Why Are There So Many Apocalyptic Video Games?


#1

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

Our blockbuster video games, much like our blockbuster films, court the end of things. They ride on the line of the spectacular and the speculative, posing a future that is unlike ours both in its makeup and in its bombast. In our real life, explosions down the block and gunshots echoing through back alleys are the sign of ever-more-common domestic terror, but in our games they’re the actions of powerful heroes and their ragtag group of friends.

This E3 was all about a future that is radically different: The Last of Us Part II’s mushroom nightmare; Cyberpunk 2077’s dystopic resistance engine; Fallout 76’s newfound wasteland; Rage 2’s gleeful Millerian apocalypse; whatever the hell Death Stranding is. These marquee games make the end of our social systems, our governments, and all the things we think we can depend on a reality. And like every E3 for the past few years, I end up thinking: Why the apocalypse?

There’s a famous line that often gets quoted in this situations. Slavoj Žižek, adapting a phrase from Fredric Jameson, says that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. What he means is that capitalism structures our lives to such a degree that it is easier to imagine nothing than it is to imagine that the thing that structures our day-to-day relations with each other, with the things we eat and use, and with our very labor might disappear. Keep this in mind when we start talking about video games again.

In a typical Žižek move, this really isn’t the whole quotation from Jameson. What Jameson wrote was this: “It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.”

Image courtesy CD Prokekt Red

It’s clunkier, it doesn’t have the boom of the Žižekian witticism, but the Jameson quote actually gives us something to chew on when it comes to putting forward some ideas for why video games choose the apocalypse. I mean, you can choose anything, right? A game could be set in the pirating Caribbean or in Ancient Greece or in a cave in 20,000 BC. We could have a game take place ten minutes ago or in the far future, starring one surly kid on the way to a 7-11 or a heroic super spy who shoots people with those non-lethal bean bag things. The world of games is wide open, and games take place in all sorts of times and settings, and yet it seems like a destroyed future is represented more than it should be.

Video games are the imagination factory of the 21st century. Film shaped the previous century, delivering the impossible to us on massive screens with expansive sounds. As a medium, it grabbed the mind, and as we barrelled through the unrisings of the 1960s and into the Winter Years. The 1970s gave us A Clockwork Orange, Space Is the Place, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, A Boy and His Dog, Mad Max, Solaris, and Alien before transitioning into a new decade dominated by Star Wars sequels and Blade Runner, The Thing, The Road Warrior, Scanners, and The Terminator. We haven’t yet escaped these films, and I mean that quite literally.

Their intellectual property shambles on into the future like so many other franchises do, their cult status and their sequelability making them valuable for the foreseeable future. They lodged themselves into our speculative ability. When people worry about the future, they worry about “Mad Max” roving bands of barely surviving people; they’re concerned about automation and Skynet; they’re focused on the wide divide between rich and poor that Deckard moved through so seamlessly.

So why the apocalypse? To some degree it’s a holdover, a rumination on the same themes of the films from 40 years ago, the youthful experiences of a legion of developers grown up on geek media. After all, an overwhelming number of games can be summed up as “ Aliens, but with X.” It has something to do with economics as well. The Fallout franchise is successful, so we will make more games set in a destroyed United States. Traveling across the sand wastes is fun in Mad Max, so we can do more of that in Rage 2. Gamers like what they already know, whether it’s in the realm of mechanics or aesthetics, and so it’s easier to sell something if the potential consumer has a frame of reference for knowing what they’re getting into.

I think it has to do with what Jameson called the “weakness in our imagination.”

But on the other side, I think it has to do with what Jameson called the “weakness in our imagination.” Last year I wrote about the game Observer and how it just can’t manage to consider a world beyond its bleak dystopia. This is not a problem unique to that game. It is the problem of games. The post-apocalypse is alluring from a gameplay design perspective precisely because it demands that players start again from nothing. It is easier to imagine eternally building the same crap, recreating the same worlds, and fiddling around with the same systems than it is to imagine building something new. Fallout 76 has even baked this into their core mechanical loop by demanding that players destroy parts of the world in order to harvest it for resources.

It is easier to imagine an eternal loop of building and destroying than it is to produce an actual future. And, look, I don’t blame anyone here. Games are built for the apocalypse in many ways. Your powerful character is reset to zero when the sequel comes out. No matter what you did yesterday, a new villain is around the corner to undo everything you accomplished. You spent all of that time and effort just to get it wiped away again due to a cosmic reset button.

So maybe the way to tinker our way out of the post-apocalypse alleyway is to address those weaknesses in our imagination. Maybe let’s get away from reductions to zero and constant resets as a way of managing players. Instead of building from nothing, why not ask players to change a thing that exists instead of creating a brand new world out of whole cloth? The apocalypse is a way of grounding design decisions, and it might improve our blockbuster game world if we spent a few years trying to get away from it.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/9k8jwv/e3-2018-apocalyptic-video-games

#2

There’s also a few narrative tricks you can play with an apocalypse. In a world even tangentially related to our own, you can pick and choose bits of familiar culture to throw in for a quick emotional impact - oh look, it’s a half-buried statue of liberty, even though it’s existence and location have no relevance to anything else you’ve seen up to this point.

