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The end is nigh: why we need a better brand of apocalypse

Thursday, 1st August 2013 11:45 GMT By Dave Cook

The apocalypse hasn’t even happened yet and VG247′s Dave Cook is already bored of it. Is the end of the world being flogged to ribbons or is there life after the downfall of humanity yet?

I was sitting down to write a news story about Tokyo Jungle Mobile last week and upon typing the words ‘post-apocalyptic’ I stopped and realised just how often that term appears in gaming today.

The apocalypse is a hot ticket right now. We’ve had warring comedy films This Is the End and The World’s End releasing just weeks apart, along with a fuck-ton of games based on the downfall of humanity this generation. The recent success of Naughty Dog’s harrowing The Last of Us shows that the subject is still of interest to many.

”If Ubisoft Massive really had the guts it’d close The Division with the end of the world anyway, just to show that sometimes, despite humanity’s best intent disaster cannot be averted and by our very nature we are a self-destructive species.”

What is it about our ultimate demise that appeals to so many people? I think a large part of it is this morbid curiosity we all have where we put ourselves there, right after the bombs have fallen or aliens have slaughtered the populace and we ask ourselves that big question:

“What would I do in that situation?”

Seriously though; if the taps stopped running or the zombie horde rolled into town right now what would you do? There’s a strange, almost sadistic thrill that comes with playing these scenarios out in your mind and I think this is what made the opening moments of The Last of Us both so blunt and memorable.

It’s also why TellTale’s first season of The Walking Dead proved so effective. It showed survivors in the middle of an unfolding cataclysm trying to delay the inevitable, hopeful in the belief that over the next hill they’d find some sort of salvation or cure to the problems at hand.

As the player you witness and try to resolve very real issues like food, water, medicine and figuring out who to trust, while the evidence begins to pile up that in reality, life can never go back to how it used to be. It’s an effective human story told in a world overrun with ghouls, and it shows that post-apocalyptic settings needn’t be heavy with guns to be memorable.

By contrast games like Fallout or Borderlands place you in ruined worlds long after the event and send you off into the wastes armed with many weapons and skills. They’re power fantasies where the every day struggles of humankind don’t really impact your levelled-up warrior, but at the end of the day there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this approach either.

In fact, I really love how Fallout 3 presented the Capital Wasteland, especially the ravaged opulence of downtown D.C. and while you can see evidence of life before The Great War, it’s a series that has largely focused on how humanity advances from that point, instead of looking back in regret. The same goes for Borderland’s Pandora, which has been so abused by corporations that the only thing left to do is survive and rebuild.

The freshly-announced Mad Max from Avalanche Studios looks like it will fall into this category as well, with all of its applications of knees on chin and high-speed car battles. It looks perfectly fun but I think I’m growing slightly tired of this brand of action-packed apocalypse. I want the pathos, I want the human stories and I want to be part of the downfall as it unfolds.

Perhaps the most interesting cataclysmic game I’ve seen in some time is Tom Clancy’s The Division. Sure, it might not focus on a global pandemic, but the premise of a deadly virus spread through tainted dollar bills in New York really appeals. It’s still a shooter but you’re working to contain the apocalypse as it starts to unfold in front of you, and to halt the spread of the disease before it causes America to collapse. That, to me sounds thrilling.

If Ubisoft Massive really had the guts it’d close The Division with the end of the world anyway, just to show that sometimes, despite humanity’s best intent disaster cannot be averted and by our very nature we are a self-destructive species. I’d absolutely love to see that happen. It’d be a bit like the twist ending of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines without the shit stuff beforehand.

Can you imagine an apocalyptic game that is basically the first half hour of The Last of Us made into a full release? If the story was written effectively it’d leave you constantly wondering if the collapse is about to be halted, but then it’d continually pull the rug out from beneath you.


Once Chance is a perfect example of what I mean. Play it here.

