Why Do Video Games Love Killing the Planet?

A look at the popularity of post-apocalyptic games, with help from the creators of two fascinating new indie titles.

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09 april 2015, 11:22am

A screen shot from 'Fallout 3'

Midway through Ubisoft's 2011 "god sim" From Dust there's a level that, at first glance, consists almost entirely of desert. Your goal in the game is simply to help your tribe of worshippers prosper, shielding them against natural hazards such as volcanoes while guiding them to shrines that augment your power. So, after a few desultory passes across the wasteland, you set about terraforming it – balling sand in your spectral fist to create riverbeds, ripping away thick tangles of impassable thorn. And that's when everything goes wrong. The "desert" is in fact the membrane atop a subterranean ocean, which bubbles up eagerly and relentlessly the second you start poking around. In short order, your tribe's settlement is a rapidly shrinking island, crowded with screaming stick figures.

This speaks to me in a couple of ways. On the one hand, it's proof that game designers are terrible, treacherous dickheads who shouldn't be allowed within a billion light years of the levers that control our civilisation's destiny (hence my horror that Greece's new finance minister Yanis Varoufakis was once an economist at Valve, creator of games in which sentient computers subject human beings to lethal quantum experiments). On the other, it encapsulates how developers have gone about injecting vivacity into the concept of a post-apocalyptic world – an environment defined by scarcity, but characterised in practice by buried potential, waiting to erupt between the player's fingers.

You see this in Sheltered, an upcoming 2D survival game from fledgling studio Unicube, who reside in the wailing abyss that is northern England. I spoke to the developer's Sonny Meek and Dean Foster at last month's EGX Rezzed expo in London.

The game's crust is that of a Mad Max movie, all desiccated skyscrapers and glowering clouds of radioactive dust, but the subterranean bunker in which most of it takes place is a tightly-packed germ of possibility. There are so many things to fiddle it's a struggle to keep track: air filters that must be cleaned to avoid contamination; a flurry of character resource bars – some related to physical needs, others psychological in nature – that impact in all sorts of tiny ways on how that character behaves; facilities to construct; tunnels to dig; entanglements with outsiders to resolve, preferably though not always without bloodshed.

'Sheltered' preview

The game takes many of its artistic cues from Fallout, under whose nourishing mushroom cloud an entire sub-genre of mutant RPGs has sprouted. You couldn't ask for a bleaker set of landscapes than those of Fallout, with their gouged roadways and weary clumps of blackened brickwork, but nor could you ask for a livelier interplay of systems and devices – morality, reputation, nutrition, bartering, right on down to the mechanics of aiming and firing a pistol. Oh, you'll fight for survival in the game. The most recent sequel, Fallout: New Vegas, features a Hardcore Mode that lumbers players with the problem of realistic hunger and thirst, obliging you to drink from toilet bowls and battle scavengers over candy bars. But Fallout's penury is a rich, engaging penury. It makes the struggle for sustenance interesting, liberating by virtue of its novelty and complexity, rather than oppressive. The same appears to be true of Sheltered.

Following Fallout's example, many of the medium's more elaborate, responsive worlds are those in which the world has gone to hell. Consider, among many examples, the surge in wilderness sims on Steam Early Access, the lavishly accoutred fallen citadels of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, or even the teeming ecosystem of a multiplayer shooter like Evolve, in which alpha predators threaten to overrun an already benighted planet. I adore most of the games above, but what does it say about us – players, developers, critics – that we see such intrigue and promise in landscapes supposedly burned clean of human life? Isn't this a bit, well, morbid? And to what extent is it evidence of complacency about deprived people in reality, the poor souls who live in regions where owning four walls and a roof is an impossible luxury, let alone the time and resources necessary to play a game like Fallout?

One answer to all this is that post-apocalyptic scenarios aren't to be taken literally. They often serve as thought experiments, little removed from the spacier kind of science fiction or fantasy, in which ideas about how society works can be subjected to unusual pressure. In Sheltered's case, the concept of family is under scrutiny.

A screen shot from 'Sheltered'

"We realised that these games are always about a single person, a lone wanderer," observes Meek. "It's never about a family unit. So we thought it would just be a really interesting experience to have." One inspiration was a classic episode of The Twilight Zone, "The Shelter", in which the threat of a nuclear strike plunges a friendly suburban community into civil war. The Stocktons take refuge in their home-built fallout shelter, and are soon besieged by their neighbours. "It tears them apart. All the relationships between the townspeople completely break down, but it turns out that the air raid siren was just a false alarm. And afterwards they have to go back to their normal lives, after they've been through that situation."