Another advantage of a world in chaos and/or ruins, is strangeness and unfamiliarity. Instead of playing an amnesiac or an outsider with no connection to the world, you make the world itself so chaotic that of course you’ll quickly meet some helpful characters who will vomit exposition at you.


#3

Post apocalyptic settings are really handy when you are creating environments. Simply put, it’s empty by default. It’s relatively easy to create ruined and empty spaces full of danger. It’s relatively hard (and expensive) to create believable familiar environments.

The more familiar a world is, the higher bar it has to clear in terms of satisfying the critical mind. Rise of the Tomb Raider is a pretty good example. Even though it’s set in a remote part of something like the real world, it often fails to provide verisimilitude, simply because details don’t match up. There’s too many rabbits and deer. There’s too little space between things. The structures don’t make sense as places where people would have lived and worked.

In a post-apocalypse? These problems are way easier to forgive, as you say: it’s starting from zero.


#4

It’s disturbing how the apocalypse has so permeated science fiction stories, in any media.
There’s different ways I see it; one way, as you said, it’s a useful narrative device. Reset of everything. Built in tropes.
It’s also a reflection of our selfish nature, the secret desire for the world to end when we do.
Also a reaction to the non fictional future looking grim and terrifying. Its a way of dealing with our fear of the uncontrollable collapse bearing down on us.


#5

Because it’s good training for our inevitable future.


#6

Maybe this is only tangentially related but I kept wondering why They Are Billions requires me to build banks and markets to survive a zombie apocalypse. Also, strange since I was under the impression that zombie’s are often used to criticize consumerism and such. Maybe the game actually has some lore that I missed and it isn’t painfully unimaginative?


#7

That sounds like a slightly subversive take on the typical “fort-building” strategy game.

In most strategy games, the player takes the role of a supreme military dictator tasked with micro-managing every resource. Every worker and soldier in your fort is under your direct command. Every building, every square foot of land, every coin is under your direct control. Nothing gets built, destroyed, bought, or spent without your direct order. There is no need for markets because you control everything.

Calling a building “market” instead of “supply depot”, or “home” instead of “barracks” implies something about the player’s role and the lives of the people within the settlement. The idea that martial law is not sustainable, and is not the best way forward.

I think that’s actually a very common theme in zombie stories, especially long-form ones like games and TV. Usually with a not-so-subtle comparison of “fascist dudes in a big fort” and “friendly rural farming community”. Of course, the way that these types of post-apocalyptic settlements are presented can reveal a lot about the creator’s politics…

As for “zombies as consumerism critique”, I think that usually refers specifically to Dawn Of The Dead (1978) with its zombie-filled shopping mall. There’s definitely a lot of people directly referencing those ideas, especially when they put zombies in a mall. But I think that pop culture has largely moved past those ideas in the past 40 years, to the point where Zombies are just another stock monster that’s been appropriated to mean a thousand different things.


#8

Heather Alexandra has a good point about this:


#9

The wasteland of society is a lot easier to imagine because you just have to create one big, awful thing that suddenly wipes out the rest. Plug in whatever your current fear of the day is, crank the volume to 11, and fast forward long enough for it to kill everyone and you’re done. Nuclear annihilation, germ warfare, ourselves, AI, grey goo, aliens, whatever. It’s no wonder we’re seeing more and more stories of militaristic insiders taking over and destroying everything, and when they’re not the actual cause it seems to be that they’re the only ones that make it to the other end.

Forget about capitalism and colonialism, to me the true failure of imagination that comes from all of these stories is that people seem to be incapable of imagining a loss of society where the people who live through it aren’t the ones who default to violence as the first solution. Every problem in Fallout boils down to violence. TloU is just Manhunt without the winking morbid humor and a case of the feels. Half-Life 2’s solution to the combine is just kill as many as possible. Doom has you fight actual hell by shooting it a lot.

I’m getting so sick and tired of having yet another romp into man’s inhumanity to man where the only new take anyone really has on it is “no but for real, it’s super fucked up.” It’s why TloU left me so cold originally and why I can’t bring myself to care about the sequel. Some gnarly shit is going to happen to Ellie that’s gonna be real sad y’all, but don’t you worry because she’s just going to stab and disembowel her way to an emotional ending that sort of makes you think about the consequences of violence, but not in a way that justifies how lovingly we rendered it for 8-10 hours.


#10

Reading this piece made me curious about “apocalypse as ground-zero to build something new”. Rather than “rebuild America” as the Fallout 76 trailer encourages us, what if there were games that encouraged us to imagine what new, different sort of world we could build?

What games are out there that do this? I can’t think of any video games at the moment but the tabletop game The Quiet Year I think engages with this a little.


#11

I use every opportunity available to yell about this book, but Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel is a really wonderful (and so far the only example I’ve seen, outside of tabletop RPGs) book that takes place in the aftermath of a plague that killed ~80% of the world’s population and is about people and communities trying to live good lives with one another in the post apocalypse. It’s not free of violence or terrible people who want to do others harm but it does a really good job of subverting the survival-is-all-there-is focus of a lot of post apocalyptic media!


