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Woman with backpack and holding a pistol stands on the roof of an abandoned car in a ruined city Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

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The unique paths these four games took to visualize the future

The artists behind The Last of Us Part 2, Watch Dogs: Legion, and more unpack their decisions

Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

What does the future hold? In our new series “Imagining the Next Future,” Polygon explores the new era of science fiction — in movies, books, TV, games, and beyond — to see how storytellers and innovators are imagining the next 10, 20, 50, or 100 years during a moment of extreme uncertainty. Follow along as we deep dive into the great unknown.

Science fiction is a study of future worlds. Sometimes these are near-future worlds, ones that are only slightly off from our own. Other times, these worlds are set so far in the future that they’re nearly unrecognizable. That’s what makes designing the future so hard; the definition is always changing. It’s not always about flying cars and cybernetically enhanced bodies, but, of course, that’s cool, too.

Video games have to be built in ever-changing technology, and yet science fiction games about the future manage to encompass all of these themes, imaging worlds across the spectrum. We asked game developers and creative teams about the process of creating future worlds.

The Last of Us Part 2

A person standing on a roof overlooking a city
Concept art from The Last of Us Part 2
Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

The Last of Us Part 2’s world, depicting a post-apocalyptic United States, is a future that relies on the past, after a devastating infection wiped out civilization. The outbreak that caused the collapse happened in 2013 in the game’s world, and The Last of Us Part 2 is set 25 years after that — somewhere around 2039.

With collapsed infrastructure and nature reclaiming its ground, the future is one that looks a lot like the recent past in our own world. In other words, because of the outbreak, the world of The Last of Us Part 2 — technologically speaking — is built out of the past, and specifically, 2013.

“In the world of The Last of Us, it has always been a bit more about capturing a world frozen in time,” The Last of Us Part 2 art director John Sweeney told Polygon. “The outbreak narratively happened in the year 2013, so we referenced 2013 Seattle and built from there. The future, in a sense, is the present time you’re experiencing as a player, so the idea is giving you a window into what could happen if the world as we know it were to stop and nature began to reclaim it.”

Ellie on a horse surrounded by lots of trees
Concept art from The Last of Us Part 2
Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Aside from the overgrown world — buildings having been overtaken by trees and grasses — developer Naughty Dog used references to remind players that “the world as we know it” stopped in 2013. Like, for instance, Sony’s now-retro console, the PlayStation Vita, which was prominently displayed in an early The Last of Us Part 2 trailer.

It’s the overgrown world, though, that’s a reminder that The Last of Us Part 2 is set the future version. In fact, the designers specifically created the world with this in mind, scouring Google Maps for references and taking inspiration trips around the country.

“A lot of the conversation starts with logically laying out a timeline and research[ing] how long things take to decay or how long plants take to grow,” Sweeney said. “We obviously took some liberties with the amount of trees in any given space, as they would normally take hundreds of years to grow, but it helped give us the freedom to control the player space and mood of an area depending on how overgrown we wanted to push it.”

a car in a river with a waterfall in the background
Concept art from The Last of Us Part 2
Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

He continued: “It’s always a balance of what would actually happen versus what’s going to make for the most compelling world space. As players, we have all seen countless versions of the post-apocalypse; all are ripe with their own rules and tropes, so it becomes an exercise in trying to stay faithful to both the genre and the players’ expectations, as well as delivering something new within the scope of our narrative world.”

2064: Read Only Memories

Jess Meas from 2064 as seen in the NEURODIVER teaser trailer
Jess Meas from 2064: Read Only Memories, as seen in the Neurodiver trailer
Image: MidBoss

“When it came to 2064: Read Only Memories and our current game, Neurodiver, we figured the future 40 to 50 years from now would still be somewhat familiar on the ground level,” MidBoss creative director John James told Polygon via email. “At the end of the day, technology will get smaller and thinner and more hidden.”

Neurodiver main characters ES88 and GATE
Neurodiver main characters ES88 (left) and GATE (right)
Image: MidBoss

He continued: “The visual goal of 2064 was to present a future that looked a little bit like today, just with more cybernetics and genetically-altered people walking around, and maybe a few pieces of tech retrofitted into older building structures.”

MidBoss’ 2017 release, 2064, certainly hits those design goals. On the surface, it’s visually reminiscent of “the future,” one that looks high-tech and advanced. Because it’s set in the near future — one that’s within this generation — James said the team had to balance how high-tech the world feels. In a world set 200 years from now, the options feel limitless. But by moving only 40 to 50 years in the future, the city of Neo-San Francisco, where the game is set, will still feel familiar in some ways.

The high-tech world — with colorful, advanced beings — worked for the game, but the team didn’t want the scenery to be too bleak. James noted that MidBoss had chosen to move away from what San Francisco might actually look like in 40 years, when the city “might be completely wiped of what remaining charm it even has left,” a place where tech makes life more boring and streamlined. “Dreadful, we’re already pretty much living it now— it’ll just be more streamlined,” James quipped.

Instead, the team focused on the fantasy of Neo-San Francisco, where “espers, sapient robots, and hybrids are like colorful sprinkles on some ridiculous cake in ROM, a fun sweet thing to have around in an otherwise largely deceitful and unhealthy world.”

