Cat’s research interests are youth identity and cross-cultural interactions in videogames, particularly in Russian-speaking communities. She has recently moved into the youth-serving non-profit sector, keeping in touch with game studies through her role as Vice-President of the Canadian Game Studies Association. She’s an unrepentant Junkrat main.
With 2017 smouldering around us, let’s talk about the apocalypse!
Many readings of post-apocalyptic media present the genre as inherently judgemental of humanity’s violent effects on the world, and on each other. It’s sometimes argued that the genre should foster empathy, responsibility and (possibly) change. Hyong-Jun Moon suggests that the genre possesses ‘the bold desire to imagine a totally different world by questioning the current order of things’ (Moon, 2014). In a video game, we might suggest that we have the opportunity to live through apocalypse and roleplay survival in a way that helps us cope with the fear of apocalypse occurring. Back in the 80s, Greenberg and colleagues suggested the idea of ‘terror management activities,’ that mitigate our fear of death. They write that
Humans ‘have the capacity to wonder why we exist and consider the possibility that the universe is an uncontrollable absurdity which the only inevitability is our own ongoing decay.’ (Greenberg et al., p. 196)
We use a variety of strategies to buffer these anxieties, including consuming entertainment in which we can be heroic or identify with heroes. That certainly sounds like a lot of narrative-based post-apocalyptic games to me.
At least in theory.
This article stems from the feeling of profound alienation I felt when playing the latest in a long line of post-apocalyptic games. It comes from a dissatisfaction with game rhetoric that fetishes the masculine, the physically domineering and the able-bodied; that prioritises human domination, revenge and blame over a broader survival of species (plural), and which is dismissive or openly contemptuous of real cooperation. It comes from the uncomfortable not-quite-identification with the giant, usually-masculine hands with which I, the game I, manipulate and hold and take and shoot and stab, but never gesture or caress or mend or soothe or plant. I find myself unable to fully invest myself in a game world which should, through its interactivity, make me feel more connected with the protagonist and not less. I’d argue that for many of us, the ways in which our player characters survive and even ‘win’ in these games undermines much of their value as terror management activities.
What I want to do today is present an alternative way of looking at post-apocalyptic videogames by applying poet Joyelle McSweeney’s concept of the ‘necropastoral.’ In her words, ‘the Necropastoral is a political-aesthetic zone in which the fact of mankind’s depredations cannot be separated from an experience of ‘nature’ which is poisoned, mutated, aberrant, spectacular, full of ill effects and affects’ (McSweeney, 2014).
McSweeney coined the term to critique the implications of traditional, pastoral poetry. Pastoral poetry functions as a kind of vignette into an idealised version of the natural world. It’s a place we can go, artistically speaking, to get away from the unpleasant side-effects of industrial life. It’s the luxury of escaping the side-effects of modernity in artistic form—a country retreat, if you like.
By contrast, McSweeney goes looking for the worm in the apple. She argues throughout her work that the presence of people is fundamentally disruptive, and any attempt at evading that reality is inauthentic. She views the creation, consumption and identification with a lot of art as coming from a place of privilege, whereas necropastoral creations emphasise struggle, corruption, oppression, theft and death.
Post-apocalyptic games use a similar horror of a ruined world to encourage us to empathise with the struggles of the protagonist. He—almost always he—has the physical and mental strength to fight back, and although he may be morally flawed, as a participant in the apocalypse he is somehow the victim of someone else’s crimes. The corrupt politician, the hubristic scientist or the rampant capitalist; these are the villains against which heroic (or sometimes antiheroic) survivalists are contrasted. The protagonists are forced to survive in a world rocked by villains who have in some way gone too far.
The fixed protagonists tend to be military, paramilitary or just mystifyingly good at running around hunting, shooting and knifing stuff, while the average joes and janes are surprisingly resilient and inevitably immune to zombie viruses. Whiteness predominates, with the exception of some minor characters. And, of course, inevitably the narratives leave no room for nuanced and empowering experiences of disability.
In Metro 2033 we play as Artyom, initially a callow boy but rapidly turning into a killer and a psychic. The player character in STALKER, Strelok, has already honed his skills as an artifact hunter and survivor before we meet him, as an amnesiac. In DayZ every survivor is supposed to have no special training or athletic abilities, although they are all naturally immune to the zombie virus. Similarly, 7 Days to Die gives you no context for your character other than having survived the Third World War and the zombies that follow it. And in The Last of Us, the game hinges on Ellie’s immunity to the cordyceps fungus.
It’s all more than a little uncanny, this necrotic and precarious mirror of human existence. McSweeney writes that ‘the Necropastoral is not an “alternative” version of reality but it is a place where the farcical and outrageous horrors of Anthropocenic “life” are made visible as Death.’ So although the two most common threats in post-apocalyptic games are the aftermath of nuclear war, and zombies or mutations, we find more immediate horrors too: the violence of other players or factions, environmental dangers, the slow degradation of the body through hunger, thirst and fatigue.
In STALKER, the world itself is visibly mutated through ‘anomalies’ of physics, distortions of space or time which the player must deactivate before passing through. A Geiger counter on the player gives a constant reminder of physical danger in the form of radiation. Realistically, mechanics like hunger, thirst and bleeding present a real threat to the player character, although his primary methods of surviving these trials come from his physical prowess and ability to steal and scavenge. In fact, STALKER stands for Scavenger, Trespasser, Adventurer, Loner, Killer, Explorer, Robber—there is nothing constructive here; it’s a language of intrusion and violence.
