In most industries, describing something as barren, disheartening, and largely devoid of life is usually a criticism. Yet 2019 shows that video games set during the post-apocalypse remain big business for Triple-A publishers – so much so that we’ve already been treated to Far Cry New Dawn, Metro: Exodus, and most recently The Division 2’s respective interpretations of the doomsday scenario. And who could forget Days Gone? By now we’re all accustomed to forging a path of hope through a ravaged Earth. Fair enough!
If anything, I guess we should feel lucky that it’s solely through these incredibly detailed and well-realised worlds that we get to experience such dire circumstances. But how do developers keep as popular a setting as the post-apocalypse interesting, original and different? It's not like we're short of them, so what separates a convincing futureshock from an also-ran?
“In order to make an apocalypse convincing it needs to be a bit unnerving,” suggests Emil Kraftling, game director on Avalanche Games’ Generation Zero, an open-world game that pits players against mechs in an alternate 1980s Sweden. For him, creating an explorable wasteland that’s evocative for players to roam around in is occasionally all about what you don’t tell them. “Very often our storyteller desire for exposition makes us want to give a God’s eye view of what has happened,” he says, “[but it’s] more harrowing to not have the full picture, because that is not what you would have in real life.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean developers leave their post-apocalypse entirely free of lore or explanation – more that holding a few cards to your chest pays dividends when it comes to encouraging players to poke around and discover things for themselves. This proves especially true for Generation Zero, which is not only a post-apocalyptic game in the traditional sense, but a multiplayer-driven one looking to reinforce the importance of co-operation for survival.
Kraftling cites Generation Zero’s Swedish wilderness as unique in that it doesn’t fling players into the far future, instead representing more of a ‘day after disaster’ scenario. “We wanted to create an experience that felt like a hostile trek through a familiar landscape, where the world wasn’t destroyed or decayed, with ruined and pillaged locations in five shades of brown,” he says. “It should feel like the everyday world was abandoned overnight. Electricity still working and lights on in houses and on the streets, food left on the tables, cars standing along the roads. The seemingly harmless, normal lush countryside, just populated with these unknown roaming enemies that make it dangerous to move around, as you try to find out what has happened.”
Near future or not, Generation Zero marks a fresh post-apocalyptic rendition from the studio that has already enjoyed cult success with 2015’s Mad Max game. It believes in the setting so much, in fact, that Rage 2 (another game developed with Avalanche’s involvement) also uses it – albeit in a more tongue-in-cheek manner. Far Cry standalone New Dawn shared a similar affection for pink neon when it released this past February, swapping browns and greys for a glitzier colour palette.
According to New Dawn’s narrative director, James Nadiger, this tonal shakeup made to the post-apocalypse’s typical seriousness was a fresh overhaul only something as chaotic as the Far Cry formula could bring. In this instance, it wasn’t a case of a game being influenced by its setting – quite the reverse. “I think the Far Cry experience is very suited to a post-apocalypse setting,” he says. “We have a lush, inviting open world that’s filled with dangerous predators, as well as strange and interesting people to meet as you take on Mickey and Lou’s Highwaymen army.”
“In the 17 years between [this and Far Cry 5], without a large human population to get in the way, nature has reclaimed the world very aggressively,” Nadiger continues. “We leveraged a natural phenomenon called the ‘superbloom’ in order to create an apocalypse that was still dangerous, but also a place where you’d want to spend a lot of time exploring.” Mother Nature taking back her territory has been tapped countless times in other media’s fiction, but it’s true that videogames might not have pulled its weight in this regard. At a push one thinks of Ninja Theory’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West; itself – wouldn’t you know – loosely based on a classic Chinese novel.
Regardless of whether a withered landscape leans into browns and greys or elects for a more optimistic expression of the world’s collapse, there are always challenges in setting your game there. “The immediate danger with portraying an apocalypse is that generally apocalyptic conflict of some sort needs to play out,” Kraftling reveals. “That often means population, which means characters, which is generally expensive. Post-apocalypse avoids this by skipping over the whole ‘everyone perished in spectacular fashion’ bit, making it a more attractive point of entry. In Generation Zero, people [have] disappeared mysteriously as you return from an excursion away from civilisation, which conveniently helps with that bit.”
Sticking with the technical barriers of keeping an apocalypse accurate in-universe, sometimes it means having to be a bit cleverer with certain features that have become commonplace. “One of the opportunities we were excited to explore in New Dawn was the idea that you can’t buy things in stores anymore,” Nadiger tells me, “and that in order to survive, you’d have to do the best you could with whatever was at hand.” This conundrum meant that the philosophy of ‘makeshift” played a key role for Ubisoft in New Dawn’s crafting system more so than in any Far Cry game before it, “and in the way you upgrade [the home base of] Prosperity with ethanol.”
Such a scenario leads me to wonder what exactly we as players get out of exploring a world that has suddenly been made lesser than the fully populated one we inhabit in real life every day. Video games have always been about escapism to a certain extent, but what is it about fighting for survival within the post-apocalypse that appeals to us so much?
“I think it is one part the classic ‘untamed frontier’, where you explore a lawless land where all bets are off and the other part is the lure of ‘the familiar’ gone awry,” suggests Kraftling. “It is somehow exciting to imagine a world that is still our normal one, but where the comfort and convenience have been shifted so hard that the value of everything we know and take for granted is turned on its head. From gadgets to buildings, the perspective of everything is different through the post-apocalyptic lens. We explored many of these aspects in Mad Max, taking everyday objects and reimagining what value or purpose they would have in a post-apocalyptic world, but even in the ‘recent apocalypse’ setting of Generation Zero this also comes into play.”
Nadiger has a brighter perspective on why interactive apocalypses prove so tempting. “One of the interesting things in apocalypse fiction is that even though there is the term ‘The End of the World,’ the world doesn’t actually end,” he says. “Life goes on, and people have to find a way to get through whatever happens next. I also think that despite ominous settings, there’s opportunities to create stories about hope: the idea that something new can be created from the ashes of something that’s dead and gone.”
Maybe that’s why post-apocalyptic settings are such a lure for video games. They remind us that no matter how dark the Earth has become, as long as we strive to make it better, there is always hope.