There are many ways in which things can break down in Sheltered. There are the threats from without, such as initially amicable refugees who may crack and take a resident hostage, but more intriguing, perhaps, are the fissures that form between family members. People may quarrel and refuse to work together. Others may fall into a catatonic state after one brush with death too many, becoming a burden on the morale of loved ones until coaxed out of their stupor. As the player, you'll be called upon to decide who shoulders the heaviest load in ways that recall that age-old dilemma of post-apocalyptic cinema – whether the strongest should survive at the expense of the needy and, in particular, the young. Should you send a capable, valuable adult to scour that distant landmark for potable water, exposing her to the ravages of the surface, or hedge your bets by dispatching one of the kids?

The post-apocalypse is more, here, than a voyeuristic, oddly fecund fantasy: it's an opportunity to reappraise cultural institutions that are taken for granted. To zero in too narrowly on the facts of a disaster or the grim wrestle for resources is to overlook the framework's broader social applicability. It's perhaps for this reason that The Molasses Flood – "a company of AAA refugees" from such illustrious studios as Irrational and Bungie – are eager to downplay the post-apocalyptic element of their forthcoming The Flame in the Flood, dwelling instead on what the protagonist's dangerous river voyage says about the practice of setting things aside for our descendants.

A screen shot from 'The Flame in the Flood'

"I think we didn't really decide to make the game about an apocalypse, but rather decided that we wanted the game to feel lonely," the studio's Forrest Dowling, a veteran of BioShock Infinite, tells me by email. "We've tried to avoid even saying the words 'apocalypse' or 'apocalyptic', but rather post-societal. It's all an outgrowth of the feel of being alone in a world without help, rather than a desire to focus on the fall of society or anything. We're not even sure how much we want to go into the past or timeline of the world."

The Flame in the Flood is a roguelike – a role-playing game built around quick playthroughs and a partly randomised environment. Its protagonist, Scout, must reach the mouth of a bloated, fickle watercourse, scavenging supplies as she goes while steering clear of rapids, hungry predators and disease. Die, and you're obliged to start over with a new version of the protagonist and a new river. The ingredients of the environment recur – places to trade or seek shelter, rabbits you can hunt, old homesteads where you might stumble on materials for your craft – but how and when you'll encounter them is different every time.

As in other roguelikes, the sting of defeat has as much to do with the abandonment of a particular tale, a particular world, as it is the mere loss of progress. There's a sense of crippling futility. "All we are is what we leave behind," states the game's trailer, below, but if everything we ever achieve is rebuild from scratch the second we snuff it, what manner of preservation is possible? Lest the experience seem too hopeless, solace exists in the shape of Scout's companion, an elderly dog named Aesop who'll sniff out food and gear. The dog is the one fully formed element of The Flame's world that transcends playthroughs: anything you place in the satchels on his back will still be there when you start the game over, a touching show of how companionship might offer an escape from the cycle of mortality. The relationship between characters is elegantly summarised by their titles: "Scout" is both a proper noun and a generic role, while Aesop's namesake places him outside the confines of the game's fiction.

'The Flame in the Flood' trailer

The contribution an art form makes to culture can be a question of its limitations. If all post-apocalyptic narratives, regardless of the specific media, explore how human beings may fail each other in times of crisis, game developers alone appreciate the difficulty of rendering that behaviour dynamically, as "living" construct rather than character. Indeed, if you're unconvinced by the case I've made above, you might conclude that the headaches of representing humans at large as the real reason that tales of global collapse are so abundant in video games. It's all about keeping those overheads down.

"Everything about making a game is hard, and everything needs to be hand built," Dowling reflects. "A filmmaker can point a camera at the world, or a person, and they immediately have a totally believable world or person. Since making everything in a game is complicated and expensive, I think it's natural to try to find ways to shortcut around any content that isn't absolutely necessary.

"Making a world about a crumbled society immediately removes one of the most challenging things to create, which is people. I think zombie games are common for similar reasons. You can have a world with people, but they're all super dumb, can't talk, and their AI behaviour is to run directly at an enemy and swing their arms. I suspect both these approaches have a lot more to do with practical problem-solving than any particular game developer zeitgeist about the end of the world."

Both Sheltered and The Flame in the Flood are expected to be released later in 2015.

@dirigiblebill