Tuesday, November 1, 2011
In this entry we skim through a dizzying array of post-apocalyptic videogames, skip several entries entirely, and talk about my post-apocalyptic novel: Beyond Aukfontein. It’s now on Amazon! Which has nothing to do with games, but it’s pretty good anyway according to reviews. There’s a LONG cascading list of games before though, so skip to the bottom if you’re curious.
I love the post-apocalyptic / dystopian genre, whether it’s in books, films, games, theatre or some form of interpretive dance. In fact I’m probably slightly obsessed by it. As a result I’ve enjoyed a lot of examples of PA fiction over the years, and when writing my first fiction novel I chose a PA setting. But why does it appeal?
If we’re being honest, the world is and has for a long time been a fairly awful place, for reasons too numerous/complex to debate here. Basically we’re just a really mean species, to everything, including ourselves. So the idea of human civilisation being wiped out, or wiping itself out, and starting again has a certain bent appeal. What if the result is better? What if it’s worse? It’s like re-rolling your character in an RPG, and all it takes is destruction of billions of lives. Easy. What makes examples of the genre particularly exciting is that you can end up with scenarios which mix elements of archaic history with futuristic sci-fi. Are armies fighting with spears or lasers or both?
Obviously you’ll end up with a certain amount of repetition, as well-worn tropes and ideas are recycled, but sometimes, especially with games, you’ll get something really immersive and genuinely unique.
The problem with compiling a list of PA games is that the genre is purely thematic; contrast this against the horror genre in games which can be both thematic and mechanical, and platformers, which is strictly a mechanical classification. A purely thematic classification encompasses absolutely everything, ever. There’s also a tremendous amount of cross-over with other genres, such as Steampunk and Cyberpunk, depending on how ruined the world is. You can see the problem – for a start the above two sub-genres are polar opposites, and also there’s a daunting quantity out there. So do we put the Akira and R-Type games alongside Rage? And do we count Bioshock, since its world is one that’s fallen into collapse? This list is in a semi-random order and merely what I’m aware of/have played extensively, so I don’t even touch games like Resistance or Gears of War, since I’ve not invested any serious time. Or Trojan, or Beneath a Steel Sky for that matter! Crikey, there’s probably hundreds of games out there, proving how well-loved PA genre tropes are.
So by all means join the discussion on what’s missing and recommend your own favourites.
Images nabbed either from Mobygames, or HG101’s back catalogue of articles.
The granddaddy of PA games and a revolutionary RPG as well. I put a lot of time into this a while ago via DOSbox, getting about a quarter the way through. It features a rich and complex gameplay setting, unfortunately let down by confusing controls and fiddly menu system. Everyone has a variety of skills chosen from a massive pool which can be levelled up (eg skill with handguns, rifles, lockpicking, swimming, etc), plus used at any time, and there are numerous items (several of which are useless duds) that can also be found. The problem though is when and where to use them. An early example is a rope by a mountain side, where it’s implied you need to use someone with a high perception skill to enter a cave. Problem is, when using a skill you need to select the block is starts on and the direction it goes in, and choosing the block with the rope and a neutral direction doesn’t work, you need to select the adjacent block and face west. It sounds trivial when describing it, but as the game progresses you’ll find yourself using every skill and every item on every block while facing every direction, just in case, because it’s never obvious how and where anything is needed. Which is tiresome. A slick remake which streamlines this, but without dumbing it down, would be excellent. Followed by sequel Fountain of Dreams, while Fallout is regarded as its spiritual successor.
Irem’s arcade games
There are so many Irem arcade games with a post-apocalyptic setting that Hardcore Gaming 101 has an entire feature dedicated to them. Awesome.
Fist of the North Star series
Based on the manga and/or anime. I’ve played several FOTNS games and I don’t like any of them, not even the PS3 update. They’re all too repetitive, and some of the early ones are pure kusoge. There was also a PS1 release, regarded as excellent by many.
Metal Max series
A series of RPGs, some fan-translated, others officially localised, a couple only in Japan. Never tried them, but always wanted to. The Famicom original sounds great, since a Japanese review describes the game as totally free-form. You could spend time doing missions, or you could just tweak your tank, or if you preferred you could ignore all of that and get drunk in a bar. I also once read a fascinating anecdote on a forum regarding Metal Saga on the DS, and the way one mission dealt with delivery of a Bible (books being rare after the apocalypse), and subsequent debate over religion and its use as a tool to give people hope in blighted times. One of the enjoyable things with PA fiction is considering how people would interpret/react to things which to you are commonplace (in this example an everyday Bible).
Mad Max (NES)
Drive around to find hideouts with fuel, food and water so you can later buy entry into the car arena. Repetitive indistinct graphics, confusing layout, extreme difficulty and sloppy controls didn’t prevent me from putting several hours into it.
