Playing the Apocalypse – Part I
In all the branches of the arts – literature, film, and especially games – the apocalypse, and the events following it, have always had been important. Check your games’ shelf or your digital library or wherever you store your games, and you most definitely have at least one game that centers on the apocalypse.
The root of apocalyptic fascination is not to be found in the minds of great authors and directors, though. It goes even further back, as many of the major religions have some very similar ideas of the end times. The word “apocalypse” derives from “lifting of the veil”, i.e. when the secrets are revealed. It is connected to Christian perception of the end of the world, as described in the aptly named Book of Revelation, where God will pass judgment on the denizens of Earth. However, the term has practically become synonymous with the end of the world in general. In Islam, there’s a very similar idea where the “Mahdi” appears as a messianic character to “bring justice to the world and complete the spread of Islam”, whereafter the world comes to an end. That particular perception is quite similar to the Christian (and the Jewish, for that matter), which is to be found in the fact that the three religions have the same origin: Abraham.
Interestingly, one of the Eastern religions, Hinduism, has a very different view on the apocalypse, but nonetheless ends for roughly the same reasons. Instead of a definitive beginning and end, the world undergoes four distinct phases in its lifespan – so-called “yugas”. Each Yuga has some particular characteristics to identify them by, for example the first one, where all was well and people were nice (really, that’s the brief summation of it), or the last of the four, Kali Yuga – The Dark Age – the one we are currently in, which is dominated by individualism and decay of moral values. Unsurprisingly, it all ends with none other than Vishnu coming around and “doing away with the wicked”. However, that end is followed by a new age. A return to first, pure Yuga. Naturally, these examples are more complex than they appear here – such as the main difference between Abrahamic and Eastern religions being that they have linear and cyclical time perceptions, respectively – but the gist of it is that at least the mentioned religions have one common ground: The world will end, and it’s rarely a pleasant time to be alive.
Besides Darksiders, though, I cannot think of a game that is even loosely based on the apocalyptic myths of religion. One reason behind this is likely uncertainty about the reaction from religious groups, but I think another cause is to be found in the fact that that the number of irreligious people – here in the West at the very least – has increased. Since we no longer believe in a final battle between good and evil, we’ve substituted that notion with a more down-to-earth understanding of the apocalypse. Instead of everything ending in a glorious show where the good are rewarded and evil punished, the world as we know it just withers, and the survivors begin regressing to a primal state. A hopeless world. Or is it so? Because even if the world’s gone to hell, there’s still a few strong-willed survivors that don’t accept the state of the world, but fight to carve out their own earthly paradise. This survivors’ plight is exceptionally well-suited for the video game medium.
Despite that, I don’t think any game clearly manages to capture this struggle – but then, it’s rare anyone gets precisely what they wish for unless they make it themselves. However, the game that in my opinion comes closest to doing so is Left 4 Dead, thanks to its cooperative element, something that is basically necessary to convey the aforementioned themes accurately. After all, it is quite hard to get the same emotional reactions from people if they are interacting with NPCs, though when done well it surpasses that of real-world people in a game. In both L4Ds campaign and survival modes the individual player is highly dependent on the actions – be they wise or foolish – of his co-survivors. If someone storms Rambo-like ahead, he will quickly be picked off by the zombies and devoured. That’s unfortunate for him of course, but for the group as well, as there will be one less gun to protect against the hordes of undead. Similarly, though, a well-timed pipe bomb from an observant survivor can get another player out of a dire situation. The core of the matter is that all hands are needed if anyone is to survive until the next safe house.
However, this is only valid until the very last section of a campaign, where the players must survive a final, massive onslaught of the undead before they are saved by external forces. If one or more of the survivors is incapacitated in the moments before their saviors are there, what do those still standing do? Do they compromise their own safety and their own chances of survival to save those in need, or do they make a “selfish” decision and save only their own hides? These are the people you’ve been fighting side-by-side with for so long, how can you abandon them so close to triumph? Of course, this not taking place in reality – which, despite my interest in the post-apocalypse, I’m quite grateful for – takes away some of the implications such a choice would have. In-game, it is mostly followed by a few annoying grumbles, and even that is fairly rare as the decision is most often well-understood by those left behind. There isn’t even any direct consequence of it, other than the abandoned not being listed as a survivor in the credits. However, while the game may have failed in this regard, it still managed to add the correct post-apocalyptic feeling of necessary unity up to that point.
In essence, co-operative gameplay is one of the obvious ways of engaging the player in the struggle, but – paradoxically – because of the distinct realness of your co-survivors it cannot, even if you punished or rewarded the players, have any lasting impact. Instead, if the survivors were able to perish permanently – after some bond had been formed with them, naturally – the players might take a few greater risks when trying to save those weaker than you.
Tomorrow, in part II of this double feature, we will take a closer look at why the apocalypse is so oddly – perhaps morbidly – appealing.