Everybody loves playing games — except when you're forced to by aliens, or your futuristic prison warden, or superpowerful beings. This Friday, Gerard Butler's forced to play and/or die in Gamer. But here are 32 other deadly-game stories, with clips.
Thanks to Graeme McMillan, Meredith Woerner, Annalee Newitz, Lauren Davis, Briana Cavanaugh, Chris West, Jeff VanderMeer, Andrew Liptak, Pete Gofton, James McGirk, Dennis Woo, Rachael Parker, Brian Williams, Rina Weisman, Chris Hsiang, Jessy Randall, David Fraser, Tim Todd, Chris Newman and Kiriko Moth, plus anyone I missed.
This is the all-time classic of trapped-in-a-game stories, and it's the first type of story that you see a lot — hero gets sucked inside the digital/computer world, and turned glowy or avatar-y. In this case, the evil Master Control Program is trying to keep the users from monitoring its functions, because it wants to gain absolute power. So when Flynn challenges its rule, the MCP digitizes him and then forces him to take part in a series of deadly disc-throwing, bike-racing, tank-battling games against computer programs.
There's the "guy gets sucked inside video game" story, which is like Tron. And then there's the "condemned prisoner gets forced to take part in brutal gladitorial games in an ugly unitard" story, and this is the most perfect example. Partly because it features Arnold Schwarzenegger bringing his A-game, acting wise. But also, it gets major points for use of chainsaws and barbed wire and stuff.
Star Trek: "Gamesters Of Triskelion"
And this is the third type of "trapped in a game" story. There are some vaguely superior aliens (except that they kind of suck) and they kidnap other species and force them to compete/fight for their amusement. There needs to be a gangsta rap about hustling for the quatloos.
Doctor Who: Vengeance On Varos
Doctor Who has done many, many "trapped in a game" stories. There's "Vengeance On Varos," which is pretty much the classic "prisoners forced to take part in deadly games" scenario. There's "The Five Doctors," which is the epitome of "superior aliens kidnap lesser species and play deadly games with them for amusement, with the added wrinkle that the superior aliens are the Doctor's own species. There's also "The War Games," which is what it sounds like. And "The Celestial Toymaker," which features a superior alien games master who's inexplicably Fake Chinese.
Gemini Game by Michael Scott
This is another classic standard — teenage twins Liz and BJ create a hot-selling virtual reality game called Night's Castle. But then it gets invaded by an evil virus, causing havoc. Liz and BJ are trapped inside the game trying to fix it.
Death Race 2000
In a dystopian future, the totalitarian Bipartisan Party keeps an iron grip partly by distracting the people with its televised deadly cross-country race — and top racer Frankenstein is the latest person in a long line to bear that identity, having no choice but to race and/or die. In the recent remake starring Jason Statham, it's more like Running Man — another "felons forced to take part in deadly games" type deal.
Lexx, "The Game"
Kai plays against Prince in a deadly game of chess — and if Kai loses, his crewmates will die. But if Kai wins, he gets reunited with his soul. So Kai accepts Prince's terms, and Stan and Xev get turned into literal pawns.
Deep Space Nine, "Move Along Home"
Quite possibly the most annoying episode of DS9 ever, this episode features the Wadi, aliens from the Gamma Quadrant who force Sisko, Bashir and their friends to play really dumb games, with the refrain of "Move along home," every time they complete one of the asinine challenges. And then there's also the DS9 episode where O'Brien befriends the Tosk, an alien who's been bred to be the prey in a lifelong hunt.
Dungeons & Dragons (cartoon)
A group of kids gets on a spooky roller-coaster fairground ride at a fair, and winds up pulled into the dark world of D&D, where they must play the game in order to escape. Here's a clip from "The Dragon's Graveyard," the most controversial episode, which was almost banned because of its violence and because they contemplate killing their nemesis.
"Arena" by Frederic Brown.
This famous short story is basically the same deal as the Star Trek episode of the same name: Humans are fighting a bunch of lizard aliens, so super-powerful godlike beings pick one representative of each side and force them to fight in a barren landscape. The solution to the puzzle is different, and the human actually does take the opportunity to kill his enemy. You'll have to get your entertainment right here! There's also an Outer Limits episode with a similar premise, "Fun And Games," according to Wikipedia.
Legend Of Neil
We've raved about this webseries, about a guy who gets sucked into a World Of Warcraft-style online game world, before. Neil gets drunk and plays Legend Of Zelda, and decides to masturbate while asphyxiating himself with his Nintendo game controller, which somehow leads to him getting trapped inside the game, where he hangs out with psychotic fairy Felicia Day.
From Albert Pyun (the director who brought you Cyborg and the original Captain America), and writer David S. Goyer comes this great movie, about a video game that takes over your brain. You must win the game — or get sucked inside it forever. Or something. It's all because they used human brain cells in making their new game console. Video game developers — do not do that. Human brain cells do not belong in your wii controller. They will turn Wii Boxing into a deadly death sport. Seriously!
Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome
Two men enter — how many leave? (How many do you think?) This is another subset of the "hero forced to compete in a deadly arena" genre — here, it's humans forcing each other to take part in ritual combat in an arena. Mad Max is pitted against Stevie Wonder's second worst song, Master Blaster, and there can be only one victor. The "trial by combat" thing is a common feature in science fiction, including many many television episodes.
