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The Post-Apocalypse in Modern Games: The End of the World, But Not as We Know It




Every culture has its own theories and stories about how the world began, but as much as we like to speculate about our origins, we also have an innate obsession with the end of all things. As wide and varied as presentations and interpretations of the end of the world have been throughout the course of human history, as far as video games are concerned these presentations of the post-apocalypse can be divided into two broad categories that I like to call the Moribund Perspective and the Ecstatic Vision.

The Moribund Perspective

This first category will be familiar to anyone who has even a passing interest in science fiction. If you’ve seen any entry in the Mad Max or Terminator series, or Hillcoat and Penhall’s magnificently morbid adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road then you’ll immediately understand what I mean. This interpretation of the post-apocalyptic world is one rife with desolation and danger. Civilization has been all but completely annihilated, law and order are virtually non-existent, and the scattered remnants of mankind desperately cling to life with nothing to motivate them except for the stubborn refusal to die. Whatever form the apocalypse takes – be it a biological, technological, socio-economic or religious catastrophe – what comes after is never expected to be better than what came before.

The worlds that narratives of this style tend to portray exist in brutal contrast to the one we know today. They are as savage and unforgiving as ours is relatively civilized and safe. Their geography is ravaged and broken; the once lush and life-sustaining ecosystem blasted beyond all recognition. Forests are reduced to wastelands of scorched stumps, oceans turned to deserts of choking dust, and cities are left as little more than shattered monuments to the men who built them. Even the sky itself becomes hostile; seething with bursts of lethal radiation or choked with roiling toxic clouds. What little wildlife that has managed to survive the apocalypse is either altered beyond recognition or utterly oblivious to our absence. Society as we know it, with all of its attendant laws and safeguards, abandons all pretense of being civilized and reverts back to a state of Darwinian barbarism.

It’s the classic scenario as presented in innumerable games over the years but has more recently been perfectly exemplified by Days Gone and Metro Exodus. Set on opposite sides of the world and dealing with very different apocalyptic scenarios, zombie/infected hordes or nuclear war respectively, these two titles have more in common than a cursory glance suggests.

Metro Exodus revels in the granular tactility of its world. It presents players with carefully crafted pockets of fractured landscapes, littered with the remnants of human dwellings that immediately inspire both awe and dread. The broken shapes of familiar structures are interspersed with scraps of blighted wasteland which are designed to simultaneously present intriguing locales for gameplay and to serve as haunting reminders of the fragility of the world we have constructed for ourselves. The interplay between light and dark gives the game world a semblance of natural balance that is savagely undercut by the lumbering hulks of newly evolved life which have risen to claim mastery of a world that humanity did its utmost to destroy. Darkness shrouds the physical corruption of the environment and the moral depravity of its remaining inhabitants is more than just generic doom-saying. Such extreme exaggeration seems to be an attempt to expose something about contemporary society that has gone unchecked and unsolved for the entirety of the post-industrial era. I hesitate to call that something the truth, but it certainly has a striking resemblance to it.

Such grim-dark presentations of the end of the world could be easily dismissed as cynical and fearful. Their post-apocalyptic scenarios are generally framed as a just and fitting punishment for humanity’s excess, hubris, ignorance, and stupidity. The plagues, wars, geological and/or meteorological disasters and their aftermath are seen as an inevitable result of humanity simply existing. It’s an ethos born out of the science fiction of the late 60s and 70s, where ecological awareness began to come to the fore and carried on through into the 80s and 90s as a reactionary response to the rampant expansion of late-stage corporate industrialization across the globe.

The magnitude of the desolation that dominates the environments of Metro Exodus – from the twisting tunnels of the metro itself to the desiccated tracts of former coastlines turned to scorching deserts, and the eerily beautiful forests of seemingly unscathed hinterlands – serves as a constant reminder to players that the world keeps on turning with or without human presence. Yet it is the presence of the player, and the human perception they bring to bear via the protagonist that serves to give that desolation a meaning that extends beyond simple awareness and acknowledgment. As Artyom and his band of weary exiles seek refuge from a world made savage by its bestial inhabits – human or otherwise – the post-apocalypse becomes as much a state of mind as it is a physical reality. Their journey through and across the ruins of Russia is simultaneously a physical exploration of a broken world attempting to heal itself as best it can in the wake of nuclear catastrophe and a foray into the processes by which humans, on an individual and collective level, process the concept of existing in a time and place where it probably shouldn’t be possible.

