Throughout the history of humanity, the apocalypse has been depicted as worlds turned upside down, revelations that changed the course of time, and cultural shifts that propelled the world into new ages. Acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert famously once said in 2010 that “no video gamer will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.” He argued that despite their technical capabilities, games ultimately exist to be won. I’d argue, however, that whereas movies, books, and songs present linear narratives with room for interpretation, video games have the ability to impact their audiences with meaningful decisions that take player ideologies into account. Apocalyptic events depicted in video games serve more than just backstory for video games and are often used to pose moral dilemmas to players in order to create branching narratives and a unique, personalized product. The Fallout games use system-based design to discuss post-apocalyptic fears and cold war tensions and The Last of Us presents the fear of being alone and outmatched to discuss the grey areas of the commonly utilized idea of good versus evil.
The 1996 game Fallout by Interplay Entertainment and its sequels present an alternate reality in which the end of World War II ushered in an era of atomic embracement rather than fear. However, decades of nuclear proliferation and free market capitalism led to a global war that wiped out most of humanity. The survivors hid in underground fallout shelters to wait out the ongoing apocalypse. Finally, after centuries of living underground, humanity reemerged into a wasteland filled with mutated creatures, demolished landmarks, and irradiated resources. Throughout the story, players are posed with dilemmas regarding their friends, acquaintances, and enemies. For example, a player coming across scavengers can either kill and loot these strangers or help them in their journey. The outcome of this decision can ripple throughout the game world, creating a new branch of interactive possibilities. If the player kills the scavengers, the player can enjoy gaining new supplies, but his/her companions will start to question these decisions and may refuse to help for the rest of the journey. Conversely, if the player gathers materials for the scavengers to help them feed their families, there can be a reward down the road when the player meets a scavenger’s family member who can offer assistance.
Fallout uses systems-based game design, an approach to storytelling that relies on the characteristics of one system to influence another system. According to writer Trent Polack of Venturebeat, it is “a series of mechanics in which the game reacts to player interaction using its initial design stance.” These interactive systems allow players to experiment, eventually generating unique solutions to problems without the game showing them what to do. This is the notion of emergent gameplay, where the scope of a player’s ability is far greater than the individual mechanics of a game added up. For example, emergent gameplay in the popular board game Monopoly is when players begin trading money because of personal friendships outside the game. Monopoly’s systems allow for players to trade without breaking the game itself. Similarly, Fallout allows players to act as they would in the real world, changing the flow of the game and creating a unique experience for each player.
Fallout’s exploration of nuclear anxiety highlights ideologies of American exceptionalism and Cold War tensions. According to writer Ian Tyrell of The Week, exceptionalism is the concept that the United States is “not just a bigger and more powerful country, but an exception.” The idea became popular due to President Ronald Reagan, who touted Boston as “a shining city on a hill” without recognizing the land’s existence prior to colonization. It’s no coincidence that the setting of the most popular game in the franchise (by sales), Fallout 4, takes place in Boston. In addition, the nuclear bombs dropped throughout the United States in the beginning of the series is the direct result of a decades-long cold-war like conflict between America and China. Several newspapers and journal entries can be found scattered throughout the world detailing a nuclear arms race with China with several smaller wars amidst a nationwide shortage of resources like food and medicine. In other words, American politicians waged proxy wars in the name of exceptionalism while treating their subjects like sheep waiting to be slaughtered. The game taps into the fear that so many Americans felt during the Cold War – that nuclear annihilation could happen any day.
By exploring American exceptionalism, the post-nuclear games also deal with the concept of Just War Theory. The theory suggests that war could be necessary and even lawful if waged to achieve peace. Writer Christine Emba of The Washington Post states that the theory is divided into three main categories. “Jus ad bellum concerns the justification for the resort to war in the first place… Jus in bello is justice in war, referring to the correct conduct in battle once the decision to go to war has been made,” and “Jus post bellum or justice after war, concerned with making a just peace… after the war has ended.” Though there is no international war in Fallout, the individual conflicts between the player character and NPCs (Non-Playable Characters) can be seen as a war. If the NPCs are wielding dangerous weapons, it’s more likely that players will feel threatened and can justify a war. However, the justice after war is rarely ever clean in the game. Dissolving a threat by killing will create many more enemies in the game world and can often lead to many more miniature wars. The notion of making peace after the conflict has ended is a dead end that will only lead to more conflict. It’s fitting that the cold-war-esque tensions presented in the game between America and China mirror the same dead end. This microcosm of large-scale conflict complements Fallout’s post-nuclear landscape that was the result of a war deemed just by political leaders.
Where Fallout used systems-based design to show players the effects of their actions in a supposed apocalypse, The Last of Us by Naughty Dog Studios handles its world turned upside down with linear storytelling. Arguably regarded as the greatest game of the last decade, The Last of Us starts its story in 2013, when an outbreak of Cordyceps fungus sweeps through the United States, transforming humans into the Infected, zombie-like creatures whose memories are erased and are therefore extremely aggressive. A man named Joel Miller attempts to escape an early outbreak in his city with his daughter, who ends up dying in the midst of the chaos. The game picks up twenty years later in Boston as Joel attempts to escort Ellie, an orphan girl who seemingly is the only one immune to the fungus, across the country to find a group of scientists called The Fireflies who are supposedly working on a cure. It’s worth noting that prior to meeting Ellie, Joel lost his world, and Ellie was born into the desolate world that emerged. Throughout the story, Joel and Ellie form a father-daughter relationship as they are alone in a ravaged America.
