Now that we’ve reached the end of one godawful administration, I’m looking at my role as a game reviewer. More importantly, I’m trying to see things as a minority with a platform.
After being constantly bombarded with microaggressions, outright racism and the pervading sense that I might not belong, I can honestly say that videogames are an escape — but that escape also comes loaded with political leanings and certain views on minorities. In an effort to be the change I wish to see in the world, I have decided to use my newfound powers for good.
I pitched a story to my editor — a collaborative piece that would involve writers at GameCritics to come together with the common goal of documenting the last four years using the medium we all love so much.
Of course, there were questions about why I wanted to do something like this, and I came to two conclusions.
- This would be the perfect way to cope with the national tragedy that was the Trump era while voicing my anxieties about the next four years.
2. Games should be looked at in a way similar to film, music and books. We need to start examining these works within the context of major events, much like the way the media changed post-9/11.
We asked GameCritics writers to select games that best represent the era to them — these could be titles that condemn the actions of the administration, don’t condemn them at all, that are complacent with everything that was going on, or in some way offer commentary on the time they were released. We’ve listed their selections here, in chronological order.
Although this game predates Trump’s presidency, Hatred feels like a precursor and embodiment of Trump’s campaign and era.
Hatred’s reveal trailer came at the start of the Gamergate harassment movement and was pitched specifically as a reaction to “political correctness” in video games. It was clearly meant as a gritty, colorless spike in the heart of the “are games art?” debate and it offered an emphatic “no”.
The trailer itself is deeply poignant to me. The monologue, which ends with “My genocide crusade begins here”, gave me flashbacks to being a metal-obsessed teenager who spent ages drawing pictures based on Alien comics. I considered myself an outsider who favored edgy, challenging humor, and the trailer reminded of every terrible, gauche, edgelord thought that had gone through my head as a kid. The grimdark voiceover was so earnest and the imagery so over-the-top violent that the only way I could watch it was to convince myself it was a parody – there was no way that someone could seriously be an adult and think the same, painfully embarrassing thoughts I’d had at fourteen.
Certain groups of old friends and coworkers shared the trailer widely on social media, and to my horror, it seemed to be cause for celebration.
Then a few things started popping up — some of the developers had ties with Neo-Nazi factions, for one. The writer of the game, Herr Warcrimer, was part of a band called Infernal War (AKA Infernal SS) that were blocked from playing gigs in England for their unhealthy obsession with Nazi atrocities, and the unnamed “antagonist” spends a lot of time killing POC in the trailer.
At launch, Hatred was delisted on Steam, but then was brought back and an official apology was issued by Gabe Newell himself. A ridiculous amount of attention was paid to it and despite the game’s poor quality, it was a top seller and many considered it a victory against “Games Journalism” and “Social Justice Warriors”.
So with all that in mind, what could be more Trumpian than a game that built itself on childish pomp, attached itself to a popular hate movement, had ties to fascism and racism, and then turned out to be a shallow bore that still made a bunch of money by duping their fans into a ‘moral obligation’ to support it? The only thing missing from this noxious tale are conspiracy theories. AJ Small
Bioshock Remastered (2016)
Whilst Bioshock was not originally released during the Trump administration, the remaster was. When I replayed it last year, I found that it had some powerful comparisons to the contemporary context.
In a tale drawing on the work of Ayn Rand and her philosophy of objectivism, Rapture is a city torn apart by rampant individualism and driven by the inevitable inequalities that characterize capitalist societies — the chasm between the haves and have-nots. A businessman (in reality, a conman) named Frank Fontaine takes advantage of the situation. He gains power through the guise of being a man of the people when he is anything but, and only interested in his own advancement.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We live in an age where neoliberal capitalism is the dominant ideology that’s driven inequality and divisions in our societies. Men like Trump thrive in this environment while furthering division — con men only out for their oen gain at the expense of everyone else. Gareth Payne
Mafia III (2016)
Mafia III was released a month before the 2016 election, but somehow it predicted the attitudes of the administration and the dangerous policies that were put in place to oppress minorities. It also serves as a grim reminder of certain dark chapters in America’s past, with some of the country’s most heinous acts of violence towards people of color happening much more recently than some may think.
