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Welcome to Post-Apocalyptia!

May 19, 2010

War…war never changes.  And neither do games, apparently.

All right, that was a cheap shot.  But seriously, what is it about the post-apocalyptic wasteland that so greatly appeals to modern game developers?  We’ve got Half Life 2, the Fallout series, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, Metro 2033, Rage, and—hmm.  I’ll just stop there, because it looks like that list is going to be a lot longer than I thought.

So do post-apocalyptic environments require less of a design budget, perhaps?  Has focus group testing proved they have a higher than average fun quotient?  Is there, in fact, some deep-seated psychological need in all human beings that drives us to explore the gutted ruins of our future civilization?  Is the blasted wasteland that once held proud cities an unconscious metaphor for our fears of a crumbling society?  Or, indeed, the very embodiment of change itself?

I’m just messing with you; I have no idea.  What I actually wanted to talk about today was the use of these environments in today’s games—specifically, what makes them fun, and what doesn’t.  But first can we agree, in the interest of preventing a repetitive stress injury, that “post-apocalyptic” shall hereafter be abbreviated as “PA”?  Yes?  Good.  Onward!

There are two PA games in particular that I wanted to examine.  The first is Half-Life 2, which remains my personal favorite game ever.  The other is Fallout 3, which was—to me—profoundly disappointing.  Let’s leave aside Half-Life for a moment to concentrate on Fallout, seeing as it’s the poster boy for PA nowadays.

So why didn’t I like it?  Plenty of reasons, actually: This game ran the full spectrum of bad design, from weapon degradation to sub-par voice acting, from stiff animations to questionable physics, and from general bugginess to Games For Windows Live.  But all that really shouldn’t have made a difference; I was fully expecting all of the above problems (except GFWL), and I still ran out and bought the game just a few days after it was released.  Because people were describing it as “like Oblivion, but with guns.”

And I loved Oblivion.  Bethesda spent ages crafting this lush, enthralling, terrifyingly wide open world, and just dropped the player right in the middle of it.  “Here is your playground,” they say, “go explore!”

Yes please.

It wasn’t until I put this game up against Fallout 3 that I realized what made it so much fun for me.  With all the freedom Bethesda offers, playing one of their games is comparable to living in the game world for a while, and Oblivion’s world of Tamriel is a seriously awesome place to live.  Every location strikes the perfect balance between pleasant and interesting: The Imperial City has majestic stonework and pristine streets around the palace, but its seedy underbelly contains all sorts of unsavory types for you to find—if you’re so inclined.  Skingrad’s old-glory atmosphere provides an excellent backdrop for the city’s vibrant night life, but people looking for a quiet stay should avoid the palace at all costs.  And Bravil…actually, Bravil’s a shithole.  But the imbalance of wealth there just makes the rest of the world seem that much more authentic.

And then, a short way into the game, these giant portals into hell (the titular Oblivion gates) start opening up randomly around the world.  You can avoid nearly all of them if you want to, but by this point you can see that they’re corrupting the area around them—threatening to destroy the world you’ve been living in.  Dammit, that’s my world!  I stopped caring about the main plot when Patrick Stewart died (ten minutes into the tutorial sequence), but I still wanted to keep playing because the world itself was actually worth saving.

Then there’s Fallout 3.  It has all of the elements that Bethesda games are known for: The same wide-open world, the same exotic locales brimming with side quests, the same ugly NPCs.  What it doesn’t have is someplace I’d actually want to visit, let alone fight for.  Don’t get me wrong; the places you explore are still interesting—there’s a city built entirely within a beached aircraft carrier, another that’s been cobbled together from scrap metal in the shelter of an old bomb crater, and even a series of caverns populated by the foul-mouthed descendents of Chloë Mortez.  Cool stuff.

But it’s still a wasteland, everywhere you look.  Practically everything in this world is broken, charred, rusted-out, highly radioactive, or trying to kill you (and some of the more memorable stuff can be all five).  What, exactly, was I trying to save again?

On top of all the destruction, half the people you meet are absolute bastards—and that’s excluding all the ones that just try to kill you on sight.  By the time the “real” bad guys started showing up with their futuristic weapons and fancy labs, I was seriously hoping for a chance to join their side.  Sure, they’re mostly just trying to destroy the world (again), but at least they know how to be civilized about it.