7 Days to Die makes similar demands on the player: find water, find food, find shelter, build and protect. The degradation of the player-character’s body is unnervingly accurate: blunt trauma, blood loss, thirst, cold can all kill you. You can die long before the zombies catch up with you. If you carry raw meat on you, the zombies can smell you and hunt you down. In this game, death begets more death. Elsewhere, much of the discussion around DayZ focuses on the threat of other players in the sandbox survival-horror MMO environment. But just like 7 Days to Die we can shift our focus to environmental and natural factors and find the same conclusion: in order to survive other players and zombies, first you have to survive blood loss, hunger and thirst.
The Fallout games move a long way away from realism in some ways, although Fallout 3 provides the player with a hardcore mode that is similar to the sandbox games we’ve just encountered. This gives us a genuine sense of danger, if we choose this mode, but in the game it’s really overshadowed by a very tightly-plotted narrative that we must progress along. The driving force in this game, and the later Fallout games generally, is navigating factions of people who desperately want to kill you. Conversely, in The Last of Us, the damage is largely all inflicted by other humans and cordyceps-infected bodies, but this mechanic similarly detaches us from the environment around us.
Does encountering quite mundane ecological and human dangers that threaten our player character’s survival count as a terror management activity through experiencing fictitious heroism? I’m not so sure. The sense of a lack of control is amplified for me personally through a lack of identification with the player-character; I’m clearly not physically qualified to build an anti-zombie treehouse or coming out swinging with a baseball bat. Similarly, the broader narrative in these games (of political, military or scientific violence) does not give me much space to be heroic. Or even the agency to be complicit.
Where we really see a clear distinction is between narrative, plot-based games and sandboxes. A narrative story offers us an ending, with two themes emerging: the ability to choose an ending, and having an ending that gives us closure. The culminations of these post-apocalyptic stories inevitably posit some kind of future remaining to us—an after time, a post-post-apocalypse, where someone is alive to tell the story. In a post-apocalyptic videogame we are that person. This kind of ending is expressed visually and narratively through the presence of beauty, cleansing or purity, and the promise of a safer or less immediately fraught life.
In STALKER, the final scene shows Strelok in a field, watching the sky as the clouds break and the sun comes out. We understand that the Zone and all of its mutations are gone. He then lies down on the grass and falls asleep. Then in The Last of Us we see Joel and Ellie set against a verdant forest backdrop. Although the game ends on a bittersweet note, what’s left of Ellie’s childhood falling away, and Joel shrinking back from the emotional implications of going against her explicit wishes, the natural world itself is for the first time in the game free of immediate peril. Ellie may not have sacrificed herself to provide the raw material for a vaccine, but you would never know that from the picturesque ending. All of the necropastoral trappings that we see earlier in the game, like the mutations, the decay, the open wound on Ellie’s arm, melt away or start to heal.
Conversely, in sandbox survival games the usual ending is death, in any number of ways. There’s a very intimate relationship between the player and the natural world, so we have a really necropastoral experience here. Our passage through the world is littered with strange meetings with the dead. It’s a chaotic experience, riddled with injury and instability, running and hiding, panicking, surviving another night.
McSweeney suggests art is not an ‘intact, stable, bound site, but as a zone inflamed by mediumicity, possessed by media, saturated to the breaking point, expelling media from itself, porous, transmissive, fluid, fluxing, spasming, evaporated, mutilated, mutating, pupating, tumouring, splitting open, generating multiples, counterfeits, and bad copies, and above all without a single site, not selfsame, incoherent.’ (p. 67)
I find a specific resonance with her description in videogames as a form of art, too. Consider, for a start, the replication of self in videogames: meeting identical copies in multiplayer games, making and remaking one’s own character, rerolling and respeccing. Or the qualities of flux, change and destruction: acquiring and discarding, testing, breaking, smashing, crossing and recrossing, mapping, stealing from other players, killing and being killed, having your items stolen, glitching, bugging, deleting yourself forever from the gamespace.
You can call me a nihilist, but when I look at post-apocalyptic games through a necropastoral lens, I find them infinitely more satisfying. By reframing post-apocalyptic games away from the struggles and drama of a very specific kind of protagonist, and refocusing on player interactions with the (un)natural world, we gain a more honest experience. Less pleasant, less cathartic, but arguably this framing makes a stronger case for the necessity of vivid depictions of the depredations of mankind. With the goal-oriented, quest-based struggle to survive pushed into the background, we can do a lot of things. We can foreground the uncanny similarities between post-apocalyptic gameworlds with areas of our current world. We can deemphasise the presence of humans as important. We can question who is allowed to survive, and who is likely to die. We can do this mental exercise even with a game that propels us through a narrative. It resonates harder, unsettles us further; in this strange meeting, we meet the dead.
Greenberg, Jeff, et al. “The Causes and Consequences of a Need for Self-Esteem: A Terror Management Theory.” Public Self and Private Self. Springer, 1986, pp. 189-212.
McSweeney, Joyelle. “What is the Necropastoral?” Poetry Foundation. 2014.
Moon, Hyong-Jun. “The Post-Apocalyptic Turn: A Study of Contemporary Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Narrative.” Dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2014.