One of the things I find myself thinking about lately is why the post-apocalyptic genre is so popular. You know the setup: nuclear annihilation, zombies, superflus, aliens, etc. knock out the load-bearing pillars of our existence, leaving the survivors scrambling through the rubble, struggling to survive. Meandering through Amazon, I did a search for “Post-Apocalytic Fiction” and got about thirty thousand results. That’s roughly the same number as I got for “Superhero Fiction”. “Mystery”, by comparison, yields over 700K titles, so we’re not talking about a huge genre, but it certainly seems to have an audience.
People like these stories, which begs the question, “Why?” In a post on Science 2.0, Michael White draws a comparison between the genre and the fate of the Neanderthals. To quote Mr. White:
What is it like to be a member of a self-aware, intelligent species that is dying away? What is it like to be the very last living members of that species?
As I began to think through this, I came to the conclusion that this was only half the picture. The doomed fate of the last Neanderthal was indeed the stuff of what a post-apocalyptic story could be. I’m reminded of how I felt while watching The Road, which almost left me shaking with its depiction of hopelessness as humanity spirals around the drain. As I got drawn into the story, identifying with the main character, I found myself gripped with despair. For the same reason, I haven’t been able to watch The Walking Dead. If this stuff actually happened, I wouldn’t survive. Maybe I could have thirty years ago, but I’m just too old and broken now. That’s not even the worst of it. My wife and son wouldn’t survive.
I can’t think of anything worse.
Why the hell would we subject ourselves to stories like that?
Let me take a ninety-degree turn and take a look at the genre from another angle. A post-apocalypse story can also be a story of hope. A tale of the long, hard slog back from the brink.
I realized this while playing Fallout 4, which, even though it’s a couple of years old, is my game of choice when I have the time to sit down and do some gaming. Here we have a setting where, two hundred years after a devastating nuclear war, we’re still around. The wastelands of New Vegas, Washington DC and Boston are grim, violent, dangerous places, but at every turn, we find people not only hanging on, but making things better. We’re coming back.
I would like to submit that this element of hope makes all the difference, and perhaps moves stories like Fallout out of the post-apocalyptic genre. I think there’s a place for the hopeless twilight struggle. It’s not my cup of tea, but I’m just one guy with my own likes and dislikes. There’s clearly folks out there who want those stories.
That said, if you move Fallout out of the post-apocalypse, where would it wind up? Let’s take a look at the tropes. The wasteland, a barren land where food and potable water are nigh-impossible to find. Ecological dangers. Beasts that view you as food and powerful enough to make that point stick. Lawless tribes of bandits. Forlorn outposts of isolated humanity, struggling to survive. And through it all, hope. The possibility that a lone man can make a difference in this chaotic world.
By God, it’s a western!
Sure, you don’t get to ride a horse in Fallout. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a horse in any of the games in the series. But all the other beats are there to make this a story worthy of Louis L’Amour. You’re the lone gunslinger, stepping out into a savage land to restore order.
Of course, you could do a villain playthrough, but that’s not my speed. I play the paladin. In Fallout 3, I sacrificed my life to restore drinkable water to the Capital wasteland. In New Vegas, I stopped both the NCR and Ceasar’s Legion in their tracks, freeing the city to decide its own fate. And in Boston? Well, let’s just say I’m the law. If supermutants or bandits try to make a move on one of my settlements, they’re going to hear from me and my allies.
I don’t have a horse, but my trusty railgun speaks the language of justice.
I’m playing two games nowadays. One of them is Fallout 4. I got it from Steam, so I was able to start playing upon release, and I’m still playing it some seven months later, even though I finished the main stroyline at least five months ago. The game has a lot of replayability, and I’ve started a couple of extra characters to explore the different faction endings and the recently-released Survival mode. But, I’m still playing my main. He’s over level 140 now, firmly entrenched as the leader of the Minutemen and pretty much the undisputed baddest mofo in the Commonwealth. It’s pretty much a Zen thing for me. At the end of the day, I just patrol the Commonwealth. Unless I wander too close to a Gunner camp and someone gets a lucky shot with a Fat Man, there’s not much out there that can hurt me. It gives me time to think.
One of the things I found myself thinking about lately was why this genre is so popular. There’re a lot of post-apocalyptic games, after all. Nuclear annihilation, zombies, aliens, etc. repeatedly knock out the load-bearing pillars of our existence, leaving the survivors scrambling through the rubble, struggling to survive. (Yeah, I know. It’s a popular genre in movies, books and TV, too. I’m just talking about games, but you can substitute whatever media you like. I think my argument holds.)
So why the heck is this? I mean, it’s a pretty bleak picture. On the surface, there’s nothing to defend. Civilization’s gone. You can try to rebuild civilization, but really, is it worth it? And, usually, these games don’t let you do that, anyway. In Fallout 4, you can build and defend settlements, but that’s as far as it goes. Between my little towns, the landscape is filled with an ever-respawning horde of raiders, supermutants, and giant irradiated bugs. I can’t fix that, and that thrice-damned Preston Garvey ain’t doing a darn thing to help.
But I digress.
I think there’s a connection between post-apocalypse games and westerns. Once you strip away the radiation, mutants and nuclear bomb-throwing catapults, Fallout is a western. A lone wanderer makes his way across the wasteland, battling desperadoes, overcoming countless dangers and coming to the rescue of isolated outposts of humanity.