I admit to having a morbid fascination with the apocalypse, but I know I’m not alone. The concept of the apocalypse has been on mankind’s collective minds since the beginning of written history. Nearly every ancient society believed that the end was nigh and we should prepare accordingly. Beyond the religious reasons for considering the end of days, people also wonder what happens after the apocalypse. We are used to the idea of civilization protecting us from lawlessness, guaranteeing us a certain standard of living and establishing a communal identity.
What happens when the state, due to some calamity, can no longer protect its citizens? We find the idea simultaneously horrifying and exhilarating. The cause of the apocalypse is of little consequence so long as the normal rules do not apply. Massive epidemics, natural disasters and even the rise of the undead all provide ample opportunity for lawless adventure and tales of survival.
Media representations of the apocalypse are as diverse as they are numerous. The story of Noah and the Flood and the entire Book of Revelations are both to some extent fantastic representations of the End. The birth of cinema brought with it more conceptions of apocalyptic events that were reflections of the times. The original Godzilla film is argued to be a expression of latent Japanese fears of a post-nuclear world. American pulp science fiction produced in the fifties may also mirror similar fears. Today, cinematic representations of the End include natural disaster films reflecting anxiety of global weather change. Literature too also reflects contemporary fears. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a dark masterpiece that tackles the question of parenthood and morality after the fall of civilization. The work is simply the best depiction of the apocalypse of our generation.
Video games are following the same path as literature and cinema with respect to the apocalypse. In recent years, the ravaged wastelands of post-apocalyptic civilization have become the central settings of popular titles. Video game apocalypses provide players with a unique experience that film and literature cannot: in video games, the player becomes an active participant in the post-apocalyptic world. Instead of imagining what it would be like to live in a harsh lawless world, the player is expected to thrive in such an environment.
In order to gain an appreciation for how apocalyptic video games are reflections our society, I would like to compare two games dealing with the apocalypse. One game was developed in the U.S. and the other in the Ukraine. The differences between the two games shine a light on American culture.
The first game I want to discuss is Fallout 3. Released in 2008 for the PC, PS3 and the 360, Fallout 3 is belated follow-up to a classic series of role-playing games for the PC. The Fallout universe is predicated upon an alternate retro-futuristic timeline in history in which the United States developed advanced technology while clinging to the values and aesthetics of the 1950’s.
I remember playing this game when it came out and having an unusual reaction to it. Most games have beautiful environments. Even war games with battlefield settings usually contrast destruction with interludes of peaceful settings (i.e. natural environments) or marks of organized society (i.e. pristine weaponry, clear designation of command, ect.). Fallout, on the other hand, takes place in a thoroughly harsh and severe locale that genuinely had me looking forward to exiting out of the game to see plants and nature in the real world. (Keep in mind that at the time, I lived in Providence, which is not exactly a nature lover’s paradise.)
Eventually, I grew to appreciate the strong reaction I had towards Fallout. The dreary and dangerous setting of the Capital Wasteland (the remnants of Washington D.C.) had given me an accurate sense of how terrible it would be to inhabit the irradiated aftermath of a nuclear war. This got me thinking about the plausibility of such a future world.
Obviously, I do not expect the world of tomorrow to be filled with giant mutants, crabs and ghouls, but I do wonder what the supply situation will be like. If Cormac McCarthy’s The Road taught us anything about the collapse of society, it is that supplies would be horded, expended and fought over after the means to produce things like food and ammunition ceased to exist. To me, that should be a defining attribute of any apocalyptic scenario: scarcity.
And that’s when Fallout stopped being depressing for me; when I realized that no supplies in the Fallout universe were truly scarce, the apocalypse suddenly seemed less frightening. More importantly, it seemed less exciting. Less interesting.
Take the following screenshot as an example. This is less than an hour into a fresh play-through near the ruins of Arlington National Library. After clearing out a Talon Mercenary camp, I took a brief survey of the abundant goods available to me in the wasteland.
Here’s what I saw:
The significance of the abundance of goods in the Capital Wasteland can be understood by taking a look at a game developed in 2006 in the Ukraine called S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl. Like Fallout, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. takes place in an alternate reality, in which the Chernobyl disaster created an area of pseudoscientific anomalies, transforming local wildlife and humans into horrible mutants. Paramilitary groups also entered the area surrounding Chernobyl with various goals ranging from personal glory to protecting the world from “The Zone.”
I enjoy games developed in former Soviet states because they have three important qualities:
- Games often lack a certain level of polish that Western developers produce. This means that Eastern European games are gritty products, but they have a lot of heart. Without big budgets, Eastern developers have to depend on strong and unique gameplay and atmospheres to earn popularity (and revenue).
- Games are often unforgiving. Whereas Western and even Japanese games do an admirable job guiding the player into having an enjoyable and easy-to-digest experience, Eastern games are difficult by design. Tutorials are rare, and when they are included, they are short and not comprehensive. To some, this makes Eastern games inscrutable and inaccessible, but others see Eastern difficulty as a nod to gamers who still remember a time when developers expected the player to win the hard way, through trial and error.
- Games understand the concept of scarcity.
As I mentioned, a fundamental property of a post-apocalyptic world is scarcity and value of supplies. Such a world loses authenticity when bullets and food are virtually worthless.
In the world of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., bullets and other supplies are worth their weight in gold. Furthermore, the Zone is not a true apocalyptic region. The real world exists outside the areas affected by the Chernobyl region, so supplies within the Zone itself are not finite in the absolute sense of the word. Nevertheless, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. still maintains a sense of scarcity that ought to define the end of civilization.
Once again, we have a screenshot taken less than an hour into play.
Supplies are poor in both quality and quantity. The abundance of vodka as a supply is perhaps another reflection of the dismal atmosphere after the apocalypse.
The Capital Wasteland seems like a bounty of wealth when compared to the Zone. It seems that certain Western games have an innate infusion of the abundance that comparable Eastern European products lack. Western developers are hesitant to make Western gamers uncomfortable by burdening them with true scarcity, but in societies in which such scarcity is closer to reality, developers utilize scarcity without a second thought.
An interesting phenomenon occurs when games become Westernized. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series did not end with Shadows of Chernobyl. It continued with Clear Sky and culminated with Call of Pripyat.
Call of Pripyat was supposed to be game that maintained the atmosphere of Shadow of Chernobyl, while cleaning up some of the rough edges of the original in order to appeal to a Western market. It was to a large degree successful, but with its Westernization Call of Pripyat lost its sense of scarcity. For example, the player character starts the game with an assault rifle and a good pistol, which is a far cry from starting destitute and helpless.
This analysis of scarcity in game design with respect to native cultures yields some interesting thought experiments:
- What if people who had lived through the Great Depression were in a position to design video games?
- What if Chinese developers who had experienced the famines of the Great Leap Forward program were free to design games based on their trials during that period?
- What if the Soviet Union had been wealthier than the United States during the Cold War? What kind of games would the United States be developing? And the U.S.S.R.?
I will not go so far as to say that the concept of scarcity in video games is solely dependent upon cultural and societal factors, but there is evidence to suggest that there is some sort of correlation. If this is the case, then we would do well to reflect upon this notion and try to identify what other facets of our lives have been subtlety influenced by a superabundance of goods.
It would be useful to consider this problem from an academic point of view, but it may also have practical value as well. Who knows, maybe we will be better prepared for the apocalypse if we understand the concept of scarcity.
After all, the end is nigh, right?