What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
- T.S. Eliot, "The Wasteland"
Like any popular form of entertainment, video games are cyclical. One developer/publisher puts out a hit game and pretty soon there are a slew of titles that look, play or just feel similar. It happened with World War II shooters, it happened with Grand Theft Auto clones, and, most recently, it happened with apocalypses of one sort or another as well, whether they be biblical, zombie or nuclear based.
Now, I’m not saying that the popularity of this visual/thematic style was in some way inspired by or the dreary and depressing atmosphere that has categorized the past couple years, but, as this feature will explore, a rather compelling pattern is emerging in the upcoming wave of apocalyptic games that just happen to be coming out during President Barrack “Hope” Obama’s first term and beyond. And I’m calling this pattern “The Rise of the Beautiful Apocalypse.
No game in recent memory has fueled gamers’ adoration for being part of a post-apocalyptic world than Bethesda Softworks’ 2008 smash hit Fallout 3. Using Interplay’s original RPG titles as a jumping off point, the developers at Bethesda created a world that not only dripped with brilliantly executed, kitschy, 1950s style but also offered players the chance to experience life in an expansive, irradiated and depressing wasteland. The game world is the star of the show, precisely because the sight of an endless horizon littered with the decaying remnants of a bygone civilization is so emotionally impactful and was so expertly presented; so much so that the sight of the aptly named Oasis felt like a breath mint for your eyes. It also represents, in a small way, the seedlings of life, hope and possibility that we’ll see has come into full bloom in upcoming apocalypse-based titles, starting, appropriately, with Obsidian’s upcoming Fallout: New Vegas.
From what’s been shown of New Vegas, the game sticks quite close to Fallout 3’s hue, but with one major stylistic difference, provided by the singularly bright and colorful expanse that is Las Vegas. Sure, there will plenty of the tried and true desolation and drabness that comes from a post-apocalyptic setting, but having that shining beacon of…well, hope at the center of said desolation will surely give New Vegas a decidedly different feel than Fallout 3 (much in the same way the Oasis cleansed the landscape palate, only on a much larger scale). And I have no doubt that that Obsidian use the vibrancy of Vegas to play with themes of promise and rebirth the way Bethesda did with Project Purity--which sought to decontaminate the irradiated waters of the wasteland, in Fallout 3, only, again, on a larger scale.
Shifting gears a bit (get it?!), there’s another juggernaut of a franchise that has inspired a particular kind of washed out presentation that’s found its way into a number of titles since its release, and that is of course Gears of War. The stylistic differences between Gears of War and Gears of War 2 don’t appear to be as drastic as the jump from Gears 2 to Gears of War 3, but there are several sequences in Gears 2 that are clearly meant to give players a respite from the charcoal and ash décor that dominated the first game and mostly characterized the second. Not surprisingly, these sequences are some of the most memorable. And similar to the jump from Fallout 3 to New Vegas, there seem to be noticeable distinctions between Gears 2 and Gears 3 that will significantly influence the game’s overall tone and texture.
A lot of this is due to the introduction of a mutated form of the Locusts known as the Lambent. During E3, Epic showed off a portion of the game that took place in a lush landscape of green trees and beaming sunlight, and at one point, one of the new creatures, a towering, Lambent-spewing, tree root-style thing, burst forth from the ground and proceeded to terrorize the players and the surrounding environment. We haven’t seen much more of the game, so it’s hard to say how much of this “corrupted nature infesting the world” there will be, but from the looks of it, Gears 3 will feature much more diverse and colorful art direction than previous Gears games, and, like Obsidian, I’m certain this design shift will play a major thematic role in the game. You know, in as much as a Gears game can be “thematic”.
Now, Gears is obviously not a traditional “apocalypse-inspired” series, but it is a story about humanity on the brink of annihilation, and that’s justification enough for its inclusion in this discussion. Plus, it made popular the gray, dreary style that the other games on this list are clearly shifting away from. Except of course in the case of id Software’s upcoming shooter Rage, which, again, based on the limited amount we’ve seen, is stylistically sticking to the dusty, sun-baked, Fallout-y kind of apocalypse. Interestingly enough though, id has acknowledged that Rage was born out of their desire to get as far away from the dark, space corridor style of their Doom franchise. So while Rage is clearly the anti-Beautiful Apocalypse title of the bunch, for id, it also represents a departure from the dark, oppressive confines of Doom 3’s Mars-based UAC research facility in favor of the sprawling desert landscapes of Earth post-devastating asteroid strike.
Not to get off on a tangent here, but Valve actually did something similar when it traded the purely nighttime affair of Left 4 Dead for the sunny streets of New Orleans in Left 4 Dead 2. The game was still all about keep your brains firmly outside the mouths of infected hordes, but the inclusion of daytime levels let the game breathe in a way the first one couldn’t.
Still, I can’t help but think that the “Fallout redux” reaction Rage has generated up to this point are more rooted in the fact that gamers have cooled a bit to the traditional post-apocalyptic kinds of settings and are looking for something more visually arresting and fresh in their apocalypses, rather than it being a flat out rejection of what id is looking to achieve with the game.
Again, this may or may not have anything to do with the fact that the national psyche over the past few years has gone from disillusionment and bewilderment to slightly less disillusionment and bewilderment with a hint of optimism thrown in for flavor. The tidal wave of “hope” that swept Obama into office has lost a little steam, but, regardless of your political views, there’s no denying the cultural and psychological significance of his election.
It is for this reason that I posit that upcoming titles like Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (set in a destroyed New York City that is overrun by lush vegetation), Bulletstorm (also set in a world where organic creatures have transformed the world into a treacherous death garden), even something like Brink (which takes place in a floating city after a flood drowns the rest of the world), in addition to titles previously mentioned, are, at least in terms of how they present their visions of a devastated/apocalyptic world, a direct reflection of this shift in cultural perspective. And the fact that all of these titles were/are in development at a time when the country was looking/is trying to look ahead to a better and brighter future fits perfectly with why the majority of them incorporate a more varied, colorful and promising art style.
Two of the bigger apocalyptic titles to come out recently that appear to counter this argument would be Darksiders and Borderlands, as both featured exactly the kind of vibrancy that we’re seeing in the upcoming games mentioned herein. However, there are always exceptions, and in this case, both of these titles took a more fantasy approach with their subject matter, so the colorful presentation is kind of expected. It also suggests that Gearbox Software and THQ were perhaps a bit ahead of the drab-curve, for whatever that’s worth.
Obviously, I have no way knowing what external influences (societal, political, cultural, etc.) went into the games that I’m suggesting represent the Rise of the Beautiful Apocalypse, so any connections that I may have drawn to said influences were purely for the purposes of trying to find a common thread between the previous batch of popular apocalypse-inspired titles and the upcoming ones. It could be as simple as developers tiring of the “post-apocalyptic” cycle that hit gaming over the past few years and wanting to branch out aesthetically, in which case we would have come full circle. Looks like Eliot was on to something after all: "In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust bringing rain."