A society leaves behind a pretty decent map of its psychology in the culture it creates. For example, the 1950s brought us a number of science fiction films that remain cultural touchstones to this day. And as any undergraduate student taking a Film Studies 101 course can tell you, a huge number of those movies existed more as a manifestation of that decade's cultural paranoia than as films unto themselves.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is probably the best known of the bunch, and is widely considered to express the fear fostered by McCarthyism and the early days of the Cold War: anyone, it posits, can suddenly be one of Them instead of one of Us. Other well-known movies also express varying kinds of cultural fear: fear of invasion, fear of being disbelieved when the infiltration comes, fear of what horrors a nuclear world could wreak.
Every era has its themes. We saw fear again in the 1980s, as the Cold War settled and a strange new global, technological world emerged. Blade Runner, at least in part, continued to carry the torch that Body Snatchers raised. Films like the Terminator series told us to fear our future. Brazil and the TV show Max Headroom made dystopic living absurd, but no less frightening. And movies like the Alien series left us shuddering to think at what horrors could be lurking both in the shadows without, and the flesh within.
The creators of a work—its writers, directors, producers, and so on—may or may not mean for any particular theme or allegory to come across. But authorial intent only matters up to a certain point. When one stands back and looks at the trend in films released in a given decade, clear trends emerge. Those trends tell us something interesting about the mindset of American society at the time.
Cinema and literature still have their hold on us, and reflect our souls back to us as they always have. But now, well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, a new medium is slotting into prominence in the cultural narrative: video games. And looking at the big-budget games scheduled for release in the remainder of 2012 and in 2013, a picture of our worries starts to take form.
The picture our games paint is one of uncertainty and even paranoia. Culturally, we are afraid. We are afraid of each other. We are afraid of our reliance on technology. And we are afraid that the world order we have come to accept is crumbling before us.
Fighting game Injustice takes the sheen of heroism off our superheroes and casts them as dangerous to each other and to the world they live in—and, by extension, to us. BioShock Infinite inhabits the seedy side of American Exceptionalism, and peels away any sentiment that the "good old days" were a golden age at all. Even Star Wars, our most iconic space opera, will be shedding its good-versus-evil, sword-and-sworcery inspired skin and instead focusing on the criminal underworld its universe has tended to gloss over.
But when it comes back around to recreating the body horror of the 1950s, zombies are the dead giveaway. Or the undead giveaway, as it were.
ZombiU and The Last of Us look to be games that play and handle very differently, but that ultimately touch on the same idea: the world has completely gone to hell. At any moment, one of Us could fall. And we won't even have the dignity of staying dead: we'll become one of Them. And the horde of Them is coming for, well, the last of Us.
The apocalyptic survival horror stories, though, have nothing on Watch Dogs for pure paranoia. Seeing the first footage of that game come out of E3, my jaw hit the floor.
Here in an era where we get antsy with always-online games, with constant connectivity, with platforms that want to know who we are, who we're with, where we are, and what we're up to at all times, one game calls out the constant surveillance and integration as both omnipresent and terrifying. And when it takes just enough from the real world that it can convincingly rewrite history, Watch Dogs plays on every conspiracy theory and "but what if..." that lurks in our shadows. Reprogram traffic lights from your phone? Sure! Shadowy figures controlling each other on the street? Why not?
It's not hard to speculate why so many of our games seem, frankly, terrified. Globalization is scary, and old lines are constantly being redrawn. Technology adoption happens at such a breakneck pace that even the most wired among us are hard-pressed to keep up. Old boundaries crumble and strange new ones arise. And of course, the worldwide economic hit that punched the whole developed world in the face in 2008 hasn't helped any of the transitions of the modern era along. Nations worldwide are struggling with high unemployment, which leads to a sense of civil unrest and despair. Goods and services still get traded, but the where and who of their manufacture and sale keeps shifting. And as older concepts of privacy crumble and new ones are still being built, we never know who is watching us or why.
In the midst of worldwide upheaval of a hundred different kinds, paranoia is surprisingly easy to come by.
Happily, we do have a counterbalance for all of the fear, violence, and despair bubbling to the top of so many of our big-budget games. There are games out there that still focus on exploration and storytelling, on the mysteries of sound, and on messing with environments. There are colorful romps and quirky puzzlers. And they're out there on every platform.
When media studies historians look back on our era in fifty or a hundred years, the smart ones will realize that our cultural makeup was complex, as has every decade been. Even in the midst of the Hollywood Blacklist, plenty of films brimmed with idealism or became icons of comedy. Even in the midst of fear, flowers of hope and joy grow.
This decade dawned still in the long shadow of 2001, and has largely been framed by war and the nebulous worries of terrorism. But we're only just now heading into the 2013 slate, and we've many years yet to go before 2020 concludes. Call me an optimist: I like to hope that the media coming from the back half of our decade will represent a kinder, more understanding, more relaxed culture, and that such a culture accurately reflects our society.
But until then? Well. I've got zombies to kill.