Parents and senators love to vilify violence in video games, but have largely ignored how they portray substance abuse. From cheap wine to futuristic stimulants, here's how 10 arcade avatars are getting twisted.
In Bioshock, you must survive in the ruins of a secret Ayn Rand–worshipping Art-Deco hell-hole of a city called Rapture. The once-bustling society was torn apart by a drug-fueled civil war, with both sides injecting themselves with drugs made from ADAM, a type of unstable stem cell. These serums would grant them varied special powers, but abuse caused insanity, dependence and genetic instability. Now, the only people left are the crazed and deformed “Splicers,” who desperately seek out more ADAM by any means necessary. To have a chance at survival, you must inject your character to sometimes horrifying effect—your skin may dry and crack, leaking with lava; ice splinters might jut straight out of your hand; and one particularly grotesque concoction turns your arms into fleshy beehives. Is it worth the power? In this city, you don't have a choice.
While the game's focus is on killing human traffickers by the boatload—and breaking your yuppie friends out of a life of slavery—the tropical island's “pharmacist” offers the protagonist a few distractions from the stress. After the main character swallows some hallucinogenic pills, he'll traverse the island in a surreal stupor while having flashbacks that come and go in bits and pieces of character development. At times the visions are tranquil, slo-mo affairs, and at others they are confusing and disorienting—especially during battle. The player will—spoiler alert—face one of the main antagonists in a druggy haze, walking on a pathway of broken TV sets while fighting off visions of his opponent that seem to melt in and out of the darkness. The drugs definitely addle more than they assist, but make for an interesting player experience.
At the start of Haze, you're an armor-clad member of a high-tech private military contractor (PMC) whose soldiers utilize a performance-enhancing drug called “nectar” to sharpen their senses, steady their aim and pack more wallop into their punches, in order to more effectively kill the enemy—Latin guerrilla freedom fighters with whom you, the conscientious protagonist, will eventually realign yourself. How are a bunch of technologically outgunned rebels supposed to fight off drug-fueled PMC troops? In some heavy-handed symbolism, the answer is to use their own source of power against them. By sabotaging armor or stabbing troops with drug-coated knives, the rebels can induce an overdose that throws the enemy into a blind rage, causing them to turn on one another. Is this intended as a warning that drugs can make you hurt the ones you love? Probably not, but it sure is fun to watch.
Max Payne is a puntastically-named detective who saw his family get killed, got framed for murder and had to shoot through both the mob and the cops to clear his name. While the nigh-genocidal amounts of killing that video game heroes engage in typically goes unaddressed, all the carnage Max Payne has seen and done catches up to him in Max Payne 3. Between bouts of John Woo-ing up the bad guys in the streets of Sao Paulo, he's seen passing out with bottles of booze and painkillers in hand, dreaming of his younger days before waking up to his creaky, slovenly present self. Instead of healing himself with archetypal video game med packs, Payne pops pills to keep himself moving though the bullets. It's not a pretty picture, urging players to seek redemption for Payne.
As bad as the stigma of addiction is today, this 1988 arcade shooter shows just how far our society has come. After popping your quarters into Narc, you and a buddy will be ushered into the shoes of Max Force and Hit Man. Armed with a machine gun in one hand and a rocket launcher in the other, you'll take “zero tolerance” to new heights as you tear through hordes of barefoot junkies in the streets. Later, you'll face Rambo look-alikes against a backdrop of a marijuana grow-op called “Buds-R-Us,” complete with hippie peace signs and posters featuring ganja leaves on tie-dyed backgrounds. Occasionally a baddie will surrender and allow the player to collect them for extra points, but given the game's fast pace it's mostly a waste of time to arrest them. The take-away is, “Don't do drugs—meet them with totally awesome lethal force!”
Forget hoarding cash and gold—after nuclear war leaves society in shambles, cigarettes, booze and drugs will be the name of the game. And if shooting up will give a leg up against mutant bandits or keep fallout sickness at bay, who in post-apocalyptic America would refuse a hit? Maybe those who know that the withdrawal symptoms aren't worth the temporary rush. The drugs of New Vegas will make the your character faster, stronger and smarter for a few minutes—but go long enough without them and you'll find yourself becoming sluggish and unable to communicate effectively with fellow survivors. Before long, you'll be rummaging through people's belongings (and, quite likely, corpses) like a fiend for the next hit. Or you can visit a doctor who will cure your addiction instantly—this is a video game, after all.
At first glance, this colorful puzzle game might look out of place on this list, but the entire game is an allegory for addiction. Papo y Yo takes place in a world dreamt up by the child protagonist to escape his alcoholic father. His traveling companion in this world is his giant pink monster pal, who eagerly helps him—until it gets hold of a frog. This monster is addicted to eating them even though they make the monster fly into a burning rage, hurting the player if he or she doesn't get away fast enough. The game's creator, Vander Caballero, said he drew upon memories of he and his siblings growing up in a Brazilian slum with an alcoholic father. “We knew that at night when my father was getting back drunk, it was hell,” Caballero said. “We would have to hide.” But, just like the monster, while his father could be scary, he was also loving, helpful and protective.
Like most things in the fantasy realm of Skyrim, how much you come into contact with the narcotic “skooma” is up to you. You can ignore it, sell it, steal it or even participate in a raid on it to increase your notoriety with the authorities. You can drink it as well, but long-time fans of the Elder Scrolls series know that skooma's been toned down with each iteration of the game. Before, players could abuse it, sacrificing intelligence for a much-needed boost to your walking speed. But in the latest title in the series, Skyrim, consuming it grants no real positive or negative effects, leaving dissatisfied fans to speculate the game's developers feared glamorizing drug use. However, in an later expansion, players could drink a more potent version of skooma and pass out—only to wake up enslaved by vampires.
Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards
Back in the late ‘80s, a company called Sierra On-Line was making awesome graphic adventure computer games, including the iconic King’s Quest and Space Quest series. More infamous was the louche Leisure Suit Larry series, starring Larry Laffer, a schlubby denizen of “Lost Wages” (aka Las Vegas) who’s forever trying (and failing) to get the girl. The first game opens in a bar called Lefty’s, and visits a liquor store, a casino, seedy motels and more. In one sequence, Larry buys a gallon of “One-Buck Chuck” at a liquor store, and hails a taxi. But no sooner does Larry climb into the back seat than the cabbie swipes his wine, guzzles it down, and promptly crashes the car, killing our hero. The lesson being: Always drain your bottle before getting in the cab.
The Grand Theft Auto series has been the poster child for What’s Wrong With Video Games for more than a decade, portraying a series of homicidal anti-heroes shooting and carjacking their way across US city stand-ins. But the games also are weirdly moral—you shoot people and the cops chase you, for example—and this includes drinking. When GTA IV protagonist Niko Bellic, an Eastern European mercenary, bellies up to a Liberty City watering hole, he gets plastered—and when he stumbles outside, the "camera" is woozy, the game controller shudders, and you have trouble keeping Niko upright. If you get behind the wheel, it’s even worse, as it’s nearly impossible to stay on the road without smashing into streetlamps, cars and pedestrians.
Last February, my oldest friend died of a heroin overdose at the age of 49. He beat me to recovery, and he beat me to death. He also gave a final, drug-alogue interview on my radio show 20 hours before he died.
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