The year is 2018 and The White House of the United States of America is still convinced that video games directly lead to violent behavior. They’re so convinced in fact that they met with lobbyists and CEOs to talk about it all and even made a highlight reel of some of the most violent scenes in modern gaming to support that argument.
This isn’t a fictional universe: it’s real life.
During a time in which America is embroiled in a contentious debate over the necessity and utility of openly available firearms following a slew of public shooting tragedies, video games find themselves at the center of it all. In that regard, The American Dream, a VR game from developers Samurai Punk that uses dark humor and wry sarcasm to address this very issue, feels about as politically topical as you can get — for better and for worse.
The premise of The American Dream is that you’re using VR to see a “brighter future” in which guns rule all aspects of life. You remember the classic kid comment of, “Well if you like ___ so much, why don’t you marry it?!” This is that, turned into a game, focused on guns. The idea is that if American society is so obsessed with guns that we can’t even relinquish them in the face of national tragedies, why don’t we just evolve to using them in all aspects of our lives?
So that’s what happens here. Each level of The American Dream is a different scene from a different phase of a typical American’s life. You see things from the POV of a baby in a crib as a mother points a gun at your mouth to feed you cereal, you’ll use a gun to shoot burger patties and make them flip on the grill, and even later on to take care of gardening frustrations in the backyard. After an hour or two the gameplay mechanics themselves start to feel increasingly repetitive which, to the developers’ credit, is part of the point — but that doesn’t make it any less monotonous to play after a while.
If all that sounds a bit ridiculous then, yeah, that’s on purpose. It’s supposed to be this totally outlandish and absolutely bonkers representation of gun culture as a method of revealing the absurdity of it all in the first place. It’s harsh commentary by way of parody. Something tells me Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the creators of South Park) would get along just fine with Samurai Punk’s writers.
The situations that you play through do a good job of maintaining a consistent tone, but it comes at the loss of communicating its message. This is a tricky topic and the developers don’t want to preach at the player, but a little more direct commentary or more overt criticism would have helped solidify the game’s purpose more strongly.
Everything is narrated by your trusty all-American dog companion, Buddy Washington, as you progress through each of the over 20 different vignette stages. While they may lack a real narrative thread connecting them all together, the tone and focus of each stage evolves as you delve deeper into the game’s “simulation” of America.
Over the course of the game, which should last most players about four or so solid hours, I found myself laughing quite a lot. My sense of humor lines up well with the writers and I’ve always been a fan of this sort of dark, sardonic take on otherwise heavy topics that typically avoid parody.
What really makes The American Dream work though, on a purely fundamental level, is the subtly of it all. The first hour or so of the game is purely silly with lots of direct jokes and witty humor, but by the time you reach the end things start to take on a much darker tone. Smiles on my face became grimaces and my occasional breaks from VR became breaks from my own mind. I’m not a gun nut by any means, but as someone that was born and raised in Texas, The American Dream is a game that forced me to reflect on certain things that I’d otherwise never have given a second thought.
Given some of the pacing issues and the partially inconsistent tone/messaging, I think The American Dream may have been better served to be just a bit shorter. Some of the stages feel unnecessary and don’t actually contribute to furthering the game’s message at all. For games like this all of the content needs to either communicate the core principles clearly or provide real gameplay entertainment and there are chunks of this experience that feel included for no reason other than padding the length.
I’m all for games taking stances on important cultural and political topics. Some of the most moving pieces of entertainment I’ve ever enjoyed have been video games and I see no reason why developers can’t use the medium to start hard, important conversations — especially in VR. The American Dream, more so than any other game I’ve played, really asked me to look at myself in the mirror and investigate my own personal relationship with guns and gun culture on a more intimate level.
The American Dream’s dark, sardonic commentary about America’s gun culture comes at a poignant time in the country’s history. I hate having to put a numbered score on a game like this, but here I am anyway.
Using VR’s unique potential to tell powerful and insightful stories with stark, reflective criticism is on display in ways we haven’t seen before. The humor won’t land for everyone and the message will likely get misinterpreted or lost by some, but The American Dream raises questions that are absolutely worth discussing regardless of your stance on gun laws. This VR experience, despite the quirky visual style, is not for the faint of heart.
The American Dream is available as of today on Rift, Vive, and PSVR for $19.99. Read our Game Review Guidelines for more information on how we arrived at this score.