A Game About a Train Perfectly Captures the Horror of Life


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Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

A lot of horror deals with continuation beyond natural limits. Zombies are the classic version of this, with human beings “living” beyond their own death and becoming something monstrous when it happens. Draculas, mummies, and Frankensteins all fit the model, as do the dozens of 20th and 21st centuries' fictional creations that plague our nightmares. These aren't just stories about the curses of immortality, but warnings about what happens when a thing is pulled from its context and jammed into another, about how we and our worlds accommodate each other, and what happens when accommodation becomes impossible.

I was surprised to find this horror in The Final Station, a game about operating a train that came out back in 2016. I thought it was a roguelike, but it turns out that it’s a horror game that asks a simple question: What happens when you do a job for too long?

The Final Station is this 2D, linear kind of experience that puts you on a train and into a wide network of stations that you have to explore and “solve” like puzzles to open the way to the next station. Danielle called out The Final Station in her 2016 honorable mentions, writing “the ambition and storytelling, and the game stuck with me long after I played it.” I understand what she’s saying: As you move from station to station, you experience this bleak shift where the day-to-day operations of a train conductor become the clandestine movements of someone trying to survive in the face of overwhelming strangeness.

It starts with the military. You’re taking people to a train station, and when you hop out to get the codes that allow you to progress to the next station on the line, everyone is in a panic. There are people huddled around screens talking about what kind of information they have. There are troops at the station, of course, and they make you head through a scanner. A scanner for what? It’s unclear, and you’re the only train running at this point. You woke up this morning as a train conductor who is taking a train full of people to a location. Now, in the panic of change, you have become the train conductor who is taking the train further into some kind of biological or monstrous disaster.

In the bottom of that station, by the way, below the panicking people in front of their screens and the businessman who is angry that there are delays, there’s some kind of military contingent that has executed a man. For what? We don’t know. The executioner tells you to leave. Tells you that you need to forget what you saw here. And you do leave, although I’m not sure how you forget what you saw there. It’s a striking image. Even though the next several hours are nightmarish and brutal and full of sometimes-shocking things, shadowy creatures and their impossible beginnings and endings, I haven’t struck that military creature, the gun, and the dead body from my head.

So many games merely flirt with the apocalypse. Things are normal, and then things aren’t and there's the fear that maybe they won't ever be again... and then normalcy is restored. The Final Station denies you this catharsis. The world is wrecked, and you’re traveling through it, and there’s no hope in the middle of restoring anything. The line between “what was” and “what is” is blurred moment-by-moment, and the game's vague narrative forces you to question what this world was about before you were in it. Was there always a brutal and vicious military autocracy? Were there always shadowy pseudo-humans stalking the basements and storage closets of the station towns that litter this world?

The Final Station's context changes but your job stays the same. So you go through the beginning, middle, and the end of a story only to find yourself trapped in what feels like an endless continuation where your character's labors are as ceaseless and devoid of reason as those of the undead. Zombie roam the hillsides, and we rarely stop to figure out their story, where they came from, and where they’re going. They’re forever in-between, causing trauma and grief for the people who run into them. There is nothing you can do about them, the train keeps rolling, and you still have your job.

I’ll admit to finding this fascinating because of our own current nightmare. Our planet is being destroyed, polluted, mined, poisoned, and altered around us, and the result of those changes is a radical shift in our environment. This set of changes are so significant that they are being called the “Anthropocene” (this is, to be clear, a contested term), suggesting a new era of global and geological existence that is fundamentally different from what came before.

Much like the train conductor of The Final Station, there’s no discrete beginning and end point to the situation we’re in, and we just have to keep moving in a direction that habit tells us is forward, to operate under the assumption that we might be able to do something about our circumstances. We just have to move in the right way, take the right actions as we go about our work and somehow we can one day nudge the world back onto its axis.

The Final Station understands the type of hope that allows people to carry on with their business in the face of catastrophe, but it also questions whether that hope is well-placed. The train conductor has a job that lives beyond their limit, beyond all reason, and throughout the game he is traveling deeper into the land of the dead without a guide. Like us, that little character making his way through a hellscape was always in the underworld, the horror stretching out in front of and behind him.

He has to confront it, or be shattered… but first he's got to finish his route.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/ywevp7/the-final-station-zombie-apocalypse