We explore the enduring fascination of the end of the world.
Fallout 4, Horizon Zero Dawn, Mad Max, Fallout – all these games and more are set in wasted futures where humanity is near, or came close to, shuffling off the mortal coil. While most games aren’t post-apocalyptic, a quick scan of pop-culture at the moment reveals that much of what we enjoy watching, reading, and playing, is set after the end of the world as we know it. But why the hell is an apocalypse such a popular way of setting things up?
First up, let’s look at where post-apocalyptic stories have come from.
Early post apocalyptic stories belong to myth, religion, and folklore. From tales of treasure troves and lost cities buried, to creation myths and flood myths, and finally end-times stories, these were the things many of our ancestors were schooled in. It wasn’t until the 19th century that we saw the classic apocalyptic fiction tales; The Last Man, After London, The Time Machine. Stories like these varied between catastrophic destruction that people lived through, and the ‘Dying Earth’ subgenre, which dealt with the inevitable end of the earth.
The twentieth Century brought advances to warfare that were beyond anything seen before; industrial mechanization allowed for armies to be armed at machine-gun pace; tanks, artillery, hand-held artillery, aerial bombing, and nuclear proliferation all demonstrated how damaging war could be. The next catastrophe no-longer seemed to be caused by biological or cosmological factors, it seemed more likely that an inevitable human extinction would be man-made. Under the shadow of the atom, post-apocalyptic literature flourished. The effects of these weapons not only allowed for a greater understanding of the apocalypse; it demanded one.
So, why are these stories so enduring?
Post-apocalyptic stories give players a license to kill, and writers a license to thrill; nothing is more guilt-free in exploring, or exploiting, gory murders and wasted city-scapes than a time unconnected to modern wars and tragedies. For instance, Stalker and Metro let us see a ruined Russia whose state of decay is detached from the conflicts which have occurred, and are occurring in Eastern Europe.
These settings are also an easy way to set up for writers and creators to try and impart themes of triumph, endurance, and journeys; stories like The Last of Us reveal how nature thrives in the absence of humanity. On the other hand, something like Fallout shows how harmful 50’s pseudoscience, nuclear and wartime fascination, and belligerent nationalism – all of which we can’t confidently say belong to another time – can be to us and our planet. An apocalyptic environment impresses itself onto the audience and characters; it’s interesting, liberating even, to see how people survive in the ruins of the modern age, looking at the world with either the eyes of a Romantic, or a forward-thinking Enlightenment-esque bent. Questions about what we would become in absence of civility are swiftly answered, while fantasies of frontier justice are easily brought about from the barrel of a gun.
We humans have a real ruin fascination. Read Shelly’s Ozymandias to see a prime example of why; walking around through ruins, it’s easy to get the impression that the current sets of powers and empires will go the way of the old world. This is why tourism often focuses on seeing ruined temples and cities, why people often construct follies and false ruins. Hell! It’s this fascination with death and entropy, endemic to human nature, which makes people explore modern ruins like the dilapidated buildings in Detroit, or Chernobyl – a city purposefully preserved in semi-rot to make it attractive for tourists.
It’s not hard to find left-over holdouts of older cultures and ways of life, still living much like their famed ancestors did. So many of these games allow for striking visuals of decayed cities, the ruins of the modern age; ruins which we’d either look on with a sense of nostalgia, longing, and perhaps some deep-seated caution, or they’re just fancy window dressing, the vision of a future-imperfect never to come.
That said, quite a few apocalypses are portrayed cosier than they should be; though ‘the world as we know it’ is over, eternal canned food, used-but-workable technology, and endless sources of dilapidated shelter and mouldy clothes (which could be easily fixed, but aesthetic reasons) are everywhere. These half-assed elements can especially be seen in Fallout, which can’t seem to decide if its denizens are going to raise themselves out if the wastes, or fall into a neo-Neolithic age at any minute.
Frankly, a post-apocalypse is a cheap and easy way to get some genuine escapism. Want to experience a noir-city with the Aussie outback at its borders? Nuclear apocalypse. Want to live underground in a story with magic-realism elements? Russian nuclear apocalypse. It’s easy, guilt-free, and damned fun to boot, not to mention the opportunity for good storytelling. Sure, not all post-apocalyptic stories are great, *coughBeyondThunderdomecough* but then, is any genre replete with greatness? While there’s plenty of abandoned factories and structures, wasted neighbourhoods and left-over test sites, nothing can match the appeal of the fantastic; the mind leaps into these worlds to draw up something more real than reality.
Ultimately, the power of post-apocalyptic tales is their ability to let audiences, players or otherwise, step into a world post-civilisation and see whether we would or wouldn’t make it, if and how we could re-establish ourselves, and see all sorts of sites, touring through and paling around the bones of skyscrapers that were the giants of the last hundred years.