To put things into the perspective, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April of 1968. That’s a little less than 53 years ago and it seems like things haven’t changed as much as we hoped. Mafia III ‘s virtual recreation of the divided country from that period is one of the best in any game, and main character Lincoln Clay is one of the best-written. Playing as a black Vietnam Veteran and seeing this world through his eyes is the kind of creative risk that I wish more triple-A action games would take, but I fear none will be this brave again.
I think what the game does exceptionally well over others (aside from its wonderful cinematic presentation, echoing the likes of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and countless Martin Scorsese films) is that it really does point a finger at how shitty the US can be at times. We live in an era where people tend to forget that the current administration didn’t invent these issues, it’s a consequence of them. CJ Salcedo
Little Nightmares (2017)
Little Nightmares was certainly influenced by PlayDead’s Limbo, but what made it special for me was the period when it was released in conjunction with its themes. Players control a little girl in a yellow raincoat who is trying to survive in a dark world dominated by cruel adults.
Little Nightmares was released almost a year after Trump’s election into the White House, and some of the very first executive orders he signed off on were the infamous travel and immigration bans. The whole world was shocked when the news came out about hundreds of children separated from their parents at the U.S-Mexico border, being held in inhumane conditions. .
For me, Little Nightmares had parallels to this painful story of children who were alone, afraid, and trying their best to survive in a world governed by monstrous adults. In my opinion, the images of the poor migrant children had some influence on how well Little Nightmares was received by critics and gamers at the time. It may not have been inspired by it, but it effectively represented some of the horrific changes in American society during Donald Trump’s administration. Ali Arkani
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (2017)
If anyone thought that the real-world events taking place during Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus’s development – the election of Donald Trump, Nazis marching in the streets, open displays of bigotry, and the resurgence of the swastika – were going to change how the game handled things, they were wrong.
The New Colossus isn’t playing. Within the first few minutes we see a flashback detailing BJ Blazkowicz’s traumatic childhood. We meet his Jewish mother and deeply racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic father who uses the N-word, insults Jewish people to his wife’s face, and then hits her. In a later flashback, he learns that BJ has befriended a black girl and forces BJ to shoot the family dog as punishment.
We also watch Frau Engel, one of the returning villains from The New Order, berate her daughter for being fat and queer as she brutally executes a member of The New Order’s cast. After Engel carries out her execution, she rubs the deceased character’s decapitated head into her daughter’s crotch, in case how she felt wasn’t already clear.
The game doesn’t just comment on the overtly evil, though — Wolfenstein knows white supremacy had roots in American long before any fictional Nazi occupation. In one mission in Roswell, New Mexico, scatted documents and overheard conversations make it clear just how many Americans are happy to see that the Nazis have stamped out “degenerate” black, Jewish, and LGBTQ culture.
The game’s marketing is equally blunt, invoking Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” with taglines like “Make America Nazi-Free Again,” “Not My America,” and perhaps most tellingly, “No More Nazis.” The game – and its marketing – quickly drew the ire of Trump supporters who claimed it was unfair to compare them to Nazis. Bethesda, when asked about the marketing and the game’s content, stood by it. As one of Bethesda’s tweets marketing the game states, “there’s only one side.”
Comparisons between Trump’s America and Hitler’s Germany are not unwarranted. Trump repeatedly talked about serving more than two terms, supported blatantly unconstitutional, racist, and bigoted legislation, joked that his vice president wanted to hang gay people, refused to disavow white supremacists, tried to overturn an election, and incited a mob to storm the capital and murder sitting members of Congress — as well as his own vice president! — to stay in power. It’s fitting, then, that when you meet Hitler in The New Colossus, he’s a pathetic, ignorant invalid who wears an adult diaper and lacks control of anything – including his bodily functions. Demagogues and dictators like to pretend they’re strong, but Wolfenstein knows how small and weak they are.
And then there’s the BJ’s resistance itself — a diverse, ragtag group of socialists, ex-Nazis, back radicals, Jewish men and women, disabled and queer folks. It’s no surprise that this motley crew is the resistance here, because they are the resistance in the real world, too. Nor is it surprising that the game openly depicts interracial couples. MachineGames knows it’s not enough to say Nazis are bad. You have to show that the people they hate are good.
