Threat of a Cataclysm
We know from history that civilisations are finite. Societies collapse, empires fall and are smashed by natural disasters. The Incas were slaughtered by Spanish Conquistadors, Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried under volcanic ash when Vesuvius erupted and the Roman Empire was crippled by The Antonine Plague in AD 165-180. This phenomenon is not confined to history though, as present day civilisations are not exempt from similar fates. In Fallout, Rage and The Last of Us, humanity is beset by three cataclysms which may appear fantastical but still have a basis in reality and are linked to deep-rooted fears within us all.
Interplay’s post-nuclear RPG masterpiece, Fallout, depicts an Earth ravaged by nuclear warfare. In Fallout’s timeline, the path to nuclear holocaust begins with the US vying to protect its business interests and oil supplies, which sparks The Resource Wars that bankrupt many smaller nations and leads to war between Europe and the Middle East. Terrorism, the outbreak of disease and reliance on a computerised military precedes hostilities between China and the US. This results in the use of mass biological warfare and advanced technologies, such as power armour, on the battlefield. Then after over two decades of bitter decline, China and the US unleash their nukes and humanity is decimated.
Fallout capitalises on many fears, in particular that humanity will destroy itself and be left with the smouldering husk of a once magnificent planet. The fear of nuclear war has existed ever since the power of atomic weapons was revealed in World War Two. There are currently nine known countries with a nuclear arsenal and approximately 20,000 warheads in their combined stockpile. As seen in the Middle East and North Korea, nuclear assault threats can be used for political posturing and as a way to draw global media attention. Although the very existence of nuclear weapons means the danger of nuclear war is ever present, the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is a strong deterrent. Despite this, tests are still carried out and nuclear weapons are known to have been detonated over 2000 times for this purpose.
In Rage’s narrative, Earth has been rendered post-apocalyptic by the impact of the asteroid 99942 Apophis. Apophis first strikes the moon and fragments into three chunks, lessening the scale of impact, before crashing into Earth causing worldwide destruction and a harrowing impact winter. Apophis is a genuine asteroid, with an assumed diameter of 330m, that’s caused some concern since its discovery in 2004. Whilst Apophis won’t strike Earth when it passes relatively close by in 2029, and an impact in 2036 has also been ruled out by NASA, a collision in 2068 is not beyond the realms of possibility.
Through the Sentry automated collision monitoring system, NASA keeps a Sentry Risk Table (featuring year range, potential impacts and impact probability) concerning the most significant Near-Earth Object threats for the next century. The list currently features 16 recently observed objects along with over 400 NEOs on the list, but most will likely be omitted with future observations. Smaller objects such as meteoroids usually break up in the atmosphere but many are observed striking the planet every year. Although they usually land in unpopulated areas, in 2013 the Russian city of Chelyabinsk was not so fortunate.
An extinction event caused by a force humanity has no power over hooks into the fear of having no control over our destiny – despite making our own choices we may still be at the mercy of the universe. Further to this, it highlights the existentialist uncertainty of imagining we’re merely the result of chance and are meaningless fragments drifting in an alien universe, without purpose or protection.
The Last of Us depicts modern civilisation eviscerated by a fungal epidemic. The mutated fungal infection is directly based on Ophiocordyceps unilateralis – a ghastly parasitoidal fungus that infects ants and other insects. The virus causes the host to climb to an area where it’s likely to infect others, clamp down on a leaf and then die. The fungus then consumes the insect from within before erupting from its head and releasing spores via fruiting bodies. Naughty Dog imagined the virus making the leap to humanity and the game’s concept was conceived.
The outbreak capitalizes on the fear of global pandemics, the sudden collapse of civilisation and humanity being reduced to monsters. Genuine pandemics have wrought horrendous losses on the human population throughout history, with influenza and bubonic plague responsible for over a hundred million deaths. With the ease of global travel and instances of overcrowding, the possibility of the ‘superspreading’ of viruses and bacteria has been increased.
Fear of disease is a constant threat in present day civilisation and any new viral strain, such as SARS and the novel coronavirus instantly shoots to the top of the headlines, as panic accompanies fresh viral outbreaks like a symbiotic parasite. However, as was the case with SARS, the ease of global communication and the rapid exchange of information means research and prevention can be quickly implemented by organisations such as the World Health Organization’s Global Outbreak and Alert Response Network (GOARN).
The unknown future, our mortality and the end of the world are inherently fascinating, if bleak concepts, and the post-apocalypse provides a compelling backdrop to many videogames. The end-time scenarios in Fallout, Rage and The Last of Us are crucial to the games and their unique worlds. The games’ extinction events are dealt with in a variety of ways, from Vaults to shield (and experiment with) humanity from nuclear war, Arks to protect survivors from asteroid impact and quarantine zones to halt the spread of CBI. We have our own measures in place to deal with anticipated crisis but the threat of a cataclysm will always exist.