Spacehunter: Adventures In The Forbidden Zone
You know what's cooler than Arnold Schwarzenegger having to navigate a deadly maze of games and traps? Molly Ringwald having to do the same thing! Okay, maybe not. It's the handiwork of the evil Robodog, whose deadly maze is almost unescapable, even for classic brat-pack actors at the start of their careers.
Stargate SG-1, "Avatar."
There are at least a couple classic Stargate episodes featuring a deadly game of death — but "Avatar" is our favorite, because Teal'c kicks major ass in it. He gets stuck inside a V.R. game training module, where every time he dies, he's brought back to life. The only way out is to win or get inside the Elevator of Surrender. And every time Teal'c dies in the game, his chances of dying in real life due to a heart attack increase. Here's an awesome music video of the episode's events, to the sounds of Michael Jackson.
Philip K. Dick, Game Players Of Titan
It's a dystopian future, and the last inhabitants of a depopulated Earth amuse themselves by playing a board game known as the Game, for huge amounts of property as well as each other's wives. (Um, yeah.) The game is administered by the Vugs, amorphous gambling-loving aliens from Titan, who turn out to have different factions with their own agendas. The rules of the game start to change, and it turns out the endgame is a lot more sinister than you'd realized. Other notable Dick works: Maze Of Death, and The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch.
Farscape, "John Quixote"
Chiana brings back a fancy virtual-reality game, and Crichton gets sucked into it, finding himself reliving his exploits in the Uncharted Territories, and then moving on to a scary fantasy world. The game plays out Crichton's fears, and he encounters dark reflections of people knows in the real world.
Star Trek: The Next Generation, "The Game."
We've already made fun of the silliness of this game once before. Trust Riker to get everyone on the ship addicted to a time-waster.
Vivian Vande Velde, Heir Apparent
Fourteen-year-old Gianne is connected to a virtual reality game of kings and intrigue, only to find it has a malfunction and she must win quickly, or it will kill her.
Ben 10, "Game Over"
Here's another one we featured in our list of suckiest fictional video games. Ben gets stuck inside a really weak game involving flying discs and aerial combat — and if the game controller is turned off, he'll be trapped there forever.
X-Files, "First Person Shooter"
In this Wiliam Gibson-scripted episode, Mulder and Scully find themselves inside a VR game with sexy-but-deadly cowboys. Good thing Scully's got riot gear and funky goggles. And a virtual machine gun.
Scooby Doo And The Cyber Bunch
A group of computer nerds makes a special video game about Scooby Doo, and our heroes get digitized and beamed inside the game in a very Tron-inspired sequence. There they must face killer video game icons, deadly tests... and computerized versions of themselves.
Lost In Space, "The Deadly Games Of Gamma 6"
Faux Klingons challenge Dr. Smith and the Robinson family to a series of games of death — and if they lose, the Earth is forfeit. Here's a great scene of Daddy Robinson playing Russian Laser Roulette (which turns into a bong if it doesn't shoot) with one of the Kling-nots, who blinks first.
This is the total classic "sucked into a video game" movie — you never quite know if our heroes have escaped from the game or not, and the scene of down-and-dirty spinal installation of a weirdly organic-looking video game port in the guy's spine is pretty memorable.
Charles Stross, Glasshouse
This one is sort of a social experiment as well as a game — a group of people volunteer to be ported into random bodies inside a simulation of 1990s Earth. The better they do of embodying their pre-ordorained roles, the more points they get. But there's no way out of the game, and over time it becomes clearer that the people running it are actually trying to create a new society.
It's vaguely five minutes into the future, and Michael Douglas applies to take part in an alternate-reality game where the game intersects with your real life. He can't ever quite escape from the tentacles of intrigue and stuff. Notable for being one of the first pieces of fiction about ARGs, as well as for its sinister game/life overlap.
People are trapped in a game by a psycho who makes them do puzzles. It's like every psycho GM you've ever gamed with, rolled into one.
In this classic by Vincenzo Natali, director of the upcoming genetic thriller Splice, a group of people wake up in cube-shaped rooms in a building that turns out to be cube-shaped in turn. They have to navigate a series of deadly traps to escape from the mega-cube, but their sanity starts to come apart.
In the umpteenth Hellraiser movie, there's an evil game, and someone commits suicide while playing it. And then all the other players get invited to a mansion where everything is the game, and (wait for it) you can never quit playing.
This early 1980s horror movie features four different stories wrapped together, and one (which we featured previously) shows Emilio Estevez taking on the "Bishop Of Battle" video game — only to find that if you win, the console blows apart, and the video game monsters come into the real world and attack you.
In this Robin Williams vehicle (and its quasi-sequel, directed by Jon Favreau), there's a board game and stuff from the game becomes real and invades the real world, menacing our heroes' lives. In the second movie, the board game is actually an outer space game, and the entire house gets whisked out into space, where the kids are menaced by aliens and helped by a friendly astronaut.
Wow. How did I not know about this movie already? Every time the video game system Evolver is activated, it learns and "evolves" becoming more powerful... and more deadly. And Evolver is played by William H. Macy. And in this trailer, John "Q" DeLancie explains to us how Evolver hates to lose and will just get smarter and harder to beat, until...