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

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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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