Would your trusted allies turn hostile if they realised that no matter what, the end is coming? Would they eventually betray you to preserve their own well-being? Would you be forced to kill that person if they turned on you? Where would you go? How would you find food? What is your place in this new, twisted place where judicial rule and social decency no longer apply?

To me the most interesting aspect of post-apocalyptic fiction is whenever a character looks back at the days of the big crisis and recalls their struggle to adapt to the savage new world unfolding around them. It’s this brutal transition that appeals to me most, but instead of looking back I’d like to play a game where I actually experience those painful moments as they happen.

The games industry has repeatedly shown that it can effectively create feelings of loss in players without resorting to hammy dialogue or thinly-veiled emotion. Look at the end of Shadow of the Colossus for one. Creating a story like this with maturity and provoking great emotional engagement in players absolutely can be done during an apocalyptic setting.

You can see an absolutely heart-breaking example of what I’m talking about in the compelling Newground flash game ‘One Chance‘, which places you as the only person who can avert the downfall of humanity as it unfolds. I won’t spoil what happens but once it’s over the game blocks your IP address meaning you can’t try again. It forces you to make tough, painful decisions with regularly upsetting consequences

I’d like to see studios take this approach and instil in us the pain of watching a character’s luxuries and loved ones slip away as the world decays around the player. We’d watch it happen reluctantly and slowly slide into a new, brutal form of existence without any say in the matter. I genuinely believe this could form the basis for a truly memorable apocalyptic experience.

Seriously industry; make it happen.

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17 Comments

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  1. Talkar

    Nice article, and i would love to see some games take the suggested idea and just run with it.

    Also, damn you Dave for reminding me of Fallout 3 and how it is the second worst Fallout game xD

    #1 1 year ago
  2. GwynbleiddiuM

    ***SPOILERS ALERT***
    —just in case Clupula haven’t played any of these— :-”

    TBH Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins did a lot of that. So there are very bright examples of those entanglements you and I crave for Dave, granted not enough. The reason that I really liked KOTOR II – a lot – was in fact the bounds you created with the people around you as you went on to face Darth Nihilus. And how Bastila gave in to the Dark Side when Malak manipulation combined tortures made her into thinking that all is lost why not embracing it. Or in Neverwinter Nights when you lose Lady Aribeth, I felt loss and I felt that a lot during my gaming career, mostly BioWare is willing to do those things even if the the quality of their work has been deteriorating a bit lately.

    BioWare also did a lot with SWTOR’s story, like when you corrupt Jaesa Willsaam, it was the most fun I had in a video game. Or when Malavali Quinn betrays you and he admits that he regrets his treachery but seen that there’s no way you can defeat Darth Baras.

    So there are very great shinning examples out there but it is depressing that the source of these usually is either BioWare or sometimes Obsidian.

    #2 1 year ago
  3. Talkar

    @2
    Those SWTOR moments were pretty good, i agree, but they could be soooo much more. With Jaesa you just force her to kill her master if memory serves me well. How fun wouldn’t it have been if you’d forced her to kill everyone she’s ever cared about? Or even do it yourself and then just watch her crack under the weight of it all and fully embracing the dark side?

    #3 1 year ago
  4. Un-HolyMOTHERofGOD

    It’s too early to read this much. I’ll try again later.

    #4 1 year ago
  5. Dave Cook

    @4 Did that really warrant a comment? :P

    #5 1 year ago
  6. deathm00n

    Great article Dave! And I agree, more games about the apocalypse happening right before your eyes would be nice!

    Talking about apocalypse games, one thing that I always think about is that we don’t have many of them that uses a different timeline, or another place in time. Fallout for example uses a timeline where the tech evolved only to war and people are stuck in the 50s. Dark/Demon’s Souls was some sort of medieval apocalypse. But beside those two universes we don’t have many other examples. I would love to see a medieval world being torned apart by dragons (you may think of skyrim, but with more impact, burned fields, old citys being taken as dragon nests). Or the egypt society being destroyed by their gods. Ancient China and Japan being overrun by their folklore.

