Under the Influence: The Problem With Drug Sequences

Far Cry 4

The triple A game industry has made a habit of rehashing. After all, sales are always going to be the most powerful indicator of what works within a game and what doesn’t, and annualized series such as Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed prove that a gamer’s wallet is the ultimate means of communication. As a result, there have been countless elements of triple A games that have been repeated over and over under the assumption that they “work.” A recent trend in triple A games has caught my attention, however. The use of drugs in triple A games has exceeded over the past couple years. Games like Grand Theft Auto V, Far Cry 3 and 4, and Watch Dogs have established the use of drugs as a new trend.

But how are drugs used within these games, you may ask? Well, the drug sequences within these games are nearly identical to one another. Blurry screens, rapidly flashing color schemes, and nonsensical gameplay create a “light-hearted” experience that serves to contrast the rest of the game’s tone. Watch Dogs, for example, takes its campaign pretty seriously, and expects the player to do the same. But you know kids these days; they can’t stay focused on serious content for too long! So the game throws in a series of “carefree,” “full-fun” side quests brought to you by none other than the influence of drugs.

The use of drugs within these games is indicative of the idea that bizarre, unexpected sequences of gameplay serve as a positive force within a story and a definitive way to have fun. It’s as if the developers fear that the player isn’t having enough fun with the base game or isn’t stimulated enough from what’s already there to be satisfied. So, drugs act as a means of creating new environments, objectives, and perspectives of the game world. 

Within the narrative, drugs aren’t taken seriously or even really mentioned. There is no consequence for taking these drugs; the story and your character don’t change because of it. This lack of effect is one of the many reasons why I think the use of drugs in games has become so cheap and unnecessary. One game that comes to mind, Metro: Last Light, did attempt to punish you when you chose to take drugs through its subtle (if not almost invisible) morality system. Taking drugs was a renegade option, and as a result, the player was more likely to receive the game’s bad ending. Although this result wasn’t as effective as it could be, I do appreciate the game trying to create a consequence from an action.

Metro: Last Light

Metro: Last Light is in the minority of games that attempt to create a consequence from taking drugs, however. In most triple A games with “serious” tones, drugs are treated as nothing more than a way to spice up the narrative or gameplay, to create something new and unexpected. With so many triple A games including drug side missions, the concept has become overdone, ineffective, and a lazy way of creating new and memorable experiences for the player.

Considering drugs are often reduced to side missions within these games, the argument “don’t like it, don’t play” can come into play. Sure, I could ignore the little blips on my map that indicate a drug mission, but that doesn’t mean that mission doesn’t exist. It’s still there, although with its lack of depth and impact on the actual story, it might as well not be. The concept of choice is completely eliminated with games that use drugs as part of the main narrative (Far Cry 3 and 4). So although there is a “choice” to partake in these missions in most games, it doesn’t hinder the argument as to why they’re included in the first place and whether their inclusion serves any real purpose.

Now, I’m not saying that drugs shouldn’t be in video games or that games with drug missions are horrible. I also don’t believe games that use drugs as a part of the main narrative are being lazy with their stories. And I’m also not suggesting that those who enjoy these missions are morally reprehensible. I’m simply saying that drugs are a serious real-world issue that deserves to be better explored within the medium, and that the current trend of drug use within games encourages further rehashing of content and devalues the role of drugs within our culture. 

I think video games have a real potential to bring light to serious issues such as addiction. One indie game, Papo & Yo, does this incredibly well and paints a harrowing picture of the experiences of a young boy dealing with his father’s alcoholism. And although indie games are more likely to give meaning and impact to the use of drugs within their games, I’d like to see more of this in triple A games as well.


One thought on “Under the Influence: The Problem With Drug Sequences

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  1. Really great article. I’ve never thought twice about drug use in games but the lack of consequences is definitely something to take into consideration. One game I didn’t see mentioned was the Fallout series. When using stimulants to enhance abilities throughout the game there are negative “withdrawal” type side effects that force you to choose between using more of the stimulant to counteract the effects for a short time or stop using them altogether to avoid the negative effects altogether. It wasn’t a perfect system but I think it’s a good example of a triple A game that has a prominent consequence system for using drugs/stimulants.


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