A screenshot from 2064: Read Only Memories, which reads “NSFPD-83: Halt, Citizen! This area has been cordoned off by the Neo-SF Police Department as part of ongoing investigations”
A screenshot from 2064: Read Only Memories
Image: MidBoss

But despite the bleak view of how corporations and technology are taking over our lives, 2064 does present a hopeful and optimistic picture of the future for LGBTQ people, introducing a world in which there’s much less discrimination and harassment.

MidBoss’s next game, Read Only Memories: Neurodiver, will continue to explore the people and world of Neo-San Francisco. When it’s out on Windows PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One in 2021, we’ll see how the world’s continued to evolve.

Watch Dogs: Legion

A person wearing a pig mask looking at the camera and holding a cellphone
A promotional image for Watch Dogs: Legion
Image: Ubisoft Toronto/Ubisoft

Watch Dogs: Legion, the upcoming Ubisoft hacker adventure game, is set in a future London — somewhere in the near-future. Legion game director Kent Hudson told Polygon that it’s easier to develop these near-future worlds, “because you get to start with total knowledge of the current state of the world and iterate from there.”

“Life and technology usually make iterative leaps — even if something seems mind-blowingly new, you can usually trace back a number of smaller steps that led there,” Hudson said. “So if you do enough research, you can be pretty confident about projecting 5, 10, or even 15 years forward. But the further out you get, the less you’re able to predict from a stable state; it’s a bit like the butterfly effect, where the ripple effects of small changes grow bigger and bigger over time. The further into the future you go, the less confident you can be about landing an accurate prediction in such a huge possibility space.”

Hudson also noted that this process means being able to shift ideas while in development — being “agile.”

Person holding a controller and controlling a drone that others are shooting at
A screenshot from Watch Dogs: Legion
Image: Ubisoft Toronto/Ubisoft

“We want the world to feel very recognizable, but with just enough near-future touches to turn it into speculative fiction,” Hudson said. “It starts with exhaustive research and scouting trips, where we gather as much information as possible in order to faithfully represent real-world London, and then we expand on that by extrapolating current trends and themes a few years into the future in order to show one possible outcome of the current technological and political landscape.”

And Ubisoft appears to have extrapolated trends and touched on the current technological and political moment, for better or for worse. It’s ironic, of course, because Ubisoft infamously said its games — like Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 — “is not making any political statements.” It’s a statement that’s faced criticism, considering its games (and marketing) often play off the current political atmosphere.

Beyond Blue

A human swimming alongside a large whale Image: E-Line Media

Released in 2019, Beyond Blue was developed by E-Line Media in collaboration with the BBC and its Blue Planet television series. The game is largely set in lush underwater environments, deep expanses of blue and green hues. In dark patches of ocean, marine biologist Marai can scan and study the ocean’s mysterious creatures, from massive blue whales to tiny microbes. The world will look largely familiar to anyone who’s watched the Blue Planet series, but it’s set in the near future — 10 to 15 years out, according to E-Line Media CEO Michael Angst.

The goal was not to create a world that would project the future, he said. Instead, the team wanted the players to imagine what the ocean’s future would look like — realistically — and “find hope and feel agency amidst a natural environment under real pressure.”

“We asked the scientists participating in the project to help us imagine an aspirational future that was achievable, but also reflected the realities of the challenges and crisis our ocean is currently experiencing,” Angst said.

Dark abyss in Beyond Blue
A screenshot from Beyond Blue
Image: E-Line Media

With that sense of realism, E-Line Media considered the very real threats the ocean is facing.

“When our game begins, some areas of the ocean are under significant pressure and disruption, while others are showing revitalization following increased global action to mitigate human impact,” Angst said. “Although this somewhat mirrors our ocean today, the world in our fiction is one more attuned to the tie between the health of the ocean and the health of our planet.”

Mirai, the marine biologist that the player controls in Beyond Blue, live-streams her dives, representing a hopeful vision for the future, one where all people on earth care about the health and safety of the ocean and its creatures.

But the real sense of “the future” comes in with how Mirai is able to explore and share her ocean experience. Scientists who assisted E-Line Media, like Dr. Samatha Joye, Dr. Syliva Earle, and Dr. David Gruber, were asked to think about what they’d do with a “moonshot budget,” — “instead of the limited budgets under which they often must conduct their research.”

And so, a lot of the technology is inspired by the real world and how scientists see the future advancing their work.

“That being said, we tried to focus on the motivations for and importance of near-future technology, rather than the exact form these capabilities might take,” Angst added. “For example, our near-future world is one where technology has enabled ocean explorers and researchers to more intimately explore the ocean at depths currently difficult to reach. Also, our scientists in the game are powered with less-invasive sensing and sampling equipment that can help create a more persistent model of the natural world with less risk of disturbing or influencing behavior during study.”

Deep ocean in Beyond Blue
A screenshot from Beyond Blue
Image: E-Line Media

The science fiction of Beyond Blue is intended to highlight the natural world and the way it can evolve — with a tinge of positivity.

“We felt like maintaining a strong connection to the real and present world could help evoke meaningful emotions and insights, so players will end the journey knowing more about the ocean and caring more deeply about its future,” Angst said. “As Dr. Sylvia Earle, one of our scientific advisors on the project remarked to us, ‘It’s taken four and a half billion years to shape the world in a way that is favorable to humankind. It’s taken us about four and a half decades to significantly unravel those systems.’”