Why video games are obsessed with the apocalypse

Video games are, in a way, the perfect medium through which to depict the post-apocalypse. If we assume that after the collapse of civilisation everyone will revert to a brutal state of nature, then violence is the natural engine of the drama. And video games are very good at violence.


Indeed, in many video games the actual end of the world is simply an excuse to create a world filled with nothing but repetitive violence against monsters, without any annoying interruption by law enforcement or other social constraints.


So it goes in some of the early video game arcade hits, such as Robotron 2084 (1982), in which a lone hero must shoot his way out of a series of rooms populated by the robots that have taken over, in order to save the last human family on Earth. More eerily beautiful, meanwhile, is the post-apocalypse of British designer Sandy White’s classic 3D Ant Attack (1983), which is set in the walled desert city of Antescher C the reference to the Dutch artist Escher is deliberate.

1982年出品的《机器人大战2084 》(Robotron 2084 (1982))等早期知名电子游戏里就已有类似场景。在《机器人大战2084 》里,一名孤独的英雄必须要在很多房间里消灭盘踞于此的机器人,从而拯救地球上的最后一个人类家庭。英国设计师桑迪・怀特(Sandy White)制作的经典3D游戏《蚂蚁攻击》(1983)(Ant Attack)视觉效果更为恐怖逼真,游戏的场景设定在城墙环绕的沙漠城市安特埃舍尔(Antescher),这个词汇明显是为了纪念荷兰艺术家埃舍尔(Escher)而作。

This place, long empty of humans after some distant tragedy, is now filled with giant ants. In it, a boy and girl enact a wordless love story while evading and throwing bombs at the pitiless insects. It is a masterpiece of monochrome minimalism: a couple of stick figures in an isometric wasteland of grey blocks haunted by the horrible snicketing noise of giant ants. No game since has better evoked the bittersweet melancholy of romance in the face of certain doom.


Most often, though, the video game post apocalypse is populated by one very specific type of monster: zombies. Apocalyptic fiction through history has often been a dramatisation of the social concerns of the time in which it is composed. The Book of Revelation, for example, assures early Christians that accommodation with the Roman Empire is unnecessary and that Jesus will return.

然而,大多数电子游戏只会呈现一种末日怪兽:僵尸。历史上的末日小说往往反映了写作时人们的普遍担忧。例如,《启示录》(The Book of Revelation)就向早期基督徒打包票,他们不应该隐身于罗马帝国,因为耶稣基督迟早会复活。

And ever since the first of the late George Romero’s classic movies, the zombie is the monster that most uncomfortably reflects modern anxieties about issues from unthinking consumerism to pandemic disease. So it is, too, in video games, where zombies have the added virtue of being enemies that we feel no qualms about killing, whereas depicting human beings of a different race or nationality as deserving cannon fodder is often a politically dubious decision.

自从已故导演乔治・罗梅罗(George Romero)摄制其第一部经典系列影片,僵尸就代表着现代人对从非理性消费主义到流行病等等一系列社会问题的普遍焦虑。在电子游戏里,僵尸同样扮演了敌人的角色,玩家们对其大开杀戒不会有任何良心不安,而让属于不同种族或国籍的人类成为枪下之鬼则往往会带来某些政治上的麻烦。

Zombie video games often pit the might of the military against the zombie hordes, thus portraying a conflict between physical force and an insidious enemy within, as well as political and sociological concerns. In games such as the Resident Evil (aka Biohazard) series (1996Cpresent), gun-toting special agents battle against zombies produced by a virus engineered by a secretive corporation. This is prevent-the-apocalypse-happening, rather than post-apocalpyse fiction, but the rules are the same: in the areas of infection, all and any shambling human figures are fair game.

僵尸游戏里,经常设定武装力量和僵尸队伍的对抗,从而描绘实体力量和内在邪恶力量之间的冲突,反映政治和社会上的担忧。在《生化危机》(Resident Evil)系列游戏(1996-现在)中,全副武装的特种部队士兵和僵尸大打出手,这些僵尸是一家神秘公司培育的病毒所造就的。这是一部描述力图避免末日灾变的发生而非在末日后生存的游戏,然而二者的规则却是相同的:在感染区域内,举枪朝所有表情呆滞,步履蹒跚的人形物体开火。

More pessimistically relentless is the Ukrainian game series so far comprising Metro 2033 (2010) and Metro Last Light (2013), which are based on Dmitry Glukhovsky’s series of novels beginning with Metro 2033 (2005). After a global nuclear exchange, the surviving population of Moscow has moved into the underground metro network and grouped into factions that are at war, along with horrifying mutants caused by the radioactive fallout. This is fast-paced first-person shooter as depressing Hobbesian fable about how humanity learns nothing from near-extinction.

乌克兰制作的《地铁2033》(2010)(Metro 2033)和《地铁:最后的曙光》(2013)(Metro Last Light)的调子则更加悲观灰暗。这两部游戏都是根据德米特里・格鲁和夫斯基(Dmitry Glukhovsky)的系列小说改编的,第一部小说为2005年出版的《地铁2033》。故事梗概是:在全球核大战后,莫斯科剩余人口搬进了地铁,组成了很多相互交战的小团体,在一起的还有核辐射造就的变异人类。这是一部节奏极快的第一人称射击游戏,游戏色调阴暗压抑,仿佛英国哲学家霍布斯说过的寓言:人类哪怕面临灭绝也不会学到如何和平生存。

Also foreseeing nuclear apocalypse in particular is S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (2007), loosely based on Tarkovsky’s 1979 film. In the game, a second nuclear accident has  occurred at the Chernobyl site, creating a strange zone of mutants and unpredictable physics. Given present-day tensions over North Korea, it seems possible that more fictional apocalypses in games and other media will once again pivot to the nuclear rather than the biological.

