by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 8th October, 2018
Post-apocalyptic themes are present in all creative arts. From movies to novels, to comics and video games post-apocalypse was one of the major influences, recreated and retold in numerous works spanning over decades and across various different media and sources of storytelling. The theme has also been researched by other art forms. We can see post-apocalypse depicted in modern art forms as well as in paintings and the art of sculpture. But storytelling arts such as film, literature, visual novels, and video games are where the fall of man found its favorite home.
There is something masochistically exciting in exploring the end of our civilization, the ultimate dissolve of our society, the grime future where all the grimiest predictions came to life and instead haunting us in our dreams they came out their caves and showed their ugly faces to the light of the (dimmed) sun. If you thought that the theme is a brainchild of modern times, think again. Almost every major religion, from the Mesopotamian story about the flood to the Bible's Book of Revelation, the apocalypse is something human societies all across the world had in their subconscious mind, often portraying it in religious texts. Because there's no better warning to disbelievers than to show them how the world will end and how they won't be the part of the brave new world that comes after unless they choose to embrace whichever god was the most popular at the time.
But today we won't talk about that. Today, we will talk about various post-apocalyptic scenarios depicted in video games. Ever since the original Wasteland, which came out in 1988, video games were a fruitful ground for post-apocalypse. Because, as with all storytelling arts, video games deal with problems and stories on how to solve those problems. And in post-apocalyptic scenarios, those problems can be solved by using often futuristic guns and killing all kinds of either horrific and/or highly originally designed creatures. Also, each post-apocalypse is unique in some way or another, giving designers lots of freedom in creating the world, its inhabitants, and the background setting. And it is always exciting in coming up with a mysterious story on how the world ended.
And that ending can have numerous causes, from an asteroid impact to the nuclear war (one of the most popular post-apocalyptic themes) to various global pandemics, to aliens, to robots and the rise of AI, to other global catastrophes. There are dozens of different end of days tales but we won't deal with those today either. The thing is, there are so many of them and each is unique in some way or another. Talking about all of them would be too lengthy and, possibly, we couldn't cover them all even if we had all the time in the world. Because there are literally hundreds of these games and many of them deal with the unique end of days and unique societies that rose from the ashes of our civilization.
But what we can talk about is how different games deal with post-apocalyptic themes in relation to the time that has passed since the civilization withered away and in relation to the severity of the catastrophe (whether it was a global event or a local incident). You see, when it comes to the amount of time passed since our society saw its curtain fall we can group games in four major clusters; we have games happening during the apocalypse; those taking place just a few years after the fall of man; the majority that tells its tales decades or centuries after the year zero; and a couple of that take us epochs after we, and all we know of, died. We will also talk a bit about the small niche of post-apocalyptic games that aren't dealing with global catastrophes and instead depict a sort of a pocket universe post-apocalypse, often contained to an enclosed society without any connections to the outside world.
The first group is made out of games taking place during the apocalypse, and this one is filled with quality titles. Take for instance The Last of Us, a magnificent tale talking about last days of modern society that slowly transforms in order to cope with the global pandemic that took billions of lives. The cause is familiar and it is known from the first moments of the game, but The Last of Us offers so much more than the simple explanation of what caused all of this. This one is important because it shows, in a highly detailed and realistic way, just how brittle our tech-relying society is and just how little it takes to destroy everything we build for centuries. The Last of Us is a great example of a video game that perfectly captures emotional bonds and the evolution of social relations among complete strangers, which Joel and Ellie were at the beginning of the game. This masterfully designed piece of human narrative was a perfect central subject for the entire game, from the beginning to the end.
But The Last of Us is so much more. It shows ways our society can respond to the threat of global catastrophe, it shows how shady characters that were hiding from plain sight in the modern society can easily become central figures in this ruined post-apocalyptic society, how the lowest of human urges can take the central stage once the law is no more and once moral norms go down the drain. The game's taking place during the post-apocalypse gave developers ways to subtly thread the web of the story of last days of modern civilization, its final stand, and its inevitable downfall. Unlike most similar games The Last of Us takes the catastrophe and instead of giving it the major role it uses it simply as a silent stage for exploring the human psyche, using post-apocalypse as a background for an exciting and interactive anthropological study, similar to what Max Brooks did in World War Z.
And so we came to zombies, one of the most influential causes for the various global catastrophes that lead to the apocalypse. Most zombie games take place during the apocalypse, like The Last of Us does, but no title depicted it as good as State of Decay. You see, many games dealt with zombie apocalypse but State of Decay showed it on a new level. This one didn't explore emotional ties and the evolution of emotional connection on a personal scale as The Last of Us did. Instead, State of Decay offered players to care about the whole band of survivors, taking them to manage their own micro-society that tries to survive the prevailing apocalypse. Another game that takes place during the catastrophe, State of Decay deals with how survivors find each other and how they form cliques that should offer a better chance of survival during the harsh days of death and the undead.
