Funny story, but true: The first article I wrote for The Escapist, in 2006, was about gaming and the apocalypse. It was mostly about my childhood memories of waiting for the apocalypse, actually, and the strange sense of existentialist ennui that comes when, after waiting one’s entire adolescent life for a thing, that thing never comes.
I wrote that, as a gamer obsessed with the apocalypse, I began to see apocalypses everywhere. A sentiment shared by the author of one of this week’s articles. Yet, in spite of my obsession with its end, the future of our world looked pretty bright back then, and gaming reflected that; one had to really dig around a little to find a game actually designed around the apocalypse. That was over four years ago.
Since then, games and the apocalypse have become BFFs in a big, big way. Zombie apocalypse games, like Left 4 Dead are everywhere, military shooters like Modern Warfare sport apocalypse-tinged plots and one of the preeminent apocalyptic video game series, Fallout got a hearty reboot and is still going strong.
Perhaps following art, our lives have become more apocalyptic as well. The global economy has collapsed, a viral pandemic threat arose, armed criminals have waged war (and won) against one of North America’s largest countries, the struggle between Western hegemony and Middle Eastern fundamentalism has dragged much of the world’s resources into a seemingly bottomless pit of war and despair and Haiti, Western China, Detroit and the Gulf of Mexico have become wastelands. If these are not all apocalypses in the making, they are at least to make one nostalgic for the good, old days of the Cold War, when one had only one apocalypse to fear.
One could also argue that art followed life, and that it was the shocking and awful apocalyptic event in 2001, the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, that kicked our collective imaginations back into survival mode. If so, one would have historical evidence on one’s side, for the post-apocalyptic genre as a whole traces its roots all the way to the beginning of the 20th century, when soldiers returning home from WWI attempted to make sense of the wanton destruction that they’d seen.
Considering how many of the artistic minded among them died in that war, it wasn’t really until after WWII and the revelation of the destructive power of the atomic bomb that the genre really got going. As the atomic age gave way to the hydrogen-bomb age and then the “we can destroy the world 300 times over” age, artists and writers did what they have always done best, responding to their sense of imminent doom by attempting to paint a picture of the world that we would be creating for ourselves. Between 1945 and 1985, the amount of post-apocalyptic fiction produced was simply staggering. The genre cooled off slightly in the 1990s, when it looked like the world had briefly gotten its shit together, but now here we are again. I hope you enjoy post-apocalyptic fiction, because, if world events continue on their current course, we should expect to see much, much more of it. Unless, of course, we all die. At which point, hopefully, someone will be left to start over.
What do we mean, then, when we say “post-apocalyptic?” Put simply, it means that whatever fictional events one is describing through the story one is telling – in whatever medium – take place after some event that has dramatically altered the world. One could (but I won’t) argue that post-apocalyptic fiction actually traces its roots all the way to the final book of the New testament, the Book of Revelation, which describes in great, horrific detail what Christians believe will happen upon the event of Jesus Christ’s return to Earth to begin his final battle against the Anti-Christ.
Revelation is without a doubt the darkest and most disturbing book of the Bible, designed, as it was, to encourage its readers to seek salvation in the belief in Christ so that they would be spared the dire fate destined for non-believers. It describes floods, plagues, earthquakes, swarms of flesh-eating insects, hellfire raining down from the sky and just about anything else you may have seen in a Hollywood movie. It is terrifyingly comprehensive, and prophetic, considering the concept of fire raining down from the sky would have been scarcely imaginable at the time of Revelation‘s writing, but is now, thanks to modern tools of war, quite easy to contemplate. The first time that I read Revelation, it gave me nightmares for weeks. It is not for the faint of heart.
Whether you care to argue Revelation is fiction or not, the post-apocalyptic genre owes its very name to the book, considering that the word “apocalypse” traces its etymological roots to the Greek word for “revelation.” Apocalyptic events, therefore, are events akin to those described in Revelation. Post-apocalyptic, then, refers to what may occur following Revelation-like events. Savvy?
So, if the end of the world (as we know it) is so terrifying to contemplate, why do we keep contemplating it, revering it and immortalizing it in fiction? One reason is that, simply put, that’s what we do. As creative entities, we cope with our nightmares by bringing them to life. We conquer our worst possible fears, in fictional form, so that when the time comes we may have the strength to overcome them for real.
In this way, post-apocalyptic fiction is hero fiction, like one of the earliest stories, Beowulf, about the hero who slew the beast that no one else could conquer. We tell these stories to inspire ourselves and each other, so that we may discover strength that we never knew we had.
Post-apocalyptic tales also serve as warnings. The end of the world as we know it would be an event well beyond anyone’s imaging. Even those of us who’ve spent a great deal of time contemplating it would undoubtedly be shocked to discover that we had no idea how bad it could be. Tales of life after such an apocalypse, then, serve as a means to put the catastrophe into perspective, to paint a clear picture of just what we may be dealing with in the hope that the picture we paint will be so terrifying to look upon that we will steer clear of the events that could bring the apocalypse to fruition.
Also, if we’re being honest with ourselves, post-apocalyptic fiction is just good, clean fun. Who hasn’t at one point or another imagined a world in which one person really could make a difference? A world that’s been stripped to the bone and reduced to it barest essentials for survival is just such a place, and we romantically presume that – should we survive the apocalypse – we would have the run of the place.
For all of these reasons and more, The Escapist is proud to present our Issue 258, “The Day After,” titled after one of the films highlighted in my 2006 article for The Escapist Issue 33. Thus, bring my own personal love affair for the post-apocalyptic genre full circle, albeit in a grim way.
In this issue, Jonathan Baker looks at the essentials of survival in a post-apocalyptic world; Jonathan Glover takes a hard look at one of the greatest apocalyptic games ever produced: Defcon; Tavis Allison explores how Dungeons & Dragons is, at it’s heart, a post-apocalyptic game of the first degree and Nick Halme explains how every game, for the gamer, is a post-apocalyptic experience.
We hope that this issue serves you well, whatever the future may hold.