根据塔可夫斯基(Tarkovsky)1979年影片改编的《潜行者:切尔诺贝利的阴影》(2007年)(S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl)是另一部预测核灾难的游戏。游戏中,切尔诺贝利核电站再次发生核事故,这里遍布突变异种,物理规律也不可预测。随着当下北朝鲜核危机的不断发酵,可以预见将会有越来越多的核危机题材,而非生化战争题材的电子游戏和其他媒体产品问世。

Other zombie games take a more melancholic and pseudo-literary approach, perhaps inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic (but zombie-free) novel, The Road. In the game The Last of Us, the zombie apocalypse has been wrought by a mutated strain of the cordyceps fungus C a nice satirical touch, since cordyceps is these days marketed as a super-food with natural powers of cognitive enhancement. The player controls a smuggler named Joel who must smuggle a teenaged girl, Ellie, across the United States to a pocket of human survivors, somewhat as McCarthy’s hero in the novel leads his young son to what he hopes is a place of safety.

其他僵尸游戏的基调则更加抑郁,且违反一般性文学情节,这或许是受到科马克・麦卡锡(Cormac McCarthy)末日小说《末日危途》(The Road)(但其中没有僵尸)的影响。在游戏《最后的人类》(The Last of Us)中,突变寄生菌控制了整个末日僵尸世界。讽刺的是,寄生菌的一种――冬虫夏草据说具有健脑的疗效,因此成为一种价格昂贵的药物,这种设定无疑给游戏增加了一丝荒诞色彩。玩家游戏中的替身是乔尔(Joel),他必须带着女孩爱丽(Ellie)长途跋涉穿过整个美国,把她护送到幸存人类生活的乐园,在麦卡锡的小说中也有类似情节:英雄把自己的弟弟护送到安全地点。

The Last of Us, however, also exemplifies a long-running problem about video games that aspire to cinematic maturity of material while also encouraging the player, from the very beginning, to murder pretty much everyone he or she sees C even if they are not yet infected. Imagine the film of The Road but with Viggo Mortensen replaced by a Rambo-era Sylvester Stallone who kills three people a minute, and the tragic grandeur of the story is somewhat diminished.

《最后的人类》还反映了一个电子游戏领域长期存在的问题:在追求剧场般视觉效果的同时,游戏在一开始就鼓励玩家杀掉他/她见到的所有人――即便该人并没有受到僵尸病毒的感染。想象一下如果电影《末日危途》中,S果・莫天森(Viggo Mortensen)被替换成电影《兰博》(Rambo)系列主演西尔维斯特・史泰龙(Sylvester Stallone)那样,平均每分钟都会结果掉三个敌人的性命,那么该片剧情的悲剧效果就会打折扣。

But this is only a particularly jarring example of the peculiar truth about so much post-apocalyptic fiction, literary and otherwise, which is that the zombie dystopia is often really a utopia from a certain political viewpoint: that of merciless libertarianism, where strength is virtue and survivalist gun-hoarders had the right idea all along.


More interesting from a sociological perspective is the fact that multiplayer zombie games have also been taken to be psychological laboratories through which we can learn something about human nature right now. This, at least, was one reaction to the very popular hardcore zombie-survival game DayZ (2012).


Its unforgiving realism extends to the possibility of broken bones and the obligation to scavenge for food, water, medicine and all other tools for survival. In this post-apocalypse, players must defend themselves from zombies C but also, more importantly, from other online players. It turns out that uninfected humans are the most lethal threat, prone to killing one another in order to steal their weapons and supplies. The first rule is: trust no one.


In this sociological experiment, it seemed that a merciless game-theory strategy of shoot first, ask questions later was by far the best bet, even as the behaviour of some players offered glimmers of humanistic hope: one, going by the name Dr Wasteland, devoted his playing time to seeking out injured people and offering them virtual medical assistance before they bled to death.

在社会学实验中,尽管"先开枪,再提问"的无情博弈理论策略最为奏效,但某些玩家仍然迸发出了人性的光辉:其中一名叫做"废墟医生"(Dr Wasteland)的玩家,贡献了自己的游戏时间,前去帮助其他伤者并在他们失血过多死亡之前提供虚拟医疗救护。

Whether they involve zombies, disease, nuclear fallout or robots, what all post-apocalyptic video games have in common is that they assume that everything is over, permanently. The one thing they do not model or dramatise is social resilience.


Audiences over the years have been conditioned to assume that as soon as anything that looks like it might be the end of the world kicks off, that is the end of life as we know it, forever. No zombie games end with the defeat or cure of the enemies and a return to civilised suburban life. Yet that, in reality, is what happens, even after the worst depredations wrought by history’s worst people.


Video games represent many things well (zombies collapsing in showers of gore), and other things hardly at all (the strength of social systems). They assume that anarchic chaos is never-ending, the better to provide a kinetic playground for the gun-toting player.


But Lewis Dartnell’s brilliant book The Knowledge, designed as a manual for reconstructing industrial and scientific society after an apocalypse, offers a different, more optimistic model. Where is the videogame in which a small band of surviving humans patiently rebuild the glories of civilisation?

作为如何在末日之战后重建工业和科学社会的指南读本,刘易斯・达特尼尔(Lewis Dartnell)的巨著《知识》(The Knowledge)提出了新的、更为乐观的模型。那么,描绘一小群劫后余生的人类镇定自若地重建人类文明荣耀的电子游戏在哪呢?


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