Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 22, 2013
I’m a fan of “post-apocalyptic” settings in fiction and computer games, though I realize it’s as hard a term to define as “role-playing games” (or “indie games”, for that matter). Over the years, we’ve had tons of video games taking place in a post-apocalyptic setting. And, happy me, we’ve got several new games coming soon that explore survival in a heavily depopulated world.
Post-apocalyptic settings are ripe for role-playing games, in particular, because they do mimic the ultimate test of survival that’s hardwired into every human being’s brain. When we no longer have the ‘safety net’ of civilization and modern convenience to rely upon, could we survive? Can we test certain traits experimentally and safely to see how well they’d perform under certain scenarios? Can we do more than survive, and actually thrive? Post-apocalyptic stories and games do exactly that.
While there have been many interesting variants on the theme, and some games that incorporate tons of concepts into a single setting (Fallout, in particular), I thought I’d point a bunch of them out today as sort of a reminder to aspiring game developers that there are a lot more ways to end the world than zombies or nukes. Here are a bunch of ideas ready to be mixed and matched.
The Pandemic: Most of the human race dies of a disease, leaving only those with an immunity. Stephen King’s book (and excellent miniseries) The Stand explores some of the potential for this setting. For games, this is most often used as more of a background for a zombie apocalypse, but a very interesting part of it for me is how it leaves the remnants and memories of civilization fully intact, but lacks a civilization and population size necessary to sustain it.
The Monsters Invade: Horrible monsters invade from outer space (most alien-invasion stories), or from another dimension (Half-Life), or our robot servants turn on their creators (Battlestar Galactica, The Matrix). How does humanity survive?
The Ecological Disaster: Through nuclear war, global warming, a new ice age, an asteroid smashing into the earth, or some other natural or man-made disaster, the surface of the world is no longer capable of sustaining human life on a large scale. Humans are forced underground, or into space, or into pockets of the world where they are able to eke out a survival.
Post-Post Apocalypse: This setting explores how society re-forms long after disaster has struck. It’s really the setting of the Fallout series, and can be fun to explore a new culture that develops after a painful reset button is pressed. In particular, it can be interesting to see how a sheltered new society encounters and is affected by remnants of the past, or re-encounters other human societies separated by generations and independently evolving cultures.
Technological Breakdown: In this variant, the technology we’ve all become dependent upon suddenly ceases to function, forcing a breakdown of society built upon that expectation – and the appropriate violence and death that comes with this kind of transition. This could be from some bizarre phenomenon suspending (or augmenting) the known laws of physics, such as in the TV series Revolution. In Pat Cadigan’s cyberpunk novel Synners, it’s a far more believable breakdown: A society dependent upon a future version of The Internet – including the ability to interface directly through their brains – collapses when a massive viral attack makes the ‘Net unusable (and kills those connected to it via their brains).
Sudden Evolution / Devolution: While evolution is a process that is normally so slow it would not qualify as an “apocalypse” (the transition is so slow as to be imperceptable), a sudden change – as in the zombie apocalypse variant – would not. Eloi vs. Morlocks vs. pure strain humans, anybody?
The Civil Breakdown: This is the sort of apocalypse originally envisioned by the movies Mad Max and The Road Warrior, although the third movie retconned it into a plain ol’ nuclear apocalypse. In this case, external wars and internal breakdown of law results in humanity pretty much preying upon itself. Without a massive external pressure forcing the issue, this is generally anticipated as a short-lived transitional period, where some new social order will eventually rise from the ashes, probably in less than a generation.
