The aftermath of an apocalypse is an ideal setting for a video game. The end of the world offers not only a wide array of storytelling possibilities, but also a great excuse to throw players into tension-filled environments with plenty of action.
Just the same, post-apocalyptic video games can feel stale. Most adhere to design and story conventions that are quickly becoming rote. They take place in crumbling American cities and radioactive wastelands. They feature bands of roving warriors or shambling zombies as enemy fodder. They tell the same tired stories of lone survivalists giving humanity the hope it needs to start afresh.
A premise as rich as the end of the world doesn’t need to fit this mold. Instead of focusing on overly familiar conventions, these games can move in entirely new directions, using the end of the world as a venue for exploring topics—both serious and irreverent—that make players rethink what the genre’s capable of.
As these five games show, there’s still plenty of room for novelty in the post-apocalypse.
5. ’THE LONG DARK’’
Hinterland, 2014 (and still in active development)
Though most of its population is huddled into urban areas close to the American border, Canada is a huge country. Hinterland’s The Long Dark uses the immensity of the nation to create a different sort of post-apocalypse—one where the natural world is the greatest source of danger. Following a geomagnetic storm that leaves her stranded in a remote region of the Pacific Northwest, the player sets out across a snowy landscape with no goal other than to keep on living. She must scavenge tools, hunt or gather food, and, perhaps most importantly, find shelter in order to keep warm during the harsh Canadian winter.
In place of abandoned cities and shambling zombies, The Long Dark features frozen forests and vicious wildlife. It’s a take on the end of the world that cleverly positions nature as both the player’s greatest enemy and, in the absence of other people, their only possible ally. (It doesn’t hurt that the game’s minimally detailed, boldly colored visual style makes even dying from exposure a pleasant experience.)
4. ’TOKYO JUNGLE’
If every person you knew suddenly vanished from a city, there would still be plenty of animals left behind to pick up where we left off. This is the premise of Tokyo Jungle. The player takes control of one of a number of different animals, ranging from fluffy Pomeranian dogs and tabby cats to lions, tigers, and bears. Though the streets of Japan’s capital are littered with the rubble of fallen buildings, animals have reclaimed the metropolis, establishing a new ecosystem where the separation between pets and zoo attractions has been erased.
Tokyo Jungle is a fairly light-hearted game, but it’s also a little chilling. It reminds us that even our most populous cities could go on just fine without us. A once bustling location has been left in ruins and the simple comfort of orderly streets and buildings has changed to a chaos of mossy wreckage and overgrown parks. This may seem unnerving, but Tokyo Jungle’s goofy tone helps offset its reminder that the world isn’t designed solely for human use.
3. ‘METRO 2033’
4A Games, 2010
Metro 2033 sees the citizens of an irradiated Moscow repurposing the city’s subway system as a new home. As Artyom, a young man native to this strange world, the player explores a dystopia where the abandoned streets above them are plagued by bizarre creatures and the tunnels they inhabit are split into opposing political factions. While Artyom makes a few gas-mask assisted trips to the eerily deserted city, it’s the time spent navigating the game’s sprawling metro lines that provides the most memorable moments.
What makes Metro 2033 unique is its decidedly non-Western approach to the post-apocalyptic genre. The game’s Ukrainian developers show their characters living in much the same way they did before the bomb dropped, only transplanted to a subterranean environment. The Muscovites just get on with living, even if everything they know has been taken from them. Metro 2033 is fascinating as a reflection of a post-Soviet Eastern Europe where the collapse of a population’s everyday reality—whether it’s the life-defining politics of Communism or a fictional nuclear catastrophe—is simply endured.
2. ‘FALLOUT: NEW VEGAS’
Obsidian Entertainment, 2010
If the Cold War had turned hot during the 1950s, Nevada may have looked a lot like it does in Fallout: New Vegas. As part of the long-running Fallout series, New Vegas takes place in a world where the gee-whiz attitudes of mid 20th century America have continued well into the future—only they’ve mixed with classic sci-fi’s retro futurist aesthetics to create a society where boxy robots shoot laser pistols and elite soldiers wear suits of high-tech armor.
New Vegas stands out for the way it uses the post-apocalypse to present new cultures, drawn from our own world but mutated to reflect a different course of history. There’s a shady technocratic businessman whose gambling empire recalls the Sunset Strip’s real-world casino barons. And there’s an authoritarian new republic that, in an echo of America’s 19th century frontier drive, hopes to establish a form of law and order capable of uniting a diverse people. It’s this mix of Wild West, post-war culture, and golden age science fiction that makes New Vegas such a striking version of the apocalypse.
1. ‘EVERYBODY’S GONE TO THE RAPTURE’
The Chinese Room, 2015
In contrast to the rest of this list, The Chinese Room’s version of the apocalypse consists of an idyllic English countryside that actually seems like a wonderful place to live. From sun-dappled fields to rushing streams and rolling hills, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture sets its story in a gorgeous environment. Over time, though, a disconcerting sense of isolation begins to settle in. Like its title suggests, the Shropshire village the player navigates is empty. The only inhabitants left are ghostly afterimages, silhouettes made of light who play out conversations from some time before—or during—the end of the world.
From appearance to thematic concerns, nothing about Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is typical. It’s a video game that delves into our need for community and the uneasiness we feel when left entirely alone, even in a lovely pastoral landscape free of any immediate danger. In place of thrilling action, it offers quiet contemplation. Instead of portraying the collapse of society as an opportunity for people to become more self-interested, it explores the ways in which a world-changing calamity might bring us closer together. To a greater degree than any other game on this list, Rapture is a thorough re-evaluation of post-apocalyptic video games—one that trades the genre’s usual cynicism for a deeply humanist message.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Pixels or Death, Paste, VICE, and The Escapist. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, runs Digital Love Child, and tweets @reidmccarter.
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