Playing the Apocalypse – Part II
Yesterday, we looked at the roots of the apocalyptic myth, and how that myth has been adopted by games. We examined Valve’s Left 4 Dead, a game that almost, but not quite, managed to transform the accurate apocalyptic feel into gameplay thanks to a structure based on inter-reliance between the players. Today we’ll take a closer look at the more emotional side of the apocalypse, and why we continue to revisit it.
In Tom’s recent article Everything is happening now, he mentioned that Japanese author Haruki Murakami, in an interview with the New York Times, said that “near-future fictions are boring. It’s always dark and always raining and people are so unhappy.” I disagree with this notion. In fact, as seen in the religious perceptions of “The End”, it is almost always a positive thing. In Christianity, the evil are judged and banished to hell. In Hinduism, the world has degenerated to egotism and greed, but then Vishnu shows up, punishes the wicked and the world returns to a purer, simpler state. Many horrifying things must come to pass first, but resilience is rewarded – to some extent at least (humanity will be destroyed, but at least it will be recreated as the next cycle of the world starts). Essentially, the good people must endure during the apocalypse, because it is necessary to purify the world. Like a spring-cleaning, but with fire instead of detergent. In more tangible terms it’s an opportunity to do away with the old way of thinking, and reform society. Perhaps that’s why more apocalyptic fiction is produced in dire times – there’s certainly enough issues to write about at the moment: global warming, economic collapse, extremism etc. It’s a way of reassuring ourselves that the pain will subside eventually, and the good world is just around the corner.
Although criticized by many old adherers to the series – in part because it had a less humorous approach to the apocalypse – Fallout 3 nailed the other side of the apocalypse Left 4 Dead was incapable of, mostly because it showed the survivors’ plight with a greater deal of seriousness. Although I stated that the apocalypse marked a return to goodness, it would not appear so in Fallout 3. My escapades in the Capital Wasteland were rarely the most delightful ones. It didn’t seem like it was a new, better world. The weak were subjugated by the strong; the good were outnumbered by the evil and war – which had lead to the cataclysmic event – continued, and in even more barbarous ways. But the world of Fallout 3 was not supposed to be one of delight and pleasure. This was just an interlude in the cleansing. The apocalypse was still in motion. Amidst all the horrificness, though, patches of light green and deep blue amidst the drab brown and grey could be found—if you looked in the right, untainted corners of the world. Most importantly, though, I felt like I had the power to change it for the better. This is particularly evident in the climactic moment when you are faced with the choice of contaminating the water, or purifying it. It was then it struck me what a basic need it was I had been fighting and killing for. Clean drinking water, the driving force of the human body. A resource we take dearly for granted, which I personally aided in making safe for consumption again.
This may seem merely like an escapist, juvenile dream that serves a purpose as plain as fulfilling some desire for heroism, but I think it goes beyond such simple wish-fulfillment. It serves to exhibit the deeds of the survivors, for in such dangerous times they are faced with two distinct choices. Aid your fellow survivors – even when they are weaker than yourself – or use them to your own advantage. The first option is the one that allows you to retain the most humanity (if that was quantifiable), but puts yourself in great danger if you have to take risks when one of the weaker ones is in need of help. On the other hand, the promise of mutual aid could be beneficial to yourself should you find yourself in trouble at some point – though then the question “Can I trust these people at all” arises. The second option is in some ways the safest one, because the cards will always be on your hand. Obviously, it is also the most selfish option, as it requires you to show extreme coldness when faced with other survivors, but isn’t it natural to attempt to preserve your own existence in such situations? In many ways, the post-apocalypse embodies a series of intriguing contrasts such as individual survival vs. communal survival, or a pragmatic approach to the world vs. an idealized one.
In other words, the apocalypse allows the players to be a part of the reconstruction of the world. They get to decide what norms and values should shape it. Staying in the Fallout universe, this in particular can be seen in Fallout: New Vegas, where the player has the option to choose between the idealized, but flawed democracy of the NCR, the totalitarian and brutal, but seemingly well-governed, Caesar’s Legion, Mr. House’s independent Vegas or the fourth way – the player’s own way. In a manner clearer than that seen in Fallout 3, the player must look into his or her own ideas of how the world should be governed, and decide how to reshape the world.
These words have been written by me sitting on my bed in a fairly warm and well-lit room. A few meters away from me a refrigerator stands, filled with delicious food that I may consume at my leisure. A hugely different existence from a “pre-civilization” world where warmth and food were things you had to work hard for. Hell, a disturbingly large number of the world’s population today still doesn’t have access to those things. So exploring the post-apocalypse is a way – ideally – to see how we react when everything we know crumbles. We get to step into the role of a person who does not have those luxuries we take for granted. Most importantly, we get to see how people react to each other when they cannot simply pick and choose who they want to spend their time with. I believe the greatest friendships are forged in the face of adversity, but I’ve also seen how quickly friendships can be abandoned once they are no longer convenient to one of the sides. I hope I will never find myself in such a situation—I prefer to be blissfully unaware of my inner coldness. At least in the digital world I can always pretend I’d do the right thing.