All video games are inherently dystopic: you’re often a loner playing against waves of enemies with the choice to either kill them or wander aimlessly.

But over the decades, the blank backgrounds of titles like Robotron 2084 (1982) have evolved into detailed wastelands such as those featured in the Fallout series. These universes have a morbid allure, and can make today’s news headlines seem sunny by comparison.

Take, for example, Jak II (2003): an open-world shooter from Naughty Dog. It imagines an overweight and unkempt tyrant, Krew, whose shambolic rule is brought down by greed and transparent attempts at manipulation.

Journey (2012) is a free-roamer from Santa Monica Studio and Thatgamecompany, where a cloaked figure has to cross a desert and climb a mountain. Yes, there’s an obvious Sisyphus feel to the gameplay, but Journey’s parched scenery is what will captivate players: it seems to have anticipated recent global wildfires and foreshadowed the increasing appearances of deserts in modern culture (think the Las Vegas sequences in Blade Runner 2049, or Kuedo’s heat-warped new album Infinite Window).

Journey would go on to be regarded as one of the greatest games of all time. But plenty of other digital dystopias have the same power to draw you into a realm where it’s either too hot, too cold or too crime-ridden. 

Bionic Commando (1987)

It transpires Wolfenstein wasn’t the first game to pit players against hordes of Nazis: Bionic Commando got there in 1987, and has our hero, Ladd, slaughter his way through “disposal areas” to rescue his captured predecessor. Sounds bleak? Wait until the ending, and a special guest dictator appearance.

Syndicate Wars (1996)

How do you make a game about a fascist cyborg uprising even gloomier? By setting it a century later when mega-corporations rule the earth, and a computer virus is reprogramming your fellow denizens to become ruthless assassins. There’s little point praying for help: in Syndicate Wars, the church is a mega-corporation too.

Forsaken (1998)

Forsaken (1998)
© Acclaim Entertainment

A backfiring fusion experiment has roasted the earth, and caused humankind to flee. So far, so Twilight Zone, but what makes Forsaken interesting isn’t its Descent-like plunges along scorched tunnels: it’s the game’s marketing. In the Windows version, you’re defending future earth from hi-tech intergalactic marauders. In the PlayStation port, you *are* one of the marauders.

Manhunt (2003)

Manhunt (2003)
© Rockstar Games

As if their Grand Theft Auto series wasn’t controversial enough, Rockstar courted more outrage in this ‘murder sim’ that encourages players to execute enemies as violently as possible. The premise is your actions are being filmed for a snuff programme in which you’ll feature if you don’t play the game. Its setting is a giant holding pen where every lurid crime is televised – think Love Island, but with an even worse moral compass.

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon (2013)

Far Cry: Blood Dragon (2013)
© Ubisoft

It’s the far future: the year 2007. In Ubisoft Montreal’s hilarious take on 1980s apocalypse movies, nuclear war has turned the sky orange, and only a cyborg Michael Biehn and his gun-twirling bad-assery can keep order. The collapse of civilisation has rarely come packed with as many killings as it has cheesy one-liners.

Horizon: Zero Dawn (2017)

Horizon Zero Dawn (2017)
© Guerilla Games

A lawless future but with blue skies and rolling fields? It sounds unthinkable, but Guerilla’s free-roamer was a smash, and follows budding warrior Aloy (Ashly Burch) as she tracks the malevolent ‘Hades’ operating system and its army of reprogrammed robo-beasts. Do not play if you’re worried about Google’s LaMDA chatbot allegedly becoming sentient.

Death Stranding (2019)

Hideo Kojima’s open-world odyssey imagines a world plagued by invisible monsters: ones determined to drag you to purgatory, and who are capable of using rain as a weapon. But people still need to get their mail, so players take control of crate-hauling courier Sam Bridges as he picks his way through the murk, dreaming of a time where his biggest worries were a parking ticket or an angry dog.

Cyberpunk 2077 (2020)

Cyberpunk 2077 (2022)
© CD Projeckt Red

After a launch that was almost a dystopia in itself, sci-fi fans got to explore Cyberpunk’s nods to Blade Runner (1982) with its rampant capitalism and grimy neon streets. The GTA demographic got a kick out of the futuristic joyriding, while RPG players could tinker with the game’s ‘ripperdoc’ upgrades. A game whose aesthetic should sit next to ‘technocratic hellhole’ in the dictionary.

Spider-Man: Miles Morales (2020)

Spider-Man: Miles Morales (2022)
Spider-Man: Miles Morales (2022)
© Insomniac Games

A costumed Marvel adventure might not seem dystopian, but look at the conditions that our apprentice web-slinger and his circle have to live under. An unrelenting winter. Tech billionaires playing with the lives of everyone in the city. Social welfare projects run into the ground. Miles Morales makes New York look like a city that even two Spider-Men can’t protect.

Stray (2022)

In what might be the most original take on a downbeat future, Stray has players navigate its ghettos on four paws: you’re a cat, and it’s your mission to make it through alleyways without being diced by fans, or kicked by screen-faced ‘guardians’. If surviving solo in a darkened city sounds tough, imagine doing it with a small silver bell around your neck.