If videogames had to predict the future, the forecast, I imagine, wouldn't be quite so rosy. Atomic craters, demolished cities, desperate savages roaming the proverbial wastes. Can we not be so fatalistic? It can't be argued, however, that a post-apocalypse is a compelling setting, brimming with as much mystery and wonder as it is irradiated ruins and mutated cattle.
But it's not as if its the only setting suited to a videogames' unique demands. So why is it, then, that post-apocalyptic wastelands have become so popular and widespread? It's such a prevalent theme, evident not just in nuclear-fallout settings, but fantasies, like Dragon Age, where a demonic Blight reduces a magical kingdom to grit and rubble. Even Mickey Mouse isn't safe, with Epic Mickey dropping Disney's beloved mascot in the realm of forgotten cartoon characters, the Wasteland.
At Dealspwn, we've been tapping our noggins so long, we've decided to investigate the case ourselves. So strap on your radiation suits, grab your sawn-off and let us venture into the unknown...
The appeal of creating and then exploring a post-apocalypse is obvious. It's a raw, new world, built atop the ashes of the old, a parasite clinging to a fossil and multiplying. Cinema had its love-affair with the wasteland, with the likes of 12 Monkeys and Mad Max a clear influence on our contemporary crop. So perhaps it's merely a matter of timing, a post-apocalyptic 'phase' our nascent medium is simply in the throes of.
But can we outgrow this particular 'phase'? With Fallout: New Vegas a critical and commercial success, publishers will no doubt be aligning their profit-minded gazes on the post-apocalyptic sub-genre. Another Fallout game is a given, and you can count on Gearbox being hard at work on a sequel to Borderlands. It's by no means a bad thing. I loved Fallout 3 and New Vegas. Borderlands was great, and Enslaved, which made the bold move of setting a post-apocalypse amid the lush greenery of a vegetation-consumed New York, was a promising title let down by slack combat.
It's not as if the post-apocalyptic genre is new, either. The Fallout series began in 1997 at Interplay, a spiritual successor to their other wasteland game, the appropriately titled Wasteland. And who remembers Beneath A Steel Sky, a classic point-and-click adventure with art courtesy of Watchmen co-creator, Dave Gibbons. Nuclear wastelands aren't our only destination, either. Left 4 Dead is set amid the aftermath of a zombie invasion. STALKER stages the action in the real-life ruins of Chernobyl. Even Gears of War, where the Coalition of Governments has abandoned its civilization to the Locust force. We've been lost in the waste for longer than we think.
All The RAGE
Looking ahead, we can see a number of post-apocalyptic themed titles. Bethesda looks to capitalize on Fallout's success with Brink, an innovative cross-multiplayer FPS set on a floating metropolis mired in civil war. And, most notably, id returns to the fold with RAGE. Now, I admit, when I first saw RAGE, I was skeptical. Its resemblance to Fallout is nigh-copyright. A sun-baked wasteland, Old West-style ghost towns with new and old-school tech, even the slavering mutants seemed cut and pasted from Bethesda's epic.
We've since sampled RAGE, and came away quite impressed. It's obvious id is exploring new ground, sacrificing Fallout's sprawling freedom and depth for polished combat and spectacular visuals. In fact, to keep comparing RAGE to Fallout would be foolish. However, we were curious why id, who patented the 'corridor shooter', would choose such a familiar setting to build a game atop.
According to Tim Willits, Creative Director at id, the choice was made long before the post-apocalyptic bomb dropped. It's not a stretch to believe id had settled on story idea that demanded a Fallout-style landscape long before Bethesda updated that particular franchise for next-gen. In RAGE, id imagines the real-life asteroid, Apophis, collides with the Earth to catastrophic effect. In actuality, Apophis will pass the Earth, although it continues to be a matter of study for numerous space research programs. Willits also claims RAGE's patented 'mega-texture tech', courtesy of technical mastermind John Carmack, is best-suited to a sprawling, "hand-crafted" look. Craggy mountains, dusty, sun-baked sprawls. Also, RAGE sidesteps accusations of visual atrophy, with a second-half visual transformation rumoured.
If we continue to see a dozen or so post-apocalyptic themed titles every year, can we expect the eventual consumer backlash and subsequent recession of such a sub-genre? It's unclear. So far, we've yet to see a truly bad post-apocalyptic game, and they come in quite a few shapes and sizes. It's not an easy thing to pull off, crafting a new world on top of the old, conjuring a new universe from the virtual ether. It requires a big budget and a capable team, and so far we've been lucky to see both, with only the likes of Bethesda, Bioware, Gearbox and Epic stepping up to the plate.
And, as I said, the appeal is obvious. The post-apocalypse is a lot like the Old West, which was once incredibly popular but has seen such fandom die down in recent years. A new world, with new rules that often equate to a general sense of 'lawlessness'. We play games to escape reality, and what better virtual reality to escape to than one as different to our own as possible? For example, in Fallout you can simply wander around, for days on end, picking up tonnes of items and weapons, amassing a fortune in caps and slaughtering or saves whomever you wish. In real life, such a scenario requires so much more, and is largely impossible by most of our standards.
But it's not as post-apocalyptic games have cornered the market on 'escapism'. Some of us prefer the Tolkien-esque wonderland of a fantasy game, or the true-to-life simulation of warfare. But post-apocalyptic games, thanks to their context and setting, have so much room for variety. It's old and new world tech, soldiers and monsters, sprawling vistas and choked corridors. The likes of Fallout, Borderlands and hopefully RAGE split this key selling-point wide open, offering a free expanse of land to wander, uninhibited. It's a true evolution of the medium, and whatever the wrapper its housed in, be it a nuclear apocalypse or fairy-tale gone awry, if done well it's a spectacular achievement for all involved, creator and consumer alike.
What's your opinion on the recent rise in post-apocalyptic games? Is it a good thing for the genre? Or does it spell bad tidings ahead? As usual, leave your feedback in the comments section below.