    There’s a lot of options to create post-apocalyptic worlds, but we are stuck with the “our age overrun by zombies”.

    #6 1 year ago
  7. GwynbleiddiuM

    @3 Well as far as I remember it was just like that when you were searching for her. You seek everyone she knows and do do evil things with them. It was immensely fun to watch her crack before Nomen Karr, muhahahahhahahaaaaaa… you see it tickles me still. :D

    #7 1 year ago
  8. Dave Cook

    @1 & 6 Thanks guys :)

    #8 1 year ago
  9. bradk825

    @5 that reminds me of friends who like to post to facebook that they are hungry. Nobody gives a flying %^#$& just go eat!

    Anyway, fantastic editorial Dave. I agree that the best stories that really draw me in involve a little pain and sense of loss. If you can make someone feel a sense of loss when they are in real life not losing anything, that’s pro-fucking-ffesional storytelling. I like the “disaster in unfolding” situation better than the “there was a disaster and now there’s us” formula.

    I think some of the best stories that get labeled post-apocalypic are actually the apocalyse-in-progress.

    I hope to see more of a return to great, original storytelling soon. There have been some stale, recycled ideas out there lately. There are a significant number of gamers who need those deep stories to stay interested, myself included. Yes, I play the rinse and repeat games too, like CoD, for the gameplay and to play with friends, but when I game alone I need a good story to draw me in. My favourite novels are ones that contain strange events and strange consequences. (Currently about 25% into John Dies at the End and loving it)

    @4 Go back to bed.

    #9 1 year ago
  10. Digital Bamboo

    I can vaguely remember, as a young boy, watching a TV movie in which the people were so helpless, so desperate in their post-apocolyptic world that it was actually a bit disturbing to watch. I have no idea what it was, as I can only remember ruins, hiding, and some sort of terrible threat, but it sprang to mind when reading this.

    It was much lower budget than this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MOFsOA9VsBk but I found that trailer interesting.

    There are plenty of post-apocalyptic possibilities waiting to be tapped in books. Even though they are technically alternate history novels, several of Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century books–like Boneshaker & Ganymede–are begging to be made into games for any number of reasons (not the least which of being that they have strong female leads).

    Anyway just trying to say that there is no shortage of fresh apocalyptic stories, and no reason why any of us have to suffer through another I Am Legend.

    #10 1 year ago
  11. Cobra951

    Nice article. Right you are. The apocalypse games and movies are coming out of our ears by now. I much prefer the Fallout 3 and Borderlands approach to that of The Walking Dead and The Last of Us, though I don’t mind the more depressive path now and then, if the game is truly worth it. I don’t so much think of the former as power fantasies as I do control fantasies. You are in control of yourself and your destiny, and you have a fully fleshed-out world in which to live it. The games where mere survival is a constant challenge tend to force you down a narrow path, where all you can do is react, very seldom act. That gets tiresome for me rather quickly. In contrast, I can live in Bethesda’s worlds for months of real time.

    #11 1 year ago
  12. sh4dow

    You know, I agree with the core of this article but… “despite humanity’s best intent”? Really? I know (of) only a couple of humans where I would dare to speak of “best intentions”. And their behavior is in NO way mirrored by humanity by and large. “Humans” as a whole are such egoistic, greedy and brutal animals that speaking about “best intentions” when referring to them just seems ridiculous to me.

    Which is why while I actually agree with the article when it comes to what I would like to see from games, I’m not sure it it would be such a great idea overall.

    Why?

    Well, I am very much reminded of Game of Thrones. I have a love/hate relationship with that show (or rather with its viewers…) because I found the first episode so brutal and lacking in hope that I actually stopped watching after that. But while I stopped watching the show, I still had a tremendous amount of respect for it for what I felt was a brutally honest portrayal of a medieval setting.
    So… to sum up… I found it perfect because it shocked and disgusted me so much that I didn’t even want to find out what happens next.

