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Virtual Dystopia: Video Games and Apocalyptic Fears

One of the most interesting parts of Conrad Ostwalt’s book, Secular Steeples, is his comparison of secular and sacred apocalyptic films. One of the characteristics of secular apocalyptic films is that humans must and do overcome the apocalyptic threat before them through world unity, technological advancements, military might, etc. Contrary to this, sacred apocalyptic films wait for God to act decisively while humans must endure the violence around them. Lately, I have observed a string of video games that mirror Ostwalt’s secular apocalyptic criteria. Games like Fallout 3 and Resistance 2 might just seem like re-hashed first person shooters, and while Mirror’s Edge abandons weapons for acrobatics, their worlds beg further analysis.

Amid all the election talk last Monday, NPR aired an interview with film critic/historian David Thomson. During the interview, he suggested that some of America’s best films were made during times of great national crisis, like The Great Depression for example. He claimed that during those times, people were starved for truth regarding and firm answers to the problems they faced. Filmmakers, in search of the same, responded with more honest films. Thomson expressed some measured excitement over and hope for the possibility of great filmmaking to emerge during the tough times that our nation currently faces.

I wonder if the same cannot be said of the video game industry. Will creators, faced with the same crises, respond as effectively and as imaginatively? In recent years, creators have focused more intensely on story, seeking out narratives that catch up to graphics in terms of beauty and intrigue. Are games like Fallout 3, Resistance 2, and Mirror’s Edge, all games with some virtual dystopic element, responses to the threat of real world dystopia.

Apocalyptic themes in video games are not unique to the twenty-first century. They can be found throughout the history of video games from the controversial Doom series to the various Terminator film video game remakes. So, in a way, the video games about which I write here are nothing revolutionary. Wikipedia offers a category of post-apocalyptic video games that includes well over 50 titles (and is in need of updating). In fact, the numbers attached to the end of the first two games discussed here should tell us something. Fallout 3 is the third installment in a series of popular apocalyptic video games on the PC. Resistance 2 is a follow up to the surprise success of Resistance: Fall of Man, a first-person shooter exclusively for the PS3.

Fallout 3 takes place in a post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C., and, as the main character, you are one of the survivors. Born in a large, sophisticated bomb shelter, you have never seen the outside world until now. As a young adult, you manage to escape and find the outside world ravaged by what was surely an atomic bomb. Survivors have huddled together in shanty towns (villages). The monuments of D.C. off in the horizon are ashen husks of their former glory. You are in search of your father and can find him by interacting with other survivors, helping them with various tasks in return for information. All the while, you have to battle fearsome mutants and gigantic cockroaches (they really do survive nuclear holocaust). Oh, and along the way, you will decide the fate of more than one city through your actions. In the vein of the Grand Theft Auto series, the world is very much open for exploration. You are free to explore as you please, although acquiring certain items, weapons, and skills will make further exploration much more manageable. (I paid dearly for crossing the river to check out the monuments straight out of the bomb shelter). The ways in which you interact with others affects your character’s attributes and just how trusting of you future acquaintances will be. Virtual karma.

In Resistance 2, the alien Chimera virus that plagued Europe in Resistance: Fall of Man has now spread to the United States. As the main character, Nathan Hale, you find yourself in the midst of the apocalyptic battle with the mutant invaders across the country. Far from waiting on some divine assistance, you arm yourself to the teeth with massively over-sized weapons, a la Gears of War, and meet the enemy head on. Apparently the game’s only shortcoming, according to critics, is its weak story line. The creators have downplayed narrative and clearly emphasized non-stop action with everything larger than life. This too is an apparent short-coming of it’s XBOX 360 counterpart, Gears of War. One of Resistance 2’s many strengths, however, is its massive online functionality which boasts competitive and cooperative modes that will keep players engaged well beyond the completion of the campaign mode.

Mirror’s Edge is simply unlike any other game out there. It takes place in a world that is much more beautiful and attractive, and much less explicitly violent, than Fallout 3 or Resistance 2. Set in the not-too-distant future, the game’s glossy, pristine city is a veneer for a much more disturbing reality. The government watches everyone and everything. Behave, and you are fine…step out of line, and you are finished. As the main character, Faith, you operate as a runner transmitting packages and information for your clients. With the police mildly interested in your work, at least enough to shoot at you or pursue you, you get the sense that you are not only serving criminals, but revolutionaries that would seek to overthrow a pseudo-fascist government. The game encourages non-lethal combat to disarm the police as the focus is on the completion of missions as fast as possible. (There will be online competitions and rankings to see who is the fastest at completing each level). Mirror’s Edge draws on the growing popularity of parkour and free running which see cities as giant playgrounds with limitless potential for injury (death?)-defying stunts and movement.

There is no one explanation for the release of these films and their use of (post) apocalyptic, dystopic worlds. Certainly money is an issue, especially where sequels are involved. In the case of Mirror’s Edge, we have a fresh idea and gameplay on our hands. But what of the audience reaction to these films? Their financial viability signals an enthusiastic, eager audience. Perhaps these games simply allow us the ability to literally play out these critical scenarios. Like watching horror films, we can live out, or play out, our fears, or at least these scenarios. Terror does play a crucial role in Fallout 3 and Resistance 2, while the adrenaline from being pursued or shot at in Mirror’s Edge boosts your character’s performance.

These games are violent to varying degrees, with Resistance 2’s blood-and-guts-shoot-em-up the most over-the-top of the three. You can minimize violent contact in Fallout 3, but if you do engage enemies, you can target heads and limbs for gruesomely explosive shots. In fact, the new combat system and visuals in the game heighten your actions and their consequences. So these games, despite their varying compelling story lines and settings, will still find themselves in the on-going discussion of video game violence and gamers’ obsession with violent product.

Yet these settings and their story lines are no doubt responsible for the overwhelmingly positive reviews that they have garnered thus far. Perhaps these stories and settings provide a welcome break from the World War II re-hashes that have made the Call of Duty war video game series so popular. In fact, this series has quickly and virtually responded to changes in real life warfare and how we fight terrorism. One of the most recent installments, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, has you playing as a team up of British and American special forces in a hunt from Baghdad to Russia for a terrorist mastermind. Perhaps the games discussed here are an extension of that transition and an expression not of how we fight, but of our fears of war and the results of it.

Ryan Parker is a Ph.D. student at the Graduate Theological Union and blogs at Pop Theology.

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