Why do videogames only ever show one kind of apocalypse?

There’s more to post-apocalyptic fictions than desert wastelands and nuclear disaster, but you’d never know it looking at the games we play.

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There is bravery inherent to apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic works of fiction. To attempt to portray the future of humankind in the wake of catastrophe, to imagine our species eking out a living in the smashed remnants of our former civilisation, this demands that a creator face up to the painful idea that our world as we know it will end. It requires the skill to create characters and situations that resonate with us, even though they are based in an ended world.

It is a field that has spawned some powerful, moving and thought provoking works. But for some reason, when it comes to videogames, this manifests itself as a lot of stories about men in deserts who look like they’re going to ice hockey practice in dune buggies and hordes of shambling zombies who have overwhelmed the army but can be resisted by isolated pockets of plucky survivors.

In general the post-apocalyptic scenarios tend to fall into these camps. The desert wastelands in the distant wake of a nuclear apocalypse have become a standard setting. The Fallout and Wasteland series set the tone here and both have endured to this day, albeit with something of a hiatus for Wasteland. With new Fallout and a Mad Max games coming this year this setting isn’t going away any time soon.

The alternative apocalypse in games tends to be disease-based, usually with a side-order of zombies or similar monsters so that our heroic survivors have somebody to kill. The Left 4 Dead, Last of Us and Resident Evil games all fit this profile.

There are a lot of appealing elements about setting a game after the fall of society. For example, you get to keep modern frames of reference and have relatable characters having adventures, being the big hero and shooting everybody they see. There’s a clear appeal to having a familiar hero unleashed in a suddenly hostile world and there is a sense that the fall of society is less of a tragedy in such games and more of a release, that the game is letting you know that you’re on your own and free to do what you like.

Something lacking in post-apocalyptic games, however, is the bravery that I spoke of at the start. During the Cold War a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction was based upon the idea that a catastrophic nuclear war had obliterated society. This fear was real, because between the Cuban Missile Crisis, a couple of near-misses and the collapse of the Soviet Union there was ample opportunity for the world to blow up. Looking back at films like Threads or When the Wind Blows, they spoke to a very real fear that world leaders might one day see fit to throw civilisation under the bus for reasons that probably wouldn’t have made a lot of sense to the people being vaporised on the streets of New York, London or Moscow.

Fast forward into the twenty-first century and for games at least the apocalyptic visions are either based in nostalgic worries about nuclear wars that never happened or the pure fantasy of a zombie horde. Where visions of the end of the world were once scary, now they are comfortable silliness. Here we are, as technologically advanced and for the most part as comfortable as our species has ever been, and we laugh at the notion that it might all end. We survived the Cold War and we got the Frankie Says T-shirts, so what is there to be scared of? Nothing, apparently.

Yet in the twenty-first century we face our own apocalypse. If climate change is not dealt with urgently then it will cause incalculable damage to civilisation as we know it, perhaps even destroy it. The science that is telling us that climate change is real and will have terrible consequences is as solid as the science that tells us what happens when a hydrogen bomb is detonated. But we don’t speak of it in fiction and especially not in video games, at least not often.

Herein is the problem endemic to video games with a post-apocalyptic setting. They don’t have the courage to be gloomy. Games have been post-apocalyptic and had downbeat stories, such as The Last of Us or The Walking Dead, but these games are still careful to ensure that the actual apocalypse itself is fantastical. There has been no equivalent to these games dealing with problems that might or are actually occurring.

Even when a game touches upon climate change it is seldom willing to see it as a bad thing. Anno 2077 is set after the seas have risen and the old world order has collapsed, and it ends up being a cutesy city building game where you build thriving super-modern metropolises on islands. Civilisation: Beyond Earth sees the collapse of Earth’s ecosystem as the trigger for a space adventure. The end of the world is seen as a kick in the pants to start a glorious new age. The design fixation of games, to go forward and build bigger is completely at odds with a reality that is screaming at us to dial everything back if we are to avoid catastrophe.

Ironically, one game that has looked at the contemporary consequences of severe climate change is Attila: Total War, a game set in the fifth century. By having the world get colder it demonstrates what can happen when habitable spaces shrink and people are crammed into what remains. It is no small feat of design to set a game in the dark ages and have it resonate with contemporary concerns, from climate change to mass migration and the gradual collapse of established power structures.

In the end, games love dune buggies and deserts and shooting zombies in the face. They love levelling up, unlocking new things, expanding into new lands. They don’t love entropy and they don’t love loss. We have seen great games in post-apocalyptic settings, but we might never see a game that evokes the sort of real world dread that a post-apocalyptic story should.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture