Why we Love Post-Apocalyptic Games…

There’s something fascinating about the idea of after-civilisation has fallen, the very thought that all we have worked hard for has ended up on the scrap-heap should be so terrifying that we, as people, wouldn’t even want to contemplate the idea, let alone make entertainment out of it. 

This isn’t the case. 

The word ‘apocalypse’ is an ancient one. It comes from Greece. Back when the Greeks were exporting philosophy in larger scale than they exported olives, and it means ‘an uncovering’. An uncovering is open to interpretation. It could be an uncovering of knowledge, an uncovering of new ideas that will change the world, to most it means the end of things – an apocalyptic vision is hardly one people celebrate and look forward to, well, not most people. 

But where does our fascination with the scenario come from? How many games could there possibly be, based on how many different ways the world could be ended. And it doesn’t just have to be our world either. Many games, based in a non-Earth environment are poking around in the remains of a once-great civilisation. They all have them. Even if the main idea of the game isn’t surviving in the apocalypse, you can guarantee squirrelled away somewhere in the corner of that universe is an ancient civilisation that’s bitten the dust. Take the Dwemer from the Elder Scrolls franchise, a race based on the dwarves of Scandinavian myth but transposed into Tamriel. All we know about them is they are gone from the world, gone long before we ever had any contact with them. All they have left behind are their underground ruins and examples of how technologically advanced they were as a people. But they have faced their own apocalypse and are gone. We’re just nosing about in what’s left. However you play any of the Elder Scrolls games you find fascination with the idea that this race existed once, and their capabilities were far beyond what’s capable of our present-day races in the game for Tamriel. The imagination has an incredible way of filling in the gaps for the bits missing. We don’t get to find out where they went. It wouldn’t be much of an apocalypse for them if they left behind a postcard, but we do get to play in their houses and we’re teased just enough to make us froth at the gills with excitement over what could have happened to them. 

Another example of an apocalypse in a non-Earth location is Hyrule from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The royal family of Hyrule fall to the power of Calamity Ganon one hundred years before we wake up and all that is left are the ruins and the technology. However the technology left over from that era is even older than that because it’s tech from a much older race, the Sheliak if you must know, so we’re walking around in two post-apocalyptic worlds. One is the remains of the Hylian culture, now scrabbling to cling onto life in the fringes and away from the castle of Hyrule, and the other is the overgrown and abandoned artefacts left behind by the Sheliak, who were once again, a race whose understanding and mastery of technology is a contrast to the medieval levels the Hylians had reached. And what part of the game intrigues us most – the Sheliak tech we get to see. It’s a vital part of the game. Using the old technology of the seemingly god-like Sheliak to battle the antagonist. 

But this is a different type of post-apocalyptic game. The apocalypse isn’t the setting, it’s dressing. Civilisation has risen again and we’re just crawling over what’s left. The apocalypse is just a memory, an engram in the landscape to be explored. A post-apocalyptic game normally plays out that humanity has fallen to some terrible disaster, often involving a plague or the undead, and you are fighting to offer some semblance of hope to a shattered people. So goes the old trope. What is it that holds our fascination with humanity’s decline though? Is it the same instinct to look at a car crash or if a natural disaster is reported on the news, our attention is rapt. Death is big business whether we like it or not. It’s a taboo subject in most cultures, and that could be the reason for our fascination with near-extinction in video games. But this isn’t death on an intimate scale we are talking about, it’s death on a grand scale – it’s the Super Bowl of Death: All of Mankind on a Platter. And mostly it is mankind that gets it. Very few games wipe out ALL life on the planet, mostly cities fall – reclaimed by nature, and then the wildlife moves in. Convenient really if the game has a crafting and hunting system. 

 When do we class an apocalypse as over? To the Mayans who came before us we would be living in the post-apocalypse, to the ancient Egyptians, the Mayans would be living in their post-apocalypse. So when does an apocalypse end and a new age begin? Civilisations go in cycles. One rises, whilst another declines, just as the East and West of the world trade power, with one always having to yield to the other, just so apocalypses do this. So what we are playing out in games is a world-changing apocalypse, not the regional ones we’re used to on Earth. When Rome declined it was slow, but their civilisation mutated into something else – the Byzantines, but I’m sure people would see it as a fall of civilisation, but we are yet to experience an event where ALL of Earth’s cultures experience the same life-altering scenario.

Except in video games. Then it’s fair game to wipe the planet out. 

