Why Are Video Games Obsessed With The Post-Apocalypse?

Why Are Video Games Obsessed With The Post-Apocalypse?

Between the recent releases of Far Cry New Dawn and The Division 2, I took a step back and took stock of how many post-apocalyptic games I’ve played and the future releases on the calendar that I plan on digging into, and it got me thinking: Why are there so many games that deal with the end times? Not that I think it’s a bad thing necessarily, but it is intriguing.

So I sat down with Heather Alexandra to ask some questions. Why are there so many post-apocalyptic games out there? What do they do for us as players? What do they reveal about our ideal fantasies?

Watch the video above, or read a short excerpt here:

Heather: Why aren’t there as many games about just making graffiti art, for instance, as opposed to tagging territory? It’s because games push themselves towards very competitive modes of play because that’s engaging and compelling. So that empty space for post-apocalyptic stuff—yeah, there’s the rebuilding aspect, but that also means—

Paul: How do you rebuild?

Heather: Right, fighting off weird raiders or whatever, because Far Cry New Dawn does it too.

Paul: Far Cry New Dawn is an interesting case because we got to see, in Far Cry 5, the leadup to the apocalypse. And then Far Cry New Dawn is also interesting because you’re revisiting places you’re already familiar with and you’re seeing how people are coping and rebuilding. It gets uncomfortable at times because it’s like, “Oh, the raiders are attacking the wall! They’re attacking our peaceful settlement.”

Heather: The cynical thing about going from one game to another that’s just kind of wrecked [is] “Boy, we can just save on assets,” which is what I think a lot of people think of when they think of Far Cry New Dawn. The thing about a post-apocalypse is that it’s not just a blank canvas for design, it’s like, how can you imagine a post-apocalypse? Fallout does it very traditionally, it’s a wasteland. But Far Cry New Dawn is like, “No, we’re going to take inspiration from movies like Annihilation, where we have this freedom to make strange spaces as opposed to just another city.” Although The Division does that, but it’s like a city with a twist!

Paul: We just had Metro Exodus, we have Rage 2 on the horizon, we have Days Gone coming soon, Last of Us Part II. Looking back on this moment 10 years from now, it is, sort of, a reflection of what’s going on.

Heather: It’s a social anxiety.


  • Its not just video games, science fiction in the past several decades have been preoccupied with post-apocalyptic dystopian future scenarios

    • And I’d say it’s not so much that contemporary art is preoccupied with the “post-apocalyptic” as much as it is preoccupied, like all art through history, with the /future/.

      It just happens that for a while it’s been hard for dreamers to think of a future that is not apocalyptic so the best they can do is dreaming up the road to recovery afterward.

      • I think the reason we’re looking towards dystopian futures in so much media is because we already live in a dystopian present. We already have surveillance to match 1984, criminalisation of very minor offences, restrictions on freedoms and lack of agency in our day to day lives. So it’s pretty easy to extrapolate that out to even worse futures. Side note: I don’t think Australia is as bad as some countries, there are some with truly terrifying ideas already at play (China’s social worth “score” for example).

        When it comes to books/movies I think the better fiction is trying to warn against these dystopian futures. Trying to draw attention to problems and educate people in order to avoid them becoming realities. As for the games, that’s probably less of a concern. I think they’re an incredibly useless milieu for games because they offer scope and flexibility.

        You can create a game in a post-apocalyptic world with any type of society, you can create architecture at a whim, want ruins you can have ruins, want a mix of advanced tech or primitive, you can do that. Same with the antagonists, you can throw in mutants or aliens or dinosaurs or zombies or whatever you like. I think the setting opens up a tremendous amount of freedom for the developers.

  • Excuse me but why am “I” obsessed with post apocalypse? i think you meant, haha.

    I mean i’ve been playing fallout since it was only called fallout. Show me a metro game i’ve not played and sadly its called exodus now…

  • Only a million different, well-explored reasons. There’s the ‘fresh start,’ for one. A blend of the familiar and the novel/new. A grounding in familiar reality, the freedom to explore novel new things.

    Also: the underlying assumption of the headline is flawed. ARE games actually obsessed with post-apocalypse?

    You can go on through the list of game releases/re-releases for 2018, and a quick scan of the 520’ish titles on the wikipedia list only shows off 30’ish based on post-apocalyptic settings.

    (And that’s when stretching the definition of ‘post-apocalypse’ to its most generous limits, including things with apocalyptic backgrounds that are so far in the past as to be near-invisible like Adventure Time and Steamworld Dig, etc. Where the game is not really about the apocalypse as much as it is about a completely different fantasy/sci-fi world. Also including a few ‘apocalypse in progress’ games like Frostpunk or, Fortnite.)

    This means that for every game of 2018 with even a hidden secret post-apocalyptic background for its fantasy/sci-fi setting – not even the focus of the game – there’s well over a dozen games that are not. Restrict it to games that are focusing on themes specifically dealing with rebuilding/surviving after an apocalypse and those number goes into the several dozens per post-apocalyptic title.

    Does that really count as obsessed?

    • I don’t think the intent was quite so much quantity of games, but the proportion of new franchises/existing franchises moving into that territory. So just recently, you’ve got the Metro series, Rage 2 is coming up, The Division obviously, Far Cry recently (and what that series did with Far Cry 4 as well), and just in general why that AA/AAA size of development ventures towards post apocalyptic settings.

