The impact of post-apocalyptic games goes beyond the AAA titles that invite players into scorched, violent cityscapes. Think Mad Max. Or Oryx and Crake. Or any number of disaster movies. In some worlds, the state of the planet gradually reveals itself. In other scenarios, events drop characters into horrors from which escape proves impossible.
Gritty shantytowns ruled by violence in the aftermath of human tragedy mesmerize the media-consuming public, even as the circumstances establish cautionary tales. But the post-apocalyptic genre clearly didn’t start with Fallout. Wasteland came out in ’88. Gamma World hit shelves a decade before that. Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz was released in 1960. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man was published in 1826. Across a spectrum of literature, end-of-the-world scenarios have been playing out for a long time; perhaps Noah (yes, biblical Noah, the guy who gets a heads-up on a flood that wipes out the known world) and The Vault Dweller have a fair amount in common. Both spend a lot of time in the desert. Both live in disaster zones. Both uncover unusual information and narrowly escape plans set in motion by forces beyond their control.
A growing preoccupation with human destruction gnaws at the dreams of writers and game devs alike, and if we follow this to its logical conclusion, we have to ask ourselves: How are we going to think our way out of the very real problems facing society? What are we going to do when we can no longer afford to keep the lights on? Or when electrical outages due to a brutal winter storm inspire a descent into martial law?
Partial answers come from games like The Last of Us. Yes, the world may crumble, but the larger threat to humanity (in such a situation) isn’t a plague or zombie bites or the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Our problems come from other people, from a tragedy of the commons, from unbridled greed and naked aggression.
Fargo gets cold in the winter; when saddled with the need to avoid freezing to death, the theft of a Duraflame log from Walmart feels pretty darn justifiable, just as setting squirrel traps in the park sounds like a good idea if you haven’t eaten in a few days.
If we’re going to puzzle our way out of the 21st century’s challenges, maybe games can help us think things through. Let’s experience dystopias in which police drones, feral animals, and constant surveillance eliminate the potential for violence as a survival tool; let’s journey through urban environments that teach us how to fix bikes, brew beer, and knit.
Maybe we’ll learn how to work together as we avoid frostbite and camp in sub-zero temperatures.
Hopefully, we’ll never do battle with gigantic talking rat-kings.
Let’s learn lessons from near-future cataclysmic speculation so we can preempt the coming madness.