Yesterday morning, as I watched the E3 stream of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, déjà vu simmered in my head. Here, yet again, our intrepid hero makes his way through a dying civilization, a young Link exploring a Hyrule whose denizens have all but forgotten the glory of eons past. He will traverse monolithic ruins, face once-proud creatures who have descended into hysteria, and survive with little help from the few civil beings who remain. Sound familiar? This demonstration, along with others at E3, reminded me of a question I’ve been mulling over for years: why are developers so fixated on decay?
Perhaps it’s the survival fever that’s gripped the industry for the past few years. Maybe it’s a reaction to nostalgia running rampant across video game culture. It could even be that I’m over-generalizing my own experiences, and I’m somehow drawn to post-apocalyptic games like a bee to flowers.
Whatever the case, if you’re a dedicated gamer, chances are some of your favorite games take place in decaying civilizations. In Fallout, for example, the world has been ravaged by nuclear war, leaving post-apocalyptic America in ruins and sparsely populated. The series begins 84 years after the atomic cataclysm, yet humanity is still struggling to survive in crumbling 21st century buildings.
In Dark Souls, Lordran is largely populated by undead, who wander aimlessly through the ruins of a once impressive nation. Their gods are either dead or have fallen from grace, and you must put those who remain out of their misery. As a rule, any still-human characters you encounter are either depressed, senile, or in some way psychotic. The few kind and cheerful NPCs usually have something to gain from your friendship.
In Bioshock, the immense underwater city of Rapture is advertised as a veritable utopia, its citizens freely enhancing their bodies and minds with plasmids and gene tonics. By the time you get there, of course, things have been going terribly wrong for quite some time. The questionable safety of unchecked genetic tampering has become a focal point of life in Rapture, and the city’s authoritarian architect has been exposed as an unhinged megalomaniac. The player doesn’t get to witness Rapture’s descent into chaos, only the aftereffects.
For some reason, game developers seem allergic to fully-realized civilizations, societies which rise and fall on a whim. That is, they love to show you the post-apocalypse, but never the apocalypse itself. Despite my many gripes with Fallout 4, one thing it did extremely well was introduce the player to Boston. Not post-apocalyptic Boston, mind you, but Boston as it was before the bombs dropped.
What made Fallout 4’s prologue so powerful was how Bethesda tackled the horror of nuclear war head-on, rather than just plopping us into the wasteland in media res and hoping we got the picture. You see your happy wife and child, your charming home complete with spotless appliances and a white picket fence. You watch with concern as the grave news of impending war is reported on your TV. You observe as those left out of the vault desperately claw at the fence, pleading with the impassive soldiers in a hopeless attempt to escape incineration. As you and your family descend underground, you catch a glimpse of a mushroom cloud rising above the city you call home, and are forced to consider the fate of the human beings left behind as the shockwave passes over you. Bethesda doesn’t leave you guessing what happened, they don’t tell you what happened in a diary entry, they show it to you. They portray the glory of American civilization, its corporate corruption, and its abrupt demise all in a few minutes. Fallout 4 gives you the whole tale right from the get-go.
There are plenty of other recent examples of games set in ruins, such as the Tomb Raider reboot, Pillars of Eternity, Battleborn, and numerous survival-horror offerings like Day-Z and 7 Days to Die. Additionally, Zelda isn’t the only game following this trend at E3. The bizarre trailer for Hideo Kojima’s new IP, Death Stranding, has spawned numerous fan theories that the game will be focused on the aftermath of an environmental catastrophe. The main character, played by Norman Reedus of Walking Dead fame, wakes up on a beach surrounded by dead ocean life, including crabs, whales, and various fish. The speculation goes that these carcasses were produced either by an oil spill, by overfishing, or by the draining of the oceans. Whether or not any of these suspicions end up being correct, Kojima has confronted mass destruction before in his games, and it wouldn’t be a stretch for him to do so again.