    And then I went online and checked out why other people loved it and what they said.

    “This show is so awesome, men are still real men!”
    “Yeah, rape that bitch!”
    “That’s how you deal with criminals”

    And many, many more like that.
    In fact, I didn’t find a single comment from somebody who was upset by the bleakness of it all. Just some who were repulsed because of the violence. Which I find to be on a similarly shallow level as the quotes above.

    I actually even got to work on the show for a while and… virtually all of my male co-workers only referred to Daenerys as “broad”, “hot slut” and so on. Objectifying a rape victim (on top of it one that has a decidedly natural/cute appearance, unlike Paris Hilton and similar chicks) – that’s the average guy for you. (And before somebody thinks I’m actually male bashing here… no worries, female co-workers weren’t much better…)

    Which just goes to show that you can have great intentions, portray something with shocking realism that is supposed to upset people and make them think. But instead, most might instead get off on it!

    #12 1 year ago
  13. Dave Cook

    @9 & 11 Thank you for reading :)

    And yeah @ 9 I agree that the best stories are those that unfold before the player and both push and pull the player emotionally. More of them please :D

    #13 1 year ago
  14. Un-HolyMOTHERofGOD

    @5 I was joking. God, no one has a sense of humor on this website. I’m outta here. Let me go try Videogamer.com.

    #14 1 year ago
  15. Clupula

    You know, this article brings up my biggest complaint about Dead Space 2. When the game starts, all hell has already broken loose, and I couldn’t help but think that a better opening would have been to show the Sprawl as a living, breathing community before tearing everything to bloody chunks. We never got to see a functioning Ishimura. Seeing the Sprawl at full strength would have made what later happens tragic. I mean, just imagine seeing the nursery filled with light and laughter and, because this is a Dead Space game, you just know something horrible will happen there, but in the back of your mind, most people would then hope they’d never have to return to that area of the game.

    And then just imagine the extra impact of seeing that area again. HUGE missed opportunity, IMO.

    #15 1 year ago
  16. Clupula

    @14 – Usually, it has to be funny to count as a joke.

    #16 12 months ago
  17. sebastien rivas

    I agree with this article but with limited opinion.

    Yes indeed, there is only that much you can do with a genre/ theme and thanks to next gen capabilities that genre and themes survived so far.

    Although Expectation is what’s killing the genre and theme.
    This genre and theme is what it is and nothing more in the simplistic ideal of it a doomsday kill them all and perhaps gore tone to it.

    I for one do not buy all genre theme out there that falls in that category because I know it is a “bis-repetitas”.
    Though I cannot help myself but think and see I will have fun killing nazies on next Wolfenstein installment and to go even further and to make a point I am about to pre-order mad max.
    I know the game is not going to be stellar and I do not expect it to be, yet feeling the mad max world, ambience, vulgar intensity etc attracts me and that is all I expect from it which leaves room to surprises and perhaps good surprises.

    And to go even further than that. What do you expect in this game/ genre/theme.
    Take a look at an article yesterday, something about COD introducing deep story of 2 brothers or something like that. I do not play COD and I am not sure what its content is like for offline gameplay. The jokes that were made out of it are truthful to the eyes of the beholders but it also means is that they do not want to see this happening or with limited increments because they feel there is too little that could help the genre/theme/style.
    So what’s next for doomsday/apocalypse that would make you want to buy?
    A lala land killing mickeys with forks and spoons? “it might be fun actually”.

    But my point is that too many expect just too much such as a dream within a dream for a title. Gamers are not sure what but they sense something more can be done, and that is a great ideal but until you know and release that something that definitely helps the genre/theme then think about it, bring solution and in the meantime do NOT expect more than what it is going to be.

    #17 12 months ago