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Apocalypse now: Seven doomed futures from E3’s hottest games

22 June 2018

Are video game creators obsessed with the end of the world? As anticipation builds around the upcoming releases shown off at annual gaming conference E3, ALASDAIR MACRAE notices that post-apocalyptic and dystopian futures appear to be very much in fashion this year.

The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) conference in LA is the biggest event of the video game calendar. For several days, the world’s largest video game companies gather to announce and preview the games they hope will become best-sellers over the coming year.

“E3 is a place for blockbuster games, it’s the Hollywood types of games that you’re looking at,” explains Keza MacDonald, video games editor at The Guardian, in a recent interview with Front Row.

“It’s not the place to find politically-interesting games, or particularly culturally pushing-the-boundary sorts of games – but it is a place where you can take the temperature of the mainstream of the gaming world.”

According to that logic, the mainstream of gaming could use some anti-anxiety medication and a hug. Many of the biggest game creators are using their medium to envision disastrous futures for mankind, giving a glimpse at the trends or fears we have about our modern world.

Here are seven games shown off at E3 2018 from a range of genres that aim to combine exciting gameplay with intriguing dystopic ideas.

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1. Fallout 76

The Fallout franchise is set in the aftermath of a nuclear war. Most of the world’s population perished, but a great number of people hid in huge underground fallout shelters known as ‘Vaults’ while the bombs fell, and generations later their descendants resurfaced to find an irradiated wasteland, full of monstrous mutant animals.

Fallout 76 images courtesy of Bethesda

Previous games in the series have been strictly single-player adventures, with the main character wandering parts of post-apocalyptic America, free to interact however they like with various factions of human survivors – some friendly, some violent. In contrast, Fallout 76 will be an online multiplayer prequel, where EVERY player is exploring and fighting to survive in a shared world as they assume the roles of the first Vault-dwellers to venture outside.

The title ‘76’ refers both to Vault 76, where the game’s story begins, and to the year 1776, in which the Declaration of Independence was signed and the USA was founded. No stranger to satire, this new Fallout gives its players the opportunity to inherit a ruined West Virginia and become Founding Fathers themselves. With options to co-operate and build communities with other survivors, but also to fight, rob or even nuke each other for the best resources, it seems to be playfully testing how we'll behave given the breakdown of society.

2. Cyberpunk 2077

Cyberpunk 2077 was a huge hit at E3, with its secretive 50 minute gameplay demo receiving heaps of praise. In its dystopian future mega-corporations govern everything, violent crime runs rampant on the streets, and people upgrade their bodies with cybernetic implants.

Cyberpunk 2077 images courtesy of CD Projekt Red

It’s this theme of transhumanism – whether technology will allow us to transcend our human form – that Polish developers CD Projekt Red wanted to explore in great detail, in both the mechanics and the narrative. The main character, V, gains new abilities by installing machine parts such as mantis-like blades in their arms or robotic eyes. Meanwhile, a typical mission involves rescuing a missing woman, who is discovered to have been gruesomely harvested for her valuable mechanical body parts.

This violent game is definitely for mature audiences only, but game director Adam Badowski clearly wants it to be a thought-provoking story; in a recent interview he actually seemed to consider it a failing that E3 audiences were only asking him questions about Cyberpunk 2077’s thrilling gameplay, and not the transhumanism philosophy he was so passionate about.

3. Sea of Solitude

“When humans get too lonely, they turn into monsters.” This was how Cornelia Geppert of Berlin-based Jo-Mei Games introduced her upcoming fantasy adventure Sea of Solitude. Written during a personal low point in her life, the game uses its post-apocalyptic setting to explore depression.

A very interesting game about loneliness and about what human connection means.
Keza MacDonald

In this dark fairytale the world is flooded and empty. People are isolated from one another, and as their loneliness consumes them they transform into Godzilla-sized sea monsters. In the midst of this enters Kay, a girl who has just turned monstrous herself, and putters around the deserted land on a motorboat. The player as Kay will explore these desolate environments on foot and by boat, solving puzzles and platforming challenges to proceed on a quest to restore her humanity.

Matching its emotive dreamlike story, Sea of Solitude’s art direction eschews the realistic graphics of many modern games and instead goes for a beautiful Studio Ghibli-esque visual style. It will certainly be one of the prettier ways for the world to end, if not the gloomiest.

4. The Last of Us Part II

2013’s widely acclaimed horror-thriller The Last of Us has been described as a masterpiece, such is its incredible realism, well-drawn characters and emotionally-resonant story. The game is set in a world where mankind has been wiped out by a parasitical fungus that turns its hosts into violent zombies – which is a more scientifically-accurate method of zombification than you may think. The story centres around a grizzled survivor named Joel who must protect a 13-year old girl, Ellie, on a journey through ruined cities, fungal zombies and the violent other humans who’ve simply embraced the chaos of the world’s end.