After a while I finally started to realize that I simply wasn’t enjoying my time in the Fallout world, so I quit playing.  And booted up Half-Life 2.  I think somewhere along the line I managed to forget that the Half-Life world is every bit as wrecked as the one I had just left…not sure how that happened.  At any rate, I soon found myself trudging through yet another PA war zone…

…And having fun.  Wait a minute, how the hell did that happen?  Both games are first person shooters with a PA setting, but Fallout 3 has more depth because it’s non-linear.  What makes Half-Life 2 better?  Well, go back and look at that picture again; see if you can find the answer there.  If you can’t figure it out, click on the picture and it’ll give you the answer that I came to.

Everybody got it?  That’s right, Half-Life has actual characters in it.  Believable ones, I mean; not those walking dialog trees you see in Bethesda games.  Half-Life’s excellent cast takes the place of the game’s environment in the something-worth-saving department: There’s a variety of eccentric scientists, a really hot charming sidekick and her awesome robotic dog, and a salt-of-the-Earth former security guard who owes me a beer.  No way am I going to let that group get slaughtered by aliens.  I think I would have even saved Dr. Breen if I had the chance; he’s great fun to listen to.  These characters and their interactions draw you into the game in a way the PA world never could.

Now, I happen to know that an awful lot of people really liked Fallout 3.  That’s actually most of the reason I wrote this: It’s clearly an excellent game by most people’s standards, so I had to figure out why I didn’t feel the same way.  It’s possible there are other people out there who didn’t enjoy it much either, and maybe some of them (reprezent!) are reading this blog.

But I’ll bet most of you feel right at home in Post-Apocalyptia.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. The Machination permalink
    May 19, 2010 4:33 pm

    Okay, gotta go to english extension, gotta make this brief AAAAAAAARGH.

    Alright, I totally agree with your assessment. Fallout 3 really does lack that sense of… I don’t know, place? The will to coexist with the world instead of just a game map? I liked the game, I must say, but you raise some very valid points for both FO3 and HL2.

    Expected STALKER counterpoint? http://bldgblog.blogspot.com/2010/05/ghosts-of-future-borrowing-architecture.html In fact all of the game related architecture posts are worth reading. On second thought, so is the entire blog.

    Till next time.

    • May 19, 2010 7:51 pm

      Heh. Breathe, man. Comments are nice, but not exactly urgent!

      It’s cool that you’re in agreement with me on Fallout3. Now that I know I”m not the only one, I can believe that I actually had a point and wasn’t just making excuses for my bad taste. And since you agree but still liked STALKER, I guess that means I should go give that game another shot. It’s on the list of Games I Absolutely Must Play, right after Morrowind. And FFVII. And CivIII, and GalCiv, and XCOM, and System Shock 1 & 2, and…yeah, it’ll be a while. I’ll see if I can find time to look at bldblg, though, since people keep referring me to it.

      • The Machination permalink
        May 20, 2010 1:58 am

        Alright back. And I have been giving the Fallout 3 thing some thought. Following the whole idea of STALKER’s design, Fallout 3’s world feels fabricated and unbelievable, whilst STALKER has created its own environment from a map of not only believable structure, but culture. I’d personally like to see a mod of Fallout 3 that brings the map to a stage where it feels like roaming a slice of the country, instead of just a cluster of set pieces. Of course, there’s always the challenge of creating good, interesting locatations… I’ll keep this one in mind.

  2. May 26, 2010 8:02 pm

    Would it be unfair to summarise your post as “Post-apocalypse environments: It’s the people, stupid”?

    I’ve not played Fallout 3, but I have played STALKER. STALKER is not strong on character, despite the presence of dialogue and conversation. However, STALKER is brutal and has a monstrous wealth of atmosphere, its mission: to freak you out. You won’t want to go underground, but you’ll have to.

    There are few games which force me to ponder: What the Hell am I doing in this place? This is insane. I’m going to have a heart attack. Thief, System Shock 2 and STALKER.

