The Newfound Relevance of Postapocalyptic Video Games

The Last of Us Video Game - Image 2 -PlayStation Products Publicity-H 2020
Courtesy of PlayStation
Games like 'The Last of Us,' 'Fallout' and 'Days Gone' give players an opportunity to consider how our actions now shape the future and to make decisions that push us away from any postapocalyptic scenario becoming a reality.

A pandemic has swept the world. Supplies are running short, and we’re forced to make do with what we have. The streets are empty, save for those who traverse them out of need or foolishness. True leadership has all but disappeared, and we’re beginning to understand just how elusory money is. And then there are the people.

If they’re not physically infected, then a certain kind of mental degradation is setting in as this new world drives them with a compulsion to devour, making quick work of store supplies and leaving empty shelves in their wake. They are, as they have always been, consumers to the end. And what’s that sound? A haunting rendition of John Lennon’s "Imagine" serving as the only soundtrack in this hell. 

This is March 2020, and it’s pretty much the same across the globe. This current state of reality has not been lost on those who have spent a lifetime familiarizing themselves with postapocalyptic fiction, not only watching and reading it, but playing it.

Postapocalyptic video games have set the tone for what many are now experiencing, and those who feel a need to clench a controller in their hands have had years of preparation for this scenario. Fallout 4, Far Cry: New Dawn, The Last of Us, Mad Max, Horizon Zero Dawn, Days Gone; while all these games share commonalities with each other, they are so often set apart by their characters and the manner in which they arrived to their wasteland.

Fallout offers a look at the aftermath of nuclear devastation following The Great War. Far Cry: New Dawn also features the aftermath of nuclear war, though this time it was a war fought against doomsday cultists rather than soldiers. Mad Max, a hidden gem in the current gaming cycle inspired by George Miller’s film series, sees the world descend into madness after gas and water shortages. Horizon: Zero Dawn finds mankind laid low and forced to revert to primitive ways after the AI meant to save the world goes out of control. Days Gone features a world overrun by Freaker Hordes, not-quite zombies and not quite human, while those that remain of humanity are driven by death wishes and hedonism. And The Last of Us, the best of this bunch, features an outbreak of mutant Cordyceps fungus that has left most of humanity transformed, and the rest hurting and hostile. Those are the ways the world ends, and they certainly give T.S. Eliot a run for his money.

Over the past few years, gamers have become increasingly adept at traversing the realistic ruins of societies ended by pandemic, scrounging for scraps, making medicine out of plants, forging weapons and taking down all manner of terrors, from mechanical to monstrous to mankind itself. There is a clear hunger for these types of postapocalyptic games. The Last of Us Remastered and Horizon Zero Dawn are two of the PlayStation 4’s best-selling titles (at No. 3 and No. 5, respectively), while Xbox One’s best-selling titles include Gears of War 4 and Dead Rising 3 at No. 5 and No. 6. 

The easy answer to their sales is that these games often tend to be the most visually interesting, with developers allowed to imagine new worlds on the foundation of the old and to graft all manner of novel weapon types, armor and enemies. And there’s a shorthand in terms of lore that is easier to achieve than with building a fantasy world from scratch, as in fantasy offerings such as Dragon Age or God of War. And of course, none of these games are in short supply of action, featuring challenging gun fights that can be mixed up with stealth and melee action. But there seems to be something else at play with these postapocalyptic and pandemic-centric games as well, another reason we’re enamored with those ruined structures, barely standing at the twilight of Earth’s lifespan.

Why are we drawn back to postapocalyptic games over and over again? We have a clear need to prove our ability to survive, even if it’s only through an onscreen avatar. No one really wants to deal with the burden of the end of the world, but there is a certain fantasy and wish fulfillment that finds us imagining what it would be like, whether we could thrive when separated from the comforts of modern life and forced to live out life like our ancestors hundreds and thousands of years in the past.

It is, I’d wager, why zombie films became so popular at the start of the millennium. Every major turning point we experience on a global scale becomes reflected in our art, and we can’t help but reflect on how we got to this point and, also, where we’ll end up should we continue down this path. Many of these postapocalyptic games aren’t simply about fighting for survival, but reflecting on our world and the impact of global warming and lack of leadership, like in Horizon, or the ramifications of putting the spotlight on “truther bullshit,” like in Days Gone. As much fun as these games are to play, designers and creative directors have a lot more on their minds than the best mods you can get for your gun and how much coin is waiting in that hidden bunker.

Unlike the survival skills of our ancestors, who had the promise of a better future, the postapocalyptic scenario finds us grappling with the idea that this is the end. Even new beginnings feel like temporary measures that could leave us unfulfilled. It’s why the actions and decisions of certain video game protagonists, like Joel in The Last of Us, hit us so hard, because we’re dealing with people whose values have shifted. Sometimes that shift results in expressions of violence that suggest an inability to see the value of human life, and perhaps an inability to even cope with reality.

But in other cases, we see characters learn to care about something or someone beyond themselves, even if the path to get there deviates from our current understandings about the value of life, freedom and democracy. In the case of Joel, and his relationship with his surrogate daughter, Ellie, the life of the one carries far more importance than the lives of the many because the value of familial bonds seem to hold more promise than those of the societal.

Just to be clear, the COVID-19 pandemic, as serious as it is, isn’t the end of the world, although it may feel like it sometimes. And threats that are affecting people around the globe as a result of this virus are not a video game scenario. But a number of the aforementioned video games have given us an insight into the struggle for survival and our fascination with it, that has no doubt tinged our responses, those humorous, fearful and hopeful to this situation that affects us all.

The biggest takeaway from those games, in terms of our current situation, isn’t to collect ammo, grow callous and give in to conspiracy. Rather, it is that we have an opportunity to consider how our actions now shape the future and to make decisions that push us away from any postapocalyptic scenario becoming a reality. And like those games, there’s a lot of aspects we can’t command, but the important things, the crucial ones that bring us together, are in our control.