I think many of the popular videogame genres remain popular, partly, because of how convenient they are for videogames and game-makers. These genres have risen in prominence largely because they allow games to concentrate their energies and capacity on what they are, presumably, good at, which is escapism and enjoyment, and away from what they are, evidentially, not good at, which is addressing with any deftness or substance the realities of our own lives. I see most games, from the point of conception, as designed to not only circumvent issues of reality and humanity, but to make doing so feel like it is valuable, and if not completely worthy artistically, certainly worthy for the sake of entertainment. Videogame culture has completed a successful propaganda campaign to convince people that what games should do, and should only do, is provide at least highly simplified and distorted pictures of real life, and at most, an encompassing distraction or even replacement for real life entirely. The apocalypse genre, I think, has been fundamental to this campaign.
The apocalypse, as a proposition, carries with it a considerable gravitas—there are examples of post-apocalyptica played for laughs (Will Forte’s The Last Man on Earth, Zombieland, the Dead Island games) but the presentation of an ended world where everyone is either dead or on their way carries, inherently, a level of seriousness above, say, a racing game or a beat ’em up. Post-apocalyptica also invites, by its generic nature, the presentation of characters who are dealing with brutality and hardship. Protagonists in post-apocalyptic games are survivors (Left 4 Dead), protectors (The Walking Dead), and bereft parents and children (Fallout 4 and Fallout 3 respectively). Circumstantially deprived of all material and social comforts, like family or “anyone they can trust,” they face a bleak existence which, again, by its nature, implies a level of literary spirit and uncompromise—this is a hard life, with hard people in hard situations, and so, a hard story. Post-apocalyptic games often invite players to make morally loaded decisions, such as whether to loot the abandoned car full of groceries in the “Starved for Help” episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, or save or doom the trapped residents of Vault 34 in Fallout: New Vegas. (Narrative contrivance ensures that saving them will result in irradiated water poisoning nearby crops and potentially starving dozens, but the crops can only be saved by disabling the Vault’s reactor, thus killing the inhabitants.) Again, with a hard world comes a hard life and a hard experience on the player. Post-apocalyptic games seem to capture, or at least make a metaphor of, the various personal and moral dilemmas we face in everyday life. Is doing the most good eventually worth doing the most evil now, or is there nobility in simply doing the right thing, in a cosmic sense, regardless of the tangible consequences?
But the choices offered by apocalyptic games—and the moral oeuvre that supposedly derives from them—is supremely limited in scope, or at least, limited in scope much more than the games would necessarily suggest. The objective of these games, often stated repetitively by the characters, is to survive. When you choose to steal the groceries from the car, it is to survive; when you opt to steal from the harmless old couple’s house in This War of Mine—not an apocalypse game in the speculative, global sense of the word, but still couched in the same game mechanics and decisions—you do so in order to survive; a call to action for the characters and for the player.
It comes from the film, Fury Road, rather than the licensed game by Avalanche, but this line from Mad Max helps encapsulate and illustrate the moral singularity of the apocalypse genre, where decisions right or wrong are replaced with decisions either conducive or inconducive to survival: “So I exist in this wasteland, a man reduced to a single instinct: survive.” This creates an emotional, psychological and experiential convenience for game-makers, whereby the complex morality of our normal lives can be abstracted, condensed, compacted into simple left-or-right, blue-or-red binary decisions, but without seeming to lose seriousness or gravitas. When a decision is framed as the fulcrum on which a character’s, or group of characters’, very survival turns, that decision naturally attends a certain quantity of meaning and narrative or thematic heft—it seems very important, and makes the game seem very important, and bold, and smart, for having presented the decision in the first place.
In reality, something which apocalypse games–particularly The Walking Dead and (though it’s a looser fit) This War of Mine–purport to capture, our choices are impelled by more than a simple "help survive" versus "does not help survive" metric binary. Our reasons for choosing can be oblique and mysterious even to ourselves; the oblique and the mysterious being notoriously, formally, difficult to render in videogames, which typically rely on a hard input-produces-predictable-output dynamic. If you choose the right, conducive-to-survival thing in videogames, it follows, in the same way that spending time aiming for a headshot generates the reward of an instant kill, that in response to your effort you will experience the good or “right” consequence. Positive choices—save rather than harvest the Little Sister in Bioshock—are expected to produce positive results: the good ending. Survival games allow for these simplified, truncated types of decisions to still appear as if they have some weight and meaning, as they are framed as life or death. You do not have to think about your actions, and game-makers do not have to consider their residual effects beyond simple survival or non-survival, but the decisions still feel impactful, crucial, and somehow true of the harshness of reality, a convenient metaphor for truth that does not require much exploration. It is an ideal cake-and-eat-it type situation, where apocalypse games, same as other games, don’t wish or really try to address or capture the details of reality and real, emotion-driven decision-making—your choices are binary, and only involve a simple, single motivating factor, which is survival. But that single motivating factor, survival, makes apocalypse games feel like they are in fact addressing or capturing something serious about reality—life and death. They’re as disinterested and distant from material real-world representation as any other videogame, but manage to kind of smuggle that through customs via the formal tropes and narrative archetypes of the apocalypse and survival genres.
It’s a paradigm embodied by Joel from The Last of Us, an emotionally stunted middle-aged man unwilling to confront the full complexity of himself, and unable to reconcile and move on from the death of his daughter, Sarah. His final decision, to “save” Ellie rather than allow her to sacrifice herself in order to produce a cure to the cordyceps virus, reflects his stubborn preference for the moral simplicity of the apocalyptic world, but at the same time, is framed as a complicated, altruistic act of personal goodness. If Joel lets Ellie do what she wants, the apocalypse will end and real life with all of its complex moral dilemmas will eventually return, whereas if he “rescues” her, he can sustain the simple binary of his world, perfect for him and his inability to confront life or his true personality, while still regarding and framing his actions as “good”, since he stopped Ellie from dying. Just as apocalypse and survival games present moral choices in order to boast or effectuate some kind of narrative, thematic or emotional complexity, but in fact only present choices that rely on a very simple decision-making process, to the exclusion of the abstract and human psychological factors that decision-making genuinely requires, Joel does something that superficially appears good or valiant, but in fact is designed to maintain the simple, binary dynamic of his world, and his equally simplistic worldview which allows him to live with himself.
Videogames love the apocalypse because it makes choice and morality simplistic and easy to mechanize, or mechanify. Joel loves the apocalypse for similar reasons. It provides him an excuse to continue repressing his emotions, act on impulse, and continue to have, as an experienced survivalist, some kind of purpose. If videogame choices attempted to render the full, or at least a fuller range of the thought and emotional processes that actually go into deciding, this would require a total re-evaluation of game mechanics, as decisions are rarely a matter–of-fact case of input generating output. Likewise, if Joel were to allow Ellie to sacrifice herself, like she wanted, this would volunteer a total reappraisal of himself as a person—he would no longer be valuable, like he is in the apocalyptic world, and would have to recover or construct some form of identity beyond being a bereaved father, willing to do whatever it takes to protect the life of his surrogate daughter. For both videogames and for Joel, the apocalypse becomes a kind of personal, psychological utopia, whereby they can both continue to act in a way that ignores or chooses not to wrestle with the full range of human experience, while still appearing in some way noble or involved.
The only thing worse, in this case, than the end of the world, becomes the end of the end of the world.
Ed Smith is one of the co-founders of Bullet Points Monthly. His Twitter handle is @esmithwriter.