header is screenshot from Biomutant
Second Chances at the End of the World
Reid McCarter

Biomutant’s world seems like a wonderful place to live. Its landscapes are all rich green fields and clear blue skies, shimmering lakes, towering old growth forests, and cool canyon passes shaded from the brightness of the sun. Even the industrial fossils of rusted old cars, deteriorating highway overpasses, and abandoned buildings that stick out from its hills and plains—sometimes within areas poisoned or irradiated with cool emerald or warm ruby layers of mist—seem like charming artifacts of a bygone time, living museum exhibitions with no entry fee.

This pleasantness runs counter to what might be expected from the game’s premise, which is that humanity has gone extinct following a climate catastrophe that’s left only cute mutant animals in our wake. In fact, the entire society created by these creatures (including Biomutant’s protagonist, a one-eyed warrior fox-thing with no given name) seems designed to endear them to the player. Though we are clearly meant to take the threat posed by a faction of soldiers led by an authoritarian ferret in samurai armour+ seriously, that ferret is still undeniably adorable. The same effect holds true for every aspect of Biomutant’s world, from the polluted-but-still-inviting waters of its lakes through to the world-threatening giant monsters (or “World Eaters”) who look like gargantuan stuffed animals, complete with silky fur and dorky little googly eyes.

That Biomutant’s post-apocalyptic world isn’t positioned as a grim survivalist hellscape in the grand tradition of Mad Max, Dawn of the Dead, and their grubby-faced offspring is a fascinating thing—it’s what gives the game a sense of identity. Unlike so much of the genre, it's aimed, at least in part, at children: a kind of Baby's First Apocalypse. The disparity between its desire to portray a dangerous world and the cuddly, inviting, kid-friendly look of that world does create an incongruity, though, that reflects a sometimes uncomfortably naïve approach.

Biomutant’s post-collapse world, despite being described repeatedly as the result of short-sighted corporations driven by selfish profiteering to ruin Earth’s environment, is hardly a land of eternal torment. It’s a nice enough place. A world where monsters might try to eat the player character on sight, and pockets of radiation turn old neighbourhoods green, but where those monsters will be cute and fuzzy, and that radiation will wear off after a few minutes back in the plentiful clean air to be found nearby. Throughout the game, the protagonist is warned that their actions—almost always framed as a choice between selfishness and violence versus altruism and pacifism—will lead either to a post-post-apocalypse salvation or final (for really real this time) natural armageddon++. Divine punishment or salvation is positioned in Biomutant as a second-chance warning, a klaxon blaring that the animals who survived the first round of global extinction are allowed one more opportunity to get it right or deservedly find themselves as dead as their human predecessors.

This element of the post-apocalyptic story is more familiar to videogames than Biomutant’s more singular, cuddly aesthetic. In Fallout and Nier, The Last of Us and Metro, the survivors, either player controlled or pre-authored, are given an opportunity to learn the right lessons from their difficult lives and find themselves saved or damned in the process. (The Last of Us series, specifically, uses the possibility of personal redemption as the fulcrum for its narratives.) Their new versions of Earth may present a frightening potential reality where a comfortable life has been replaced by resource scarcity, ever-present violence, and nightmare landscapes filled with corpses and broken infrastructure, but the fact that life continues at all presents some level of hope—the characters’ continued existence, and their ability to try to forge a new, better reality, means that the calamities of nuclear war or viral contagions haven’t entirely won, at least.

In Biomutant, this last chance approach may work as an allegory for young players who can benefit from any fiction that warns against the existential dangers of climate change, but it falls down like all other stories of continuing post-collapse life simply because it refuses to comprehend the immense horror of a world fully, irreversibly destroyed in environmental collapse. It, ultimately, seems like a nice place to live. This is understandable in Biomutant’s case because it’s a game aimed at least in part at children—it’s a gentle fable that wants to impart a simple, uncomplicated message to an audience that can benefit from basic recognition of the issue at hand.

In a larger sense, though, post-apocalyptic games need to be more willing to do away with a narrative framework that sees end of the world scenarios as opportunities for great cosmic do-overs. As hard as it may be to look at the threat of wide-scale environmental collapse and properly depict it as the end of Earth as we know it, no other choice does justice to the gravity of our era+++.  

Humanity understandably has a hard time envisioning a world that’s been destroyed to the point that we—and any vestige of our influence—has been wiped from the Earth. We want to understand even a wholly secular armageddon through the same spiritual lens that allows us to rationalize the finality of our own deaths. We can’t visualize a fiction that accommodates the totality of our ecosystem’s final collapse. The extent of that terror is almost too much for our minds to hold, which is a point that, in the end, seems like the only appropriate starting place for apocalyptic stories that want to illustrate our most likely future more fully.    


+ A streak of weirdly unquestioned orientalism runs throughout Biomutant, informing many of its character designs, regional architecture, and its “wung-fu” fighting style and dualist morality system with context-free East and Southeast Asian cultural aesthetics.  

++ Though its environmental moralizing is usually aimed in the right direction (i.e., toward corporate polluters), the role-playing choice system assigns ultimate responsibility to individual actors. This message is about as useful as those that suggest one person remembering to turn off their faucet while brushing their teeth, sorting their recycling, and shopping with reusable bags can single handedly save the planet.

+++ One game that managed to square this circle, albeit cartoonishly, by couching its second-chance morality tale in fiction that actually reflects the horrors of a dead Earth is Outriders.


Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.