A brief history of post-apocalyptic video games

To prep for Fallout 4, we look at the origins and development of the post-apocalyptic video game genre.

Humans love to imagine how it might all end: how our society could collapse at any moment, leaving the Earth a barren wasteland. We have a long history of imagining nightmare scenarios, as well as what would happen to the small percentage of us who might survive.

We'll get to experience another incarnation of this idea in Fallout 4, which comes out tonight. Bethesda's iconic Fallout series has spent years exploring what human existence would be like centuries after nuclear annihilation. Many of us are anxiously counting down the minutes until we can create our character's look, pick our S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats, and open that Vault door for the first time.

While we wait for the release of Fallout 4, let's take a look at where the post-apocalyptic video game genre began: a history that has brings together 19th century literature, 20th century geopolitics, and the emerging technology of video games. At its root is a single over-arching question, one that humans have grappled with again and again: what would happen if everything as we know it was suddenly gone?

The Future Cut Short, Reimagined: Post-Apocalyptic Literature

Most English dictionaries define post-apocalyptic as follows:

(adj.) "denoting or relating to the time following a nuclear war or other catastrophic event."

We have two separate ideas contained in this definition: the "catastrophic event", and the time after that event. Writings from long-dead civilizations like the Assyrians and the Vikings have focused on how the world might end - you're probably familiar with the concept of Ragnarok. A number of religions also maintain some prediction of radical change sweeping the Earth and greatly impacting human life as we know it.

In the past 200 years, writers have imagined all sorts of scenarios in which humans continue to exist in some reduced state.

The idea that some of humanity might survive such an event is a newer one. Humans, much like that bug in your garage you can never manage to kill, have a tendency to live on despite the countless dangers in the world that threaten their existence. In the past 200 years, writers have imagined all sorts of scenarios in which humans continue to exist in some reduced state.

The modern post-apocalyptic literary genre started to develop in the early 19th century. Beyond the variety of retellings and derivations of the Book of Revelation that existed during that time, a couple of original works stand out. Among them is the 1826 novel The Last Man by Mary Shelley (the same Mary Shelley who wrote Frankenstein). This novel follows a group of people, mostly British aristocrats, who live through a devastating plague that kills a large percentage of the population. The resulting disorder leads to the destruction of governments and basic social structure, the rise of fanatical religious cults, and an invasion of the British Isles by American survivors that leads to even more death and destruction.

Mary Shelley: probably too metal to be in your band.

During the rest of the 1800s, writers detailed supernatural apocalypses as well as those that were perfectly plausible. Edgar Allen Poe's short story The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion (1839) features a disruption in the Earth's atmosphere, causing it to become 100% oxygen and igniting a worldwide inferno after a nearby comet hits. In H.G. Wells' 1898 novel The War of the Worlds, one of his most famous works, an unnamed narrator recounts a Martian invasion of England, with a focus on the senseless violence the aliens inflict on his town. Up until the mid 20th-century, nearly every post apocalyptic work built upon the idea that humans would die out as a result of disasters seemingly out of their own control. 

Learning to Love the Bomb: Nuclear War and the Video Game Era

It's little surprise that the events of World War II affected mankind's view of how the world might end. The advent of nuclear technology, combined with the heightened geopolitical tensions of the Cold War, mean humans could be wiped out in moments from a nuclear blast. Even scarier was the fact that a single human error or misunderstanding could lead to the same outcome. In 1983, a NATO military exercise led to the Soviet Union nearly launching nuclear warheads in response to what they thought was a first strike.

Post-war fiction, such as A Canticle for Leibowitz and On The Beach, explored the costs of nuclear war and its aftermath. Films began to confront the question as well, most notably Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, which follows a rogue U.S. general ordering a missile strike on the Soviet Union. It parodies various Cold War concepts for being nonsensical, for instance Mutually-Assured Destruction (MAD).

The popular focus on nuclear warfare, MAD, and fallout shelters overlapped with the advent of video game technology in the late 1970s and 1980s. It was only a matter of time before video game studios focused on man-made nuclear annihilation, given that society was so obsessed with it at the time. Perhaps no other game defined the post-apocalyptic genre more so than Wasteland.

A Wasteland battle screen, featuring what seems to be a Buzzy Beetle enemy from Super Mario Bros.