The survival element is strong in this one, with lots of looting of abandoned buildings and fighting the undead horde, but there's also the human element shown in meeting other groups of survivors and observing which paths they have taken during the fall. But the most unique element of the game and one that benefits the most from the game's post-apocalyptic settings is the growing responsibility for keeping survivors alive and in good shape and keeping your small, micro-society intact and deciding which path it will take. No other game explored the subject so much in depth as this one; would you take new survivors or let them starve or die from infection? Are you ready to kill other people in order for your society to stay alive and well? Are you capable of doing do anything it takes to keep your group safe? Once again, a game that takes place during the apocalypse simply used it as a grand backdrop in order to explore the human mind and the limits of morale during days where nothing is normal.
When talking about games taking place just decades after the apocalypse the one major series are Metro games. In this world the end came after the USSR exchanged nuclear missiles with the rest of the world, creating a grim world where no one can live on the surface. Of course, the whole world is filled with hideously mutated creatures with remnants of society living below the surface, scattered across Moscow's giant metro system. Metro games use the post-apocalyptic theme to show just how forgetful we are as a species. The games (as well as books which games are based on) are filled with examples on how history repeats itself, just decades after the whole humanity end up being wiped because of petty and realistically speaking, highly unimportant, discords between nations. You have numerous factions, each with its own set of goals. You have remnants of neo-Nazis, who really don't have any real cause to be part of the society except for the fact that they bred hate and many humans simply love to hate; Communists, who are always utopian in theory but highly dystopian in practice; filthy bandits, who are always ready to pray on the humble and the weak; various city state-like groups, each residing in their own territory bordered by a couple of metro stations, and each refusing to join others and create powerful alliances despite the fact that the world is extremely dangerous and that everyone can defend against the horrors, both human and inhuman, much more efficient by joining forces. Not to talk about creating a better place to live for all those martyrs who live underground, perfectly reflecting today's world bordered by nation-states, each with their own problems that can be solved just if we all decided to work together. But we can't because of our petty nature.
And of course, there's the great fear of the unknown, of the new civilization of post-humans (or aliens) who can end the apocalypse and who are capable of bringing humans back to the surface. But, as we all know, we are too scared of the unknown, and in these games we are so much scared that the leaders are ready to use those monstrous nuclear devices responsible for the apocalypse in the first place to wipe out post-humans, who never stated they want anything bad to happen to their brethren who stayed a few steps behind on the great stairway of evolution. Metro games are post-apocalyptic tales of just how much we forget, just how much we are unable to learn on our mistakes, just how much we are defined by boundaries, between individuals, between societies, between states, and even between different parts of our own personalities.
Next, we have games that take place centuries after modern society ended, leaving the world in disarray and to the mercy of those who came after us. The most popular member of this group of post-apocalyptic games are titles from Fallout series. This one explores the human society and how it developed during the centuries after the apocalypse, but the main focus is on the world of the past, its remnants and small details players find among numerous ruins and deserted vaults scattered across the Wasteland. In fact, each of the new Fallout games deals equally with societies that rose from ashes and with a society that preceded them. And in its humorous historical twist, the game takes the fifties and the sheer fascination with nuclear power during those times and shows just how that fascination lead to global catastrophe.
The world of Fallout games is also about finding your place in the unforgiving world, about some inexperienced vault dwellers and the way they tackle the unforgiving world left after the nuclear war; it is about one human individual and their story of survival and development after they find themselves in an environment that's completely different from the secluded vault walls they grew up in. The reasons for the apocalypse are widely known, and most humans are aware of what happened and how we survived. And from that knowledge comes the general fascination with the past world, personified in Fallout currency (Nuka Cola caps), the technology used, mostly scavenged from ruins of the fallen world of yesterday, the clothing worn by most survivors, the fascination with characters who existed before bombs fell, and with the music which found its place in many radio stations.
Fallout games are excellent in revealing small details, personal stories, and numerous interesting facts about the world of the past. They are best when we explore new vaults and learn how Vault-Tec tried to use the vaults as some form of massive social experiments with humans as their main subjects, and how corporations look at individuals not as human beings but simply as resources they can reap freely. These games also focus on history repeating itself but on a lesser scale compared to Metro games. Fallout titles are more about the post-apocalyptic society as a whole and its ties, connections, and similarities with the civilization that perished in a huge nuclear explosion.
