Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Huge spoilers for Metro Exodus.
Video games are very good at imagining the end of the world. Whether it is robots, aliens, creatures from the center of the planet, our own technological hubris, or combinations of all of these, video games have become as wrapped up in science fictional imaginings of the ends of things as much as television or film are. The difference, we’re told, is that the end of the world in a video game comes with all sorts of benefits: player freedom; choices that matter; the ability to remake the new world in your image.
Metro Exodus, out last week, is the logical output of a couple of decades of doubling down on these ideas. As I wrote in my review for Paste, there’s something over-familiar about every single part of Exodus that makes it feel like a retread of cultural beliefs about the nature of humanity and the stories we tell about each other. And, strangely enough, what’s being repeated, retreaded, and replicated is the future.
Metro Exodus is a down-the-line post-apocalypse. It’s built up from Cold War fears, and its world is one that has been decimated by nuclear war and the accompanying spillover effects that a war might make. For people who are into post-apocalyptic media, this is an extremely familiar terrain. A rag-tag group of people have to set out across the wastes to find a world worth living in. They lose some friends along the way, and they see their enemies and wonder if, in fact, there but for the grace of God they go. At the ground there are questions about choices and what you should do and what you have to do. But the end of the road (or in the case of Exodus, the track), there’s a promised land for those who managed to make it.
Exodus is truly a post- Bioshock game in that it presents the player with a good path and a bad path. As far as I could tell while playing, these shuffled out in this way: you’re bad if you neglect to save civilians or, worse, shoot a major non-threatening NPC; you’re good if you don’t do those things. Simplifying it down this way should make it clear that this game, and plenty of others, see goodness simply as the absence of bad actions. If you walk past a person who has fallen face-down on the street, you’re value-neutral or even good. You didn’t interfere. If you kick them as you walk past, you’re bad.
Good actions work on a grand scale, though. Toppling the war leader is good. Destroying the mutated bear that’s been hounding the forest people for a generation is good. Along the way you might have to gun down dozens of faceless, screaming enemies, but it is all in the interest of an action that is greater and grander.
If you’ve been reading this column for the past two years, I’m a broken record on pointing this out, but there’s something strange about how easy it is to be bad and how herculean it is to make good things. These things require the same will, the same modes of thought, the same decision trees the we’re navigating in every moment of our lives. It’s strange to see the theology of Fallen Humanity reinvigorated with each new game release, as if it’s an ideological pulpit that’s using a morality system to explain that we’re just sinners one slippery action away from the pit.
The morality system turns the post-apocalypse into a morality tale. It’s not just about saving the bodies of the willing, but it’s about the soul. It’s not about who does the work to reach the future, it’s about who deserves to reach the future.
In my playthrough of the game, my version of Artyom, the heroic gunman who does all the dirty work in the Metro games, didn’t make it. He destroyed all of the ideologies of the old world created anew: defeated a cult; killed an oil-and-gun baron; avoided the terrors of autocracy and democracy equally. He found a new, worse metro system, and learned about how bad his life could have been in different conditions. Then, because of choices I had made and people I had lost along the way, Artyom took a lethal dose of radiation poisoning and couldn’t recover.
In the final calculus, Artyom was dead. But that didn’t stop the future from happening. It also didn’t stop me, the player who had been trapped looking out of Artyom’s eyes for a couple dozen hours, from cinematically seeing his wife and his friends weeping in the Promised Land. Artyom is buried in a place untouched by radiation. This is the cradle of life, the Garden of Eden, the Kingdom of God, the place where humanity will birth the future from their will and belief that this was won for them by the heroic deeds of the dead.
The good future is wielded like a club to bludgeon the bad and reward the faithful. You can make a few mistakes, but no one who doesn’t deserve to be there can be there. To me, this seems like everything we need to leave behind when it comes to thinking the future.
We’re staring down the barrel of the Anthropocene. The projections are bad. Exodus is just one angle on a way of thinking about who should be able to experience a good future, but that attitude that it provides is shared widely: the deserving and the elect should have it, and everyone else can shove off. Over the next several decades, there will be longform and wide discussions about who deserves what and who did what when and how that created or minimized the problems that we live within.
We need to create a new program of who deserves to be included in the future.
And we need to create a new program of who deserves to be included in the future. It will require new modes of thinking about good and bad actions. If good actions can only ever be massive in scale, then the powerful can only ever be good. And the vast majority are produced, at best, as neutral. Some of them are cast as bad, and that legitimates an exclusion from the world to come.
If it’s just the good, the elect, the people who did not take the “easy” path of badness as decided from on high, then we’re looking at long, slow violence on the planet that’s quickly cooking.
You can follow Cameron on Twitter.