ellVideo games about the apocalypse are not rare or new in any sense, but recently the genre has been enjoying new-found popularity and success in video games when presented in a particular fashion. This can easily be linked to the progress of gaming as a whole, wherein complex stories and characters are becoming more favored than in the past, and even now, when archetypes and conventional storytelling were the norm.
But I’m thinking that’s not the only reason why games based on an apocalypse of some sort garner massive popularity. Before we get into why, we need an answer to the most important question of all.
Why Do People Play Videogames?
According to Scott Rigby, gaming researcher and author of Glued to Games, video games help people satisfy three core needs in their lives: competence, autonomy, relatedness. (I used Game Theories summary of the three needs because well, he summed it up good enough)
Competence is the feeling of mastery, the sense that one is growing, learning and progressing. The more one plays and achieves goals the more competent they feel as a person.
Autonomy is the sense that one has control over their actions and the world around them. The player has uninhibited choices, choosing their own adventure rather than being forced down a set path of experiences.
Relatedness is the need to feel like one matters to others and that they’re making a contribution to society.
Most games focus on one of the three needs.
Coincidentally, or not so much, successful apocalyptic games nail all of these needs in one fell swoop, which is simply not an easy accomplishment for any game, but because the medium is constricted by conventional gameplay, linear storytelling, and ultimately the desires of the player, the most popular apocalyptic experiences amount to a combination of artifice, shameless ego-centrism, and induced catharsis.
Most apocalypse-based games are within the survival horror genre, coined from the game Resident Evil, wherein combat is de-emphasized and the player is forced into a hostile, horrific environment with few ways to protect themselves. They also double as role-playing games.
“The narrative and the richness and complexity of the dialogue exchanges and characteristics in role-playing videogames are vital elements of this most literary of genres.” (Newman, 48)
Realism, Choice / Morality, Vulnerability
I chose the three most successful apocalyptic, survival horror games over the past years in terms of copies sold, reviews, and awards as examples of the main ways in which video games typically imagine the apocalypse.
Game developers do this through emphasizing one or more of the following: realism, choice and/or morality, or perceived vulnerability. All of which correspond with the three needs of gamers: competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
Exhibit A: Telltale’s The Walking Dead
The choice and morality dynamic is common in games about the apocalypse, and the player will either have to make choices which affect the narrative or the character makes their own choices in the narrative that profoundly affect them and the story.
Telltale’s The Walking Dead, takes this convention to the next level, by giving the player all agency, or at least the illusion of it.
“Play as Lee Everett, a convicted criminal, who has been given a second chance at life in a world devastated by the undead. With corpses returning to life and survivors stopping at nothing to maintain their own safety, protecting an orphaned girl named Clementine may offer him redemption in a world gone to hell.” (Telltale)
Let’s examine how The Walking Dead sells the apocalypse.
Modus Operandi 1: Glorified Escort Mission
Apocalyptic games use the basic framework of an escort mission to create what can only be called a glorified escort mission but without the tediousness of constant protection that makes your typical escort mission unbearable. In turn, the player, narratively speaking, is placed in charge of this character, often a special young girl, and can enjoy the idea of protecting this person without actually having to.
This is not to say that the player isn’t given a reason to cling to this other, who is often written as being innocent in nature, clever, and given comedic dialogue completely juxtaposed with other characters encountered who are portrayed as self-centered, bitter, and essentially do not embody the notion of innocence.
Because how else could you care for someone otherwise…
Moreover she will often express her gratefulness for said protection. The relatedness factor comes into play here. The player must matter to somebody, preferably someone whose existence depends on the player regardless of what they do.
Modus Operandi 2: Choice
The game’s main gimmick and mechanic is that it is tailored by how you play.
“The Walking Dead is a game where choice matters. YOUR choice. The decisions you make in the game can have far-reaching consequences affecting how your story plays out. From the seemingly mundane to the horror of being forced to choose who lives and who dies, the game engine is tracking everything you do to deliver a tailored game experience.” (Telltale)
TWD is just about as tailored as a customized iPhone: your name may be on it, and it may be tinted blue, but it’s still an iPhone just like everyone else’s. Regardless, developers know this is the selling point, and the dialogue tree is their weapon of choice.
The majority of the game utilizes these trees, which the player uses to make decisions and communicate with others. This is the bulk of the game. When communicating with other characters, the player is given 2 to 4 choices of which to choose as a response. Often upon choosing, a message flashes in the top left corner of the screen, stating that whoever the player is talking to will remember this.
For example, a character you just met may simply ask what your name is. If you choose to lie or tell the truth, the message will appear, denoting that this may be relevant in the future somehow. However the fact is that, more often than not, it does not matter. Meaning that what the players says or does doesn’t matter, but it sure will make you feel like it does, emphasis on feel.
This game is actually kind of sick, like, it exists solely to manipulate your feelings. If this game was a person, it would be a sociopath.
The game has a rigid, linear narrative that does not allow such uninhibited freedom, so the choices often branch into two directions that always conclude at the same point. This is particularly evident when deciding what characters live or die.
The Necessity of Canon
Certain characters are canon, meaning that in order for the plot to progress they must stay alive or in other cases die. Letting the wrong character die prompts a ‘game over’ screen. The non-canon characters on the other hand are utterly disposable.