Days Gone utilizes the same narrative impetus as Metro Exodus. The journey towards something that is as close to normal life as possible in a world where normality is almost an alien concept. Deacon St. John, as well as his allies and enemies, ride across the zombie-ravaged remains of Oregon literally searching for a new life in the scattered holdfasts of mankind that are all that’s left of once-thriving suburban and rural communities. The carefully crafted set-piece locales of Metro Exodus are replaced by a broad spectrum open-world environment that is generously littered with natural and man-made sites to tantalize the player with encounters that inspire wonder and dread in equal measure. Places that retain the unassuming and reassuring facades of shops, schools, petrol stations, factories, and houses have become suspended in a macabre limbo that imaginary annihilation has twisted into a dark reflection of the stagnation and banality of contemporary reality. As much as the plot beats of the storyline map out a fairly standard narrative of redemption and reclamation, the moment-to-moment map traversal that the player undertakes to propel that story forward manifests structural and thematic synchronicity that underpins the relevance of all post-apocalyptic stories.

Gradual acquisition of equipment, tools, crafting components, and weapons is a mechanical method of defining player progress as much as it is a crucial part of the nature of the setting. The scarcity of basic essentials echoes the desperate tone of living at the end of the world where a plank of wood and a box of nails is fundamentally as precious as a functioning firearm or a can of fuel. Key resources for establishing the self-sufficiency of the player character are also by extension essential for the fledgling communities that are trying to survive against almost impossible odds. Basic crafting and survival mechanics are a core mechanical component of games across a wide variety of genres, but in Days Gone they emphasize the harrowing nature of living in a society that is utterly dependent on what was once commonplace and basic in order to sustain the miracle of its existence.

The Ecstatic Vision

If a traditional presentation of the post-apocalypse is a metaphorical scourging, then the other side of the scale is tipped entirely in favor of the whimsical and the absurd. More high adventure than meditative, and oriented around an almost joyous frolic through a world transformed. Think Rader and Twohy’s Waterworld or Sarafian’s Tank Girl and you’re right on the mark. It’s an impression of the post-apocalypse that is vibrant and irreverent, almost lurid in its energetic engagement with otherwise somber themes and muted tones. The world is no less ruined from this point of view. Society has collapsed, the planet has been brutalized by warfare or natural disasters, and civilization as a whole is practically a myth. Resources are scarce to the point of being the driving force of an entirely new set of conflicts, and the few enclaves of humanity that survived the original calamity find themselves struggling to avoid yet another of their own making. However, where this take on the end of the world diverges from more po-faced alternatives is that far from being broken by catastrophe the environment seems to relish the opportunity to return to a prelapsarian state of riotous natural beauty.

An aggressive re-wilding has taken place which has seen the world turned from a desolate wasteland into a gloriously brash and lavishly bright landscape that sends a powerful environmentalist message of the world perhaps being far better off without constant human meddling and intervention. The drab world of concrete, metal, glass, and tarmac, where predictability and regularity were crucial to the functioning of everyday life, has been replaced by realms of verdant splendor more akin to hallucinogenic pastoral idylls than mankind’s nightmarish afterlife. The inhabitants of scattered settlements live by their own rules in a form of frontier anarchism that just works of its own accord, and what remains of formal society has the fever-dream quality of absolute and unrestrained libertarianism. This style fell out of fashion for the better part of two decades from the mid-1990s to mid-2010s but has seen a recent resurgence in the form of games like Rage 2 and Far Cry New Dawn.

Far Cry New Dawn was seen by many as just a lackluster spin-off of Far Cry 5. While that may or may not be entirely accurate, it’s an invaluable title for its early contribution to this new presentation of the post-apocalypse in gaming. Unlike the Fallout series, known for its relatively realistic depiction of the end of the world, New Dawn boldly does away with the drab glibness typically expected of the setting and replaces it with something unsettlingly beautiful. Here the apocalypse isn’t presented as a punishment but rather a cleansing. What should have been a blighted wasteland left scorched beyond recognition by nuclear fire is instead shown as a world daubed in swathes of clashing color. Soothing blues slashed through with bolts of shocking pink mingle with rolling expanses of vivid greens peppered with arbors of autumnal foliage. Human habitation is understandably limited to tumbledown settlements that have an appropriately ramshackle feel, with buildings cobbled together from sheets of metal and planks of wood or in and around what remains of pre-existing structures. Typically locations like this would give the impression of suffering and sorrow, but here there’s an almost cozy, frontier spirit that makes such rundown habitats seem welcoming rather than intolerable.