Released in 1988, the game's main character is a Desert Ranger who must find and recruit survivors in the irradiated landscape of the U.S. after a nuclear war with Russia. Wasteland combined many of elements of earlier post-apocalyptic literary tradition — a narrative focus on people dealing with social breakdown and lacking the basic necessities to survive — with the interactive elements of the video game, such as decision-making, fighting threats, and an immersive visual experience.

In Wasteland, the consequences of the player's actions are meant to mirror the gravity of an actual post-apocalyptic world: the game was one of the first to have a "persistent world" feature, meaning player's changes to the environment would remain after they left the area.

A number of games would expand upon Wasteland's success and approach the nuclear war scenario from a variety of perspectives. Whether it's the first-person perspective of Midwinter (1989), the literally Earth-shattering catastrophe that takes place in Final Fantasy VI (1994), or the engrossing narrative and constant threat of death in Beneath a Steel Sky (1994), post-apocalyptic games continued to innovate through the 1990s.

From Wasteland to the Wasteland: The Era of Fallout

Combat in Fallout getting a bit messy.

The Fallout series has become the iconic post-apocalyptic franchise for many younger players. It has in many ways defined the genre since the release of the first game, Fallout, in 1997. The name comes from the meteorological concept of "fallout", where radioactive material falls from the atmosphere after a nuclear explosion. Debuting to critical acclaim, the 1997 game introduced gameplay elements that would become mainstays of the series: the player's Karma points, the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system, and the use of ability points with weapons.

Many gamers describe the original Fallout as the spiritual successor to Wasteland. Instead of a U.S.-Russian nuclear holocaust, its story focused on the aftermath of nuclear war between the U.S. and China, and the lone player's journey across the barren landscape nearly a hundred years later. Fallout's gameplay also took cues from Wasteland's gameplay mechanics, with an isometric perspective, dialogue screens that featured moving character portraits, and the ability to recruit team members.

Fallout 2 came out a year later, in 1998, and expanded the scope of the series' story, while still maintaining the gameplay style. Following two spinoff titles in the early 2000s, the series' new publisher Bethesda released Fallout 3 in 2008. It soon became the most successful in the franchise, hitting nearly five million copies sold that year and receiving many Game of the Year awards. Fallout: New Vegas was released in 2010, also selling five million copies.  

Both of these games boasted improved graphics, a third person perspective, and expansive open worlds. Gameplay features, like the VATS targeting system introduced in Fallout 3, lent a first person shooter element to the series. New Vegas provided a "Hardcore Mode" to add even more realism: health and food items took more time to restore the player's health, and death in-game became final, as opposed to just a blackout.

A Golden Era for the Post-Apocalyptic Genre

A normal conversation in The Last of Us.

In the past seven years or so, gamers have seen a wide variety of new post-apocalyptic games coming out. The runaway success of Fallout 3 showed studios that the genre still held gamers' attention, and that there might be room to expand the scope of what a post-apocalyptic video game might entail.

Rage (2011) combined elements of a first-person shooter with driving stages that one might expect in a racing game (the result was often a high speed shootout). I Am Alive (2012) focused on the character's isolation and the physical costs of attempting to navigate the city and survive.

Both The Walking Dead (2012) and The Last of Us (2012) involve zombie apocalypses (yet another apocalyptic trend in popular culture), but their main stories add an extra challenge for the player: escort a younger character through a variety of hostile environments, unharmed. Even within these games, there are different approaches: The Walking Dead revolves around difficult narrative choices, while The Last of Us uses first-person shooter gameplay and an artificially intelligent companion.

Gamers continue to have an appetite for challenging games that place them in unforgiving environments. When done right, the post-apocalyptic video game gives them just that.

These are just a few of the more than dozen titles that have come out since Fallout 3, and the genre shows no sign of slowing down. Gamers continue to have an appetite for challenging games that place them in unforgiving environments. When done right, a post-apocalyptic video game gives them just that.

It may be that humans preoccupy themselves with post-apocalyptic ideas (and gamers with post-apocalyptic video games) because they represent an exciting story, however horrible, and the small chance that humanity could survive - a message of hope, if you will. Perhaps we might be one of those survivors, going out and exploring a world that has become vastly different from the one we knew. Most of us would probably never want to live through it for real, so for now, playing that fantasy out in video games will do. 

Can't wait to play Fallout 4? Do you have another favorite post-apocalyptic game that we missed? Let us know in the comments below.

Published Nov. 9th 2015
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