A storied history: Americana in video games

How games depict America, for better and for worse

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It was fun to sit on my rooftop and watch the fireworks over the Los Angeles cityscape for the Fourth of July this year, but I gotta be honest — it didn’t feel like there was much to celebrate this year. Regardless of the depressing state of our country, the holiday got me thinking about Americana in video games and how they depict our country, for better and for worse.

Aside from Japan, the United States is the world’s leader in video game production, so it makes perfect sense that developers would borrow themes, imagery, and iconography from their country of origin. Sometimes it’s to pay homage to where they came from, other times it’s with the express purpose of critiquing the systems and ideals that run our nation, and sometimes it’s a mixture of both.

Small Town Life

Life is Strange: True Colors
Life is Strange: True Colors

Having grown up in one myself, games that take on the American small-town setting will always hold a special place in my heart. One of the series that portrays the classic “small down with a dark secret” trope well is Life is Strange — and it does an excellent job of capturing on a smaller scale that America has a lot of dark secrets hiding under the surface, many of which have come to light over the past few years. For so long our country pushed this narrative of being an ideal, almost utopian place (at least for some), but the whole thing was built on a broken system to begin with.

Night in the Woods nails this theme as well. Most of the game has the player making friends, hanging out around town, and dealing with the fallout of poor decisions that are really manifestations of trauma. However, there’s a cult running around murdering people because they think they’re doing their part to keep the town running. Sounds a little familiar, right?

The American Dream is Dead

Kentucky Route Zero screenshot
Kentucky Route Zero

Another classic tale of Americana in video games is big corporations decimating middle America — a phenomenon so common, it’s the subject matter of multiple games, including Kentucky Route Zero, NORCO, Night in the Woods, and Life is Strange: True Colors. Coercion, cover-ups, and buyouts are the name of the game, and in a country that’s run by some corporations in a trench coat, it’s a fitting narrative, to say the least.

What I love about games like Kentucky Route Zero and NORCO as well is that they’re so specific to the regions in which they are set — Kentucky and New Orleans, respectively. The games’ settings use iconic American imagery like gas stations, highways, and factories to great effect. The creators are from these areas and also did a great deal of research, so you can really feel both the love and the heartbreak that emanates from these titles as you play them. They may take place in very different parts of the country, but the story of a giant corporation coming in and killing off not only industry, but actual citizens, is disturbing in how true to real life it is.

NORCO review

I also can’t mention Kentucky Route Zero without bringing up one of its interludes: The Entertainment. This sequence portrays a fictional play in the game’s world, which depicts a mundane and somewhat depressing sequence of events in a bar that has seen better days. The whole thing feels so evocative of American playwrights of the twentieth century, like Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Kentucky Route Zero’s dialogue is formatted like a script throughout the entire game as well, further evoking a theatrical framework throughout the rest of the episodes.

For God and Country

Of course, we can’t have a conversation about America and not mention religion, because our country has pretty much become synonymous with evangelicalism. No other game showcases our country’s obsession with religion, American exceptionalism, and racism better than BioShock Infinite. It doubles down on Americana in a video game like I’ve never seen before, and what it lacks in nuance, it makes up for in style. While it’s still a dated game, and its social commentary could have been greatly improved even in its time, Infinite doesn’t shy away from the uglier parts of our history, which is more than many games do.

Then there’s a game like Far Cry 5, which I still haven’t played, but it’s certainly on my list considering my fascination with Americana. All I know is that it takes place in Montana and the main antagonistic force is some kind of militaristic doomsday cult. I remember when the game came out in 2018 that its story felt like an exaggeration of the way many in our country practice religion, but these days, it’s feeling a little bit too on the nose.

BioShock The Collection Epic Games Store
BioShock Infinite

Tangential to America’s obsession with religion is our obsession with the military. There have been dozens and dozens of games that feature the United States armed forces in some capacity, but the series that encapsulates this the best is definitely Call of Duty. They have been some of the most popular games out there since the series started back in 2003, depicting wars from World War II all the way up to the present, and some might argue, glorifying them to a certain extent. Don’t get me wrong, I myself have played and enjoyed Call of Duty games, but we can’t separate the games from real life when the military is straight-up using these games to try and recruit players into their ranks.

Man Versus Nature

One of the most American story types ever created is the western, which of course we see in the Red Dead Redemption series. These games are an extension of America’s deep-seated love of cowboys and outlaws, which rose to prominence thanks to the westerns that were made popular in the twentieth century by actors like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.

Of course, plenty of the games we have now put a new spin on the western genre — The Last of Us is one that immediately comes to mind. Having a deadly infection going around definitely makes for a hostile environment, and Joel is something of a lone wolf you might say (at least until Ellie breaks through his shell a little). I find it pretty interesting that our updated version of a western has you walk away with the idea that opening yourself up to the idea of love in a harsh world maybe isn’t such a bad thing after all.

The Last of Us screenshot
The Last of Us

In conclusion

The games I mentioned here are some of my favorites, or at least the ones that stood out to me, but there’s a myriad of other titles out there that reflect American culture in various ways. There are tons of other games out there that touch on topics I haven’t mentioned, especially when it comes to the stories of marginalized people, and I know I’d love to see more of those stories highlighted in the future, especially because most of those come from the indie space.

The history of American media reflecting the country’s culture is a long, difficult, but also beautiful one, and it’s exciting to see Americana in video games becoming part of the canon in that regard as well. As games continue to tell innovative and compelling narratives, I look forward to seeing how a new generation of developers uses the medium to express their relationship to Americana moving forward.

Story Beat is a weekly column discussing anything and everything to do with storytelling in video games.

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Image of Noelle Warner
Noelle Warner
After a few years of working in game development, Noelle joined the Destructoid team in 2021. She particularly loves interactive storytelling and cuddling with her cats!