Seemingly inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä, this is a pretty good RPG from SNK. In fact it’s one of only two RPGs I can think of from SNK. Set centuries after a great cataclysm, magic has returned to the world as civilisation has rebuilt itself. It’s basically a Zelda clone with some clever ideas – oh, and you need to kill God apparently. Unfortunately it gets very repetitive later on, with a lot of palette swaps for the dungeons, which also makes them confusing. Covered in detail on HG101.
There are rumours that this was originally going to be an official Mad Max game until the license fell through. I played through this back in the day on SNES (such was my love of the Mad Max films), though it didn’t quite warrant it. You drive along a Mode-7 style road shooting bikers and choppers (and jeeps in the Mega Drive version), stopping at towns. Then you switch to a 2D side-scroller to kill enemies and collect fuel for your car.
You can punch, or shoot with a sawn-off shotgun. It’s almost awesome. The problem is lack of balance. Enemies require two shots with the gun or two punches to the stomach to kill, negating the usefulness of the former. Towns are also nauseatingly repetitive, as is the driving. 15 minutes and you’ve seen everything. And yet... And yet it was somehow compelling. The single looped audio track is cool, and blowing bikers away with the L and R buttons on a SNES pad is awesome. Another month in development and this could have been great. Failing that, a romhack which redresses the balance would also go down well.
Several Contra games have featured Earth in a post-apocalyptic state after aliens invade. Most people prefer Contra III on the SNES, but my favourite is Contra: Hard Corpse on the Mega Drive, which now has a patch to bring back the Japanese health bar, so you can play it as the developers intended, albeit in English. Check out HG101’s affiliated Contra site.
I’ve never seen this mentioned in lists of PA games, which is a shame since it’s a rather nifty Japan/Euro exclusive action-RPG, where you need to rediscover various things from Earth’s history. Big feature here.
Panzer Dragon I+II
A majestic pair of on-rails shooters for the Saturn (the original was also ported to Windows, PS2 and the original Xbox). These first two games set-up and create a beautiful ruined world later explored in depth with the 3rd game in the series. Has some great set-pieces, such as the flooded town in the first game, and the forest and underground caverns in the second. Not many people know this, but the PD games seem influenced by the Spartakus’ and the Sun Beneath Sea series of French cartoons. Article on the whole series is here.
Panzer Dragoon Saga
If I was asked for my favourite post-apocalyptic game, favourite Saturn game, or favourite JRPG, Panzer Dragoon Saga would be it. Undoubtedly it’s also in my top 10 all-time favourite games ever list. It should change your perception of videogames. This is also how you create a decent apocalyptic world; a soaring and beautiful world rich with visual diversity, with interesting, likeable and believable characters. It has a legitimately good story which although starting as a simple revenge quest evolves into something much greater – to the point where there is no obviously good or bad, just groups who oppose each other’s ideals, and with you caught in the middle. As for the ending, it makes Kojima’s Metal Gear storylines seem like children’s picture books. The Panzer Dragoon series, but especially Saga, manages to create its own unique visual style. It may borrow some elements from Frank Herbert’s Dune, Naussicaa, and Mad Max, but it manages to wrap everything together in a way that it all feels new. The best thing about Saga though, is that it features its own fictional language, apparently a mix of Latin, Greek and German. PD director Yukio Futatsugi was a fan of languages, and so created his own for PDS. This is what makes PA fiction so cool, the fact that cultures and language would be remixed, rebooted, fundamentally changed into something unpredictable. Although it commands high prices, it’s worth acquiring in English, via any means possible, and played through at least once.
Panzer Dragoon Orta
If you liked the first two PD games, this should appeal, as it’s an on-rails shooter with some of the most impressive graphics for the original Xbox. Mechanically and thematically it’s excellent, and even features some cool side-missions involving a boy from the Empire, plus a detailed Encyclopaedia of the game-world’s lore. Almost perfect. Except for my tastes the super shiny graphics detract slightly. The crude polygons and grainy textures of the first three titles enhanced the post-apocalyptic atmosphere; they enhanced the feeling that vehicles and structures were ruined and half broken, as if it were a miracle those airships could fly. This definitely looks gorgeous, but is maybe a little too clean and shiny...
Mix of dystopian and post-apocalypse. Annoyingly it has less weapons than the original Half-Life, but the first-person driving sections are pretty good and convey a strong Mad Max atmosphere. It would have been even better if you had to sporadically stop at the towns to collect fuel. As it stands it’s a bit shallow. And there’s a painful lack of weapons compared to the first. That silly gravity gun isn’t compensation for less...
Disaster Report series
There’s an HG101 article for this series in the works, honest. This is more disaster survival, but the destroyed cityscapes, which you need to navigate, are quite compelling. Great survival mechanics too, requiring regular water consumption/body heat maintaining, plus co-operation with NPCs.
