Environmental collapse, complete social disintegration, ruins — ruins everywhere. How did we become so obsessed with the end of the world?
If anyone unfamiliar with the medium tuned into watch gaming’s largest exhibition show, E3, in June, they’d be forgiven for thinking all games take place a few cataclysmic minutes after midnight. Of course, developers do try reimagine the end of the world. There are various shades of annihilation: the nuclear armageddon, set amidst the rubble of modernity; the resource-stripped Earth, now made up of endless desert; the post-pandemic landscape, where viruses ravage bodies and brains. When it comes to the world’s end there’s a real buffet on offer.
Putting Bethesda’s Fallout series to one side, so far post-apocalyptic games have lagged behind films, TV and books, never truly occupying the mainstream. Now, with some of gaming’s biggest developers looking to simulate the final days, the sub-genre seems to be reaching terminal velocity.
For developers there must be something therapeutic about designing an end-of-world scenario where everything blows up or implodes. It could also be a matter of building on the oeuvre of beloved cultural touchstones such as Mad Max and Dawn of the Dead. Yet, it’s also players that love to inhabit these worlds. Why? How did we come to desire the end times?
Finding freedom in catastrophe
This year Bethesda is going back to its post-apocalyptic series with the multiplayer Fallout 76. Set in a West Virginian wasteland, players root amongst the radiated debris and combat mutants in order to salvage materials and build makeshift shelters. The online RPG offers a large-scale sandbox, an experience post-apocalyptic games tend to skew towards. The Division 2, due in March 2019, will swap Fallout’s nuclear war and kitsch retro-futurist Americana for a mass outbreak of smallpox and po-faced militarism. Variety is the spice of armageddon.
The apocalypse is favoured as a setting much like amnesia is favoured when creating player avatars: it’s a tabula rasa, one where your freedom to play is maximised. But there are plenty of other reasons, too. In an interview with Gamasutra, Marianne Krawczyk, who worked on The Long Dark explained the contemporary appeal of the apocalypse: “in a world where you get to play, shoot stuff and take back some of the control that we currently lack, it makes sense”. The destruction of the physical is paralleled by another kind of destruction. On top of material ruin is the collapse of society, and this is liberating in a world where we frequently have little control and restricted freedoms.
Historically, a post-apocalyptic setting has, by definition, bolstered the role of the individual: as “the last man” there’s a sense of power as you, an exile or wandering knight, explore wastelands from a perspective beyond societal norms. Simultaneously, a fantasy of life after catastrophe can be suitably bent in order to encourage individuals to band together and forge new societies and settlements, without having to worry about what came before.
New beginnings for the end times
There were, of course, other large-scale open-world games on display at E3 this year. Zombie game Dying Light 2, Rage 2 and Sony’s flagship title, The Last Of Us 2, with its grubby fungal-outbreak. All of these sequels are “bigger” and more expansive than ever. Yet if there’s a game that summarises the growing allure of open post-apocalyptic worlds, it’s 4A Games’ Metro Exodus. It’s the first in the series to focus on the “outside”, as opposed to the subterranean interior of the Moscow transit system.
Despite a big-sky open world being novel for the series, Exodus treads familiar ground, its post-soviet aesthetic seen in older games like STALKER and Day Z. Exodus opening up and widening its scope in this way aligns it with a genre that often seeks to create blank slates for you to play in and exert your individuality. The end of the world has become this recognisable style of abandoned cities and ruined environments, but beyond this it sells us a dream: breaking free, striking out, and starting again.