What happened to you, The Apocalypse? You used to be so fresh and fun. You'd tear everything I knew and loved to pieces and rearrange it into some hideous tapestry of my greatest fears, and I'd be like “Oh, you. You're such a prankster.” Or you'd spew zombies into all kinds of zany places (The mall! The circus! Outer space!), and I'd beat them to death while screaming and crying. We had such good times. Now, though, it's old hat. Your abandoned landscapes – once ripe with the pungent odor of adventure – have grown gray and same-y. I used to mow down your menagerie of mutants, robots, and zombies with all the glee of a Hollywood director at a Beloved (And Infinitely Ruinable) Childhood Memories convention, but now each one is just another bump in the road.
We've grown apart, is what I'm saying. But that doesn't mean we can't have a horrifying, dystopic future together. A couple recent games have given me hope that this whole “fiery end to all normal life” thing isn't just a passing fad.
It all started with a recent oft-repeated quote from id Software's Tim Willits. Addressing the issue of precisely why fans won't mind RAGE's vehicle-heavy shift away from id's typical fare, he said, "I think that they will find that it's a refreshing change from anything we've done in the past, and honestly I think that people have modern combat fatigue." Which is certainly a valid point.
Pay attention to comment threads involving his game, though, and you'll unearth a second ticking time bomb nearly as large as the first. “It looks just like Borderlands!” Commenters clamor. “It's so generic! Why not just say it's a Fallout spin-off and be done with it?” In truth, they're going a bit overboard. From what I've seen, RAGE's world isn't just some crummy carbon copy.
It does, however, adhere to a fairly specific set of tropes, and gamers seem to be suffering from “You've seen one Wasteland, you've seen 'em all” syndrome as a result. Willits, then, can go on about modern combat fatigue all he wants. If he doesn't watch it, though, post-apocalypse fatigue is going to creep up behind him and plant a live grenade in his pocket.
Fortunately, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic games don't have to go down this road. Developers are poking and prodding the bear trap that is misplaced priorities, but they haven't stepped in it yet. See, if you ask me, apocalypse-focused titles aren't about the setting. I can take or leave your sprawling sea of sand and ill-advised punk hairdoos. Yes, Mad Max was great and all, but there's only so much you can do with flat, nuked-to-nothingness landscapes and towns constructed from rusty sheet metal and some particularly determined pieces of string before players start to seek out greener pastures.
So, if the setting's not the main attraction, then what is? Well, if you ask me, it's a certain vibe – this feeling of separation from a world that once was mixed with a bitter longing for that which you'll never see again. So basically, it's a fantasy of freedom from the daily grind of work and toil – a sweeping and immediate change to the rules of day-to-day life – but with a hint of “you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone” mixed in. Old versus new. Your boring 9-to-5 versus a bitchin' car-battery-powered electro sword that kills between five and nine zombies in a single swing. Old, however, is comfortable and safe. A brave new world full of terrifying new creatures, though? Not so much.
That brings us to two very encouraging recent titles: indie ultra-hit Bastion and console cult smash Enslaved. Both games take place under apocalyptic circumstances, but put incredibly novel spins on what's quickly become an aging formula. Most obviously, you won't see a sun-soaked desert that's actually bigger than the sun in either game. Instead, Enslaved imagines a world ruined by man and reclaimed by nature. Bastion, meanwhile, revels in sense-engulfing otherworldliness – spiriting players away with psychadelic visuals, mood-setting music, and a Morgan Freeman-esque narrator who reacts to everything you do. In both cases, these settings are new and strange – maybe even a bit frightening. But that's the point. After all, where's the fun in an apocalypse fantasy if you're just going from one tedious, well-trodden routine to another?
It goes deeper than a mere surface level nip-and-tuck, though. Both Bastion and Enslaved put their own spins on the delicate post-apocalyptic relationship between old and new. In Bastion, a mysterious “Calamity” has reduced the world to rubble and its people to ash, but the titular Bastion can put the whole thing together again, good as new. That solution's simplicity, however, quickly goes out the window when – without spoiling too much – the game starts planting seeds of doubt in your mind. Do you even want to go back? Should you? Who are you doing any of this for?
Enslaved, meanwhile, wages the old-vs-new tug-of-war in ways both big and small. For instance, in one of the game's first environments, an otherwise pristinely green forest gives way to one particularly iconic relic: a US flag. Up to that point, Enslaved felt more like a fantasy story than anything else. That one frayed scrap of cloth, though, forged a powerful link back to reality. “Yes,” it essentially said, “this used to be your world. This used to be your home.”
The rest of the game, then, sees main characters Monkey and Trip struggling to move forward in a society that's still clinging to the past. That, in turn, transforms the game's gorgeous nature scenery into something of a bittersweet pill. After all, the earth's already moved on. The only thing that seems out of place here? People.
For both games, that's just the tip of a tremendously inventive iceberg. Ultimately, the apocalypse at its best isn't a setting; it's an ideal. It's a push-and-pull between old and new that – depending on how it's portrayed – leads to curiosity or reflection or fear or even a few laughs. By its very nature, it charts new territory and sucks us into new worlds. Treading water for too long, then, leads to some very obvious wrinkles – as evidenced by people's reactions to games like RAGE. There's so much potential here, though. It'd be an incredible shame to see it go to waste.
So then, The Apocalypse, are you ready to give this relationship another go? Because I think I'm falling in love with you all over again.