Is this post-apocalyptic? More like historically apocalyptic, as you deal with a quarantined town ravaged by plague in the early 1900s. There’s marauders, martial law, and a black-market trade system to negotiate. It warrants the PA classification more than most, because while other games are all about shooting, there are times in Pathologic where you will trade in your gun just so you don’t starve to death. In a real apocalypse, food will be the number one currency. Lengthy write up here.
Never played these, for whatever reason, and regret not doing so. But I’ve heard enough praise for both Fallouts, from people whose opinions I respect and can trust, to not question it. One day, one day...
I didn’t like this. It was incredible for the first few hours, until I realised every NPC sounded the same, every environment looked the same, and everything played the same. All the time. The pseudo-1950s vibe also didn’t appeal that much. Plus it was too easy. Was followed by Fallout: New Vegas. I was tempted by this because of the hardcore mode it featured, where you had to eat food otherwise you’d die and limb damage had serious consequences. But why was it an optional extra? It should have been the default mode – “man up” is all I have to say to anyone frightened by the idea. A nuclear holocaust isn’t a picnic, son.
Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruin of the Moon
One of the most visually beautiful games on the Wii, dealing with concepts of loneliness, friendship and loss in a world seemingly without people. Has lots of cool ideas, like finding diary entries from people long since dead – the one from the gamer who named his JRPG character AAAA is brilliant, since he laments that the cartridge you find is the last legacy he’s left on Earth and he didn’t even bother naming the character. I was going to post a lengthy write up on this back in the day, but ultimately didn’t. A lot of people criticise it for its rubbish combat and obtuse backpack/suitcase carrying mechanics, but this isn’t a game about slick playability. It IS clunky and awkward. It’s what the Japanese call a “funiki game”, a game all about the atmosphere. Which I guess puts it alongside Silent Hill 2 in that regard. It’s certainly thematically strong, and you’ll come across several “whoa!” moments.
Sin & Punishment Sin & Punishment 2
Fantastic pair of on-rails shooters from the action masters Treasure. Beautiful to play, too insane to understand. Lengthy feature here.
STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl
Set in the ruined wasteland around Chernobyl, this takes inspiration from the Russian novel Roadside Picnic. Along with destroyed ruins you also need to deal with strange anomalies which defy the laws of physics, mutant creatures and animals, rival factions, bandits, the military, plus the need to eat and avoid radiation. Lots of areas are heavily radiated, and there’s some cool survival mechanics with the anomalies (there’s an electrified tunnel which you need to carefully navigate, for example). There’s also a trade economy with fellow STALKERs, where you can barter weapons and ammo for medkits and other stuff. Oh, and you can hunt mutated animals for their organs (a pig’s eyeball, a dog’s tail etc), which can sold on the black market or used to complete missions – this was AWESOME, since it meant you could loot both the bodies of animals and NPCs. Probably my favourite PC and FPS game of all time. A lot of people will say it’s only any good once modded – but this isn’t true. The basic vanilla version, once patched to functionality, is a fantastic ride and definitely worth playing once. It is the mods though which give it infinite replayability, enhancing it to the point where it’s like an all-new game with vehicles, new mutants, new missions, entirely different weapons and so on. It’s also a buggy game, but this isn’t as problematic as you may think, especially since as far as I can tell nothing is game breaking. The idea behind The Zone is that weird stuff happens, so when characters disappear, or something peculiar goes down, it all adds to the atmosphere. Besides, mods can correct or alter nearly any parameter.
STALKER: Clear Sky
Skipped this to move straight on to Call of Pripyat. According to online reviews, you won’t miss much doing this.
STALKER: Call of Pripyat
Containing the best elements from the previous two games, minus the faction wars of the original. Pripyat is the most stable STALKER release, with an overhauled mission system, and while it’s a legitimately good game, it’s nowhere near as good as the original. The overall story is dull and the missions, while more complex, tend to drag on for too long and reward you with garbage. There’s also less irradiated areas, a less diverse array of mutants, no World Encyclopaedia (which was one of the BEST things about Chernobyl), and it’s also a much more horizontal game. There’s a few vertical areas (like the one pictured), but the environments feel more funnelled. In Chernobyl there was a ruined city where you could climb a telegraph pole to snipe at mutants below, and then navigate via rooftop if you preferred, dropping into a freaky house along the way. In Pripyat you spend most of your time running from one area to another completing really convoluted missions. By far the worst thing though is the total removal of animal hunting. You can still kill animals, but you can’t loot their bodies. It’s still a good game, but it feels dumbed down for the sake of stability.