It’s very Game of Thrones-style in terms of both the relationships between characters and the violence.
Keza MacDonald

Ultimately The Last of Us made the classic zombie apocalypse as grounded as possible, and used it as a way to test the morality of its survivors in an unforgiving world. Players navigating the game’s environments experienced the terror of sneaking past disgusting spore-creatures, and rather than making its combat glossy and fun, it was treated with weight and made to feel like a horrible fight to survive.

However, it was the relationship between Joel and Ellie that resonated the most, and now that story will continue in The Last of Us Part II. In a ten-minute trailer that wowed audiences at E3, we learned that Ellie is now nineteen, and appears to be settled in a safe community of survivors, engaging in a blossoming relationship with another young woman, Dina. However, this was intercut with more of its signature violent combat showing Ellie now fending off attackers without Joel’s protection – it’s not clear why the two appear to be separated, but the world is clearly still as dangerous as ever.

The Last of Us Part II images courtesy of Naughty Dog

5. Stormland

Stormland could well become the most expansive virtual reality (VR) game to date. Using a VR headset and hand controllers, the player will see through the eyes of a humble robot caretaker exploring a remote alien planet. The fantastic landscape is made up of floating islands adrift in the clouds, with strange and colourful plant life.

Stormland images courtesy of Oculus Studios / Insomniac Games

However, all does not appear to be well. Though the robots are humanoid, no humans seem to be around, and the lush world is being consumed by an all-powerful force referred to as The Tempest. After being attacked by a group of evil robots, your player android awakes and must repair his broken mechanical body, discover what has gone wrong, and attempt to save the planet.

What makes it such a revolutionary VR title is the freedom it will allow players, especially in the way you move around this alien world. By exploring and finding upgrades, the player’s android will be able to climb any surface, leap and glide over fantastic vistas, and approach combat scenarios in a variety of ways. With multiplayer support in the mix too, Stormland will allow friends to soar over this distant VR world together, and hopefully find out what happened to all the people.

6. Neo Cab

The beautiful 2D-animated Neo Cab presents its dystopian near-future from the viewpoint of one human story. In it, you play as Lina, one of the last human cab drivers in a world where artificial intelligence runs nearly everything. While she’s on the job, she starts to grow worried that she hasn’t heard from her one and only friend, who seems to be wanted by the authoritarian system governing this city. From there the game presents a mystery story that branches greatly depending on the player’s interactions with the people Lina meets along the way.

Neo Cab images courtesy of Chance Agency

The whole experience has been designed to create empathy for service industry workers, placing the player in the shoes of someone surviving in the gig economy that is becoming increasingly common today. Gameplay is essentially a job simulator, with the player balancing the need to pick up enough fares each night to earn a living without running out of energy, all while keeping her customers happy enough to maintain her five-star rating or face being fired.

The game also explores mental health and well-being. While passengers are in the car the player is presented with dialogue options to talk with them, as well as an intriguing system known as the ‘FeelGrid’, which is wearable tech that people of this future use to colour-communicate their emotions. By learning to read their FeelGrid, you can judge what to say to improve their mood and earn a higher rating. Interestingly though, you must balance Lina’s emotional health too. For example, you could save money one night by sleeping in your car, but it will ruin your mood, and this might make you snap angrily at rude passengers. By taking advantage of gaming’s unique ability to make its audience ‘become’ another person, Neo Cab wants you to consider the situation of those on the bread line of capitalism.

7. Death Stranding

Out of everything shown at E3 this year, perhaps nothing was quite as bonkers as Death Stranding, the much-hyped new game from Japanese auteur Hideo Kojima. After years of mysterious teaser videos and precious few details about its plot, Kojima finally presented a new 8-minute trailer that filled in a few blanks while still not really explaining what the heck is going on.

Featuring motion-captured performances by A-List actors including Norman Reedus, Léa Seydoux and Mads Mikkelsen, Death Stranding appears to be set in a post-apocalyptic Earth where invisible ghost creatures are an all-encompassing threat. Reedus stars as the protagonist, who was often pictured as a tiny figure traversing a desolate landscape on foot, hauling large crates or even body bags on his back. Presumably he is a courier delivering precious supplies between surviving settlements in this dangerous environment, wearing a hazmat suit to protect him from acid rain.

At its strangest moment, Reedus is shown to be venturing out on this mission with a baby in a glass pod strapped to his stomach, and a special device on his back that appeared to make the invisible floating spectres visible. It’s unclear, but based on a line of dialogue from the trailer, some have theorised that these strange beings don’t actually kill people as opposed to propelling their bodies forward in time to a point when they don’t exist. If so, perhaps people have learned to survive by taking baby clones of themselves with them as an insurance policy; as your original body ages into non-existence the baby ages into adulthood, and can continue on the journey in a gruesome twist on the ‘extra lives’ system common to many video games.

Well, at least we can rest assured that however the world does end, it won’t be half as weird as in Death Stranding.

Death Stranding images courtesy of Kojima Productions

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