Western, or American, culture has a long-standing and irrepressible love affair with its own impending doom.
But can you really blame us? Ever since the foundation of America, the West has been a place whose culture has been steeped in violence. Ever since the 1700s, wars have become more and more devastating, with our ability to destroy others having ramped up year by year. After all, the decades leading up to the gaming boom were marked by a never-before-seen level of global paranoia, motivated by the never-before-seen ability to wipe entire cities from existence in the blink of an eye. Who can reasonably blame us for thinking as a collective unit, ‘Somewhere, sometime, this is all going to give’, and incorporating that mindset into our media?
But we can take it back much farther than that: which best-selling religious book was considered a foundation of western society by many of its proponents, and still is by many? And which best-selling religious book that starts with “B” and ends with “ible” closes out with a final installment that promises plague, fire and deliverance of mankind?
Seems like Western society has been thinking with the end in mind for quite some time.
And on the surface, it seems like video games are the perfect medium through which to deliver this message: the prospect of an impending end is a solid motivator for a player to give their all to work through a plot.
However, take note of the format that many of our contemporary ‘apocalypse genre’ games take: the zombie genre.
One could devote an entire blog in itself to examining the reasons we’re currently living in an explosion of zombie media, but a few franchises in particular stick out.
Resident Evil came into life in the 90s, but has since birthed a whole empire of games and movies. If Romero’s ‘Dead’ movie series had chosen to leave the cause of the zombie uprising by-and-large unknown, Resident Evil placed responsibility for the end of society squarely in the hands of advanced science.
This is not necessarily an unexpected turn: science as causing untold horrors in the pursuit of progress is one of the West’s most justified literary tropes, considering the aforementioned half-century of global paranoia and existential terror via the new vistas of scientific danger that had been unleashed into existence. But it does certainly play on the concept of American exceptionalism in the development of forbidden sciences.
The company Valve has started building a whole franchise on the concept of the blurring of lines between scientific progress and madness with the Portal games, but it’s long been one of their defining tropes as a creator: the Half-Life series dealt with science accidentally unleashing alien swarms upon the earth, while more recently, the Left 4 Dead series plays straight the trope of the “rip-roaring, gun-wielding, all-American badass” by allowing the player to cut and shoot their way through a zombie-infested wasteland.
But common in these apocalyptic scenarios is the society-wide trauma brought on by what is essentially the end of the world. Trauma, after all, is considered one of the penultimate values of American society. In Left 4 Dead, the trauma of the apocalypse has given an aimlessly-drifting veteran a new lease on life with a new enemy to fight, turned an office worker, reporter and gambler into stone-cold badasses, and even a college student whose only former combat knowledge was informed by movies. It lines right up with the value that we place on trauma: trauma is a pivotal event in life. Trauma is a way to forge oneself through fire.
Just look at any hero: chances are, there will have been some traumatic event in their past, however big or small, that either shaped or influenced their current path in life. It’s not a negative trope per se (after all, better for a character to have an actual motivation than to merely go through the motions of ‘being a hero’ for the hell of it), but it is interesting to see how trauma, something that is generally considered universally negative when it happens to us, has become venerated as something crucial to the development of the exceptional individual.
What IS apocalyptic, though? The word itself certainly conjures up very dramatic imagery: the crimson sky splits open as four horsemen descend upon an ailing world, led by the pale horse of Death himself; rioters amassing in fiery streets, overturning cars and setting buildings ablaze.
But the apocalypse is simply the end of one thing, a transitional period, however jarring. Our Westernized mindset will take us immediately to imagery of a burned-out wasteland (Fallout, anyone?) when we hear ‘post-apocalyptic’, and it makes sense: the Western consciousness for the last fifty-to-sixty years was veritably bombarded with imagery and film (such as The Day After) that fed the paranoia of nuclear holocaust, and the landscapes depicted in games such as the aforementioned Fallout deal directly with nuclear holocaust. Because such a thing would radically and irreversibly change the perception and practicality of life, simply through scientific means rather than supernatural. But despite being the big boy in the corner, it really isn’t the only kind of Armageddon.
I’m reminded of Joseph Heller’s head-trip of a novel, Catch 22. This is a post-apocalyptic novel, despite the lack of scythe-wielding horsemen. Protagonist Yossarian has undergone a much smaller-scale cataclysm that has utterly broken his mind. In that way, it would seem to fit more in line with the psychological thrillers that line the rows of movie posters at the nearest Cineplex, but keep in mind that the protagonists of those films – your Memento, your Fight Club, your Insomnia – have a chance to find out what’s going on. They have a chance to redeem themselves, or at least learn to live. But with Yossarian, there is a clear line that has been crossed: Armageddon has happened in his mind as a victim of trauma, and the post-apocalyptic landscape is the nightmarish labyrinth of bureaucracy that crosses between tragic and darkly comic countless times in the narrative.
I don’t think any of us can say in good conscience that the apocalyptic genre, in its various forms, will be going away any time soon; first and foremost, it simply makes for good entertainment. But further, it strikes at the kinds of deep-seated fears that we as a society hold, that will never truly go away. After all, it’s not like we can ever un-do humanity’s potential to destroy itself, or the potential ability of pathogens to conceivably turn sixty percent of the planet into flesh-hungry mobile corpses, or the designs of dictators past and future from taking the world to the kinds of frightening places that writers such as Orwell warned about.
Not to mention – the dark, intense mood evoked by a post-apocalyptic game creates a kind of immersion that, because of our societal fear of such a cataclysm becoming reality, does not necessarily need to be reinforced in order to terrify, allowing the designers and graphic artists free reign to create all sorts of morbid tapestries within the graphics design. It has, I feel comfortable saying, little to do with the fact that many gamers enjoy the violence and gore of such scenarios: while the excess gore in some games might be a reason why the scholarly community has more-or-less turned its nose up at games as a whole (In their paper on psychological arousal through violent media, Anderson and Bushman state a direct correlation between violence in video games and violent behavior, including committing the cardinal sin of tipping the tables by bringing up the Columbine shooting in the context), but take it from someone who’s been gaming longer than not: the splattered blood and strewn limbs are window dressing to creating an immersive mood in these kinds of games, in the same way that Tom Savini’s groundbreaking gore effects help immerse us in George Romero’s ‘Living Dead’ series. These games, after all, are art, merely with an interactive canvas.
So it can perhaps be said that Left 4 Dead’s “Everyone is now Rambo” approach to the zombie genre, and the resulting popularity of the game, is our chance to laugh in the face of our own impending doom in a landscape that we would most certainly not want to take part in real life. To be able to pick up a semi-automatic weapon and simply mow down thousands of zombies is to place oneself in the position of the exceptional figure (see the previous entry on Spider-Man).
That said, it would be wrong of me to attribute the whole of the game’s popularity to just that; to do so would be to fall into the academic trap of looking for some over-arching, “scholarly” answer while ignoring the more direct and clear-cut solution: camaderie with friends never fails, and the game’s emphasis on multiplayer is second to none. But while we’re enjoying a cold one with our gang and blowing off that zombie’s head, maybe somewhere, in the back of our minds, we’re thinking, “This is far more fantasy than we’d like it to be”. Because in the real world, if the outbreak ever hit, we know full well that we would be stunt zombie #394, not one of the glorious few. We would be a part of the apocalypse’s setpieces, not the band of heroes back-to-back against the undead horde, not the lone motorcyclist cruising through the bombed-out wasteland, and certainly not going to rush the four horsemen in a glory charge. It’s called the apocalypse for a reason: most people aren’t going to survive it, and statistically, that means us.
But then, there’s always fantasy.