#12

Also I’d agree w Cameron’s argument that it’s a lack of imagination/inability to think of possibilities outside of capitalism that leads to so many stories like this, and add that I think also in the case of games that want to do something more narratively serious or gritty post-apocalyptic settings are a really easy route to telling pessimistic and cynical stories about human nature (which imo is also influenced by capitalism wanting us to believe that people are all inherently selfish and want power over others).


#13

Horizon: Zero Dawn is probably the only piece of post-apocalyptic media from the last few years that I thought had a genuinely fresh, original take on it. It gets into the fine details of how it all went down and I very much appreciate how the responsibility for the end of the world lies mostly with A dude who’s basically Elon Musk, who’s ego and complete lack of regard safety and long-term damage to his workers, the planet and the population at large leads to an apocalyptic war between his war machines and a human race who’s been tricked into fighting an entirely unwinnable war in order to buy scientists and the elite enough time to work on a project to offer humanity a second chance after everyone is already dead and gone.

Its story does a good job of justifying why the world has this bizarre, alien feel to it, obviously the wildlife being the main mystery, but even the foliage and landscapes shifted in strange ways. I’d be more interested in devs tackling the “post-post-apocalypse” idea if it means less boring stories about dudes like hitting someone with a crowbar over a bottle of water


#14

I understand almost all of the problems that people have with Horizon: Zero Dawn, but I absolutely loved their setup of their world. I loved the division of duties into different AI based on gods. I appreciated the loss of knowledge (although that gets a bit rough in places). I just was kind of blown away by the idea of a hard reset if the world didn’t work right, too. It all came together really well for me and made that game one of my favorites of that year.


#15

Because world building in a way that is engaging is hard. If you have a story you want to tell and have a choice of resetting the audience’s world to suit your story, or creating a new world and trying to bring the audience into it, which one is more work for the writer? And don’t forget, which one is more work for the audience?


#16

Completely agree. It’s up there with my favorite original stories in a game honestly. It goes to such wild, unexpected places and some of the late game revelations/audio logs are legitimately heartbreaking. Faro being a massive piece of shit and causing the death of all life on earth and then ultimately blaming it all on humanity as a whole being inherently flawed instead of acknowledging his own personal failings is such an impactful moment for me. His decision to destroy the databank of all knowledge and deny the next iteration of people the chance to utilize it made me legitimately hate him in a way that few games make me hate their antagonist.


#17

In terms of games that take somewhat unique looks an apocalypse or post-apocalypse, what about The Yawhg? It may be about rebuilding a past society rather than creating a new one, but in essence, the defining moment of a run through that game is whether or not your society even can be rebuilt, and whether the life your character lived beforehand ended up helping or hurting that effort. Consider the bad ending: “We were defeated. Those of us left struggled to put our home to rights- but the effort was futile. Doomed. The city bled survivors, eventually becoming a husk, a dead thing. And perhaps the Yawhg was only partly to blame…”

In particular, it seems to dispense with the idea that an apocalypse leaves behind a blank slate, or that the survivors are largely different than they were before said apocalypse. The people who try to rebuild after it are the same people who lived their lives before it; they have the same strengths, the same weaknesses, the same vices. And it rests on the idea that the event itself will effectively amplify the defining traits or characteristics of the people who lived through it, which seems pretty unique (among games at least) to me.


#18

I always thought it’s because a wasteland is easier to make in video games than a living breathing city where you have to develop NPCs and make the world look alive. Plus a wasteland is an easier excuse to give you a gun and just go nuts. It’s ‘survival’.


#19

Horizon does a better than average job at tackling the idea of an apocalypse given it presents the response to the impending apocalypse being that “we’re gonna work together and figure a way out of this”, rather than “we’re gonna fight to death over scraps”.

Yet - during the game’s story overwhelmingly problems are solved by fighting (it’s an open world action RPG after all), and I feel like that sort of undermines and buries a lot of the more positive things it has to say under a facade of acceptable video gamey violence, regardless of in-world explanations around the long-term consequences of that violence. Particularly since the game introduces early on ideas around overriding and controlling machines rather than fighting them; but doesn’t leverage that into much except an additional combat option.


#20

While I agree that Horizon offered a fresh take on the post-apocalypse, as a chemical engineer I found the science behind it to be distressingly awful. The game’s entire premise is that these mechanical animals are able to sustain themselves on organic matter, somehow transforming leaves and grass into high strength metal alloys, projectiles, and even sophisticated electronics. Basically that implies that all of these animals have highly advanced 3D-printing capabilities and nuclear reactors inside their oftentimes tiny bodies. How they didn’t blossom into a mushroom cloud or leak radiation every time Aloy attacked them I will never know. And a basic mass and energy analysis would indicate that a single animal would need several dozen (if not hundred) square kilometers of flora to pull this off. I appreciate the writers taking the time to think through their world, but when the underlying science is that rough I tend to check out.