Let’s examine The Last of Us, a game that tells the story of the fall of humanity due to a virus that’s turned most of the population into ‘clickers’ (a zombie basically). The apocalypse is a backdrop that follows Joel, a man who has lost his family in the disaster, receiving a second chance at life when he meets Ellie, the girl with the cure for the virus running in her blood, and must lead her to safety to a group called the Fireflies, so begins a journey across America, an America that has fallen along with its major cities. But how good would this game be if you removed it from the apocalyptic setting? Would we care as much for our characters as we do if it was a story about where Joel just had to drive Ellie through various states to reach her destination? It’s the apocalypse, the America that has fallen that is the spice in the recipe of what is ultimately a road story. As we play through the America that once was titilates us. Everything is so familiar, landmarks, remnants of mankind, our everyday life, but it’s all over. To quote Stephen King ‘the world has moved on’. We are viewing the car crash of humanity, as an observer we love to watch what happens when anything goes wrong, as it is a defiance of what is standard in our lives – no one watches a film or plays a game where everything works out for the protagonist from the offset. The same applies to apocalyptic games. An apocalypse adds drama. It adds new threats, it takes away vital resources, it is a playground where we’re happy to have a few games but wouldn’t want to remain there as of course, no one would really want to live through the zompocalypse. Lots of people SAY they would love to be in a zombie apocalypse but the actual reality of it is terrifying. Imagine everything you know and love gone. Not only that but you’re under constant threat of roaming cannibals and all law and order has been removed to protect you. No healthcare, no protection, all a memory. Doesn’t sound so appealing now does it. 

The Last of Us: A Story About Hope and Redemption

Then that’s where videogames step in. They are the ultimate fantasty tool. They allow us to experience the horrors of this but without the risk of this happening and us actually having to go through it. I imagine that’s part of the appeal of the Call of Duty series, you get to fight in a war without the awkward inconvenience of fighting in an actual war where you don’t respawn. 

Well, what about the nuclear fallout apocalypse? That doesn’t sound so appealing, does it? Look at any of the Fallout series and you emerge back into a world that has recovered from nuclear devastation. I think this is a different kind of yearning here. It’s the age old tale of the wandering ronin. A nomad who wanders the land doing what is right and wrong. In these situations we are being empowered when everything else has been reduced to powerlessness. Even when we are a normal character in one of these games, our quests will often reveal a calling, a mark where we are singled out as the only one who can help. It is giving us a heroic role, otherwise the entire game would be crouching in the back of a fallout shelter too afraid to go out. 

And then there’s the other type of game. The far-flung apocalypse game. Where humanity has gone and has been reborn. Let’s examine one of my favourites – Horizon Zero Dawn. The game takes place in a world that is ruled by machines. Dominated by mechanical creatures that have taken on the characteristics of living animals, we are part of a tribal community living on the fringes of civilisation. Our technological ancestors are revered as ancient gods by some tribes, others forbid their tribes to go near the remnants, believing them to be haunted. A cult of worship has built up around some of the leftovers, whilst others use it for more insidious purposes. We are Aloy, an outsider who is eventually welcomed into the Nora tribe when we pass the Trials. So in the game Aloy is as much an outsider as we are to this world. Of course we play a chosen one, except this one is not chosen by divine prophecy, but is a product of Science. Here we have the prophet of a born again human race that is a child produced by the science of her predecessors. Only in this game the apocalypse is the McGuffin (the item that drives the story) as we work to uncover what happened to the Earth, and what Project Zero Dawn is. So rather than living in the apocalypse we are uncovering the reasoning for the apocalypse instead. Of course there is a villain who wants to throw the world back into darkness, but in this case the game’s story is being driven by its environment, not by a story taking place in that environment. 

When Humanity Gets Another Turn…

So here we have two different examples of the apocalypse genre and two different takes on what pushes the story forward: A story set in that world, and a story set of that world. However, we must remember that each one still needs to follow a path of storytelling. Each move we make needs to unfold a further part of the complete picture. Like an archaeologist uncovering a mosaic, so we do too uncover a story when playing a game. Unlike books, or film, a game does not allow you to dictate the timeline and go back and watch/read in the past to understand where we are in the story. Gaming is like living a life, one we move at our own pace. No other medium can offer this level of interactivity, and that is why the gaming world is so perfect for a game set in a post-apocalyptic world. 

Gaming allows us to explore new worlds without leaving the confines of our chairs. We can be heroes, villains, hunters, traders, we can delve into the depths of ruined cities and fight off packs of feral dogs or hordes of zombies. Gaming allows us to experience the unimaginable, and when it becomes too much we can retreat to the safety of our secure world. 

Everyone is attracted to a little slice of darkness in their lives, everyone needs a little reminder of what we have and what we stand to lose. 

Everyone needs an apocalypse….

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