Based on the Russian best-seller by Dmitry Glukhovsky. I’m actually jealous of Dmitry, since he seemed to find massive success very easily with his novel, which he started off serialising online. The game is actually quite good, if a little too restrained. It features a lot of fantastic ideas, like an economy based on trading bullets and the need for gasmasks outside, but it never really does anything interesting with it. It’s just kind of there, like they started implementing it but then got scared that such things would scare off console players. It’s also quite linear, but this makes sense in the context of the story. A very cool feature is its manufactured weapons, some of which have unique loading systems – there’s a revolver shotgun which due to the nature of its barrel you can normally only load 5 shells, though firing one then allows you to load an extra 2 shells for a maximum of 6. It’s a complex mechanical concept to convey in text, but it’s very realistic. Sadly, and much to my horror, most people on forums like GameFAQs were confused why it was happening and were complaining it was a bug. It’s not a bug – it’s awesome!
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
Ruined world controlled by AI and robots. The demo was fun but I utterly despise Andy Sirkus’ voice so didn’t buy it. Furthermore the whole collared thing seemed contrived. I dunno about you, but I’d have grabbed that harlot and plunged both of us off the side of a bridge the minute she started sassing me.
Ryu ga Gotoku: Of the End
Also known as Yakuza with zombies! There was a free demo up at one point, now released in Japan, with a western release confirmed. Demo was good, basically traditional Yakuza albeit with guns in a ruined cityscape.
Another one I haven’t played, mainly because everyone kept saying how the multiplayer was the only reason for it. Not on my sub-ADSL speeds it isn’t! Also, several said the story was lacklustre. Is this true? Videos make it look awesome (the cel shading is great), and the idea of procedurally generated guns sounds like the best thing ever – but is it basically a mindless online FPS? Or is there a strong sense of place and story to it?
It looks pretty but first-play reports on NTSC-uk, where people talk of how there’s no interactivity with the environment, have put me right off this. Apparently you can shoot a chair and nothing happens – no little bits flying off or anything. It’s basically like playing in a pre-rendered plastic environment where your actions have no bearing on anything. Which sounds like an FMV-based lightgun game to me. If I wanted to see non-interactive environments on my PS3 then I could just buy Mad Max 3 on BlueRay. Remember when you could interact with games? I need to be able to shoot something and knock it over or break it.
Metro: Last Light
On PSN there’s a 12 minute E3 video for this, plus other trailers. Check them out right now. This looks incredible, plus it has destructible environments, unlike Rage. Everyone is praising Rage, and it’s getting good reviews and lots of publicity, and the developers are sounding smug in interviews about all they’ve created, and yet in my view Rage is totally trumped by a mere video of Metro Last Light. Notice how you can shoot concrete barriers and destroy them to get at enemies behind? Or shoot cooking pots to spill the contents? Or break boxes and wood and set fire to them? The new Metro appears to offer all the environmental interaction that Rage should have offered. Screw clever texture mapping – I want interactivity! Can’t wait.
Little was known about this sequel other than what’s on THIS PAGE. There were concerns its cross-platform development would result in it being dumbed down – sadly recent news shows it’s even worse than that: it will require constant internet connection as part of DRM. No one should accept constantly online DRM, no matter what game it is.
Beyond Aukfontein – THE BOOK
This isn’t a game, but it is my first fiction novel. All ~95’000 words of it, across 12 chapters. Written over two years, with a further two spent doing rewrites and editing it. It’s nothing to do with games, but maybe readers will be interested. The only slight connection is that I was influenced by Panzer Dragoon Saga’s love of language, and thoughts of how language would evolve over time were on my mind. As a small example I use the word rifleductor, for train conductors who carry rifles. I suppose in this regard some influence was also taken from Terry Pratchett, who has a creative flair for inventive new words.
A detailed blurb is available on Amazon, along with a free preview of the first two chapters. Reviews for Amazon.COM and Amazon UK are separate, but there’s a review on each, by different people. Both are positive and make some excellent points, I’m happy to say. For the moment it's only available for Kindle and other Kindle compatible readers.
While there was obviously inspiration from hundreds of books that I’ve read over my life, at the same time I think Beyond Aukfontein also manages to be genuinely unique in its scenarios and ideas. There’s a lot of subtext to situations, perhaps too subtle in places, and every character has a backstory and ambitions told through vignettes. One of my goals was to make it believable, so it looks at what kinds of authority would form long after a collapse, what kind of barter economies would emerge – which may sound boring to some, but trust me when I say there’s also tension, mild terror, wild action in places, and a sense of incredible wonderment at the world. I seem to recall that David Brin, who wrote The Postman, complained that most PA fiction focuses only on boyhood fantasies of running rampant without rules, and this is true for the more derivative examples. I like to think I’ve struck a good balance between realism and fantasy.
Check it out on:
Did I miss a game? Is there a PA title that absolutely must be played? Post in the comments and recommend-me-do!