Forget the whimper — in video games, the world ends with a bang every time. The digital apocalypse comes in many flavours: meteor, plague, nuclear war, climate catastrophe, alien, zombie, demon. It’s such a popular trope that not even the apocalyptic visions brought by Covid-19, of abandoned city centres, mass unemployment and national states of emergency, have diminished gamers’ appetite for the end of the world.
You know how it looks. Even though the original cataclysmic text, The Book of Revelation, is extraordinarily vivid, with the sun turning black, stars falling to earth, and a pregnant woman fighting a seven-headed dragon across the sky, gaming apocalypses are drab affairs. You trudge past vistas of grey and brown wreckage, shattered cities and crumbling landmarks. You wear tattered, colourless clothes, eat out of cans and sleep in bunkers on dirty mattresses. The Whore of Babylon never swoops down to punish unbelievers as she does in the Bible, drunk on the blood of slain martyrs. Clearly the apocalypse just isn’t what it used to be.
This monochrome mould was firmly established by the Fallout series, gaming’s most famous post-apocalypse, which is set in an America decimated by nuclear war in the 1950s, leaving survivors scrabbling through irradiated cities to a soundtrack of chirpy doo-wop. Fallout established the post-apocalypse as fertile terrain for storytelling, for exploring complex ideas of how to re-establish society when every system has broken down. Humans splinter into factions with sharply competing ideologies in the series’ high-water mark, Fallout: New Vegas. And while some find the outlandishness of sci-fi and fantasy unrelatable, post-apocalyptic stories hit a sweet spot by envisioning extreme scenarios that still root humans like us at their centre.
Series such as The Division, Metro and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. use the post-apocalypse as a useful foundation to embed traditional game mechanics. In most games, you start with nothing and slowly acquire power, an arc that overlaps neatly on to the story of someone who has survived the end of the world. Meanwhile, non-human enemies such as zombies and mutants provide cannon fodder for gunplay while avoiding pesky questions of the ethics of killing humans. In Frostpunk, a smart city-building game set across the frozen tundras of London during a volcanic winter, the apocalypse provides a pretext for resource management and strategy, posing tricky moral questions — do you choose to put your community’s children to work in the furnaces or risk your elderly freezing to death?
While the aesthetics of the gaming apocalypse are mostly tired, there are a few exceptions. Horizon Zero Dawn and Zelda: Breath of the Wild argue that the end might look colourful and lush. Meanwhile The Last of Us series offers evocative dioramas of lives lived in abandoned American homes following a zombie outbreak. There are the crops on the deserted farm, left to wither on the vine, and the diary entries written by a girl who cannot understand why her father never came home. The poignancy comes from witnessing the evanescence of human life, described by Cormac McCarthy in his post-apocalyptic novel The Road as “the absolute truth of the world . . . borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”
Stories of the apocalypse are most commonly interpreted as warnings and prophecy. They reflect the anxieties of the times, giving us nuclear destruction during the cold war, zombies when consumer culture reached new heights, and environmental catastrophe as the climate crisis became a mainstream concern. A handful of games, such as Kentucky Route Zero and Night in the Woods, even reckon with a form of economic apocalypse, depicting the shuttered shops and debt-crippled denizens of rural America. These examples are rare, however, supporting the statement of Fredric Jameson (by way of Slavoj Zizek) that “It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.”
The word “apocalypse” has its roots in a Greek word meaning “uncover” or “reveal”. So what is revealed by the many ways we have watched the world end in games? Perhaps it is that even the bleakest stories of the apocalypse cannot resist hope. They show us that even in unimaginable suffering and deprivation, people keep breathing, laughing and dreaming. Indeed, academic research has shown that in the wake of natural disasters, instances of altruism and co-operation far outnumber opportunistic crimes such as looting. When all social order is broken down and we lose everything, our humanity remains.