The incongruence between the objectively abysmal reality of the situation and the dreamlike, fairytale presentation of the fictional environment makes it seem as if the end of the world might not be entirely a negative thing. Games designed from the moribund perspective were a critique of the excesses of late-twentieth-century society by positing that its wholesale destruction on a global level was a just and fitting punishment. Games like Far Cry New Dawn, with their manically intoxicating world design, seem to be suggesting that the end of the world as we know it in the early twenty-first century would be more of a liberation than a punishment.

That’s a theme that is more than evident in Rage 2. The intensely lurid world left in the wake of a globally catastrophic asteroid impact is a surrealist collage of thematic schemes that have come to exemplify this new movement in environmental design for the post-apocalyptic genre. Even a brief look back at the first Rage, with its comparatively somber and traditionally recognizable end of days aesthetic, makes the stylistic shift abundantly obvious. Gone are the dull and dust-dominated locales; in their place are vast tracts of gorgeously warped leftovers of what came before. This brings to mind the kind of mythically transcendent world design that made Horizon Zero Dawn such a thrilling glimpse into a world made more, rather than less, wondrous in the wake of mankind’s almost total obliteration.

The manic energy of the environments is carried over into the narrative itself. Players assume the role of one of the last surviving members of a settlement unceremoniously destroyed in the opening act by an organization of techno-fascists, dubbed The Authority. Tasked with wiping out this group in order to halt their nefarious plans for world domination players become active agents of anarchy, and quite rightfully so. In Rage 2 the improvised communities attempting to establish themselves in the midst of apocalyptic devastation, be they frontier towns of relatively upstanding folks or hives of cannibalistic mutants, mirror the world around them by way of being better off existing on their own terms rather than having a particular vision of order enforced upon them. This revelry in an unquenchable thirst for freedom and self-determination in a time and place where little else matters because there is nothing else to matter is a hallmark of this new interpretation of the aftermath of the end of the world. Games like Far Cry New Dawn and Rage 2 supplant more traditional preoccupations with continued existence as a form of retribution or punishment and replace them with a jovial celebration of the possibilities of life even in the most dreadful of contexts.

It’s difficult to say whether this recent departure from tradition is anything more than a momentary shift in artistic sensibilities brought on by the creative frustrations of development teams, or if it has been encouraged by publishers who want their latest product to have a distinctive market presence. For much of the last couple of decades, a great deal of criticism has been directed at developers for making dull color palettes and lackluster environments an industry-standard in order to appease some nebulous demand for realism and verisimilitude. The luminescent deviation from the standard that began early in 2019 with the release of Rage 2 and Far Cry New Dawn could be an indication that new approaches are being favored in the industry, but I for one hope that there remains room on the market for games that see the post-apocalypse from a moribund perspective as well as those that treat it like an ecstatic vision. After all, the world hasn’t ended yet and there’s (hopefully) plenty of time left to speculate and theorize about the form it will eventually take. I for one hope it’ll be a bit more like Darksiders and a lot less like Death Stranding.

Chris is a Cambridge, UK based freelance writer and reviewer. A graduate of English Literature from Goldsmiths College in London he has been composing poetry and prose for most of his life. More than partial to real ale/craft beer and a general fan of sci-fi and fantasy. He first started gaming on a borrowed Mega Drive as a child and has been a passionate enthusiast of the hobby and art form ever since. Never afraid to speak his mind he always aims to tell the unvarnished truth about a game. Favourite genres: RPGs, action adventure and MMOs. Least favourite genre: anything EA Sports related (they're the same games every year!)

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Game Reviews

‘Coffee Talk’ Review: The Best Brew in Town

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.



It’s 9:00pm. The rain just started coming down softly a few minutes ago, and the street outside is reflecting the lights above it. Neon signs shine brightly in the distance, although it’s hard to make out the words. You unlock the doors to the coffee shop and wipe down the counters in order to get them clean for the customers. The rain makes a soft sound as it hits the glass and passerby speed up their walking pace to avoid it. The bells chime as a tall, green orc walks in and sits down at your table in silence. You wonder what their story is…

I wanted to set the tone for this review because of how important atmosphere and audio/visual design is in the world of Coffee Talk. While it’s easy to boil the game down as a visual novel-type experience, it’s honestly so much more than that. A unique cast of characters, incredible user interface, and a mysterious protagonist combine to form the most enjoyable experience I’ve had this year on Switch.

Coffee Talk
Some of the subject matter can be pretty serious in nature…

Coffee Talk is beautiful because of how simple it is. The entire game takes place within a single coffee shop. As the barista, you’re tasked with making drinks for the patrons of the shop as well as making conversations with them. The twist is that earth is populated with creatures like orcs, werewolves, and succubi. The relationship between the various races is handled very well throughout the story, and some interesting parallels are made to the real world.

