While the majority of games love to set their story within our reality or a completely fantastical world, some of the best titles aim for that sweet middle ground. Parallel universe narratives tend to pick a turning point in humanity's history – like World War II or the Cold War – and imagine what could have been if things played out differently. Usually, this leads to the formation of some sort of Utilitarian regime, and the player is tasked with fixing history.
Obviously, this is not always the route taken by developers. There are alternate reality stories that take a certain time period; for example, the roaring 20s, and stylize the heck out of them. It provides an opportunity to visit a strange time that is simultaneously relatable and alien. If nothing else, these strange realities make it easier to appreciate the real one.
Here are the ten best games set in an alternate reality. Please note, we are not talking about alternate reality games, as those are a list for another day.
10. Freedom Fighters
- Platforms: Microsoft Windows, GameCube, PlayStation 2, Xbox
- Publisher: EA Games
- Developer: IO Interactive
- Release Dates: Sep 26, 2003 (PAL). Oct 1, 2003 (NA)
Arguably, the most obscure entry in this list. Freedom Fighters was a gem of a third-person shooter released during gaming's sixth generation. The premise is eerily similar to 1984's Red Dawn, only with the Soviet Union playing the part of the villains. As is common with many alternate reality titles, the turning point happened during WWII, with the Soviets becoming a superpower by dropping an atomic bomb on Berlin. Eventually, they take over the majority of the world.
Freedom Fighters begins with the Soviet Union staging a surprise invasion of New York City, prompting two brothers to organize a rebellion against their want-to-be rulers. Admittedly, the plot is hardly anything groundbreaking, but it is well executed by IO Interactive. The gameplay is pretty decent, although the mechanics are definitely dated by today's standards. Still, Freedom Fighters' team-based combat and fantastic AI ranks among the best of the genre.
Freedom Fighters might not be the easiest game to revisit today, but the sixth generation benefited from its existence.
- Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows
- Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
- Developer: Arkane Studios
- Release Dates: 5 May 2017
2017's Prey is the closest we are likely to get to a new BioShock. Combining role-playing and stealth elements, the gameplay is interesting enough and should keep most players invested for the title's relatively short run time. Set in an eerie space station, Prey is a psychological horror game with multiple endings and a truly fascinating premise.
Arkane Studios imagines what might have come to pass if President John F. Kennedy survived his assassination attempt. Fueled by the near-death experience, Kennedy prioritizes the space program, leading to the discovery of an alien species called Typhon. Temporarily putting aside their differences, the United States and U.S.S.R build a space station to study this creature. Like with any horror movie worth its salt, the Typhon escapes and starts to wreak havoc.
The idea of being trapped in space with a monster can hardly be described as innovative, but Prey succeeds due to its tense atmosphere and great world-building. Hopefully, a sequel is made, as this timeline deserves to be expanded upon.
8. Resistance: Fall of Man
- Platforms: PlayStation 3
- Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
- Developer: Insomniac Games
- Release Dates: Nov 11, 2006 (JP), Nov 14, 2006 (NA), Mar 23, 2007 (PAL)
Sony's Resistance franchise seems to have gone the way of the Dodo, which is a shame. The original PlayStation 3 trilogy offered a solid mix of Call of Duty-style gameplay set within an interesting alternate reality. While the sequels did improve certain elements; when it comes to the story, Resistance: Fall of Man remains the best of the franchise. Insomniac Games should be commended for establishing a strong central conflict that genuinely feels global in scope.
Set in the 1950s, humans are currently fighting a losing war against an alien race known as the Chimera. Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, over multiple decades, these insect-like creatures invaded Russia and slowly developed an army capable of challenging the United States and Britain. Cast in the role of Sgt. Nathan Hale, the player is tasked with protecting America from the incoming invasion.
While the premise is based on fantasy rather than reality, the settings and weapons were designed to mimic their real-life 1950's counterparts. For the most part, Resistance: Fall of Man accomplished what it set out to do.
