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Why Are There So Many Apocalyptic Video Games?

Why exactly are we so attracted to the end of the world?

by Cameron Kunzelman
Jun 19 2018, 10:17pm

Image courtesy Bethesda

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

Our blockbuster video games, much like our blockbuster films, court the end of things. They ride on the line of the spectacular and the speculative, posing a future that is unlike ours both in its makeup and in its bombast. In our real life, explosions down the block and gunshots echoing through back alleys are the sign of ever-more-common domestic terror, but in our games they’re the actions of powerful heroes and their ragtag group of friends.

This E3 was all about a future that is radically different: The Last of Us Part II’s mushroom nightmare; Cyberpunk 2077’s dystopic resistance engine; Fallout 76’s newfound wasteland; Rage 2’s gleeful Millerian apocalypse; whatever the hell Death Stranding is. These marquee games make the end of our social systems, our governments, and all the things we think we can depend on a reality. And like every E3 for the past few years, I end up thinking: Why the apocalypse?

There’s a famous line that often gets quoted in this situations. Slavoj Žižek, adapting a phrase from Fredric Jameson, says that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. What he means is that capitalism structures our lives to such a degree that it is easier to imagine nothing than it is to imagine that the thing that structures our day-to-day relations with each other, with the things we eat and use, and with our very labor might disappear. Keep this in mind when we start talking about video games again.

In a typical Žižek move, this really isn’t the whole quotation from Jameson. What Jameson wrote was this: “It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.”

Image courtesy CD Prokekt Red

It’s clunkier, it doesn’t have the boom of the Žižekian witticism, but the Jameson quote actually gives us something to chew on when it comes to putting forward some ideas for why video games choose the apocalypse. I mean, you can choose anything, right? A game could be set in the pirating Caribbean or in Ancient Greece or in a cave in 20,000 BC. We could have a game take place ten minutes ago or in the far future, starring one surly kid on the way to a 7-11 or a heroic super spy who shoots people with those non-lethal bean bag things. The world of games is wide open, and games take place in all sorts of times and settings, and yet it seems like a destroyed future is represented more than it should be.

Video games are the imagination factory of the 21st century. Film shaped the previous century, delivering the impossible to us on massive screens with expansive sounds. As a medium, it grabbed the mind, and as we barrelled through the unrisings of the 1960s and into the Winter Years. The 1970s gave us A Clockwork Orange, Space Is the Place, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, A Boy and His Dog, Mad Max, Solaris, and Alien before transitioning into a new decade dominated by Star Wars sequels and Blade Runner, The Thing, The Road Warrior, Scanners, and The Terminator. We haven’t yet escaped these films, and I mean that quite literally.

Their intellectual property shambles on into the future like so many other franchises do, their cult status and their sequelability making them valuable for the foreseeable future. They lodged themselves into our speculative ability. When people worry about the future, they worry about “Mad Max” roving bands of barely surviving people; they’re concerned about automation and Skynet; they’re focused on the wide divide between rich and poor that Deckard moved through so seamlessly.

So why the apocalypse? To some degree it’s a holdover, a rumination on the same themes of the films from 40 years ago, the youthful experiences of a legion of developers grown up on geek media. After all, an overwhelming number of games can be summed up as “ Aliens, but with X.” It has something to do with economics as well. The Fallout franchise is successful, so we will make more games set in a destroyed United States. Traveling across the sand wastes is fun in Mad Max, so we can do more of that in Rage 2. Gamers like what they already know, whether it’s in the realm of mechanics or aesthetics, and so it’s easier to sell something if the potential consumer has a frame of reference for knowing what they’re getting into.

I think it has to do with what Jameson called the “weakness in our imagination.”

But on the other side, I think it has to do with what Jameson called the “weakness in our imagination.” Last year I wrote about the game Observer and how it just can’t manage to consider a world beyond its bleak dystopia. This is not a problem unique to that game. It is the problem of games. The post-apocalypse is alluring from a gameplay design perspective precisely because it demands that players start again from nothing. It is easier to imagine eternally building the same crap, recreating the same worlds, and fiddling around with the same systems than it is to imagine building something new. Fallout 76 has even baked this into their core mechanical loop by demanding that players destroy parts of the world in order to harvest it for resources.

It is easier to imagine an eternal loop of building and destroying than it is to produce an actual future. And, look, I don’t blame anyone here. Games are built for the apocalypse in many ways. Your powerful character is reset to zero when the sequel comes out. No matter what you did yesterday, a new villain is around the corner to undo everything you accomplished. You spent all of that time and effort just to get it wiped away again due to a cosmic reset button.

So maybe the way to tinker our way out of the post-apocalypse alleyway is to address those weaknesses in our imagination. Maybe let’s get away from reductions to zero and constant resets as a way of managing players. Instead of building from nothing, why not ask players to change a thing that exists instead of creating a brand new world out of whole cloth? The apocalypse is a way of grounding design decisions, and it might improve our blockbuster game world if we spent a few years trying to get away from it.

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