The Allure of the Apocalypse
The Allure of the Apocalypse
By: LB Chambers
Halfway across a field of tall grass, my character crawling as slowly as possible between a hopper and a walker, at 2:30 am (real world time) I asked myself a question-Why is this what I enjoy? A zombie apocalypse where one hit equals death, my comrades will kill me for rations, and equipment is almost impossible to find?
This is my fantasy fun time? It got me thinking about video games, entertainment, and the rise of dystopian fiction and apocalypses in all media forms.
I’ve been a fan of the dystopian, apocalyptic science fiction for the majority of my life, and for a while there apocalyptic science fiction was somewhat difficult to come by. In general the apocalyptic, dystopian fictions available pre-2000 were centered on social commentary and vague political warnings. It was a genre where authors could fantastically predict the effects of problems today in the societies of tomorrow. In general these stories are somewhat terrifying; oppressive governments and a complete lack of respect for the individual was an overarching theme, and they horrified the general public into considering the terrible futures they could be currently cultivating.
But then a few things happened, one of them being that video games got a hold of the apocalypse. And then somehow the apocalypse (be it nuclear, political, social, or zombie) became pretty damn attractive. I mean, let’s face, it was only a matter of time before game developers figured that by raising the stakes you raise the entertainment level of any given game- and what’s the best way to raise the stakes? Oh I don’t know, how about putting THE FATE OF THE WORLD AND ALL MANKIND into the palms of the player? And really saving different incapable girlfriends from loveable monsters can only capture the imagination for so long. Why not save the girlfriend…AND the world?
Now it seems every game (no matter the context, story line, or setting) focuses on the end of the world as we know it. You’re either preventing the end of the world, saving the world, or the world has ended and you’re working towards regaining some semblance of civilized life.
Fantasy game? Throw in zombies! (I’m sorry, darkspawn).
Science game? Bring in the reaper! (Whoops I meant reapers).
Horror game? A pharmaceutical company’s evil plan has gone awry and an unstoppable virus is spreading throughout the world that also changes everyone into monster zombies! (Oops, what I mean is….actually nevermind that worked just fine).
Some would argue that this is just the way the video game industry has been heading for a while in an effort to keep things as interesting as possible; making games over the top dramatic and intense to bring excitement levels to all time highs. After all, what could possibly be more exciting than having the fate of mankind up to your character? We play games to escape the everyday, to become someone more special than who we actually are, and what is more special (aka not everyday and normal) than being that one person/alien/fantasy creature that saves the world?
But is there more to this apocalyptic game culture than just the desire to be excited, special, and super awesome? I argue a resounding, yes!
Because as video games have risen in popularity, abundance, and overall level of technological excellence- so too has the rest of the world risen to meet the video games technological strides. We are now living in a world where for the vast majority of people there will never be a real “free” moment. As individuals we are constantly tracked, counted, and studied (and this isn’t rabble rousing, doomsday stuff I’m talking about, this is the basic Google Earth, cookies, and IP addresses kind of stuff). Over the last several years the FBI has been working on a new project that will identify any person, in any place, by their face. That is dystopian level terrifying right off the pages of The Minority Report. The world has become a complex place, with too many people to trust and so many loopholes and so much fine print- that something as seemingly simple as requesting another recycling bin becomes a mess of ridiculous fiery hoops of fines and legal statements.
Basically what I’m saying is that every step, every day of the human existence at this point in time can often feel like an overpopulated, convoluted mess of don’ts, can’ts, and don’t even try because it’s WAY too much work.
So in this sort of climate, who wouldn’t dream of a simpler world of survival?
A world of do or die, kill or be killed, where the enemies are simple and easy to identify, and the goal is clear cut and one we can all get behind (usually just survive).
(On another note, maybe this craving for simpler things it what fuels all The Sims and Farmville love out there.) Perhaps it’s that our lives have become so much like a dystopian novel that an apocalypse seems an almost refreshing alternative. I mean, I’m a nice person and all (I promise) but come on, driving anywhere in Seattle these days makes me day dream about a world where the guy who just cut me off is a zombie standing between me and a can of beans.
Which is why as we continue onwards into our current dystopian-like future, I predict we will all crave these apocalyptic, solitary games more and more and that the gaming industry (and all entertainment industries) will rise to meet our demands.
In fact, some of the most popular and celebrated recent games are in reality extremely solitary- DayZ, Journey, even most RPG’s lack a collaborative effort (unless you’re talking military games, which is a whole different conversation). Even those games lacking an apocalyptic vibe work to remove us entirely from a setting resembling our world today, (which might be a good point from captain obvious, but is interesting when you consider that a lot of great games from the last decade were based in worlds resembling our own).
Consider the games that you love, or that have made an impression on your life. My top five would be The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus, Bioshock, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and Left 4 Dead. These can be divided easily into two categories, older and newer. But if you do that then they are already divided by apocalyptic and non-apocalyptic.
Does the same happen for you?
I guess what I’m trying to say is that like the discussions fueled by the dystopian, apocalyptic works of the past (which were meant to encourage discussions about future horizons) shouldn’t we be discussing this recent infatuation and idealization of dystopian futures and apocalypses? Why is that the world we want to play in more than any other? Why do we want elements of an apocalypse in every game that we play? Is it for the reasons I believe? That we crave the simplicity of knowing our enemies and the strivings for survival on a basic level? Or am I just a terror hungry, vengeance filled, violence-craving lady? What do you think?
All I know is that I’m currently cycling between DayZ, Fallout 3, and Left 4 Dead 2, and I am loving every minute of it! So please, bring on Dishonored and Resident Evil 6, Bioshock Infinite and Mech Warrior Online! I want more apocalypses and dystopian futures.
UPDATE (03.11.13): Since LB wrote this article, multiple articles have been published with the same conclusion, but with academic research to back it up.
See “Researcher: Zombie fads peak when society unhappy” on the Seattle Times and Jezbel’s “Do we love zombies because we hate our lives?”firstname.lastname@example.org