7. Injustice 2
- Platforms: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Android, iOS
- Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
- Developer: NetherRealm Studios
- Release Dates: May 16, 2017 (NA), May 17, 2017 (AU), May 19, 2017 (UK)
Yes, Injustice 2 counts since it is set in an alternate reality to the mainline DC comic series. Following up on the events of 2013's Injustice: Gods Among Us, the sequel is set five years after the Justice League brought an end to Superman's evil tyrannical reign. For anyone who has never played these games, that previous sentence probably left you feeling slightly confused.
Injustice is set in a timeline where Joker tricked Superman into killing Lois Lane. Overwhelmed by grief, Clark Kent says ‘to hell with being a beacon for good’ and becomes a fascist dictator. Obviously, he puts Joker down for the count and ends up alienating the rest of the Justice League. Within this reality, the line between good and evil is blurred.
The sequel's story is less emotionally charged than the original, but Brainiac serves as a decent enough antagonist. The gameplay is an improvement over its predecessor. Outside of the comics, the Injustice games showcase DC at their absolute best, with a storyline that subverts expectations.
6. Wolfenstein: The New Order
- Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Microsoft Windows, Xbox 360, Xbox One
- Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
- Developer: MachineGames
- Release Dates: May 20, 2014
Honestly, the entire Wolfenstein franchise deserves to be named on this list; but, if push comes to shove, The New Order is the best of the bunch. The premise simply envisions a universe where the Axis Powers were able to win World War II by developing advanced technology that overpowered the Allies. Okay, it is mostly used as an excuse to shoot Nazis in the face, but MachineGames greatly improved the story for Wolfenstein: The New Order.
After spending 14 years in a coma, Captain William "B.J." Blazkowicz awakens to find that the United States, and eventually the entire world, surrendered to the Nazis. Joining a small resistance group, Blazkowicz takes part in a mission to weaken the powerful Empire by staging an attack on one of their central compounds.
For the most part, Wolfenstein is a straightforward shooter that incorporates a gripping storyline within its alternate reality. In The New Order and The New Colossus, the villains are fantastic and elevate the material over similar games.
5. Assassin’s Creed II
- Platforms: Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
- Publisher: Ubisoft
- Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
- Release Dates: Nov 17, 2009 (NA), Nov 19, 2009 (AU), Nov 20, 2009 (EU), Dec 3, 2009 (JP)
Few other series scream alternative reality as emphatically as Assassin's Creed. Heck, Desmond Miles practically wears a VR headset during the game. Unlike pretty much all of the other entries, Ubisoft's action-adventure series has the player visiting different historical time periods to try and piece together a conspiracy that spans multiple centuries. The main premise involves a secret organization of assassins and the Templars that serve as their targets.
Set in 15th century Florence, Assassin's Creed II is as close to a perfect game as the franchise is likely to get. While Desmond remains a somewhat boring character, his ancestor Ezio is charismatic and endearing. Ignoring the insanely complicated future plot, Ezio's arc is driven by a need to exact revenge on those who butchered his family. There is somewhat of a supernatural element, especially towards the end of the game, but Florence is recreated immaculately.
Historical events and personas are effortlessly slipped into the narrative, making Assassin's Creed somewhat of an educational experience. Everything should still be taken with a grain of salt, but Ubisoft Montreal clearly did their research.
4. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl
- Platforms: Microsoft Windows
- Publisher: CIS: GSC World Publishing, THQ
- Developer: GSC Game World
- Release Dates: Mar 20, 2007 (NA), Mar 23, 2007 (EU), Mar 23, 2007 (EU)
In order to get the most out of GSC Game World's first-person shooter, one should ideally be familiar with Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's novella, Roadside Picnic, or Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is set within The Zone, which is inspired by the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. In the mid-80s, there was a nuclear disaster that left the adjacent area uninhabitable. It covers around 30 KMs and access was restricted by the Government to avoid radiological contamination.
