Something struck me (not literally) when I was playing Fallout 3 the other day, as I was trapsing across the wastelands, randomly encountering giant scorpions and protectrons and scavenging through the wrecks of abandoned buildings. It was a feeling that something didn't quite fit with the game.
I'd been playing Fallout 3 for atleast twenty odd hours at that moment, and generally enjoying the gameplay. So when I did have the realisation it felt like something had clicked into place and explained why it wasn't a 10/10 for me. It wasn't so much a straight-forward, overwhelming feeling of 'THIS IS WRONG!' so much as a realisation that some aspects of the setting and art-style didn't sit right with (my own) vision of a post-apocalyptic future.
I'd recently been watching some of the new Deux Ex: Human Revolution footage and repeatedly been impressed by the sheer scale of the cyberpunk imagery; and even though Human Revolution is only set in the near future it'd led to question what sort of technology I thought a society a hundred or two hundred years in the future would have.
Human Revolution reeks of futuristic hi-tech aesthetics, from the vehicles, to the buildings, to the machines; it feels like a dark vision of our future - not a necessarily realistic one but one that panders to our fears and fantasies about what human progress will do to the world. Watching the footage I felt remarkably comfortable with the future it painted, yet as I played Fallout 3 and felt uncomfortable about it's art direction I thought about them and contrasting the two led me to ask the question: What makes a Post-Apocalyptic setting?
Note that I'm not asking specifically what makes it good, because I don't think there's one easy set of rules, but rather generally what fits and what doesn't. Do we need hi-tech in our post-apocalyptic futures for them to work or could a story be set in a future where everybody lives in mud-huts...? -Hey, it'd still be post-apocalyptic if everybody lived in huts aslong as they lived in huts because of some sort of cataclysm.
Here's are some examples from games and entertainment in general of post-apocalyptic imagery: Fallout 3
- paints a vivid image of a future in part inspired by the 40's and 50's and the culture that grew up around the communist hysteria and the fear of nuclear war that hung over the era like a bad cloud - so the fact it's tech and art-style pays homage a lot to the sci-fi of the era isn't really that surprising. This future is one where people are left to scrounge through the remmants of an advanced society after a nuclear holocausts to find scraps to survive on. It's dark, it's grey, and everywhere's pretty shitty (to use the technical term).
- offered a vision of a post-apocalyptic world where everything is grey, dark, ruined, there is little or no vegetation - human beings survive but they're little more than starved husks. The world is a vast wasteland, dotted with advanced factories and ruined buildings; vast archives of the successes and history of mankind sitting idle as humanity itself withers and dies.
Especially interesting because Chronotrigger's 'future world' was a piece of the Chronotrigger timeline within the game (with the game itself split into different aspects that represented different eras of history for the planet), with a pre-historic, a medieval and a 'modern' world to judge it against. Chronotrigger's apocalypse is also not the result of zombies or nuclear warfare or even anything human in origin - it's caused by the boss of the game's appearance in the storyline.
is another example of a post-apocalyptic future that seems to borrow a lot from the collective image of the burnt out future. It's image of the future is actually a lot like that of Fallout, Rage and Mad Max. This dark, post-nuclear war future is very sandy, very irradiated, chaotic and also full of mutants. Individuals scrounge for their day-to-day food from the irradiated wasteland that the land has become - much like in Fallout, but in Burntime the focus is on individual survival to begin throughout.
The player navigates a small world map, to reach smaller location maps where he/she scavenges for food and equipment whilst dodging mutants and wild animals. Only once you've figured out how to get enough food and water for yourself do you move into the next stage of the game - capturing and conquering territory so you can expand your turf and add members to your crew, so you can then go on to beat the game. Rage
meanwhile offers something akin to Burntime's future of chaos and barren wastelands, but it adds more freakish mutants, a wild-west frontier feel and some hi-tech machinery to the mix. Obviously I can't say too much about it because there are only pictures and video to go on at the minute but that's the impression Id
have given so far.
- The future it paints is very much like Chronotrigger's, dark and grey, with humanity scrounging for scraps of food to live day-to-day. Humanity is no longer the dominant species, but rather is forced to huddle together in the dark to avoid the machines that hunt them to extinction. It focuses on a very present-day apocalypse, where the strive to create bigger and better weapons leads to the creation of a sentient computer system that turns on it's masters and brings about a nuclear holocaust.
I could mention any of the Romero zombie films as they all paint very grim zombipocalyptic futures, but I think Day of the Dead
is probably the best example. It captures the sense of the world collapsing as the 'normal' ways of living become impossible - it's no longer possible to live a 9-5 life, it's no longer possible to have produce or commercial goods shipped across country because of the zombies. Behind the film(s) is an important message about the fragility of human life... plus zombies rule.
Ok, so those are just a few examples of Post-Apocalyptic imagery but you get the idea.
Post-apocalyptic stories (films, books, games) tend to be quite negatively focused - afterall it's the end of the world and humanity is no longer the dominant species for whatever reason. It may be that there was an outbreak of a virus which turns people into zombies, or a meteor fell from outerspace wiping out most of the world's population, or a nuclear war - whatever the cause the effect is that humanity no longer calls the shots.
The general focus is almost always on near total devastation - or at the very least the collapse of all social structure. Even in games like Fallout 3, where large parts of the country have been destroyed by Nuclear Warfare it's not the bombs that have caused the towns and cities to be abandoned but rather the collapse of the established ways of living - people can no longer live in big cities working all day and then coming home to relax and to eat food that was produced hundreds or thousands of miles away because it's not sustainable anymore - there are no ships for a start and the food is irradiated.
They also tend to emphasise the harshness of human life - life is hard, it's a struggle. It may not be that everyone lives in caves or sewers but the key aspect is that our cushy lifestyles (such as they are) are no longer. This is pretty constant regardless of the state of the world before the apocalypse, or even after the apocalypse - it may be that some infact have plenty but won't share, and it may be more about the fact the majority are left to struggle.
Typically the standard vision of the post-apocalyptic future is either one based around the immediate after-effects of an apocalypse or set in the distant future of a post-apocalyptic world - a future in which much of the world has become barren or inhospitable. So in a sense they typically either depict the collapse of society or they depict the future hardship for humanity after the apocalypse.
Add to this maybe some sci-fi, some future technology, the scarcity of resources, usually the constant fear of death and you have something nearing the 'standard' post-apocalyptic story.
My take on things:
For me atleast I imagine a vision of the post-apocalyptic future not unlike that of Fallout but crossed in part with Deus Ex: Human Revolution's sense of Cyberpunk aesthetics and Chronotrigger's dark wasteland future. Perhaps a nuclear holocaust has wiped out most of humanity in the distant past and left the earth largely barren, and scant groups of humans are left to pick at the carcass of what was once human progress. Vast, fully-automated factories sitting idle for decades, centuries - even millenia. Thrust into all of this chaos and madness the reader/the viewer/the player
would experience the struggle to survive.
...but that's just me, and my perspective. Obviously just about anything could spell the end for humanity - disease, overpopulation, zombies, meteors, aliens, Steve Guttenberg, the metric system, you name it and it could send us all to hell in a hand basket.
So the question is: What does your future look like...?