The American Dream is a satire about gun culture, one that plays out entirely in virtual reality. It clocks in at around four hours, and the mechanics of gameplay hold up well for the duration. But, as far as its narrative goes, the experience is utterly predictable. Two months ago, The American Dream would have been mediocre satire at best. Today, it feels positively out of touch.
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for The American Dream.]
While playing The American Dream I felt very much alone, seated in a bullet-shaped car on a carnival ride and pulled relentlessly through a gun-themed house of horrors. Early on, the game quizzed me on topics such as my gender, my political affiliation, my sexual orientation and whether or not I was on a terrorist watch list.
Regardless of the response, it handed me a gun.
From birth to middle age, I was shown how guns could solve virtually any problem. As an infant, I suckled at the teat of mother’s very own cocked-and-locked semi-automatic pistol. My first boyfriend was chosen downrange while looking through the magnified optics on a Springfield rifle. Later, my work history would include flipping burgers with a pistol, cleaning cars with a Thompson submachine gun and, finally, a sweet factory gig shooting the holes into bagels.
The weirdest part of the whole experience was that the game consistently demanded that I learn how to operate increasingly complex weapons over time. In an effort to make me disgusted by the idea of ever owning a gun, The American Dream first taught me the basic skills needed to use them.
Over the course of the game, I went from simple pistol shooting to “tactical” reloading and, later, long-range precision marksmanship using nothing but a rifle’s iron sights. A lot of design effort went into making it easy to get a good sight picture and creating consistent, audible cues for when to reload. That all led to a healthy dose of positive reinforcement, since the better my aim, the more money I earned after each mission.
To Samurai Punk, the developer behind The American Dream, guns are bad and the people who make them are even worse. It’s an utterly surface-level examination of a divisive issue, one that feels swamped by a rising tide of school violence and the public outcry nearly begging for even a modicum of common-sense reforms to current gun legislation.
There is very little opportunity for self-reflection, or even choice, in the mind of the player. To proceed, shooting is always the answer.
There was one scenario, near the halfway point of The American Dream, that delved into the particularly sensitive topic of firearms registries and databases. I was told that my own mother had been killed by a gunman, and that the only piece of evidence left behind was the murder weapon itself, with its serial number intact. But, thanks to the purposefully antiquated registry system, the only way to find out who bought the gun was to dig through reams of paper files by hand.
So I sat there in a dark room surrounded by storage boxes, shooting a little button that would pull the next paper file and compare its serial number to the one on the murder weapon. Hundred and hundreds of times I fired at that button, but the correct serial number never showed up. Meanwhile, there was a second button on my desk that quickly ordered firearms off the internet. By emptying a few magazines into it, I could make more guns and ammunition rain down from the sky.
The only way out, the game told me, was to load a round into the chamber, put the gun to my head and quit.
Apart from that level, the second half of The American Dream is a bit uneven. In those final two hours, it feels like Samurai Punk sort of ran out of material, and even the barks from the in-game narrator begin to get redundant. A few levels bugged out and required that I restart them from the beginning.
Even though it got bogged down, I wanted to press through to the end. When I got there, the experience built up to a crescendo so ludicrous that it very nearly sank the entire effort. At that point, The American Dream turned into a trite parody of the classic video game boss monster, complete with glowing weak points to shoot.
The game’s live-action video segments, interspersed throughout that final level, are its absolute lowest points both in terms of content and quality. They are so amateurish, so low-budget, that I would have left them all on the cutting room floor.
By the end my arms were tired from aiming at targets for so long. The American Dream makes its point early on, and then pounds it into you again and again and again. It ultimately has very little to say about the modern American political system, or even the National Rifle Association, which it aims to ridicule. The enemy, it seems, is the American military-industrial complex writ large.
According to the game’s message, it’s capitalism that kills. Guns are just the weapon of choice.
The American Dream is $19.99. It’s available for the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR.