How Games Do The Apocalypse Differently To The Rest Of Pop Culture

In post-apocalyptic films and television shows, the focus is often on how to survive. In video games, it’s on how to live.

Days Gone on Playstation
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'Days Gone' launches exclusively on PlayStation 4 on April 26, 2019

We all like to believe that, if society crumbled, we’d survive. Post-apocalyptic scenarios are fertile ground for imagination, providing a versatile backdrop for fantasies of power, hyper-competence, and growing the best veggie garden known to man. We hope our intelligence, resourcefulness and ingenuity will put us in good stead and are enough to prevent us from joining the dead – or undead, as the case may be – when the world as we know it comes to an end.

Yet not every medium approaches the post-apocalypse in the same way. While film restricts its audience to spectators, video games place players in the role of survivor. This opens up a breadth of possibility, enabling players to both act out their fantasies and explore how the world may be rebuilt.

In post-apocalyptic films and television shows, the focus is often on how to survive. In video games, it’s on how to live.

Post-apocalyptic stories are paradoxical. They’re grim tales, often full of death, trauma and hopelessness. The collapse of society makes even the simplest needs difficult to fulfil, and an individual’s only defence against the greedy or desperate is whatever strength they can muster up themselves.

Yet, by their very nature, post-apocalyptic stories are also full of hope. Depicting people carrying on after the world has experienced catastrophic devastation, they’re about the will to survive and the courage to persevere, even when the future seems uncomprehendingly bleak. The apocalypse may have come and gone, but not everything is lost.

This string of optimism runs through the majority of stories set in post-apocalyptic worlds. However, no medium expresses this hope as well as video games.

Days Gone on Playstation

Post-apocalyptic games thrust players into hostile environments with only basic tools to help them survive. Encouraged to explore the world, they’re rewarded for gathering resources, crafting items and discovering new things. Players are even prompted to help others, often gaining experience points by doing so.

In this way, players learn to navigate the world, honing their skills and finding ways to survive. They grow in strength by interacting with their environment and rebuilding a community, until the dangers that overwhelmed them at the beginning no longer pose a threat.

This gameplay is an expression of perseverance, resourcefulness and overcoming adversity, even separate to the plot. The post-apocalypse becomes a place of opportunity rather than desolation. Buildings may have been razed, but this has cleared land for rebuilding – or the building of something new.

Days Gone on Playstation

Hope is more muted in the post-apocalypses of film and television. Typically, their storylines focus on someone looking solely after themselves and their own. Hoping to get to a certain rumoured safe zone or to protect someone close to them, the protagonist’s goal is merely to survive, for now. Heroes are more likely to die than to become the biggest badarse to wander the wasteland, and the characters and the audience alike can’t help but compare what is to what was.

In contrast, post-apocalyptic video games often include an element of rebuilding, of moving forward. Whether it’s growing vegetables, erecting structures, or establishing a community of allies, games look toward the future. Its inhabitants are aware that the situation could be better, but they also have the tools and skills to make it so.

Video games share many of cinema’s concerns. But at the same time, they tackle the overarching question of how society is to recover. This sense of optimism is further brought to the fore by the fact that they are interactive. Audiences aren’t forced to merely watch someone struggle and sympathise from afar. If they see a problem, they themselves can help fix it.

This is at the root of the post-apocalyptic fantasy. Not only being able to work with your hands, getting stuck into something and making a tangible difference, but having the power to alter the world for the better.

Days Gone on Playstation

Despite the genre being called “survival”, post-apocalyptic games are often equally about living and answering questions about how to live.  Do you help a fellow survivor, or steal from them? What values you prioritise? Who are you without law and order to bind you? Who could you be? Who do you want to be? What type of world will you create?

Video games rarely truly end. Though you may finish the main quest line and complete the story, there’s always more to do.

There may be unlockable post-game content, with new areas to explore or weapons to wield. There may be Easter eggs to find or achievements to earn. You could even start a New Game+, playing through the story again with everything you’ve gathered and learned from your first playthrough.

In film, the experience is complete once the credit rolls. A story has been told, from beginning to end, and the audience has seen all there is to see. In video games, there is always a way to keep going.

And if we’re to learn anything from post-apocalyptic stories, it’s that things can always get better as long as you keep going.

Days Gone launches exclusively on PlayStation 4 on April 26, 2019.