Making drinks is as simple as putting together a combination of three ingredients and hitting the ‘Serve’ button. If a unique drink is made, it will be added to a recipe list that can be referenced on the barista’s cell phone. This is where the awesome user interface comes in, as the phone has a series of apps that can be accessed at any moment in the game. One app houses your recipe list, another acts as a facebook for the characters in the game, one allows you to switch between songs, and the other houses a series of short stories that one of the characters in the game writes as it progresses. It’s one of the coolest parts of the whole experience and helps it stand out from other games in the genre.

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.

Coffee Talk cycles between talking with customers and making drinks for them. In the beginning, they will ask for basic beverages that can be brewed on the fly. Later on however, they may ask for a specific type of drink that has a unique title. These drinks often have certain descriptive features that hint at other possibilities in terms of unique dialogue. If the wrong drink is made, you’ll have five chances to trash it and make a new one. If the wrong drink is made, don’t expect the customer to be pleased about it.

The gameplay really is not the focus here though; it’s the characters and their stories that take center stage. An elf with relationship issues, a writer that can’t seem to pin down her next story, and an alien whose sole goal is to mate with an earthling are just a few of the examples of the characters you’ll meet during the story. There are tons of memorable moments throughout Coffee Talk, with every character bringing something unique to the table. The barista develops an interesting relationship with many of these characters as well.

Coffee Talk
Appearances can often be deceiving in this game.

Even though serving the wrong drinks can change some of the dialogue, don’t expect any sort of options or branching paths in terms of the story. It’s not that kind of experience; the story should simply be enjoyed for what it is. I found myself glued to the screen at the end of each of the in-game days, waiting to see what would happen in the morning. The first playthrough also doesn’t answer all of the game’s questions, as the second one is filled with all kinds of surprises that I won’t spoil here.

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen. It’s an easy recommendation for anyone who loves video games, not just visual novel fans. There are characters in the game that I’ll certainly be thinking about for a long time, especially when the setting brings out the best in them. Don’t pass this one up.

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The Magic of Nintendo: How Mario and Zelda Connect us to Our Inner Child



Magic of Nintendo

Nintendo is special. Many excellent developers depend upon story or progression systems to entice engagement, but not Nintendo. Nintendo games captivate because of their immediate charm. There is no need for a payoff. The games, themselves, are enough: they elicit feelings, hard to find in adulthood. Through intrepid discovery, playful presentation, and unfiltered whimsy, the best of Nintendo connects gamers to their childlike selves.

The heart of any great Nintendo game is discovery and no encounter encapsulates this better than Breath of the Wild’s Eventide Island. First, finding the island requires genuine gumption. Found far from Hyrule’s shore, the island is only clearly visible from other islands, and even then, it’s only a speck in the distance. Reaching the island requires players to brave the open ocean and head towards something … that could be nothing. Then, upon arriving on the beach, a spirit takes all the player’s gear, including clothes and food. Link, literally, is left in his underwear. From there, players must make clever use of Link’s base skills in order to steal enemy weapons and make traps. The scenario creates a marvelous sense of self-sufficiency brought on by one’s own desire to discover. The player comes to the island purely of their own choosing, tackles the sea, and then overcomes obstacles without the aid of their strongest tools. The game turns players into plucky children who are discovering they can take care of themselves.

The intrepidity of Breath of the Wild and other Nintendo greats mirrors the feelings Shigeru Miyamoto, the father of many Nintendo franchises, experienced as a child. “I can still recall the kind of sensation I had when I was in a small river, and I was searching with my hands beneath a rock, and something hit my finger, and I noticed it was a fish,” Miyamoto told the New Yorker. “That’s something that I just can’t express in words. It’s such an unusual situation.” In sequences like Eventide Island, players don’t just understand what Miyamoto describes, they feel it: Apprehension gives way to exhilaration as the unknown becomes a place of play.

 Nintendo’s intrepid gameplay is often amplified by playful presentation with Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island being the quintessential example. The game’s visuals, defined by pastel colors and simple hand-drawings, appear crayoned by a child while the celestial chimes that punctuate the jubilant soundtrack evoke shooting stars. The overall effect cannot be understated. It takes the surreal and turns it real, allowing players to interact, tangibly, with imagination.