So yes, maybe it’s all over-the-top and on the nose, but given what we’ve seen during the last four years, maybe it had to be. MachineGames doesn’t allow these characters to make excuses about economic anxiety or say they were just lonely, misguided folks looking for community. It doesn’t matter how or why they became Nazis. What matters is they are. This is a choice they made. We overuse the word evil, but that’s what white supremacy is. If Wolfenstein depicts these people as cartoons, it’s because their ideology is cartoonishly evil.
The New Colossus never lets us write them off as monsters even though it’s easy to do — to make them the other, to excuse ourselves, and our complicity. If they’re monsters, they’re not human beings — and if they’re fundamentally unlike us, we can’t become like them. It can’t happen here. However, if the Trump presidency has taught us one thing, it’s that this isn’t true.
In one of the game’s most memorable exchanges, BJ and Grace Walker, the leader of the Black Revolutionary Front and one of the game’s foremost characters, look out over a ruined America. “Monsters did this,” BJ says.
“No,” Grace reminds us. “Men.” Will Borger
Far Cry 5 (2018)
Imagine a person as a religious symbol that establishes a cult following based on practices of militarism, capitalism, and religious fanaticism. In video games, one might think of Joseph Seed, the main antagonist of Far Cry 5. In real life, we recognize Donald Trump.
Far Cry 5, which was mostly developed after Trump was elected president, brought the usually-exotic Far Cry series to the US. For a franchise that is known to portray civil wars metaphorically and usually does so quite well (I’m fond of Far Cry 2 and Far Cry 4) my expectations were high for a Far Cry on US soil as it inherited a fascinating situation in the most divided US political climate in years. However, it was an opportunity wasted.
Far Cry 5 is a very weak attempt to depoliticize a country that is otherwise involved in a civil crisis, limiting metaphors for Trump to comical relief and instead focusing on strictly superficial politics. The worst thing? The Trump figure is right in this game. Joseph Seed is considered correct in all of his political views and can’t ever be beaten, making Trump’s ideology the greatest victor. David Bakker
Marvel’s Spider-Man (2018)
Remember the capitol riots? A bunch of fucking bored white people stormed the capital because their reality show host of a president lost an election. While it wasn’t the worst thing to ever happen on US soil, or even the worst things Americans have ever done, it was certainly one of those moments in US history that made us all stop and wonder what the hell went wrong. Even worse, it reminded us that in our time of need, law enforcement is only there to protect oppressors as cops were taking selfies with the rioters like it was all a game. Sickening stuff.
Anyway, 2018’s Spider-Man from Insomniac is a solid superhero title that nailed the feeling of web-swinging as everyone’s favorite wall-crawler. Unfortunately, it also leaned way too heavily into copaganda territory, as Spider-Man acts in conjunction with the New York Police Department. Sure, I get that most superheroes work with law enforcement and it’s been that way forever. My issue with this specific game is that it celebrates that partnership too much. In an era where police brutality has dominated real-world headlines, Spider-Man’s love of the police feels wrong and ill-timed.
Then again, it fits perfectly with the narrative that many in the country want to push. Instead of confronting the issues and doing the work necessary to change the system, too many prefer to “come together” and “unify” with oppressors. It sucks, but it represents this era almost too perfectly. That sort of coddling of fascists in the name of comfort is what gave us Trump, and as I see tweets from white people saying that they’re happy they can rest because Trump is no longer President, I fear that the worst is yet to come. CJ Salcedo
Life Is Strange 2 (2018)
I grew up like most Gen-Z, Latinx kids in the United States (specifically in Miami, where most people my age can relate) as the child of a working-class immigrant parent. I know how to speak Spanish and I watched my dad work multiple jobs to try and build a life in a country he’s lived in longer than the one he came from.
Growing up listening to awful jokes in Spanish, eating Colombian food, and being exposed to old salsa music has shaped a lot of who I am, and while multiculturalism may be a common experience to those who grew up in big cities like I did, it’s still hard to articulate what life is like for people like me sometimes.
I started Life Is Strange 2 for the first time this year after reviewing Twin Mirror at the recommendation of fellow writer AJ Small, who wanted to know my thoughts on a game that features a Latinx main character.As of this writing I have not finished LIS 2, but I can say that its opening moments have affected me more than any other game has in a long time.
Main character Sean Diaz felt real and relatable to me because I finally saw someone who grew up in an environment similar to mine. He was the oldest sibling and the son of a working-class, immigrant parent.