Within the game, the area was repopulated, but a second disaster mutated most of the scientists and military personnel who had re-entered The Zone. This catastrophe altered the physics in certain areas, giving rise to valuable artifacts that make the area a potentially lucrative expedition. Stalkers are people who reside illegally in The Zone and spend their days searching for radioactive objects.
Shadow of Chernobyl is among the most atmospheric games ever created. The setting is fantastic and worth exploring, while the gameplay is decent enough.
3. Grand Theft Auto V
- Platforms: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows
- Publisher: Rockstar Games
- Developer: Rockstar North
- Release Dates: Sep 17, 2013
Rockstar North put together such a realistic and intricate world that one could easily forget that this is not meant to be our reality. Sure, Los Santos holds a fair amount of similarities to a handful of major American cities, but the satirical tone establishes Grand Theft Auto as its own universe. Delivering tons of biting social commentary, the hugely popular action-adventure title is all about giving players the freedom they could never experience in real life. Unsurprisingly, this results in a complete disregard for the rules and norms that govern a civilized society.
Grand Theft Auto V has three different protagonists, each coming from a different social background and offering a unique perspective. Rockstar's franchise has always taken things to the absolute extreme, and the latest game is no exception. While Trevor can pull off stunts that would instantly kill most real people, Grand Theft Auto V manages to still feel grounded in a familiar universe.
- Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, iOS, Xbox 360, Xbox One
- Publisher: 2K Games
- Developer: 2K Boston, 2K Australia
- Release Dates: Aug 21, 2007
Ten years later, Rapture is now considered one of gaming's most iconic cities. 2K's original FPS is easily the best of the trilogy, mostly due to a fantastic backstory that is revealed in small chunks throughout BioShock's runtime. In the mid-40s, Objectivist business magnate Andrew Ryan created Rapture, a utopia for society's elite. Originally designed to offer an escape away from governmental control, Ryan's idealistic paradise slowly turned into a nightmare.
Serving as a sort of microcosm of the larger world, Rapture's doom seemed pre-ordained. Despite bringing together society's best and brightest, Ryan could not prevent the formation of a class system and a black market. Eventually, this led to an uprising instigated by the former gangster Frank Fontaine. From the series, BioShock is the only entry to really incorporate horror elements into the narrative. Rapture is packed with memorabilia from the 1940s and 50s, making it a worthwhile excursion for anyone interested in those time periods.
1. Fallout 2: A Post Nuclear Role Playing Game
- Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X
- Publisher: Interplay Productions
- Developer: Black Isle Studios
- Release Dates: Sep 30, 1998
Think of this entry as including the entire Fallout franchise, with a specific focus on the original two titles developed by Black Isle Studios. Following the end of World War II, the United States prioritized the scientific development of atomic physics over the transistor, culminating in an Atomic Age. While technologically advanced, society failed to progress beyond 1950s culture, resulting in a strange mishmash of futuristic and outdated equipment. With nuclear energy serving as society's main resource, the Cold War continued well into the 21st century, resulting in America developing into a fascist police state. This makes a lot of sense since people would give up their freedom to feel safe.
Unsurprisingly, resources started to dwindle. Desperate to resupply their petroleum reserves, former allied countries turned on each other. The Resource War lasted for a quarter of a century, before the United States, China, and U.S.S.R decided to nuke the world into oblivion. Two hours later, humanity was on the verge of extinction and only those with access to a self-sustaining Vault survived the battle.
The franchise is set nearly a hundred years after the Great War, with the United States nothing more than a post-apocalyptic wasteland that is trying to slowly rebuild itself.
There is almost a morbid fascination with picturing a terrible alternate reality that we only narrowly avoided. These games provide the perfect opportunity to comment on current social issues without coming across as preachy or pushing an agenda. With the launch of Virtual Reality, we cannot wait to see what the future holds.
Which alternate reality do you wish could replace ours? Please let us know in the comment section below.