As most rational people will know, the world won’t end in 2012. The Mayan prophecy is simply due to the Mayans not having the foresight of making a calendar that goes further than 2012 (This lack of foresight is surely why they died out). However, just because the world won’t end for real doesn’t mean we don’t imaging it. In fact we appear to have a considerable talent for it. If there’s one thing mankind is good at it’s imagining the worst case scenarios for itself; whether this is in the form of an alien invasion, nuclear holocaust, zombie apocalypse or Scottish independence. It’s fair to say games have got a pretty good size of the apocalypse market covered, with a sizable chunk of new games coming out every year showing of its own version of humanity gone down shit creek and having broken their paddle by beating a zombie to death with it. But why have so many games decided to go this way?
The end of days holds for all a morbid curiosity of whether or not we’d be one of the lucky or unlucky few who survive Armageddon. Games are one of the best ways of experiencing a wasteland scenario without the real worries of radiation poisoning, wasteland marauders and a horde of mutants devouring your best friend while you hide under their emaciated carcass. Fallout, Metro 2033, Rage, S.T.A.L.K.ER, Darksiders and more have all given their own vision of the events of the end of days. In 1988 Interplay productions released Wasteland which is often seen as the god father of apocalyptic games; most notably suggesting the Fallout series were unofficial sequels. Wasteland’s setting was post nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the USA. The player controlled a band of desert rangers who explore the desert and the remaining enclaves of humanity. The game was one of the first to have a persistent and changing world, like we now take for granted in our games, with places the player had previously visited changing after they had been left. Wasteland was both a critical and commercial success kick starting the post apocalyptic genre into action. Unfortunately for Wasteland lovers the game went into development limbo with publishers EA (still in its infancy at this time) unwilling to throw its weight into the sequel Fountain of dreams in 1990, meaning it didn’t do too well in terms of sales leaving it up to Fallout to carry the Wasteland torch.
In the 1997 Fallout was released. Fallout was set in a parallel universe where history took a different course after the Second World War with America and the Chinese going nuclear on one another with only a few surviving inside huge underground vaults or suffering the effects of massive levels of radiation. The game for its time was full of gore and blood; with the bloody mess perk being a particular favourite of the average sadist. Fallout had some adult themes that were beginning to creep into videogames at the time, such as the purity of the species and “the means justifying the ends”. These weighty concepts where there is no right or wrong only a moral grey area have become commonplace in RPGs now but at the time they were truly ground breaking. Fallout did very well with both players and critics and so it was inevitable that sequels would come, and they did equally well with the most recent titles, Fallout 3 and New Vegas by Bethesda and Obsidian respectively going down very well. But no one man can own the wasteland.
Rage and S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl both stamped their marks on how a wasteland could be seen. In Rage the player was part of the old world that is awoken from cryogenic sleep who finds the world as they know it destroyed by an asteroid (Kudos for not going for the nuclear route). S.T.A.L.K.E.R went a different, more inventive route by setting the game in 2007 after a second meltdown at the infamous Chernobyl plant where the player travels around the nuclear fallout zone trying to find out what happened there and why the hell they can’t remember anything about their past life. While Rage was a FPS with tiny RPG and driving elements, S.T.A.L.K.E.R was a game for the ‘hardcore’ amongst us, with in depth RPG mechanics and realistic gun play (and a difficult level that made me believe it would be easier to move to the Ukraine and kill locals to save me the hassle).
All these games had loads in common. Not just the shooter aspects but the enemy types too. Whether you’re in the future, Ukraine, Russia or any other wasteland you’re going to be shooting a lot of mutants. Mutants, Freaks, Zombies and the British all spend their days in the future trying to gut you. (If you’re wondering about the Brits I advise you play Rage. I swear to god that game is set in the ruins of east London) Now what do all these foes have in common? First, they all, at some point, resembled humans. Second, a decent shot to the head ends their rampages and finally third, you can kill as many as you like and never feel guilty. With Mutants you know what you’re getting and they don’t take much thought on behalf of the developers who just have to make a half dozen or so skins to avoid monotony and that’s their work done for the day. What other things are common place in the apocalyptic wasteland? Well the wasteland itself is pretty common I guess. The first thing a wasteland needs is to be barren. Be honest the first thing you thought when you left vault 101 in Fallout 3 wasn’t “Well this is a lovely vista.” No what you thought was “Liam Nesson you’re a prick for leaving.” Of course a good wasteland is barren on the outside but thriving on closer inspection. Personally I must have spent 300+ hours in the capital wasteland exploring ever irradiated nock or mutated cranny and they are hours I consider well spent. S.T.A.L.K.E.R has a deep factional politics system that had you either picking sides or playing them off against one another.
As with most exceptional games out there, a decent wasteland needs a decent plot. In the Fallout games the vault dweller was given the urgent task of leaving their vault or tribe to find something or someone of value (or a desire to get shot by Chandler from Friends) in S.T.A.L.K.E.R you were suffering from the greatest of clichés: amnesia, and so trying to find out your past life. In Metro 2033 you were… doing something Russian I guess and in Dead Island you thought you were going to be a dad saving his wife and daughter from zombies in a heart tugging emotional journey but ended up as low grade rapper (some trailers are complete prick teases).
Darksiders went the unique route by having a pretty biblical Armageddon (Armageddon being the setting of the final battle between heaven and hell in scripture). In Darksiders you were one of the horsemen of the apocalypse who actually caused the end of the world. After realising you were tricked to end the world, you – as War – go back to inflict your revenge on the armies of heaven and hell. Darksiders differed from a lot of games in the apocalypse genre in many ways. First, you weren’t a human having an emotional connection to the world. Second, you had no emotions other than being extremely pissed off and finally you used a sword to beat endless mutants to pulp with.
So what does the future hold for the apocalyptic lovers? I am Alive is due to come sometime in 2012 with its interesting look at a city being destroyed and society crumpling around the character rather than entering an already desolate world. Darksiders 2 is set to become even more biblical in 2012 with the ultimate badass Death taking centre stage this time. Talk of a S.T.A.L.K.E.R 2 has already got me booking tickets to Ukraine although development issues are rumoured to plague its production. Survival horror title The Last of Us appears to be an interesting game with what promises to be an emotional story between an Ellen Page lookalike and her dad. So what do you think of this style of games? Are they becoming too popular for developers or does the change from modern military shooters make them a pleasant distraction?