Written by Stephen Patterson
Some of the largest games of 2017, in terms of both critical success and sales, have shared a crucial aspect – one of storytelling rather than mechanical design. Horizon: Zero Dawn, NieR: Automata and even Zelda: Breath of the Wild, all currently revered kings of open world design, tell narratives of worlds that have overcome the immediate aftermath of cataclysmic events. What we see instead is the reformation of societal systems, the development of new and unexplored cultural paradigms, and the restoration of, in the eyes of the protagonists, the powers of ‘good’.
The stylistic fiction of the post-post apocalypse is not a new premise – in fact, those titles mentioned above are highly reminiscent of games such as the original NieR and the wonderful Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, both of which interrogate the humanity of the past, the mistakes it made, and whether or not society, as it rebuilds, can change for the better – or remains doomed to repeat its fundamental mistakes. In contrast to regular post-apocalyptic fiction, which investigates the minutiae of daily survival and interpersonal conflict (as we see poignantly in work such as The Road by Cormac McCarthy, both dour and deeply human), post-post apocalyptic fiction is more grand and explorative. In NieR: Automata for example, the narrative and character interaction encourages us to question what makes us culturally and physically human, and whether conscious thought or the concept of cognito ergo sum (‘I think, therefore I am’) can truly separate us from machine sentience: a concept much broader than the daily fight for food, water and territory presented by Mad Max, for example.
The most important aspect of this style of fiction from a personal perspective is it’s tendency to empower nature and reinforce how powerful the natural order of the Earth truly is. In most pieces of art in the style, whether visual, written, or interactive, we often see the crumbling monuments of a decadent and comfortable humanity overcome by vines, trees and wildlife. Skyscrapers and billboards collapse and make way under the weight of life itself, as it continues it’s relentless march, the course of which is no longer stymied by human efforts to construct, dig or mine. The appeal is not one of Luddite anti-technological influences, but rather an appreciation of the world surrounding us. The strikingly powerful vision of human cities in ruin, but not black and dead with ash, rather green and bright with life, hits me as soothing and calming. Even if humans annihilate themselves, the world still flourishes.
In a more abstract sense, too: systems of control and dominance, of hierarchy and wealth are not necessarily washed away entirely by nuclear fire or the rising of the oceans, but instead by the winding roots of trees as they work slowly into the foundations. It plays well alongside personal desires for grand, uprooting change when it becomes so difficult to achieve.
Not only does the rise of nature chart new growth for the world in the fiction of the post-post-apocalypse, however. In many instances, it questions how humanity approaches society, and helps the formation of new religions and creeds, often with the desire to unify and empower. In Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, developers Ninja Theory crudely attempt to replicate, in part, Journey to the West, a tale of Buddhist enlightenment written by Wu Cheng’en in the 16th century. The game, rather than the book, teaches that through a spiritual journey we can lift ourselves up and assist others in doing the same. It teaches friendship and selflessness. In both Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon: Zero Dawn, the protagonists are encouraged to speculate on the decision of a nebulous former humanity to mechanize and automate. Should the humans and other species of the future do the same but more efficiently and meticulously? Or should they instead seek a different path? These questions represent these games asking us, in an abstract sense, whether the systems we inhabit now are effective and work for our well-being, and whether they deserve to continue to exist. Not to encourage rebellion or rejection, but introspection and inspection of personal philosophies; invariably, they suggest that we should be more kind, and more good.
The conceptual importance of writing post-post apocalyptic fiction is one which is similar in scope to the use of regular post-apocalyptic narratives. They are, most often, far-fetched absurdities which aim to criticise current governments, policies or leaders, either actively or passively (think, most recently, of the nuclear rhetoric on display by the United States and North Korea). In most cases, they serve to encourage shock, possibly to rally readers against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, or more recently, such as in parts of David Brin’s recent science fiction novel Existence, to warn against the advanced impact of climate change.
However the unique talent of the post-post apocalypse is that it encourages one to think of alternative systems and how they should replace those that currently exist. When working from the ground up and rebuilding society as humanity recovers, perhaps the trappings of capitalist systems should be avoided? Or, in the case of Horizon: Zero Dawn, the absolute monarchist system of a certain Mad Sun King, who leads his people to war and ruin?
Fundamentally, the post-post apocalypse offers both a metaphorical clean slate and a literal one. The land is cleansed physically of the structures of old, washed away by the sweeping reclamation of mother nature, and the human systems of control and power have also been cleared, ready to be constructed in a new form.
The question these games ask us is: what should be built in this vacant space? They are tales of new dawns, sunrises and progress. Tales of hope for the future, instead of dismal struggles for survival.
The brightness is refreshing.