Super Mario Odyssey Wooden Kingdom

Even if one removes the presentation and gameplay from Nintendo’s masterpieces, an unabashed creativity remains that bucks norm and convention. The arbiter is fun; reason and logic have no say. For instance, Super Mario Odyssey’s Wooded Kingdom, takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting akin to Nier Automata. Players explore the metal remnants of a civilization that has become a lush home to robotic beings. However, unlike Nier, the dark undertones of the past have no bearing on the game or those who inhabit its universe. The post-apocalyptic setting is just a fun backdrop. It’s as though a bunch of children got together, began playing with toys, and one of the kids brought along his sibling’s adult action figures. There is no attention paid to the context, only unfiltered imagination.

When they’re at their best the creators at Nintendo invite gamers to come and play, like a parent arranging a play date. Pulled along by joyful gameplay that expands in unforeseen ways, players desire to play for the sake of play. It’s a halcyon state of being: No messy thoughts or contradiction, just joy.

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‘Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind’: An Utterly Shameless Cash Grab

Coming in at a $40 price point (!!!) Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind offers an 80% recycled campaign, a boss rush mode, and some other trash.



Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind

In the 15 year long history of DLC, we have seen some really shameless displays. The notorious horse armor incident of 2006 and a notable day one DLC for the ending game of a trilogy notwithstanding, few companies have had the utter audacity to offer so little content for such a high price point. Enter Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind.

Coming in at a $40 price point (!!!) Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind offers an 80% recycled campaign, a boss rush mode, and some social media nonsense for people who really hate themselves. That’s really it, that’s what you get. Honestly, Square-Enix should be utterly embarrassed by this DLC.

It’s been one year: 365 days, 8760 hours, 525600 minutes, or 31556952 seconds, since the release of Kingdom Hearts III. Let that sink in as you begin the meat of Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind. Think of it as the extended version of a movie you really like… you know, the kind where they add 4 minutes to the 120 minute runtime.

Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind

Yes, Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind, really is that cynical. I’m not kidding when I tell you that the game literally starts with an exact cut scene from the base game, and a cut scene that happens to be available from the theater mode of the main game that you’ve already bought if you’re playing this DLC. Yes, the introduction to this new content is… content you’ve already seen.

In fact, that’s kind of the sticking point here: most of what you get for your hard-earned cash is footage you’ve already seen, and battles you’ve already fought, and story you’ve already experienced, just with slight alterations for context. Remember back in the 2000s, when we were super obsessed with prequels? This is like that, except even more egregious.

Generally I’m not so unforgiving as to call a company out for a forthright cash grab, but that’s absolutely what Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind is. There’s just no other way to put it. You might find someone in the marketing department for Square-Enix who would disagree, but being a company that has faced just these sort of allegations for their last two major releases, Square-Enix either doesn’t read the news, or doesn’t care what people think of their products.

Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind

Square-Enix was roundly accused of shipping unfinished products in the case of both Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts III — their two most high profile releases of the last decade. I personally gave mostly positive reviews of both games for this very website but if you want ammo to suggest that this company is deliberately trading on the nostalgia and passion of its fan base in order to make financial headway, there are few examples you could draw from that are as obvious as this DLC.

Look, maybe you’re a really big Kingdom Hearts fan. Maybe you just really wanted to know what the context was for that cliffhanger ending in Kingdom Hearts III. Maybe you just don’t do much research before you buy something. Or maybe… you just really trust this company for some reason.

Hey, I’m not judging… hell, I bought this DLC for $40 same as anyone else. I oughta be honest that I’m not reviewing Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind as some holier than thou critic, talking down to you from my position of privilege. No, I’m an angry consumer in this particular case. I’m a person who spent enough to replace a flat tire on my car, or buy my family dinner, on a game that is clearly playing off of my love for a franchise, and using it to bilk me out of money in a method that is so clear, and so concise, that those involved in the entire endeavor should be totally embarrassed for their part in the creation, marketing, pricing, and distribution of this expansion.

Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind

Yes, fans had their complaints about Kingdom Hearts III. “Where are the hardcore boss battles? Where are the Final Fantasy characters? Where are the secret areas? Where are the hidden plot developments?” Still, to address these particular complaints by hammering a few minutes or seconds here and there into already existing content is truly like spitting in the faces of the people who have built the house you’re living in.

I haven’t sat in the board rooms at Square-Enix and I haven’t been in email chains about the planning of projects at their company but what I can say is that there is something rotten in Denmark if this is what passes for a satisfying piece of content for the wildly devoted fans of a hugely popular franchise in 2020. Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind is literally, truthfully, and succinctly, the worst piece of DLC I’ve ever purchased.

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