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Making A Believable Apocalypse in Video Games: From Life is Strange to Death Stranding

It's difficult to conceptualize the apocalypse. Will nuclear warfare herald the end? Will zombies overtake the earth? In fiction we're keen on exploring these possibilities, and they've been the subject of many a game since the medium expanded beyond two moving dots on a pitch-black screen.

That doesn't equate to a lifelong series of pitch-perfect translations, however. Relating tales revolving around the end of existence of humanity and beyond is a tricky business. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that there are attempts that completely nail it and offer chilling portrayals of the rapidly approaching end, while others that completely miss the point. When it's done right, though? There's nothing quite like it.

There are obviously several ways to really sell these events, and even more options when it comes to penning an apocalyptic narrative. Many of the best, however, do feature an underlying vein of fear and permanency, with a sense of urgency pushing players to a conclusion. Players, despite looking in on the situation as an unbiased third party in these game, often feel a queasiness rising in the pit of their stomachs as they sit helplessly waiting on the end to come, like the stoic countdown of the Doomsday Clock. Interactions and decisions made within these games feel as though the player is helping to stave off the apocalypse, and in turn are significantly more affecting than those with the end of the world as a jumping off point for me.

It’s all about the moment the nuclear warhead erupts for me, when it all sets in that everything could come to a screeching halt. Ever since I pored breathlessly through the pages of Neil Shute’s On The Beach, I’ve sought to capture that same fleeting moment of impending disaster in my favorite medium for entertainment, and I believe there are several titles that capture it perfectly.

Well, Life Is Pretty Strange

Dontnod's Life is Strange is an interesting specimen that does implement similar ideals very nicely, as one of the most spot-on portrayals of the end of the world to have been translated to video game form in some time. Despite an overarching narrative that displays weakness in some points, it made an airtight case for its vision of the apocalypse as seen by one Maxine "Max" Caulfield. It took three long episodes to get there, but by the fourth episode the groundwork had been laid for a strong finish. It’s unfortunate that most of the game had to be littered with heady references to “hipster culture,” and even more frustrating still that it forced you into a corner and made you feel bad for not taking the fall when your “best friend” smoked pot while preaching at you. But it had an excellent go at communicating how the end of the world could very well feel.

In Life is Strange, life as Max knew it is poised to end in the form of a massive vortex that threatens to swallow the whole of the fictional Arcadia Bay, and with the time travel powers mysteriously entrusted to her, Max is forced to navigate a series of personal and social situations to save her best friend Chloe as well as herself. From the moment Max acquires said powers, it seems as though an invisible clock is ticking down until the tornado from Max's visions comes to wreak havoc. A mixture of increasingly tense situations crop up as the game devolves from hipster teen simulator to a harrowing labyrinth of lies, deceit, and death.

Where the race against the clock (and other characters) culminates is the End of the World party thrown by the Vortex Club near the end of Episode 4, forcing Max to hobnob with the popular kids she spent the majority of the game either getting even with or attempting to understand, depending on the player's choices. The academy's gymnasium area, where Max and Chloe previously took a dip in the pool, has been drenched with disturbing crimson lights, complete with spirals, fog machines, and a deafening mix of club tunes: the pop group Breton's "Got Well Soon" lending a disturbing lilt to the youths partying.

The attendees are presumably getting drunk and doing drugs, with partygoers deemed MIA possibly falling victim to a killer who's eventually unmasked later in the game. It may be a kitschy "end of the world" party for the Vortex Club, but for players, it's the beginning of the actual end, where everything is about to fall apart. Indeed, things do, spiraling out of control until players are forced to make an impossible decision at the end of Episode 5. The fear, the dread, and the uncertainty that permeates these episodes communicate an apocalyptic feel in a very unique manner, even better than games depicting even nuclear war, famine, or alien invasion had before. The adrenaline rush as you walk into the Vortex Club's party is cut with a healthy dose of panic: Will the tornado hit while you're investigating? What's going on behind the scenes? Will Max's powers continue to work? It's a masterful mixture of apocalyptic proportions, and exemplary in several ways.

Time and Space Could Be Your Playground

By the same token, Mass Effect 3 took a couple of games rather than episodes for the slow build of a believable end-of-the-world scenario, but flourished in the end. After introducing players to the Reapers, a machine race of synthetic-organic starships, the entire build-up until Mass Effect 3 was centered around forcing them back, staving off the eventual annihilation of the entire human race.

