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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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Most Important Games of the Decade: ‘Dark Souls’

Despite the difficulty and learning curve, gamers are still flocking to the Dark Souls series, and the genre it spawned, in massive numbers.

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Dark Souls Remastered Review Nintendo Switch

Over the course of the last decade a lot of games have made large and influential impacts on the medium of gaming but few have done so as significantly or triumphantly as Dark Souls

The pseudo-sequel to Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls took the framework of the original title and altered it considerably. Gone were the many individual stages and hub area, replaced by a massive open world that continuously unfolded, via shortcuts and environmental changes, like a massive metroidvania style map. 

Dark Souls also doubled down on nearly every aspect of the original. The lore and world-building were elaborated on considerably, making the land of Lordran feel more lived in and expansive. An entire backstory for the game, one that went back thousands of years, was created and unfolded through small environmental details and item descriptions. 

Dark-Souls-Remastered-Darkroot-Garden

The bosses were bigger, meaner and more challenging, with some of them ranking right up there with the best of all time. Even standard enemies seemed to grow more deadly as the game went on, with many of them actually being bosses you’d faced at an earlier time in the game. Tiny details like this didn’t just make the player feel more powerful, they added to the outright scale of the entire game.

Still, if we’re here to talk about the biggest influence Dark Souls had on the gaming world, we have to talk about the online system. While the abilities to write messages and summon help were available in Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls improved on and enhanced these features to the point where they changed the game considerably. 

The wider player base made the online components work more consistently as well. Rarely were players left standing around for 15-20 minutes waiting to summon or be summoned for a boss fight. There were more messages on the ground to lead (or mislead) players, and the animated spirits of dead players warned of the hundreds of ways you might die while playing through the game. 

Dark Souls

The addictive nature of the game and its rewarding gameplay loop would lead to the establishment of the Souls-like genre. Like with metroidvania, there are few compliments a game can receive that are as rewarding as having an entire genre named for them.

Since 2011, the year of Dark Souls’ release, dozens of Souls-likes have emerged from the ether, each with their own little tweaks on the formula. Salt and Sanctuary went 2D,The Surge added a sci-fi angle, and Nioh went for a feudal Japanese aesthetic, to name just a few. 

Either way, Dark Souls’ influence has been long felt in the gaming industry ever since. Despite the hardcore difficulty and intense learning curve, gamers are still flocking to the series, and the genre it spawned, in massive numbers. For this reason alone, Dark Souls will live on forever in the annals of gaming history. 

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

Earthnight is an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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