“Newspeak”, ITB’s next Kickstarter title, is set in a disturbing near-future dystopia, where dissidents [REDACTED] the [REDACTED] and try to [REDACTED]. Details of this terrifying world are hidden deep within ITB’s high-security computer files… so for now, let’s look at the dystopian genre and a few of our inspirations.
Surprisingly, the concept of utopia appeared centuries before dystopia. Thomas More coined the term in his 1516 book ‘Utopia’, taken from the Greek meaning ‘no place’. His Utopia was an island where some of Europe’s greatest problems had been solved, including the love of wealth and war. As outlandish (and now outdated) as some parts of More’s Utopia were, his imaginary world was the basis of many to come, and the subsequent backlash: the ‘dystopia’. First recorded in 1868, the term ‘dystopia’ (meaning ‘bad place’) was used by philosopher John Stuart Mill to describe the inevitable failure of any utopia. Now, dystopia is defined as the opposite of utopia, ‘an imagined place… in which everything is unpleasant’.
Since then, our bookshelves and cinemas have filled up with these dystopian worlds. From the beginnings of the dystopian genre in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine to our current obsession with The Handmaid’s Tale, we have been fascinated by terrible visions of the future. What is it that intrigues us about totalitarian governments and sugar-coated conformity?
The best dystopias ask us questions that we don’t entirely know how to answer. The power in watching an episode of Black Mirror is in its ability to make us think (and have nightmares) for days afterward. In Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, we ask ourselves if we’d rather join the Reservation, where life is difficult and short, or live in vacuous happiness like Lenina. Great works of dystopia shake our beliefs about the world. Huxley makes us question the value of happiness and whether it’s more important than freedom. V for Vendetta makes us wonder whether we’re free at all; as he claims to liberate the people, he brainwashes Evey into thinking just like him, and the country crashes into chaos. Whatever your personal beliefs, there’s a dystopia that challenges them, from communism (Animal Farm) to capitalism (He, She and It).
The slide into a dystopian nightmare is best when there’s a recognisable link to our world as it is now. Black Mirror does this well; we see technologies (Uber-style ratings in ‘Nosedive’, constant video recording in ‘The Entire History of You’) that are just on the edge of possible. Or The Circle, in which the creeping spread of what we share online – our location, our health data, our personal photos – seem individually meaningless, but together form a scary and dangerous future. We’re left wondering if we’d spot these things happening – are we already in too deep? They’re relevant to the issues discussed in today’s newspaper columns – privacy vs. security, convenience vs. cost – but approach them in a far more visceral and engaging way. Relating dystopia to today’s technology and problems makes it easier to project ourselves into the story, and imagine what we’d do in the same situation.
Stories like The Hunger Games and Ready Player One feature brave, plucky heroes – Katniss, Parzival, Art3mis – as they fight an evil system. Young adult dystopian novels give us underdogs to root for, people struggling to save the world. They’re not particularly groundbreaking or thoughtful – the bad guys are barbaric (see, The Capitol) and the morality tale is clear as crystal. But these books are popular for a reason: the sheer enjoyment of watching a bunch of rebellious teenagers take down greedy and corrupt adults (and probably have a romantic sub-plot along the way). Katniss is just a poor teenager, from a normal background, and yet she becomes the figurehead for the rebellion. We’ve all wanted to be those characters, people with the power to make change happen. It’s a refreshing change from adult dystopias – as powerful as 1984 or Brazil are, they tell us that there’s no point fighting the nightmare; you may run, you may hide, you may subvert the system for a little while, but they will always get you in the end. Sometimes the more powerful message is that we all have a chance to make a difference – that dystopia isn’t inevitable if we fight it.
Rose Atkinson is ITB’s games development intern and a student at Oxford University.