I finally saw the relationship I have with my dad in a videogame — one where a parent is willing to do anything and everything for their child in a country that doesn’t seem to want them. Taking place right before the 2016 election, there is a foreboding sense of dread that hangs over the main narrative, but I like to think the early moments do a great job to show how much love there is in the Diaz family.
While the future doesn’t necessarily look bright as far as relations with immigrants and people of color goes, I’m glad a large part of my life (and the lives of many others) is given the respect and emotional weight it deserves in Life is Strange 2. CJ Salcedo
We Happy Few (2018)
“Truth is the enemy of happiness.” This quote stuck with me long after having played We Happy Few. To be frank, the game has its fair share of issues (see my review here for example) but speaking from a narratological point of view, We Happy Few is a masterpiece that accurately projects the precondition to Trump’s fascism.
The story revolves around a dystopian town full of massively-drugged, bourgeois people who attempt to forget their cooperation with the Germans in WWII — cooperation in which they surrendered all their children to them. This setup bears a striking resemblance to Holocaust denial, something which has amassed support under the Trump administration.
The drug taken by the citizens is labeled Joy and appears to metaphorically indicate why people have started believing in fake news — the fact that we often choose to believe only in the news and facts we want, while ignoring that we not want to hear. People who do not subscribe to the idea of pleasant news via Joy are social outcasts who live in poverty, forced to scrape by. The resemblance to America is striking — on one side Trump-enabling liars, and on the other are assaulted, oppressed, and honest people.
We Happy Few effectively tells the story of white supremacists and right-wing truth deniers that do everything to legitimize their hierarchical position versus those that believe in truth and are forced to deal with the consequences. It is a true dystopia that has too many similarities to the US people live in today, and it does a beautiful job in outlining the preconditions of fake news and the betrayal of truth. David Bakker
Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 (2019)
The Division 2 may be a popular quasi-MMO, but it’s also an absolutely disgraceful, scandalous defense of the already-too-militaristic state of video games.
The Division 2 is set in Washington D.C. as a warzone of terrorist paramilitaries struggles for power. We’re shown the aftermath of a capital city that does not have the means to defend its institutions legally, terrorist paramilitary groups struggle for power during a pandemic — does this sound familiar?
Well, not to the developers, as they have claimed the game ‘does not make any political statements’. In reality, this title predated the domestic terrorist attack on US democratic institutions by less than two years, and in light of this, The Division 2 has aged poorly. However, this isn’t the greatest issue.
No, the very fact that explicit militarism and the simulation of gun violence around the center of US democracy can be called apolitical is the wildest, most unbelievable statement that could be made here. David Bakker
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019)
One of the defining traits of the Trump administration was the fast and loose way it has presented facts and truths — it also coined the term “fake news”. Consuming media reinforces the truths of society and can reshape how we view things and how we perceive reality, but through social media, Trump weaponized information for his own gain, sewing doubt about journalism which painted him in a poor light and spreading lies purported to be facts, leading his base to violently support false perceptions.
Modern Warfare may seem to be an odd title to bring up here, but it’s a game that openly uses real-world events as inspiration, and one such example is seen in the level “Highway of Death.”
This level is a clear, deliberate reference to a real-world atrocity of the same name committed by American forces in the Gulf War when retreating Iraqi forces were bombed. In Modern Warfare it’s the same, except in this case it’s the Russians who have committed this atrocity. The purpose seems seems to be emphasizing the villainy of the Russians, but it reduces a real event to being a cheap plot device. Also, in doing so, it misrepresents the American force’s role and in doing so, contributes to reshaping the reality of the event while reinforcing a pro-Western bias of the kind of bias that feeds into the “America First” toxicity of the Trump era.
It is important that events like these are retold with accuracy and handled with the respect they are due, as it feels deeply disingenuous to take an act that America committed and recast it as something to be despised when done by someone else. Gareth Payne
Death Stranding (2019)
Hideo Kojima is always poking at politics. Metal Gear is full of political comments and criticism, and this history is why no one was surprised with the themes and narrative choices in his latest game, Death Stranding.