    • May 27, 2010 12:06 pm

      Alas, I have a copy of STALKER sitting in my steam library that gets nothing but neglect and regretful glaces. Someday…

      “Unfair” is not a word I would choose to describe your summary. I’m notoriously long-winded, so anything that makes me sound concise yet intelligent is probably a boon. I would take minor umbrage (mostly for the sake of saying “umbrage”) at how narrowly you’ve described my point; the characters are just one of the ways Half-Life 2 in particular compensates for its environment. What I meant to suggest is that PA settings lack appeal—pretty much by definition—and so games with that element need to find some way to make up for it. The ones that don’t, such as Fallout 3, end up falling flat despite their strong gameplay (I know you don’t like that word, but I think it works well).

      Which leads nicely into your next point: Stark raving terror is another good way to hook players in. The trouble with that approach is that it doesn’t always work on everybody. Case in point: I haven’t been properly scared of anything in a game since Ravenholm, and I was much younger then. I bet there are plenty of people who aren’t interested in character development either, so the more of these elements a game can include, the better.

      • June 3, 2010 6:34 pm

        Umbrage is a great word and really doesn’t get the press it deserves.

        [Hmm, scrabbling around in the mushy remnants of my memory, Ravenholm doesn’t feature strongly as a stand-out gripping experience, although I do recall it being tense. The Suffering comes to mind more than Ravenholm.]

        I think STALKER succeeds because of the full-bodied characterisation of its environment. There’s a palpable reality to the place and it’s matte graphics are solidly gritty when put up against the overdone specular reflections of other titles. It’s not just the horror element – something else is going on here that reels you in. Within minutes of starting STALKER I fell in love with its not-quite-open sandbox and the atmosphere of menace that pervaded the Zone.

        (We’ve all got games to get around to. I still haven’t played Mass Effect.)

  3. May 27, 2010 2:34 am

    The first time I played STALKER, I could not play lab X-18 in one go. I would probably have has an anxiety attack if I did. That was the sort of tension that they built in their environments, and for that I applaud them. Also, as a side note, did you feel like that atmosphere kind of diminished in Clear Sky, and never really picked up too well in Call of Pripyat? (I still haven’t finished CoP so watch the spoilers)

    • May 27, 2010 8:42 am

      Ah, I never picked up Clear Sky – worried that the less-than-stellar reviews meant the original would feel tarnished. Stayed clear. Intend to go into Call of Pripyat some time in the future.

      Right, I’m off on holiday. Please make sure you keep my games warm for the next week.

  4. lauramichet permalink
    June 2, 2010 8:41 pm

    I think you’re absolutely right– post-apocalypse ceases to be entertaining when it gets too brutal.

    I went on a PA kick last year and read basically every major PA novel written in English. The toughest one to enjoy was McCarthy’s The Road, because that novel is so unrelentingly grim and horrific that it’s difficult to want to spend your free time mentally existing there. But in the end it redeems itself with characters and sheer language mastery so on and so on, so it turns out to be a good read. But if it had just had the grim setting, I would have dropped it.

    Anyway, I thought to comment here because today’s Kotaku article about the apocalyptic setting of Fallout 3 and Bioshock reminded me of this post.

    http://kotaku.com/5552980/you-say-apocalypse-i-say-retro-chic

    That writer thinks that the apocalypse is a symbolic stand-in for our conflicted cultural memories surrounding the 1960s. It’s pretty genius.

    • June 3, 2010 11:11 am

      I just checked a wikipedia summary of The Road, and, um…ew. That is definitely not escapist fantasy, there. If you’re willing to psychoanalyze yourself for the sake of the discussion, perhaps you could offer some insight as to why you chose to spend so much time in Post-Apocalyptia?

      That question I joked about in the beginning—why we keep revisiting the PA setting—is something I really would like answered, but I blew it off because I know perfectly well I’m not qualified to do so. So thanks for the article.

      I was all set to bring up STALKER as a counterpoint to the theme of exploring the, ah, fallout of the 60s, but the more I think about it the more I realize that it actually supports the argument pretty well. Even though it’s a game set in Ukraine and made by Ukrainians—meaning it has absolutely squat to do with 1960s America—the game does dwell on Ukraine’s own brush with nuclear apocalypse rather extensively, just as American PA culture often seems obsessed with the Cold War. Perhaps we treat this collective national trauma in the same way an individual deals with a near-death experience? Or perhaps I’m stepping outside my area of expertise again. I know very little about psychology, history, or STALKER, so I’m hoping somebody else can help me out here.

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