For example, at one point zombies will invade a pharmacy the player and others are holed up in. Soon, two equally disposable characters named Carley and Doug will both be in compromising positions. In a small frame of time, the player must choose which one to help, in turn letting the other be eaten by zombies.
Regardless, the character will eventually die at a designated point in a later episode for the sake of the plot, results are interchangeable an non-negotiable. This alone diminishes replay value.
“The only way for a game to have negotiable consequences is if the operations and moves needed to play are mostly harmless.” (Juul, 41)
Despite this fact, the game often reminds the player of how much their choices matter and by virtue, the player; although, the repercussions or lack thereof would say otherwise. The game flashes those awkward messages in the corner to remind the player that not only do your choices matter but also that characters remember some of the things you say and do.
Why they even bother flashing these messages is beyond me. It’s not as though we as the player forget later. This is really just another moment to reiterate the ‘you’ factor and add value to an utterance when there is none. These mini-decisions, however, may only manifest themselves in one line of future dialogue but never alter the plot.
Yeah, I’m looking at you Life is Strange. As much as it pains me to say this, at least Until Dawn made choices real, no one is canon. Granted they also aren’t concerned with manipulating players’ feelings as much as petty jump scares.
If TWD is a sociopathic, manipulative, compulsively lying lover who keeps you chasing your own tail, then UD is the sexy guy who tells you he is there for sex and nothing else. Honesty is key here, people.
It should be noted that what constrains this unlimited freedom is not so much the developer’s decision as it is a lack of the means to do something on that scale. It is no secret that the gaming industry is fickle to say the least. Being innovative is both expensive and not guaranteed any profit. Telltale is a small company, so creating a game that offered unlimited choices would be taxing.
Developers worked to convince the player of their own freewill as opposed to actually providing it, which is an arduous task that only the likes of Stanley’s Parable has successfully accomplished.
This illusion of choice lends itself to autonomy. Not only does the player control their own fate, they control the fate of others as well, having a say in every pivotal decision made, giving the player a strong sense of authority.
Such authority still proves itself false, in the end.
This, however, is not the concern of most players and reviewers, as the game is meant to be a “different experience compared to many other zombie games.” (TellTale).
They beat around the bush and promise things they don’t have the capacity to give.
Regardless, the fact of the matter is this is an experience meant to revolve around the player. The player is not affected by the apocalypse but the apocalypse is supposedly affected by the player, virtually going against the logic of what an apocalypse actually is or means for one who is a part of it, irrespective of the details of said apocalypse.
Lack of Inconvenient Realism
There are simply certain characteristics of the apocalypse that cannot be removed. An example of this can be seen observing the face value of the game.
Hunger is always the driving force of those in the apocalypse, and of course it is mentioned as something of grave importance; however, it is not quantified in any real way to show such an importance.
This may be petty, but stay with me.
The character Lee is not armed the majority of the game. He is only provided a weapon when zombies are present or coming then he immediately discards the weapon after the attack sequence. What the fig newton. During said attack sequence the player is given unlimited ammunition as they fend off zombies, effectively removing any possible danger.
The game relies on the player to merely imagine the danger without forcing real danger upon the player, thus doing the game developer’s work for them. It’s like a videogame version of a pyramid scheme.
The Walking Dead presents an ideal apocalypse. The player has unlimited agency while others do not, until the plot demands it. You as the player and character are never at risk, leaving the apocalypse, absent vulnerability, as really no apocalypse at all, just a choice simulation.
This is one of the main reasons why the essence of the apocalypse is irrelevant in apocalyptic games.
You may not be armed the majority of the game, but you will be when the story calls for it.
Contextually, the player knows this is a desperate situation; although, it’s not. McCarthy’s The Road may be an extreme comparison, but it is evident how they used this idea of two people, a protector and one to protect, in a relentless world but Telltale effectively took the apocalyptic aspects away.
One could only imagine if the man in The Road had unlimited ammunition or if he did not have to pay close attention to the boy at virtually all times. These are only a couple of things that made The Road so devastating: two people, father and son, trying to survive in an unforgiving world.
The Walking Dead seeks to emulate this but only by reducing the apocalypse to a simulacrum, diminishing the devastation and therefore reality, while capitalizing on the manipulation of the player’s emotions and desires.
In conclusion, feelings don’t equate to quality. “Too many feels.” 4/10 -IGN
Tell me how you feel about the apocalypse in videogames!
Stay tuned for Part Two with The Last of Us and Amnesia, the Dark Descent with a dash of Fallout 4
And stay tuned for a separate analysis of Life is Strange
Juul, Jesper. Half-real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2005. 41. Print.
Newman, James. Playing with Videogames. London: Routledge, 2008. 48. Print.
Pat, Mat. “Game Theory: Why You Play Video Games (1 Million Subscriber Special!).” YouTube. Game Theory, 21 Dec. 2013. Web. 02 Mar. 2016.
Rigby, Scott, and Richard M. Ryan. Glued to Games: How Video Games Draw Us in and Hold Us Spellbound. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011. Print.
“Telltale Games Presents The Walking Dead: The Game.” Telltale Games. Telltale Games, n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2016.