Although it came out in a cloud of mixed reviews and controversial Kojima fan reactions, there was one subject it dealt with perfectly — America needed to reconnect! The “reform” that fictional president Strand was talking about was done through connecting forsaken cities of this new Un-united States of America. Sam literally connected these states by bringing them back online, but the meaning behind Kojima’s work was much deeper.
After withdrawing from many international treaties and organizations, the image of the U.S. as the leader of the free world was heavily damaged. Even faithful allies such as Canada and the U.K. opposed these withdrawls. In a general sense, the United States was separated from the rest of the world and needed a “reform”. Further, violence and disinformation from pro-Trump activists tore the country apart and caused great civil unrest, including the suppression of protestors such as the Black Lives Matter movement.
While set in a post-apocalyptic fiction, Death Stranding still managed to capture and feature the core of these events and their devastating consequences, and in a way, this one game might single-handedly represent the struggles of the country and of the globe during 2019. Ali Arkani
Umurangi Generation (2020)
The Trump era was an affront to human rights, objective truth, and basic decency. Kind, rational people do not need to be sold on this point. But his presidency also presented an existential threat to anyone who will live through the next few decades.
For ages, scientists have been warning us that climate change will deal dramatic damage to our planet if we don’t swiftly take steps to reduce our carbon footprint. In recent years, the call has grown more urgent. We’re rapidly approaching the point of no return, and we’ve already begun to experience the effects. The lethally cold conditions in famously-hot Texas are the most recent example, but all across the globe the winters have grown shorter, summers have grown hotter, tropical storms are stronger than ever, and wildfires ravage dry environments.
And these are the mildest effects. By the time we see the worst of it – when the oceans rise, displacing coastal populations and upheaving society on a grand scale – it’ll be too late to do anything about it.
Naturally, Trump’s response was to pull out of the Paris Agreement, setting us back further. But perhaps the most defining moment of our battle against climate change during the Trump administration came at the end, when the “good guys” won — when the candidate who “believed in science” picked Cedric Richmond, one of the Democratic Party’s leading recipients of fossil fuel donations, to serve as a senior advisor.
Anyone who’s feeling as hopeless as I am about our future will likely be deeply moved by last year’s criminally overlooked cyberpunk photography game, Umurangi Generation. Although its setting is considerably more fanciful than what’s happening in the real world, the game is an unmistakable ode to the people who’ll take the brunt of their parents’ mistakes because they grew up too late to do anything about it.
The game has no formal dialogue, but its “characters” are a pack of rebellious youths blasting music and creating art while a horrific backdrop unfolds behind them, and I have to wonder if the coming generations will find themselves in a similar situation – deprived of a voice by the idiots who came before, left with no option but to laugh in the face of an unsolvable problem.
I’d love to be proven wrong on this, but perhaps the hardest truth of the Trump era is that even after we’ve “won,” we’ve probably still lost. Mike Suskie
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War (2020)
Fun fact — I reviewed this game.
Not-so-fun fact? writing the CoD BO CW review was one of the most strenuous experiences I had in 2020. Tackling a major, triple-A game with awful politics really took its toll on me, and I genuinely feared for my life over the reaction the piece would get.
So now it’s time for me to cap this article with the same game that gave me so much grief, because I either have a death wish or I just like repeating myself.
Black Ops Cold War is an ugly game, one that revels in the death of people of color, communist sympathizers and anyone who stands in the way of the United States. It was sickening to play though and has me debating whether or not I can support the series moving forward.
What really shocked me, though, is the game’s reverence for Ronald Reagan. While I expected a right-wing title to love one of the most influential conservative leaders of the last century, it reminded me of how much rehabilitation of past, Republican presidents I’ve been seeing on Twitter.
In a few years, white liberals will start longing for the days of “funny” Trump tweets, or claim he wasn’t “as bad” as whatever future leader we’ll have. Games like Cold War that celebrate these men as heroes feels like the same sort of revisionist history. All the death and destruction is the same as it was in every other CoD, just with the added bonus of an obvious, right-leaning slant. CJ Salcedo
He has a knack for talking about movies and games he‘s passionate about. If anyone ever needs an expert on Jim Jarmusch, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Donkey Kong Country or Kanye West, he’s your guy. Don’t say we didn't warn you, though.
He can be found on Twitter and his weekly podcast, The Waypoint Set Podcast, where he manages to get some important guests before promptly talking their ears off.