Until recently, popular storytelling was an essentially top-down art: Novelists told readers how characters thought and felt, playwrights determined what they said, and movie directors subjected captive viewers to their own individual visions. The story you saw was the story someone else imagined, and audience interaction was limited to throwing tomatoes at the stage, or scribbling in the margins of a book. Even popular sports were basically passive: Fans might follow along in great detail, but the plays and their outcomes were determined by the actions of an elite few on the field.
But for the last 40 years, video games have begun to change all that. Games were built around interactivity: Players got what they wanted, not what someone else gave them. And as the technological firepower that makes video games possible has grown cheaper and more abundant, those games have increasingly focused on complex choice architectures designed to let players make their own stories. Game designers still build the playing fields, and some are more constrictive than others. But the arc of game design has bent toward expanding player choice. You are at the center of the experience, and you make it your own. The star of the show isn’t some writer or actor or player on the screen. The star is you.
It’s probably too much to argue that video games offer players freedom from the iron grip of the author—after all, games still have designers, and the old stories weren’t exactly forced upon their readers. But the rise of video games as a popular art form is surely a sign of the way that the broad universalized stories of yesterday have fractured into an array of niche narratives, each designed to serve an individualized interest.
All of which make video games of special interest to libertarians interested in the way the combination of technology, political freedom, and evolving social attitudes has resulted in an explosion of subculture interests and alternative modes of entertainment. So it’s not particularly surprising, then, to find that a number of video games have built in ideas and concepts that resonate with libertarians—sometimes positively, sometimes critically. As the current generation of game systems begins its final year, it’s worth looking back at six games of particular interest to those who like their minds and their markets to be free.
1. Fallout 3
A post-apocalyptic role-playing game set in a bombed-out, futuristic Washington, D.C. known as the Capitol Wasteland. Warring tribes of wannabe authority figures fight for control, thugs and scammers try to take your guns and your money at every turn, super-intelligent robots try to reengineer society, and the whole place is overrun with super-mutants. In other words, it’s a lot like the Washington, D.C. we all know and love today. Fallout 3 is also one of the most expansive, open, and darkly funny games ever made.
Players fight their way through the ruins of an Art Deco underwater city set up as a kind of sci-fi anarchist utopia—where biological modification is plentiful, looters are treated as scum, and the pursuit of individual desire and accomplishment is treated as life’s most noble goal. The villain is clearly intended as a riff on Ayn Rand’s super-individualists, but in a mid-game twist, he shows he’s not simply a bad guy. The revelation elevates Bioshock from satirical, action-driven homage to Rand into a clever riff on the perception of individual freedom and the nature of choice.
3. Red Dead Redemption
This open-world Western’s anti-government individualism is so strong that it’s occasionally accused of being outright libertarian propaganda. But what it really offers is character-driven perspective: Players step into the boots of John Marston, a former outlaw who resentfully sells his gun to both the Mexican army and corrupt agents of the U.S. government—agents help take his family hostage. The forces on both sides of the border are ugly, and Marsten, a reformed family man, wants no part of any of it. In the end, players take the role of Marsten’s son in order to extract a years-delayed payback. Red Dead Redemption is a great genre piece about the decline of the outlaw West, and a surprisingly affecting look at the generational consequences of violence.
4. Fable III
Fable II offered a vast open-world in which nearly everything was for sale: Homes, items, stores—you name it, you could buy it. Better yet, violence and other in game actions affected local prices, which meant that the game acted like a simple economic simulator, encouraging in-game entrepreneurs to buy low and sell high. Fable III adds politics to the mix. Players not only participate in a complex in-game economy but are effectively required to campaign for the office of king. That means making promises to win over the game’s citizens. But winning the people doesn’t mean winning the game. After assuming the throne, players must either keep those promises—a task that is usually turns out to be difficult, if not outright contradictory—or take the game world in a whole new direction, risking the wrath of an unhappy citizenry.
5. L.A. Noire
L.A. Noire offers a down-to-the-shoelaces recreation of Hollywood shortly after World War II. And where many open-world games allow and even encourage players to engage in freewheeling thuggery, this time the objective is enforcing order: Players take the role of an earnest police investigator moving up the ranks by solving cases. The game’s most intriguing innovation is the chance to conduct “interrogations” of suspects. The challenge is to determine, based on the suspect’s behavior, whether he or she is lying. But unlike most video game challenges, there’s no trick to mastering it. In the end, it’s a mix of thorough prior detective work and subconscious intuition. And even then, it’s easy to be wrong. The subjective nature of the game play highlights the uncertainty of much police work. Sometimes even good players—or cops—make big mistakes.
6. Deux Ex: Human Revolution
Deux Ex: Human Revolution casts players in the role of Adam Jensen, a grim security chief at a biotech corporation that specializes in human augmentation. Set in a bleak, William Gibson-esque cyberpunk future, the game kicks off when anti-biotech militants break into the headquarters of Jensen’s company on the eve of a legislative hearing about biotech regulations. Jensen fends off the attackers but is injured and must be rebuilt with biological enhancements. From there, players must uncover the truth about the break-in against the backdrop of an ongoing debate about the safety and ethics of human augmentation. The game’s cast will be familiar to anyone who has followed such debates in real life—uncompromising anti-science radicals, moderates who favor regulation, self-interested political players, scheming corporate leaders, and apolitical scientists. The noirish story has no heroes, but it does subtly highlight the value of biological modifications. The key to winning: enhancing Jensen—and yourself.