Almost always, the best answer is to just say “yes." In games, I've endorsed all manner of recreational, educational, ceremonial, universe-amplifying and boredom-dissolving, mind-body and stat-stimulating substance experimentation. You name it, I’ve taken it. Any drug a game designer has put in front of me, I’ve put inside of me: Plasmids, Pentazemin, Skooma, steroids, Nanosuit, Magic Cake, mushrooms, Mentats, Med-X, Jet, Buffout, and booze.
Their effects are similar to a sugar rush or caffeine high (the taste kids can see). Less acid freakout and more performance-enhancing steroid, self-medication in video games is a benign indulgence pushed by the peer-pressure of game design, algorithmically synthesized to improve or augment the player’s stamina, agility, or other physical faculties.
Rarely have I seen a virtual drug that changed the game space (positively or negatively) and subverted the player’s perception of the reality established at the game’s onset. Many games smuggle some form of drug within their code, but almost none of them contain any interactive drug culture. As for the preferred fix, uppers are ubiquitous while downers and hallucinogens are nearly non-existent.
Symptoms of real drug use may include:
Dynamic hallucinatory visitations, unannounced flashbacks, paranoia, sensations of temporal displacement, autonomic dysfunction, episodes of delirium and euphoria, epiphanies of various magnitude, changes in disposition, addiction, and withdrawal symptoms.
Symptoms of game drug use may include:
A swelling sense of superiority, kick-ass superhuman powers, increased aptitude for discrete disciplines, benign addiction, transient autonomic dysfunction, and blurry or distorted vision.
Take BioShock, for instance, a game with a central narrative and gameplay conceit predicated on a city and its populace torn apart by a drug. The country club of Rapture has been dismantled and debased by its own upper-crust: comfortable aristocrats metamorphosed into rabid junkies, marauding to score that next fix of, umm…a substance that grafts hornet hives onto your skin (oh yeah, that’s the good shit).
Evidence of the Rapturians’ deteriorating minds is everywhere. Their drug-addled neuroses, violent procurements, and savage, determined appetites are painted onto the surfaces of Rapture with blood, debris, and spray paint. Their pangs of addiction are audible in discarded voice memos. The ruinous cycle of dependence is made manifest with ghosts and NPCs who lament in terse asides the drugs’ damage.
So, why can’t I — an addict with a heavy habit, enabled by the game’s designers — fall victim to their tragic trajectory of consumption? In a dystopian world where a narcotic commodity is its currency, why is dope everywhere and untouched, seemingly waiting just for me? In short, why am I immune from the perils of continued Plasmid use: the distortions of reality, the mania, the delusions, the long drug-sniffing hunts demanded by supposed resource scarcity, and the crippling dependency?
Choose Plasmids! They keep you high and never let you down.
By creating a double standard where drugs are pure benefit for the player, and a debilitating yet empowering poison for Rapture’s citizens, developer Irrational Games was not only disingenuous, they were interactively shallow.
My time in Rapture was essentially one mammoth bender, of which the absence of psychological effects and a gameplay arc made getting high a boring chore. Addiction mechanics would have been a welcome blight to complicate the monotonous conquest of a high-tolerance, overly indulged mutant who shoots things out his palm, like the daydream hallucinations of a little boy.
This is the all too familiar story of narcotics in video games. The indomitable power addict whose drug-induced vigor and otherworldly strongman routine is not a convincing illusion but a perverse and gratuitous in-game reality.
Most video game drugs are merely utilitarian aids for physical labor. It’s the biker thug who needs a head full of speed to make that 1,000-mile grind, or the athlete who uses steroids to win big prize money or just stay afloat when everyone else is doing it.
Of course, video games cannot be chemical analogues that create 1:1 emulations of drugs. But that doesn’t mean they can’t contain engaging and perceptive mechanical simulacra of drug use.
