Look up: the biggest moon you've ever seen looms. It's daytime. People are preparing for a carnival. Excitement; celebratory decorations; town spirits are high. The music playing is sprightly, joyous and hummable. But, you've been here before and you know that the music will, in just a few hours, gain an ominous undertone that threatens to consume the melody. You know how much time is left and, if you don't get moving, the moon will fall and all these people will die.
Sure, you can return here any time you like via time travel, but that means looking up at the moon again, watching the preparations, and your heart sinking as the task of stopping the apocalypse is, once again, yours alone. If you're unsure how to continue, you could face these three days of dread on an eternal loop, watching everyone die, over and over again.
The light-hearted scenario described above comes from The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, just recently remastered for the 3DS. The most disturbing entry in Nintendo's hugely popular adventure franchise fills you with the unsettling horror of an approaching apocalypse. Majora's Mask, on its initial 2000 release for the N64, revealed a complex, living, and entirely doomed world, immortalised in the multi-million-selling Zelda series. This sort of story may have been told before in video games, but never on such a stage. And it was a revelation.
You are forced, by Majora's Mask's structure and mechanics of the game, to repeatedly fail at saving the world, until you finally have the tools to succeed – it's one of the most harrowing journeys you will ever take in a video game. It's also one of the most beautiful, as what's an apocalyptic tale without redemption and triumph?
You meet Kafei, a young man looking to marry his sweetheart, Anju. But he's in hiding, turned into a child by magic. It becomes your job, as the Zelda series' primarily mute protagonist Link, to run messages between them, bringing them together for their long-awaited ceremony. Will it be too late, or just in time? Elsewhere, Romani defies her sceptical older sister, Cremia, to save the dairy farm's cows from alien abduction (yes, this is actually in a Zelda game). If she tackles them without help or adult supervision, she is abducted alongside the farm's only source of income, but cruelly lobotomised before return. The cows never make it back. But, with your help, she can prove her worth, save the farm and continue her journey to adulthood.
'Majora's Mask' 3D – announcement trailer
You realise that this colourful world is strange, harsh and unfair. Perhaps it deserves to be smashed into oblivion; its long-suffering people, however, do not. And you only get 72 hours of game time with these characters, enforcing the bleak fact that life is short, and life is hard. Worse is that, although Link can help everyone on multiple playthroughs, we always have to reset. And to save the world, we can't make things better for everyone before the end. It's a depressing realisation, and true.
Zelda is a series considered colourful by many, for a reason – typically, the games are breezy, upbeat adventures, full of optimism and life. The tone of Majora's Mask is a distinct contrast to most of its brighter brethren, in some respects a closer cousin to the bleak experiences provided by other genres of game.
The first-person-perspective Half-Life 2 is pure dystopian nightmare within a post-apocalyptic environment, best illustrated by its beginning. You step off of a train with others wearing the same blue overalls. Your gaze is drawn to a screen broadcasting the visage of central antagonist Dr Breen, his authoritative, faux-friendly voice welcoming you to the ominous City 17. Within seconds you see an arriving passenger being harassed by an armoured policeman. Nearby, a former alien foe – so lethal in the previous game – is despondently sweeping the floor. Interact with the lawman and he shoves you away. Persist, and he will chase and beat you. You are defenceless.
A few step away, a downcast woman stands waiting for her husband, knowing he'll never arrive. A glint of hope is all she has. Man, it's depressing, and that's only the first few minutes. Each cue – the wide-eyed guy telling you not to drink the water is a nice touch – smothers you in an oppressive world where people are regularly abused by authority. Every major point of an "Orwellian" future (sigh) is here, from the suspicious lack of children to giant, talking screens: textbook. Half-Life 2 revels in detail, telling stories with landscape, and the words and actions of its non-player characters. It features nods to tyrannical history too, like the decaying eastern European architecture and Cyrillic lettering littering the skyline.
Similarly, the superb Papers Please is uncomfortably close to the darker side of our own reality. From its militaristic, marching theme, to the 1980s-style graphics, everything attunes you to the overall theme, which is: you're in a Soviet-style state, and you're fucked.
Your family's health is represented by a balance sheet at the end of each workday. You think: "Have I made enough money to heat the flat and eat tonight? Well, uncle is sick now. He needs medicine. Must work harder at the immigration booth tomorrow. I get paid for each person allowed in but there'll be more paperwork to do tomorrow, slowing me down. Up my efficiency or turn a blind eye and risk a wage penalty? A terrorist attack could cut my day (and pay) short, too. Why not detain a few people, then? The guards will share their dodgy detainee bonuses with me, and I might also prevent an attack. Win-win."
