From Wolfenstein to BioShock, here are some of the wildest alternate realities in video games.
History is done. The events of the past might as well be carved in stone, because short of time travel, they’re not going to change. But in video games, everything can change — even things that already happened. Let’s delve into some of the wildest alternate histories that have ever appeared in gaming. Welcome to the worlds that weren’t.
Here’s something that didn’t happen. In the 1940s, a rich fella named Andrew Ryan — his head swimming with objectivist philosophy — didn’t build a grand underwater city called Rapture. While living there, no one discovered a substance that could alter people’s genes to give them supernatural powers. No great unrest ever occurred down there, and terrifying creatures like Splicers, Little Sisters, and Big Daddies were never created.
In 1960, a plane crash survivor didn’t enter this failed utopia and fight through all manner of supernatural horrors.
None of that ever happened. But the question BioShock poses is: what if it did?
In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy kicked off a major expansion of the space program and promised to put an astronaut on the moon by the end of the decade. Although NASA would deliver on that promise, JFK’s assassination in 1963 left the space program without its biggest proponent. Who knows what kind of advancements we might have made if JFK had lived.
That’s where Prey comes in. In this game, JFK survives. He further expands the space program and helps the Russians secure a dangerous alien they find on one of their sattelites.
Fast forward a few decades and down comes the Soviet Union. Now the U.S. decides to run some experiments on the alien, and as you can probably guess, things go quickly and murderously awry.
What if the Nazis had won World War II? That’d be a nightmare, wouldn’t it? If the latest incarnation of the Wolfenstein series is anything to go by, “nightmare” is an understatement.
After the war, the Nazis use their unscrupulous scientific methods to dream up terrible new technologies. They also continue their quest to take over the globe, at which they mostly succeed.
Meanwhile, protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz spends 14 years blacked out in a coma. When he wakes up and discovers the sorry state of the world, he rushes to join the Resistance and fights to put a bloody end to the Nazis once and for all.
War never changes in Fallout, but history sure does. Glance out the window, and you might notice we’re not living in post-apocalyptic hellscape. That’s a good thing! But in the world of Fallout, the planet is a nuclear wasteland and life is a tooth-and-nail struggle for survival.
That’s because of Fallout’s alternate timeline, which splits from ours after World War II. For some reason, when the break occurs, design and fashion trends freeze in the Fallout timeline. So even though they end up developing floating robots and plasma weapons as the years pass, everything still looks like it came from the 1950s.
Then the bombs fall in 2077, resulting in near-total nuclear destruction. In the hundred-odd years that follow, hardly anyone manages to pick up a broom or tries to rebuild society. Hardly anyone, that is, except Preston Garvey.
In the real world, the end of World War I didn’t bring everlasting peace. What happened was massive economic instability that led to the Great Depression and political instability that led to World War II. In the Resistance series, those hardships never happened.
So all is good and peaceful and everyone lives happily ever after, right? Wrong. Resistance introduces a whole new set of problems to drive wedges between the nations of the world. And then in the 1950s militant aliens drop from the sky and begin a systematic march around the globe, conquering humanity as they go. Maybe let’s be glad real-life history happened instead.
As depicted in the Metal Gear series, world politics is driven by madmen with walking nuclear tanks and shadowy groups with names like La-li-lu-le-lo. Unless historians have it completely wrong, Metal Gear contains a wild and impossibly complicated alternate history.
Add to this a lineage of cloned spies who sneak into enemy compounds, fight super-powered weirdo bosses, and save the world from the brink of nuclear winter, and you’ve got the makings of — well, the Metal Gear universe.
To chart the alternate history in Metal Gear you’d need a full-on conspiracy wall, filled with printouts, pictures, maps, and timelines, all connected with red strings. It’s probably best not to try.
The great thing about the Assassin’s Creed series is how it’s a legitimate educational platform filled with real historical people and places. These games transport you to some of the most exciting moments in history: the French Revolution, the dawning of the American republic, and Ancient Egypt to name a few. You brush elbows with titans of history like George Washington, Leonardo Di Vinci, and Cleopatra.
Then you fist-fight the pope and murder Jack the Ripper. They both had it coming.
One night in 1986, the workers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine conducted a routine safety test that simulated a blackout power failure. Due to human error and reactor design flaws, the test resulted in an explosion and fire that pumped nuclear-contaminated waste into the surrounding area. That’s the real history.
In S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s alternate take, scientists and military personnel soon move back into the area around Chernobyl to work on a new project. Unfortunately for them, a second nuclear disaster occurs in 2006, causing all kinds of terrifying mutations to every living thing in the zone. You play as a scavenger who makes the mistake of entering the area. Can you make it out alive?
Those are our favorite alternate histories in video games. What are yours? Let us know in the comments.
Chris Reed is a freelance writer for IGN. You can follow him on Twitter @_chrislreed.
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