In the rare case where a game introduces addiction and withdrawal mechanics, they are of little to no consequence. They're merely petty inconveniences that can be easily counteracted and only impact the artificial, out-of-body numbers game you play with your stats (see: Bethesda's Fallout 3). You can’t even potentially overdose on a speedball cocktail of Jet, Med-X, and Buffout. It’s baffling that neither Bethesda nor Fallout: New Vegas developer Obsidian went further with drug mechanics, especially when considering they have not significantly changed in the 14-year run of the Fallout franchise.
"Don’t Eat the Mushroom," a popular third-party level for the indie game Knytt Stories, is the only contemporary game I can think of that has really experimented with the virtual psychoactive formula. By ingesting the forbidden mushroom, you counteract the ennui of the character's sleepy suburb and descend into the funny and bewildering caverns of fourth-wall ornamentation and classic video-game perversions.
Your journey will have you walking across clouds in your suddenly inverted neighborhood, scaling a gargantuan version of yourself, even meandering about inside a browser window that’s loaded the Knytt Stories support forums. Though a pretty misguided and oddly media-referential trip, there’s a lot of playful, interstitial head-fuckery to be had, along with some wildly disorienting set pieces. It’s a charming, colorful jungle-gym drug, a jarring little haunted house where gravity and misleading physical laws are the animatronic ghouls.
Even though there is no shortage of ideas for implementing new drug mechanics, I get that it's a thorny prospect for developers, given the pre-release controversy over Fallout 3 and other similar stories. Steroids and fantastical practical narcotics have been the safe bet with a design prohibition on depictions of adverse, ugly, or more realistic aspects of drug use.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting advocacy or glorification of drug use through gameplay. Nor am I interested in scared-straight interactive melodramas. It’s a tricky area to explore, grasping for an honest and emblematic representation through interactive means.
The transcendent revelations of a hallucinogenic high cannot be written in a programming language. The experience of hitting bottom cannot fit onto the bottom of a disc. And the real pain, trauma, and fear cannot and should not be an uncut, high-dosage game experience for mass consumption.
Yet if games want to incorporate drugs, they should be a hell of a lot more responsible about it, or at least start the groundwork experiments towards getting there. Narcotic commodities should not be so abundant and bodily beneficent. Why can't I feel that “cocaine blues”?
To accommodate drug culture and use, design needs to change. Drug use is sparked by psychological and environmental factors, not simply boredom. Game designers must create drugs that deliver significant gameplay benefits and experiences but considerable downsides if abused. Or, present drugs as a tempting vehicle to escape from otherwise drab, painful, or traumatic game worlds, which might possibly lead them into an even more inhospitable place inside themselves.
More like this, please.
Drugs are an incredibly important social and cultural phenomenon, and it is not beyond the capacity or interest of games to represent them and their use artistically and earnestly.
I would love to see the game equivalent of Philip K. Dick’s interior psychochemical worlds, or the drug yarns of Irvine Welsh, Bret Easton Ellis, William Burroughs, and Hunter S. Thompson.
All we have currently are the drunk-goggle mechanics experienced after polishing off an entire bar, rendering us as comically bumbling rag dolls with Paul Bunyan tolerances.
Where drugs are present in games, you will never find truly colorful and surreal, beneficial and detrimental interactivity that results from their mechanical abuse. There is no downward spiral, just chemically fueled upward mobility.
I may be alone or in a minority here, but I'm sick of playing the empowered, cool, calculating, and clear-headed top predator. I'm much more eager to become a broken and tormented user suffering from the chemical flashbacks of Christmas past. I want a protagonist in the midst of narcotic vagrancy, disinherited from the larger narrative, without an obvious waypoint to navigate his mirages, without an "off" button, playing his own private meta-game that seems to have no rules, no tutorial, and no forecast of a lifespan. It’s not just about representing drugs in their nominal form; these events, purely as experiences, are what I want to participate in and feel virtually.
Drugs can be an intense battle or magnificent flight while the user is completely still. It’s some of the most powerful and challenging work of the mind, yet doing little work physically. I guess that’s what I hope a game can be as well.
"Mario drugs" photo by SR PINO. You can find the expanded version of this post here.