere else. Pretty much every single other open-world crime game out there does exactly the same thing.

Easily the stupidest use of drugs in games, though, is when they turn up as some kind of power-up. I mean, video game heroes are continually glugging potions with mysterious energy-boosting effects, but sometimes it's more overt.

Remember that 1988 arcade game, Narc? Well, in one of the worst decisions ever made, it was "rebooted" in 2005. This time around it was highly embarrassing in a different way, allowing players to confiscate dealers' drugs and use them later to gain an increase in shooting accuracy. It is among gaming's most tragically pathetic attempts at edginess.

NARC, in 2005: take a hit, and you'll still feel like you're playing the wrong game

Drugs are considerably more interesting in the Elder Scrolls series. The local poison in Tamriel, Skooma, is essentially heroin, sold as crystals and smoked once heated. If you use it, it'll boost your strength and speed, but totally devastate your intelligence and agility. However, that's not as interesting as the Skooma addicts you find around the place.

There's one spot in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion called Bravil that's full of them, all living in a den. Characters live their own lives in Oblivion, and once I decided to follow one of them when he left town. He spent several days walking across the country to another town, where he bought up a massive stash before taking it back to Bravil. It was fascinating.

In the previous Elder Scrolls game, nobody would trade with you if you had Skooma on you, hinting at extreme societal prejudice against its users. In the latest iteration, Skyrim, the developers kind of pussied out on Skooma, turning it into a bland substance with no real positive or negative effects, and reducing its value to next to nothing. This is partially explained by other characters' complaints that Skooma is watered down in the Skyrim region, but to me it just smacks of avoiding controversy.

Far Cry 3 : that red pill can only be a bad thing

For about two years, from 2011 to 2013, you couldn't play a game where the protagonist didn't embark on an extended hallucinogenic spiritual drug journey for at least 20 minutes' worth of the story, stumbling upon some terribly important revelation before being yanked back to reality. Only, these sequences invariably seem to have been designed by people who have never actually taken psychotropic drugs.

Far Cry 3's is the perfect archetype of these silly sequences: a trip through a forest full of blooming plants and tribal imagery. The first one I ever saw was Max Payne's, which sends alcoholic, grieving Max into a discomforting recreation of his old family home. Uncharted 3 gave it a go, too, and wasn't entirely terrible at it. One of the only actually good trippy drug sequences is in Grand Theft Auto V, where grumpy Tony Soprano-alike Michael has his drink spiked by his son Michael and falls into a pretty convincing K-hole while struggling to wrestle his car around wide LA roads.

That's a common effect of drugs in video games: they make the screen blur and the controls go a bit loopy for a while. Also in Far Cry 3, there's a truly terrible sequence where the protagonist burns up fields of marijuana with a flamethrower to some hellish fusion of dubstep and reggae as the screen goes all swimmy, which is possibly the nadir of drugs-in-video-games so far.

Mother 3 : definitely about as weird as the Game Boy Advance ever got

However. HOWEVER! Very, very occasionally you come across a game that is a genuinely interesting exploration or depiction of a drug experience.

There's an extremely obscure game for the original PlayStation from 1998 called LSD. The official version of its origin story seems to be that it's based on the "dream journal" of a guy called Hiroko Nishikawa, but if you play it for more than 60 seconds - or even just look at the box - it's immediately apparent that he was very into hallucinogenics.

You start off in a plain, ordinary room, and then every object you touch sends you deeper into the trip, changing your surroundings. Very quickly, you learn to only touch nice things, otherwise you end up on some bleak, hellish highway where all the lampposts have faceless corpses hanging from them and a distressed-looking face on legs is ambling balefully towards you.

The first 30 minutes of LSD

I've spent many hours in this game since I discovered it in 2007, and have rarely seen much repetition. Once I ended up in a beautiful big walled city with Sphinxes and pyramids build on fields of lush green grass, watching horses gallop around. Other times it's not been so pleasant. There's a wee graph that tracks your progress through the dreamworld once its over: its axes are upper / downer and static / dynamic. The surreal, primitive graphics only make it more affecting.

Meanwhile, Heavy Rain's Norman Jayden is the only functioning, interesting drug addict I can think of in games. It's never made totally explicit, but some of his deaths in the game seem to be a result either of overdose or withdrawal from the fictional blue powder he berates himself for snorting. The Fallout games, especially the original 1990s ones, have also never shied away from portraying drugs and drug addiction in very close to real-world terms - you can actually get addicted to them as a player, too, the effects of which can be unusually devastating.

We're still waiting for games to really, properly tackle drugs - whether it's the actual face of drug crime as portrayed in shows like The Wire, or the problems of addiction, or just the honest experience of them. Until then, I guess we've always got this kind of thing to enjoy:

Keza MacDonald is editor of Kotaku UK. Follow her on Twitter.

Previously:

Music Made on Game Boys Is a Much Bigger Deal Than You'd Think

Why Do All These New Video Games Look So Old?

A Disgusting History of Gore in Video Games

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