Christmas may nearly be upon us, but in video games the end of the world is nigh

Fallout 4 Logo

It may well be the season to be jolly but even at this time of the year we remain obsessed with the end of the world: one of the biggest sellers for Christmas 2015 is the post nuclear-apocalypse of Fallout 4 and its ragged wasteland’s grim battle for survival.

Look at the big games releases of the past decade or so and you’ll see Armageddon everywhere: nuclear war, alien invasion, technological singularity, fatal political ideology, attack of the flower people. Gamers have survived it all. But just what is it that makes us so enamoured with dystopia and apocalypse?

It’s a tricky question but probably the best place to start is one of the most influential games of the modern era: Half-Life 2. Set on an Earth in the throes of alien occupation, it established a standard by which countless would-be rivals are still judged over a decade after its release. There are many reasons for this reverence. Exemplary design work unites the familiar and the outlandish to haunting effect; European cityscape locales crawl with Lovecraftian monstrosities and impossible extra-terrestrial structures. Gameplay combines run-and-gun shooting with innovative physics puzzles, frenetic vehicle sections, and grandiose set pieces. The soundtrack is a slick synth nightmare evoking the creeping horror of a dying world.

More than anything, it is a game that tells an eloquent tale of survival against overwhelming odds. With the combined forces of an alien empire arrayed against them, the human race – by way of the player-character Gordon Freeman and his partner-in-revolution Alyx Vance – fight back, and send their oppressors reeling. It is an intoxicating power-fantasy.

Is it simply the desire for power that has given rise to this proliferation of apocalyptic games? Are the highest stakes needed to achieve the greatest emotional payoff?

Perhaps not. The Last of Us was a hugely popular action-adventure title set after a plague that has turned most of humanity into homicidal flower-monsters, and the rest into lawless survivalists. Eking out an existence in this eerie Armageddon are Joel and Ellie, a surrogate father and daughter whose growing familial affection forces them into an impossible, horrifying situation. There are no great wars, no feats of derring-do based on black-and-white conceptions of morality, just two people trying to do the right thing in a world that no longer distinguishes between good and evil. It’s a complex, painfully human tale that demands significant emotional and intellectual engagement, and the resolution is small and ambiguous.

Clearly it’s not just about apocalyptic thrills, but there may be something intrinsic in all these scenarios that appeals at a very base level.

Which brings us to Fallout 4, the latest instalment in a string of alternate history games set after a global nuclear war.

It is in the resulting wasteland of this conflict that players are tasked with the most humane and desperate of missions throughout the series: find water for your fellow survivors, locate missing family members, hunt for technology capable of turning irradiated soil into fertile farm land.

As with its immediate predecessors, Fallout 4 draws popularity from creative world building, taught gameplay mechanics and high production values. But it’s placing the action in a post-apocalyptic context that creates such a lasting impression.

Setting a narrative within a doomed future can be seen as inherently pessimistic, perhaps even endemic of a global culture in which positivity is thin on the ground.

Yet all of these stories deal not just with human survival, but the survival of humanity. Be it hunting for those lost in Fallout 4, the burgeoning familial love of Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us, the wry affectionate jibes thrown at Gordon by Alyx in Half-Life 2, or any of the other moments of human connection that these and other games present, we see that even as worlds crumble, compassion persists.

Perhaps this, above all else, is why we keep heading into dark tomorrows. Life can be hard, and sometimes everyone needs to know there is no disaster so great that it can eradicate the basic human instinct to care, as well as to survive.

There can surely be no greater optimism than that.

Powered by article was written by Stuart Richardson, for The Observer on Tuesday 8th December 2015 08.30 Europe/London

BioShock’s Rapture is among the great modern gaming dystopias.


  1. Mirror’s Edge
    Mirror’s Edge gave us a beautiful unnamed city in which social and moral injustices were hidden beneath a stark visual charm. Free-running gameplay arguably fell short of the revolutionary narrative, but its prettiness was enough to dampen most of these frustrations.
  2. BioShock
    The sheer lunacy of BioShock’s setting – the objectivist underwater metropolis of Rapture – is half the charm. The other half is in blasting genetically-altered, semi-human abominations with a range of upgradable weaponry and themed superpowers.
  3. Fallout
    In the Fallout universe, history took a very different path post-second world war. Technology remained analogue, but progressed to a Jetsons level of advancement. Everything was going swimmingly until total nuclear war killed everyone on Earth. Well, almost everyone …
  4. Deus Ex
    Like cyberpunk? Like conspiracy theories? Like picking locks? Good! The illuminati, the Knights Templar, the Bilderberg Group, the Men in Black and the Trilateral Commission (among others) are all up to no good. Step to it!
  5. Half-Life 2
    The high-water mark for dystopian fiction in games (among many other things), Half-Life 2 remains the title to beat. After the cataclysm that led to an alien invasion of Earth in Half-Life, Gordon Freeman is tasked with taking the fight to the oppressors of the human race. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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