Horizon Zero Dawn, a game announced at last year’s E3, is one of the most original takes I’ve seen on the “corroded civilization” archetype. After the extensive gameplay footage revealed this week, we have a much clearer idea of the universe Killzone developer Guerrilla Games is creating. Horizon’s premise, in short, is that mechanized creatures have taken over an Earth abandoned by humans in a bygone age. These robotic animals range from giant metal dinosaurs to towering H.G. Wells influenced walkers. There are even smaller “species” that the player-character, Aloy, can hack and use as mounts. Aloy is a hunter-gatherer, and survives by tracking and destroying the more impressive automatons, taking their high-tech parts as her trophies. Of the upcoming post-apocalyptic games we’ve seen so far, Horizon seems the most promising from a narrative standpoint, and it’s certainly unique as AAA games go. If the gameplay is good and the RPG dialogue elements are done well, it could be a classic.
Days Gone, another new IP revealed in the Sony conference, is a less pioneering continuation of the ubiquitous zombie apocalypse trend, this time with a biker theme. As the title suggests, what story details we’ve seen are heavily nostalgia-tinged, and the protagonist Deacon St. John longingly yearns for his life before civilization collapsed. In the trailer, he experiences vivid flashbacks of his girlfriend (or wife, as far as we know), and he remembers all the little details of the day he lost everything. Now, he’s a nomad, with only a motorcycle and gun to his name. Especially for PC gamers, who’ve been inundated with zombie shooters, this setup might seem eye-rollingly cliché, but there’s a reason why Bend Studio chose this direction.
There’s an undeniable romance to survival-horror games like Days Gone, even if they’re a bit old-hat by now. Feelings of wistfulness and sentimentality for the past are a conspicuous part of the human experience, and coming to terms with drastic changes in our life is a struggle we all have in common. This, I believe, is at the heart of why post-apocalyptic games are so fashionable. The fantasy of an irreversible cataclysm is compelling for an extraordinarily broad audience, as is the image of a lone wanderer uncovering mysteries from the past. In an era where both developers and publishers are trying to reach as many new customers as possible, doomsday adventures and video games are a match made in corporate heaven.
Of course, there are some series which explore thriving cultures in their prime, but they are usually tethered to real-world events and figures, as in Civilization and Total War. Too few recent games have tackled the challenge of depicting a prosperous society in a completely fictional sense, with limited grounding in reality. Perhaps this would pose an unsupportable challenge for most developers given the lofty expectations of today’s gaming public, but I know I’m not the only one looking for a little less doom and gloom in my AAA experiences. Give me lively cities to explore, bustling with daily commerce, rude and polite citizens alike, and most importantly conflict that isn’t contrived.
To some degree, largely because of the success of games like Bioshock and Fallout, many developers have forgotten how to create an engaging universe that doesn’t rely on the crutch of global (or galactic) disaster. I want truly original games that are brought back down to earth; I don’t need to save the world again as Nathan Drake or Commander Shepherd. I’m fine with simply stealing a car in Grand Theft Auto V, or haggling a shopkeeper to give me a better price. When those seemingly modest mechanics are done correctly, it’s so much more intriguing than fire and brimstone.
It’s important for developers to remember that subtle interactions between people, characters, and environments can have as much dramatic gravitas as global annihilation. It’s alright to make games like DOOM 2016, where the end of the world becomes a running joke, but that’s because Id’s writers don’t take the plot too seriously. They understand context, and recognize we’ve been hearing about demonic invasions since the Book of Revelation came out in 96 A.D. Id doesn’t pretend they came up with hell on earth, they’re making fun of hell on earth (or in this case Mars).
The industry would do well to learn from DOOM’s example, and lay off the straight-laced tone. A growing group of gamers are sick of being expected to take zombies super seriously several times a year. Even games without zombies could loosen up a bit and not pretend to be the second coming of Shakespeare… looking at you Watch Dogs 2.
I understand that script writers need conflict to make a story interesting, but there are plenty of great stories that don’t involve played out tropes like undead and nukes. If big publishers don’t want to take risks on gameplay, they can at least start innovating on the narrative front. Bring in writers who know how to craft a story that isn’t a cliché ridden mess, and don’t pull a Bungie when they produce something unique.
Am I just imagining this trend? Are you still enamored games set in ruins? Want to see something new from AAA developers, or maybe something a little brighter? What about more humorous releases, like South Park: Fractured But Whole? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
Image credits: pcinvasion.com; fallout.wikia.com; gamesradar.com; forbes.com