While the first two games allow plenty of time for players to build up defenses and form some sort of plan for facing off against the dangerous invasion, it's Mass Effect 3 that clearly communicates how dire the situation is using an emotional appeal with children, the global effects of the Reapers' impact on humanity back on Earth, and a surrealistic lilt to the already bizarre happenings regarding Commander Shepard and his or her interactions with the Normandy's crew. Regardless of how you feel about the game's three ending choices, all the events leading up to the decision do an excellent job of conveying the tension, trepidation, and the bleak possibility that this could very well be the last day they could exist as a species, let alone wake up in the morning.

Chrono Trigger is another shining example of amping up the tension and giving players a reason to race against the clock to prevent the end of the world as well. Alien parasite Lavos, the destroyer of all life, is the final boss of both Chrono Trigger and spiritual successor Chrono Cross (as Time Devourer), a cripplingly strong adversary that you can accidentally face off against before becoming a proficient enough warrior to even make a dent. There's even a special ending that occurs if you go ahead and tackle the battle ahead of time, which is worth seeing as it's a desolate and chilling vision of the end of the world. After your party fails to defeat Lavos, the world essentially implodes on itself, with the chilling sentence "...but the world refused to change."

Don’t Look Now, But The Bomb’s About to Drop

While these three titles get things right, there are examples of games that drop the ball in terms of urgency and player agency. They illustrate the apocalypse in ways that make sense, but not in a way that feels personally impacting. They accomplish this in other ways, with finality taking a backseat to other gameplay mechanics. Perhaps the most famous example is the Fallout series, as it takes place after the end of the world, so to speak, has already occurred. But with the latest entry, there is an attempt to involve the player in terms of the mechanics mentioned earlier in this piece. Fallout 4 does attempt to involve you before the blast takes place, but it’s all a chain of scripted events that you can’t change with little fanfare before everything is destroyed. When you finally escape the Vault and are unleashed upon the world, there’s no real immediacy to your quest, as the world is already in ruins. Sure, you’re looking for your son, but there’s nothing to change about your outside situation, so the game turns into a post-apocalyptic sandbox.

Gears of War 3 made similar mistakes. Its nonstop stream of action was frustratingly sterile, considering the fact that humanity was taking its final stand against the amidst a sea of annihilated Locust and Lambent monstrosities. Players calmly wander from one linear scripted sequence to the next, reveling in each bloody kill, but to what end? The bro-tastic relationship of Delta Squad can only take you so far, and as you kneel behind tidy rows of destructible cover and squirrel from courtyard to courtyard, you never feel the sense of urgency or awe the first two games inspired, despite the last stand with Myrrah, the Locust Queen, representing the culmination of the war of humanity against the Locust.

An Oil-Slicked Future?

Looking ahead, however, proves that there may well be some hope, especially when it comes to the recently-announced Death Stranding, Hideo Kojima’s latest project. Going by the teaser trailer that debuted during Sony’s presentation at E3 2016, it could very well deal with the end of the world -- some world -- as its inhabitants know it, at least. Starring Norman Reedus, the trailer showed off a nude man (Reedus) on a beach with an infant connected to him via some sort of synthetic umbilical cord. The baby’s alive and well as Reedus holds it close to his bosom, but a thick black substance coats his hands as he looks down at them, with what appear to be the baby’s handprints making tracks toward a seascape rife with beached whales and other sea life. He looks upward toward five floating beings in the sky. What does this signal? Are we looking at the bringers of the apocalypse?

There’s a permeating feel of dread that overtakes the trailer, and a surrealistic lilt when you stop and think about what the child could be, or symbolize. It’s likely a clone, or some sort of entity usurping life from Reedus’s character, but Kojima leaves no obvious clues for us to decipher, only imagery that we’re meant to pick apart until we learn more about the game when it makes its debut. In this simple trailer, however, even if we’re unsure if we’re looking at the apocalypse, it certainly seems like we could have been given a glimpse into one, perhaps following the rise and decline of a dystopian society. We’ll have to see how things play out when we can finally delve into the secrets of Death Stranding and the role it is that Reedus is actually playing.

The end of the world is a heady subject, and one that a shining few games do end up tackling fantastically. It's especially difficult to keep players engaged when the topic of discussion throughout the entire experience is essentially the climax stretched over the course of a 10-12 hour (or more) game. If this is an avenue writers and developers are keen on exploring further in years to come, there are plenty of excellent and engaging examples to emulate -- all they need do is look. For me, I’ll still eagerly anticipate a (believable) end of the world.

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