On a Pale Horse

The post-apocalyptic setting has become something of a storytelling staple. Not only does it give us a playground in which to explore our darkest fears, but it also offers the would-be storyteller a virtual blank slate upon which to create his masterpiece. Any edifice, construct of civilization or principle the storyteller finds unnecessary or inconvenient can be effectively erased in the catastrophe leading up to our tale. After all, it’s far easier to address man’s struggle against man when there aren’t any silly rules (or women) in the way. Boom! The rules and the women go first. All we have left are men – go.

What we’re left with at that point is an exploration of once-familiar environs, and the setting for an exploration of self, bar none. For when all else is lost (even hope) what’s left but to look deep within yourself and plumb the depths of your own despair?

Camus and Sartre brought us to these shores with their groundbreaking (if horribly depressing) explorations of existentialism (Camus’ Stranger, for example, is every inch a post-apocalyptic hero, only the apocalypse he’s had to endure is far more subtle than a nuclear winter.), but the heart of the genre has been with us for centuries. T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, reflecting on the misery of the life after World War I, fits neatly into the genre, as does Beowulf and the biblical story of Noah. Each are as self revelatory as the look on Burgess Meredith’s face as he climbs out of the bank vault to find his world has been destroyed, or reading of the rise and fall and re-rise and re-fall of a post-apocalyptic civilization, or playing the part of a lone wanderer leaving the protective cocoon of the fallout shelter to seek salvation in the wasteland.

Which brings us to games. Practically every game setting can be described as post-apocalyptic in some way. Something has happened, you are the sole survivor, go deal with it. Gears of War, Half-Life, Doom even Robotron. Each pits a lone survivor against an army of baddies in an altered world, devoid of familiar comforts. But what makes a post-apocalyptic game or story post-apocalyptic? Is it the struggle or the catastrophe? Or both?

It is this question and more we attempt to answer with this week’s issue of The Escapist. Jim Rossignol looks at the post-apocalyptic wasteland of modern Ukraine, through the lens of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Spanner visits Harlan Ellison’s vision of the future, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, Shannon Drake speaks to the creator of Urban Dead, Michael Zenke samples the fallout of Fallout and I’ll take you on a tour of one of the most disturbing post-apocalyptic roleplaying adventures of all time, Aftermath!.

It’s a non-stop thrill ride through the darkest territory of the mind, courtesy of The Escapist. Suit up, stock up, duck and cover, and conquer. It’s Issue 98, On a Pale Horse.

-Russ Pitts

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