The Fantasy Apocalypse: What if Sauron had re-obtained the ring and won, the elves had (mostly) fled, and most humans, hobbits, and dwarves were dead, in chains, or completely thrown in with the Dark Lord? The plague of Mordor was spreading over much of Middle Earth, and only a few survivors were left trying to evade the Eye by whatever skills and magic remained to them? (As I understand it, the upcoming crowdfunded RPG The Banner Saga suggests this kind of setting… post-Ragnarok… but I don’t know if they are really embracing it as a post-apocalyptic story)
Zombie Apocalypse: The zombie apocalypse thing seems (to me) to be mainly played out. But there are some unexplored variants. What if the zombies weren’t actually inhuman bloodthirsty walkers, but instead were still just changed people? Perhaps thinking and rational, a la the movie Omega Man, or the book it was based on, I Am Legend, or some of the ghouls in Fallout. Or perhaps their intellectual functions had degraded to the level of basic instincts and little else, not necessarily bloodthirsty but lacking any moral compunction against cannibalism. Or perhaps they are just inflicted with an insanity that can be controlled with drugs? This would rob many action games of the moral excuse for blowing away human-like foes by the thousands. But for a role-playing game, these could be pretty rich setting, with lots of tough moral decisions.
The Body Snatchers: This is really another zombie apocalypse variant (in my mind), where the horror comes from something alien inhabiting the physical form of a once trusted / loved individual. But in this case, the change is made more terrible in that it’s subtle. The person once there is gone, and something else has taken over, yet it is still able to pretend to function normally. Once this threat is discovered, it could lead to widespread panic and paranoia – as in the Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.”
Other eras: How about a post-apocalyptic Star Trek? The Borg really were – effectively – a threat of Space Zombies. What if they had won? The Battlestar Galactica remake took this thought and played with it, but there’s a lot more that could be done. What about the earth as we knew it being destroyed during the late 1800s, as in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds? Or the medieval era? I mean, the Black Plague was pretty much a real-world apocalypse. I understand something similar happened to the Native Americans, allowing European colonists to move in.
Sudden Disappearance: By alien abduction, the Rapture, a dimensional shift, or who knows what else (perhaps the very mystery the plot involves solving), a large number of people suddenly disappear from the world. They leave confusion and a (temporary?) breakdown in civilization in their wake.
A Strange New World: As a result of whatever kind of apocalypse destroys civilization, survivors might take to populating a remote island, another planet, or even another dimension far from home. They take a few modern conveniences with them, and a memory of their former home, but otherwise must struggle to deal with an entirely alien, possibly hostile environment. This variant is a little different in that the characters are no longer surrounded by the remnants of civilization, but rather are themselves the only (available) remnant. For whatever reason, there’s no going back, and no expectation of anything or anybody else arriving from “back home.”
An Evil Overlord: In this setting, the invading monster is a human, and he (or she, or they) culls the population by violence to maintain control. Once again, civilization as we know it has been replaced by an external force, remaking it in their image. Or it could be a dystopian society that has inflicted some kind of unnatural state upon humanity.
The Cozy Catastrophe: In spite of disaster wiping out most of the human race, the survivors are able to maintain a comfortable existence. At least until somebody breaks their eyeglasses or something.
The Monsters Return: Similar to The Monsters Invade, but this is more of a massive return of ancient legends, from Elder Gods of Lovecraftian proportions, to the legendary supernatural horrors like vampires and demons (the TV series Supernatural explores this kind of apocalypse averted or happening in ‘slow motion’), to a return of beasts (and magic) of ancient myth – dragons, faeries, goblins, and even a return of magical power to the world. Whatever the case, humanity is often decimated, or at least has to radically change to adapt. Whether it realizes it is changing or not…
A Technological Revolution: Some new technology has had a massive, transformative effect on civilization – maybe even for the better (at least on the surface) – but has had side-effects similar to an apocalypse. For example – a drug that eliminates aging. What does that do to the population, when the older generation no longer dies to make way for a younger? How much violence and civil breakdown would result?
The Slow Decline: In this setting, civilization goes into decline subtly, and the story may take place somewhere in the midpoint or late stage of such a decline. It could be dramatic – such as a world where there are suddenly no children being born. Or it could be subtle – a slow civil breakdown, or a slow plague, or a devolution of most of the human race over successive generations.
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