The innate sense of feeling loss, grief, and hatred permeates everything from Joel’s and Ellie’s conversations to the violent confrontations with raider gangs and Infected hordes to the somber, overgrown landscapes depicted in the game’s distant yet familiar America. In this game, the player doesn’t have choice to create branching paths in the narrative. Instead, the player is more like a participant in an interactive movie, where he/she switches off between Joel and Ellie to shoot enemies and ride horses between beautifully animated cutscenes. Whereas in zombie films such as 28 Days Later, audiences can witness the protagonists spray bullets at enemies, in The Last of Us, players kill those enemies themselves. They can choose to open fire and waste their precious bullets or they can sneak around the area and stealthily take out each enemy with a knife. This added immersion is what allows video games to transcend film as art.
One of the most important themes of The Last of Us and its widely acclaimed sequel, The Last of Us Part II, is that even in a zombie apocalypse, humans are their own greatest enemies. If a human enemy sees Joel with a pistol, they would run away in fear, a far cry from shooter games like Call of Duty where enemies serve as mindless drones to be shot as. The enemies in this game are as fearful of the player as the player is of them. Director Neil Druckmann explained that his team “want[ed] every NPC to feel like a real person.” The Infected often are shown as mindless raging drones to be shot as, but since human conflicts are interspersed throughout the story, the Infected only serve as reminders of the humanity that once was. In addition, in several of the film’s interior settings, players can find journals of the people that eventually became Infected. At some points in the story, the player has to kill characters that they’ve learned about by reading their journals. Since the players have established an emotional connection with these monsters, it makes the act of killing all the more difficult, and the line between good and evil all the more blurred.
All of this comes to a climactic end when Joel and Ellie finally make it to the Fireflies headquarters where the scientists can examine Ellie to create an effective vaccine. Ellie is put to sleep via anesthesia, and the doctors begin taking samples of her blood and observing her vitals. However, Joel quickly learns that in order to create the vaccine, the Fireflies would have to kill Ellie as a portion of her brain needs to be removed. In a fit of impulse, Joel realizes that even if a cure is possible, he cannot trade his surrogate daughter for the world. For him, that sense of family that he lacked for twenty years triumphed over the loneliness he experienced for so long. He pulls out his gun and players are forced to shoot and kill every Firefly member who attempt to prevent Joel from retrieving Ellie. This controversial climax poses the ethical dilemma to players – what would they do if someone they loved were about to die even if that death would result in millions of lives saved? It’s easy to wonder about the hypothetical, but playing as Joel and feeling his thoughts is a different concept. Though the logical, scientific answer to the question is that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, Joel’s decision can only be described as human. Apocalyptic films ask viewers to sympathize, but apocalyptic video games allow players to empathize.
Apocalyptic video games not only ask players the moral questions that films do, but also thrust them into immersive worlds. It’s clear that video games are art despite what traditionalists might say, and with rapid advancements in technology, it’s even more obvious that games will emerge as the most prominent art form in the world. Throughout history, stories have been linear and dependent on the author, but role-playing games like Fallout have been able to create uniquely personalized stories using systems-based game design and branching narratives. Even when video game stories are linear like in The Last of Us, the very act of participating removes the passiveness from traditional storytelling and allows for deeper connections with the story’s characters and settings. Players can not only discuss moral dilemmas posed throughout apocalyptic storytelling like nuclear anxiety, Just War Theory, and what it means to be human in a zombified world, but also actively force players to deal with the consequences of their viewpoints on these matters.
Ebert, Roger. “Video Games Can Never Be Art: Roger Ebert: Roger Ebert.” Roger Ebert | Roger Ebert, 16 Apr. 2010, www.rogerebert.com/roger-ebert/video-games-can-never-be-art.
Polack, Trent. “A Guide to Systems-Based Game Development.” VentureBeat, VentureBeat, 13 Sept. 2017, venturebeat.com/2017/09/10/why-and-how-systems-based-game-design-works/.
Tyrrell, Ian. “What, Exactly, Is ‘American Exceptionalism’?” The Week, The Week, 21 Oct. 2016, theweek.com/articles/654508/what-exactly-american-exceptionalism.
Emba, Christine. “Opinion | Just War Theory: A Primer.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 31 Mar. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2015/11/30/just-war-theory-a-primer/.
Reagan, Ronald. “Election Eve Address ‘A Vision for America’.” Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum, 3 Nov. 1980, www.reaganlibrary.gov/archives/speech/election-eve-address-vision-america.
Grant, Christopher. “The Last of Us Isn’t about Monsters but Humanity.” Polygon, Polygon, 7 June 2012, www.polygon.com/2012/6/7/3071389/the-last-of-us-isnt-about-monsters-but-humanity.