It's excellent dystopian fiction because it slowly makes you a willing part of the oppressive regime, just to survive – just to "win". You almost begin to like your power, and what has defined some of the finest dystopian stories? In order to survive, you must abandon hope and fall in line. Think about Winston in 1984: "In the face of pain, there are no heroes."
The best games tell such multi-layered stories of borderline hopelessness. Our intrusion into this world allows us to tell the story our way, but ultimately we want to overcome. Does that make us heroes, or suckers for punishment? We want to do this every time. Are we masochists? Sadists even, allowing these people to be crushed again and again, for our enjoyment? How sick are we?
Perhaps we like the strife. Games give us obstacles to overcome and these scenarios are the ultimate obstacles. Some of our favourite games delight in giving you insurmountable odds. Final Fantasy VII's most shocking moment, for me, was not that death, but the moment where you first see the meteor screaming silently in the sky: impending doom. Suddenly, my task was huge. I was terrified. How I was going to stop that hurtling space rock was massively compelling to me, but not just because of typical gaming goals: I was heavily invested in the people in this vast world about to be obliterated.
Our aesthetic key texts might be Fallout and BioShock. The former is post-apocalyptic gaming's visual and atmospheric equivalent of The Stand, The Drowned World, Logan's Run, How I Live Now and other literary go-tos. Nuclear disaster has ravaged the world and there's lots of wandering in barren landscapes and fighting violent foes. BioShock – our 1984, Brave New World or Fahrenheit 451, perhaps – defines the dystopian ideal: a utopia, crumbled under its ambition and failed ideals, in its place a fancy, gore-streaked, Art Deco underwater hell. As far as imaginative interpretations of the genre go, it's almost certainly the stand out. Its twist (you can read about it here) provides thematic and contextual reasoning for gaming's often unexplained trope of following instructions, and enhances the world you're trapped in. In most games you are given only the illusion of choice. BioShock addressing this only adds to the horror.
'Metro 2033' – launch trailer
Not many games reach the mastery of those mentioned above. A post-apocalyptic world is often a great environment for a shooter – like Gears of War, Metro 2033, Resistance, Super Probotector/Contra III – all of which are decent to excellent. But it's often merely a bleak background to pepper bullets into. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is a glowing exception, embracing its surroundings and weaving (corrupted) life into them.
The Metal Gear Solid series deals with the onset of an apocalyptic situation or military fascism, but it's also mostly a solo pursuit, with a few supporting characters. You rarely truly feel the entire world at large is in real danger, though philosophical musings keep us thinking. And then there is the horde of zombie-themed games. Pretty (gross) they may be, but very few of them focus on humanity's cooperation, essential in such stories. Those that do are outstanding video game examples of post-apocalyptic civilisation: Left 4 Dead and The Walking Dead being two of those. The Last of Us is the acknowledged masterpiece in its post-apocalyptic glory, but will, crucially, be seen as a true core text because of its lead characters' emotional connection amid such ugliness, and its overall tragedy.
It has always interested me how we turn to the bleak, dark, vicious and blackly humorous so often in entertainment – aren't our lives troubling enough? But, the greatest satisfaction is when the despair is offset by hope. Majora's Mask, with its numerous side-quests steeped in love stories and honour, is relatable and makes the plight of Termina's people mean something. Half-Life 2, of course, will always have the classic "couple on the couch" moment. Though harrowing, it's a reminder of a blissful past or a promising future. It's in your hands.
We can feel so powerless in our lives, especially as the world seems volatile, and we just can't handle it all. Still, a lot of us try: we help others, attempt to solve problems, and try to be there for everyone. Games give us this chance. We build relationships, however fleeting, and that drives us on to claw our way through the odd, debilitating purgatory we've been thrust into. We are taking on a larger-than-life task and are spurred on by human emotion, passion and resolve. And maybe guns. We feel like potential heroes, all of us.
If a long-term character sacrifices themselves, we feel their loss. When we take down the antagonist once and for all, we feel worthy and, in a bigger way, we are equipped with lessons learned. It is not necessarily just the rotten core that we like exploring, however grim and compelling, but reaching the flickering beacons throughout. We are even taught that there's almost always redemption. A pyrrhic victory is still, sometimes, a victory. And if the worst happens, and we all fail, we have still fought for some semblance of humanity in a cruel, unfeeling, inhuman world. We can (and need) to carry this sense through our own lives; that we can, and do, help and that can only benefit everyone. We contribute, all of us, and these games in particular remind us of that, and what might happen if we forget.
Or perhaps you just like watching everyone die, over and over again. Sicko.