“Dominic needs to get back to work,” the game instructs, “but his eyes have went all weird. Best drive to Barnard Castle with his kid just to make sure it’s safe to drive to London.” And so I find myself driving along an obstacle-strewn country road towards a distant castle. It’s difficult to concentrate because my character’s vision keeps fogging over and he won’t stop coughing. An imperious child screams at me from the back seat. I finally arrive, passing a double-decker bus displaying a banner that reads “Clap you plebs”. As I steer through the castle gate, a victory message pops on to the screen: “Your eyesight is fine.”
30 Miles to Barnard Castle was released on the game-creation platform Dreams just hours after Dominic Cummings, the UK prime minister’s chief adviser, held a press conference where he addressed his controversial trip from London to Durham under lockdown. It’s a smart example of video game satire, addressing a topical subject by subverting familiar driving game tropes. In asking players to become Cummings behind the wheel, the game elegantly underlines the most farcical aspects of his story.
This type of gaming satire is familiar: social commentary that flares briefly before sinking into the great swamp of forgotten content. There it joins the mini-games that emerged around the time of Donald Trump’s election, ranging from the crude Trump Dump, in which you direct a bird to befoul the president, to the lyrical bonus level of Surgeon Simulator, in which Trump lies on your operating table and you must decide whether to give him a heart of stone or a heart of gold. In the poignant Thoughts and Prayers, death-counts of mass shootings flicker across a map of the US and you must alternate between clicking the “think” and “pray” buttons to end the bloodshed. It never works.
No matter how clever these games are, you’d never play them more than once. They’re created to make a point, not for engaging gameplay. That’s the problem with satire games: the comedy works best when it’s topical, but good games take years to make.
Parodic simulation games make satire work by punching up. There’s Big Pharma, in which side-effects only matter if they damage your bottom line, while Tropico and Papers, Please offer hilarious insight into totalitarian rule, of the banana republic and Eastern Bloc varieties respectively. It’s unclear as yet whether the recently announced Pope Simulator will be a satire, but it certainly has potential.
Blockbuster games channel a particular school of broad-spectrum satire, such as the brash idiocracy of Grand Theft Auto’s America or Bioshock and Fallout’s juxtaposition of mid-20th-century scientific optimism with future societies debased by technology. The sci-fi universe of last year’s The Outer Worlds is more sophisticated, painting a galaxy where the Halcyon Holdings Corporation owns everything; citizens live as debt-slaves who cheerily punctuate everyday chatter with brand slogans.
Yet even this vision of a hyper-corporate dystopia feels generic. In gaming’s major leagues, writers only dare aim for the safest targets: violence, prejudice, soulless corporations. To get specific would mean taking a political stance, and no games company seems willing to jeopardise profits by splitting their fan base.
There’s a problem deeper than toothlessness at the heart of satirical games: countless titles pay lip-service to criticising ideologies which are in fact deeply rooted in their gameplay. It creates a dissonance that borders on hypocrisy. Many ultra-violent games are presented as commentary on our violent culture, yet only permit interaction with the game-world down the barrel of a gun. The veneer of satire is merely a moral fig leaf to let the gore flow freely. Similarly, games that vilify corporations often set your rebel protagonist on a trajectory of accumulating unnecessary wealth and despotic power, effectively neutering any coherent critique.
Satire can tell us a lot about ourselves. When asked for a book that would give valuable insight into Athenian society, Plato recommended the comic plays of Aristophanes. But in order to go a step further and inspire change, writers need to say something fresh with moral integrity. Games aren’t quite there yet. As disposable as it is, 30 Miles to Barnard Castle marks a moment when the increasing availability of game-creation tools is empowering comedic minds who are unafraid to be political and don’t need years of development to do it. It points to a future where we no longer need to choose between a good satire and a good game.
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