And finally, we have Horizon Zero Dawn, a highly original post-apocalyptic game that takes place eons after the apocalypse, with no one knowing what lead to the end of the world and just a few knowing anything about the civilization that lived a millennia before. This game is unique in its setting. You live in a world of mechanical monsters with humans living in simple tribal communities. You are introduced with this gorgeous, strange, and at times frightening world with knowing nothing about these machines, without a clue to what happened to the past civilization, without any knowledge of the world that ended. And this desire to find out answers, this motivation to discover the story of the end is the main theme of the game. The human society is placed in the background. You realize pretty fast that humans have forgotten about their ancestors, that they returned to the tribal culture filled with ancient deities and living off the land. But the life off the land has a marvelous twist because metal beasts are part of the everyday life and while everyone knows they are a remnant of the Old Ones, no one knows just how they were made, their source, their origin. And these animal-like machines are part of the greater mystery surrounding the world of Horizon Zero Dawn and just further heat up our interest in finding out what the hell happened with the world.
We see ruins of the old civilization, we hear some fairytale-like stories, we come across some remnants of the old society but they aren't enough to fill out the blanks; they are enough just to make us continue with the story and discover the answers. Why tribes don't have access to pieces of old technology? Why most animals are replaced with robots? Why does no one know what happened? Why humans haven't managed to build upon the remnants of the destroyed civilizations, like in other games? Horizon Zero Dawn is using post-apocalypse to provide a reason to find out the game's story because everything is shrouded in mystery and discovering answers to our questions is done excellently, no other post-apocalyptic game managed to give players such a good story and such a good reason to finish the game.
Now, the aforementioned games have in common the fact they all deal with a global apocalypse. But some of the best post-apocalyptic games deal with a different kind of apocalypse. Instead of having the whole world destroyed, they take place in pocket universes that have their outer world ties cut for different reasons. The best pocket world apocalypse game is the original Bioshock, which itself takes inspiration from the old System Shock, another marvelous piece of interactive storytelling dealing with pocket world apocalypse. Bioshock explores human pride and arrogance, the vanity that led one utopist society to crumble, to turn to ash in its own vanity. We also learn much about interactive storytelling and how games make us do things and how easily we can be manipulated. The post-apocalyptic setting of Rapture shows just how little it takes to make the world burn and that, no matter how the society is shiny on the surface, there will always be elements that work under the radar, underground criminal elements which, it seems, are needed in any culture no matter how the said culture considers itself flawless and without sin.
As with other games mentioned in this piece except Fallout to a degree, Bioshock used post-apocalyptic setting not as the main ingredient in this tasty dish but as a vessel inside which the dish is cooked and prepared, a simple tool used to make the world come to life and show all the horrors that await us in case we decide we are gods, and not simply humans with all their flaws, misconceptions, and prejudices. No, we aren't talking that religion is right, we just mean that no gods is the best option; gods, especially in human form, is a relic of the past and should be abandoned in case we want for our society to advance and reach age where everyone is equally accepted and where each person is looked exclusively through their actions, not their race or religion or origin or place of birth or sexuality, or anything else that is beyond their control.
Another excellent piece of post-apocalyptic interactive storytelling are Stalker games. They also present a piece of a pocket world post-apocalypse but they are unique in a way that almost all of their human denizens decided to inhabit the Infected Zone. Every stalker, trader, bandit, scientist, and some soldiers decided to come to the Zone. Except for some soldiers who are there on duty, all inhabitants of this grim post-apocalyptic world are there by their choice, and this is something Stalker games use to show how the excitement of the unknown and unexplored is enough to make people abandon their homes and their everyday life and visit worlds that are extremely dangerous but that at the same time hide numerous secrets.
Stalker games show modern explorers traveling to the Zone for numerous reasons. Some, like the famous voyagers of the past like Marco Polo, Matthew Flinders, James Cook, Ferdinand Magellan, Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, John Hanning Speke, David Livingstone, Robert Peary, Roald Amundsen, and many others simply wanted to explore the Zone and discover all of its secrets, to map its wildlife, to find more about mutants roaming it. Others, reminiscent of Sir Francis Drake or Hernan Cortes came to the Zone in search of its exotic riches in forms of otherworldly artifacts. And some just want to watch the world burn and the Zone is a perfect, lawless place to fulfill all of their sick and dark desires. And the player is one of those pilgrims who traveled to the Zone and each game, aside from a couple of main missions, give players the freedom of choosing their own path and finding their own motivation that will drive them across the Zone.
Stalker games used post-apocalypse to show players just how adventurous and fearless humans can be, how they can be attracted to the same space for so many different reasons, and just ruthless they can be to fulfill their agendas, regardless of reasons which led them to the Zone in the first place. Another gem of a game that uses post-apocalypse as a simple yet stunning backdrop for depicting the human culture of exploration, its various sources of motivation, and its constant desire to go into the unknown.