The Popular Apocalypse

SACRAMENTO REGION, CA (MPG)  |  Commentary by Noah Howard

SACRAMENTO REGION, CA (MPG) - The video game industry is rarely labeled as “original,” and this year’s Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3) illustrated exactly why. Video games’ largest publishers showcased Metro: Exodus, Dying Light 2, Days Gone, The Last of Us Part 2, Rage 2, Gears 5 and Fallout 76. Their common thread? Every one of these flagship, multi-million dollar titles is a post-apocalyptic action game, usually with some sort of zombie or zombie-like enemy. 2018’s store shelves will be utterly saturated with games in the vein of Mad Max and 28 Days Later, and yet despite the saturation, every one of them will likely sell exceptionally well.

Video games have an utter obsession with the post-apocalypse going back decades, to an extent not reflected in any other popular media. The two seem to be a match made in heaven; a primary allure of video games is the ability to escape one's own life and do anything they desire. When a developer is tasked with contextualizing utter freedom in terms of a logically coherent, immersive game world, where better to turn than an anarchic wasteland? Without the binding ties of society and rule of law, the player can believably do whatever they want without the logical necessity of some in-game police coming down on their heads. Even linear, cinematic experiences with little real player freedom benefit from the narrative shortcuts a post-apocalypse allows. Why are we killing thousands and thousands of zombies/people? Easy, this world is kill or be killed in a battle for survival, so further moral justification for Mass violence seems, from the writer's perspective, otherwise unnecessary.

Such justification feeds into why the trend is stronger now than it's ever been. Developers leveraged the computing power of the new generation of consoles not to create photorealism, but to create massive, living worlds in which players can roam free. Open worlds became “stylish” as franchises that were once linear began to expand with huge environments to explore. And as video games began to lean more and more into their most unique artistic asset, the ability to create a sense of player freedom, the need for justifications for such complete freedom spiked upwards. As a result, we have E3 2018, where game after game resorts to the post-apocalypse as its narrative shortcut.

This is hardly a criticism; because video games aren't primarily a narrative medium, narrative shortcuts are easily excused if they accommodate exciting gameplay and interesting worlds, both of which post-apocalypse games often excel at. And even then, video games have occasionally used post-apocalyptic settings not as writing crutches but as tools to explore the complex moral questions of survival and freedom; 2013’s The Last of Us did exactly that, and is widely considered the best-written game ever made (though its incredible-looking sequel may be looking to snatch that title from its predecessor). There's a reason why, despite the saturation, the industry is showing few signs of fatigue. The post-apocalypse both literally and figuratively, remains extensively unexplored, and video games are uniquely positioned to trek into the lawless wilderness.