      It’s not a precursor for all development either, but maybe the wording could been more precise. They’re not my words, but anyway.

      I think you can delve into the core question a ton, but the base reasoning is really pretty simple: it offers a ton of creative flexibility, which developers need – not just at the beginning of a project, but often halfway through when things have to be cut or adjusted for one reason or another. Or a million reasons. Plenty of weird shit happens, and the less you have to deal with a rigid narrative or inflexible constructs in the world, the better.

      It’s also creatively fun as hell to build something from the ground up, but that’s another thing altogether.

      • I think we’re just cherry picking examples and succumbing to recency bias because those are just a few of many titles coming out. The Metro series has been around for a while and is based off a book so you couldn’t exactly change it to be different no more than you could change the Witcher to be something other than typical dark fantasy fare. Rage was already a post-apocalyptic game so again you couldn’t change everything to suddenly be not post-apocalyptic, same with The Division. Rage was also released 8 years ago and The Division 3 years so they’re not exactly recent trends in those series, just sequels to popular franchises.

        Far Cry 5 is about the only example of a series making the jump to a post-apocalypse. I think if you look over every game coming out this year and in recent years you’re going to see a somewhat equal proportion of Post-apocalyptic, Medieval Fantasy, World War 2, Space, Feudal Japan and Futuristic settings. Would be an interesting research topic for a gaming site to look into and write a thoughtful yet critical article on…

        • I think it’s also a logical progression for the Far Cry series. It’s a way to view how a setting progressed and it must cut dev time and costs down tremendously being able to re-use a lot of content.

      • I mean, I did chop out a bit about analyzing only the top earners for last year, too. The proportion of the AAA space fixated on an apocalypse – let alone a near-future one – is still very low. Not to mention that Metro, Rage, Division, Far Cry, this year are all sequels, with only one of them veering into new territory for their respective franchises.

        It’s definitely fertile ground for creating fantastic settings with roots in the familiar, and games have the freedom to explore wilder fantasies more than perhaps films, owing to how much effort is involved in recreating reality compared to fantasy…

        I don’t necessarily think we’re seeing any particular ‘recent trend’ towards looking at the apocalypse, though. It’d be fun to take a better look at the numbers, the categories of apocalypse or their degree of influence on the game, and the impact of the title on the release landscape of the time. (I say this because I consider data to be fun.)

        • I think the category of apocalypse is an interesting stat. I think they’re likely to reflect societal fears around that time. Post-nuclear reflects the obvious fear of war. Zombies/plague reflect fears of epidemic and so on. It’d be interesting to graph the percentage of games reflecting different apocalypses and watch them increase and decrease over time as societal fears change.

    • This. There’s only a finite number of settings for a gun fiesta in present times (war or counter-terrorism etc). Post-apocalpyse opens the doors to a lot more.

  • I think the idea for a post apocalypse represents many things in one package.
    The idea of the post apocalypse is actually quite old. H G Wells “Time Machine” book was written in the late 1800s and it depicts post apocalypse, as did War of the Worlds.

    Religion even indulges in some shape with post apocalypse. In Norse Ragnarok, when the fighting has ended the earth shall re-emerge from the sea and a few gods had survived and a few humans too who go on to repopulate the world.

    I think this translates to gaming well because it makes an exciting world for the player, empowers the player and also provides (in most cases) an interesting story to follow along with. Also I think people like to go “what would I do in that situation” I know just by listening to some friends while I have been playing the Division 2, that has come up a few times.

    Heres some reasons why I like them;
    – It is an escape from our complex boring lives to a simpler more exciting world.
    – Exploring old places /ruins and facing the unknown brings a sense of exploration.
    – You can see and do scary things and return to the safety of the real world.
    – Simple people also become extraordinary, for example the Vault Dwellers are all just regular people who become proficient through necessity.
    – Most often the characters aren’t the big military types (though for example in the Division that is different) but are instead the average joe out to survive.

    • Hell, you could even go to the bible for popular post-apocalyptic fiction. Ejection from the Garden of Eden, Noah’s flood, Revelations. I remember that Day of the Triffids and 1984 were required reading post-apocalyptic fiction from high school. Movies did their part… if you go back and look at all the games which have spawned from apocalyptic themes, how many of them are really just direct attempts to capture what audiences loved about Mad Max and Dawn of the Dead?

      • I think apocalyptic themes are common even in books that aren’t about global catastrophe. In a lot of cases you can view stories as personal apocalypse – the protagonists world has been destroyed and they’re thrown into chaos. Swiss Family Robinson/Robinson Crusoe, Lord of the Flies and many more. They deal with how people react to chaotic, disruptive change.

  • Questions of whether “Obsession” is applicable or just hyperbole aside, it’s because it’s an easier scenario to design and write for. Similar to the other “obsessions” such as fantasy, space, futuristic, (e.g. Utopian futures) steampunk and historical fiction scenarios they all represent something familiar yet open to creativity. That way you give your audience something that they can easily parse and interpret but also introduce new elements and redefine existing laws to suit your gameplay and storytelling.

    The great thing about games though is that unless your game is particularly focused on narrative and story, you don’t have to be as concerned with suspension of disbelief and believability if your gameplay is strong.

  • It’s a big part of modern world games as it greatly reduces the number of people you need to render. Trying to have a living city with 4 million people is impossible to create, but huddled masses trying to survive is a lot easier.

Log in to comment on this story!