A warm return to the Cold War.
For hundreds and thousands of years, there have been countless works of fiction conceptualizing a theoretical end to everything, but in wake of the western world’s fixation on the Cold War, works have become increasingly specific and secular. The world will end, it will be the fault of man, and the few scant innocent survivors will find themselves pitted against each other in brutal conflicts to teach some sort of moral lesson about the darkness of humanity. There’s either been nuclear warfare or some sort of plague that turns others into monsters, and everyone has to band together in tribalistic groups to survive. This formula has been going strong for decades, and it’ll probably persist for many more to come. But for me, I’m so done with the end of the world.
Earlier this year, I wrote in my review for Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II that I felt, more than ever, that a nihilistic and myopic viewpoint that posits situations about the worst of humanity was something to be thoroughly disappointed in. The game was desperate to paint evil as something inherent and unavoidable, propping itself up through ridiculous situations with inhuman motivations. It’s a work that sticks with me even to this day, not in the sort of positive “made you think” way that I’m sure was Naughty Dog’s intention, but by being an unfortunate example of the worst the medium has to offer. What saddens me the most, however, is the wasted potential that the game throws out as background fodder.
In The Last of Us Part II, it’s off-handedly referenced that Ellie regularly went to school back in Boston, as a normal child would. Obviously in a post-apocalyptic world, however, the notion of what a school is and accomplishes would have to be drastically different than the modern day systems we’re familiar with. There would be different skill sets, different priorities, limited options for intramural activities and recreation, potentially even different biases on what history is being taught. There’s potential for all sorts of interesting commentary or examination on what makes society how it is, and how it would manage to work after a catastrophic event breaks it up, and Naughty Dog… just sort of leaves the idea as less than flavor text.
There are countless examples of this weird peppering of a story far more compelling and intriguing outside the bounds of TLOU2’s narrative scope, the potential for all sorts of political uncoverings or systemic corruption. Instead, the topic Naughty Dog is most interested in exploring and dumping millions and millions of dollars into conveying is an animalistic all out revenge war?
Where do people get their horses? What’s the farming situation like? What sort of plants can grow where? How do they handle the traders that apparently cross the country without affiliation between groups of people all ready to all-out murder each other at a moment’s notice? Who is buying the slaves that slavers capture, why are they all just being kept inside of a giant prison cell to die if they’re slaves, and what’s the racial/economic divide like in this society? What happened to the government’s power structure? What’s happening across the rest of North America, what’s happening in Europe, or islands like the United Kingdom or Hawaii? There are endless questions to posit, and even the most mundane of them is a more fascinating concept to write up than, I don’t know, a single little stupid printout you collect along the way instead of some dude named Greg writing about how some twisted motherfucker killed him for a burrito with his last breath.
This isn’t a problem endemic to The Last of Us Part II, and if anything, it was just the slap in the face I needed to realize just how much I actually loathe most post-apocalyptic media. As someone who loved the Fallout series in my youth, I’ve found it increasingly hard to get back into it in recent years, barely even making it a few hours into Fallout 4. There’s this level of sheer nihilism that I’ve lost the ability to stomach or relate to, this fetishization of hopelessness, filth, and rancor that’s become incompatible with me as I’ve grown older. Everythings always dirty, no one tries to meaningfully rebuild or improve, and barring the curated standouts, nearly everyone is out to kill you.
I don’t expect every writer to just stop and go “Oh yeah I’m going to make a cool story about the apocalypse that’s completely unique and examines things like infrastructure and cultural divides,” but all too often it feels less like I’m watching or playing something that has the clear penmanship of creators with a vision, and more like I’m scanning through multiple copies of the same Mad Libs book. Even games I’ve enjoyed and appreciated in the genre, like the Metro series, or even Fallout: New Vegas, have become more and more frustrating as their shared trappings with other worse endeavors have become increasingly apparent.
Fallout: New Vegas succeeds in its ideological front, with multiple political leanings being represented in a way that showcases exactly what costs they can impose on a society, and it even answers so many of the questions one would posit about its setting (how do people get food, what are merchants like, etc). However even with all of those aspects to like, it’s still a game where a large amount of time has passed since an apocalyptic event, and people can’t even clean a single house, and remain tied to a simplistic sense of tribalism wherever you go (nearly always egregiously so). The Metro series presents an interesting take on what it would be like for a society to exist in a limited space, with a fascinating take on economics and infrastructure, while acknowledging that inevitably there would be opposing forces borne from nationalism of the world before. Even that however, becomes harder to appreciate when faced with its more libertarian ideas, positioning its main character as a power fantasy wiping away dozens of lives driven by the flimsiest of motives.
While I continue to appreciate the stronger aspects of these games, it is their faults, and the faults of so many other works in the genre, that lead to something like The Last of Us Part II. The weak structuring of the opposing groups, bound by creeds flimsily believable, let alone enough to lay their life downs for. A sense of morality imposed through gruesome and realistic taking of lives, told through the perspectives of characters who end their tales with kill counts dozens of times higher than history’s worst serial killers.
It’s not to say there aren’t examples of works that meaningfully engage with the apocalypse either. Games like State of Decay, which focuses specifically on the building up of a community and utilizing the inherent skills they each have, are exactly the sort of thing I want to see more of. State of Decay excels at what it does because it acknowledges that a group of people is not a monolith, and everyone has their own skill sets and abilities that help make the world go round. The contextualization of how their old-world skills translate into dealing with the apocalyptic world around them is also interesting, and answers at the very least some of those questions I posited earlier. Despite that, however, State of Decay has a very player-driven narrative. Most of what you’re doing, while given a much more flexible and interesting mold, is executed and penned by you the player in a more emergent style of storytelling.
I do, however, believe that a more structured and traditional narrative could execute upon those ideas I admire from State of Decay. While it would require work, a move-away from the gore and gloom of what’s become traditional post-apocalyptic media, dark and moody stories can be told without sacrificing the agency of the world that’s been left behind. I’ll be looking forward to the day when these types of stories can adapt to become about all of the things that can make people what they are, instead of mindless and antagonistic tools of war.