'Life, Death and The Apocalypse', by Shaun Prescott

Illustration by Ben Juers.

The apocalypse is one of the most enduring settings in video games. It’s right up there with high fantasy, space opera, and military warfare in its ubiquity. It verges on an obsession, and dovetails with another more established popular culture obsession: zombies. While apocalypse has often been an inconsequential backdrop, a mere graphical theme, at the moment a certain more thematically coherent iteration on the apocalypse genre is very popular. It merely asks the player to survive.

This is interesting, because death has always been the most common failstate in video games. You die and everything is over. It’s easy to understand. In games, death usually prevents the player from achieving something important: from rescuing a damsel, saving the world, defeating a vague evil, and so on. Your death is tragic, but not so tragic that you can’t use another life, or respawn with only ten minutes’ progress lost. Overall, mere survival has never been greatly important in games. Death is a punishment for not playing correctly; it’s circumstantial, and warding it off is not often the sole motivator. But what is the meaning of death when there’s no reason to live?

Recent games like Minecraft, DayZ, The Forest, and Rust have no particular goal, nor any correct way of playing. There is no embattled civilisation to save, no royalty to retrieve from the clutches of evil, and no sentient android race to fend off. These games simply ask that you survive. You don’t survive in wait of something, and nor do you survive in order that you might achieve some more specific goal. Your aim is simply continued existence.

The true survival game, the game with no end or ‘win state’, is a relatively new concept.

Writing about the film Children of Men in his 2009 book Capitalist Realism, author Mark Fisher conflates popular culture’s apocalypse obsession with Francis Fukuyama’s famous ‘The End of History’ essay. The essay diagnoses a postmodern, post-Cold War malaise, where since the collapse of the Soviet Union, western culture and neoliberal ideology has unquestionably triumphed. “The catastrophe in Children of Men is neither waiting down the road, nor has it already happened,” Fisher writes. “Rather, it is being lived through. There is no punctual moment of disaster; the world doesn’t end with a bang, it winks out, unravels, gradually falls apart.”

Film’s obsession with apocalypse, characterised by Children of Men, The Road, and many more, is even more pronounced in games. Titles like Bethesda’s Fallout and Insomniac’s Resistance have bolted the theme onto otherwise conventional genre templates, but the true survival game, the game with no end or ‘win state’, is a relatively new concept.

DayZ was originally a fan modification of the hardcore military simulator Arma 2. Its popularity grew so quickly that Bohemia Interactive, the creators of Arma 2, are now developing a proper standalone edition of DayZ, helmed by the mod’s creator Dean Hall. In DayZ, the player is spawned in a random location on a large open world map designed to draw parallels with Soviet Russia. It’s a vast and lonely rural setting, dotted with small abandoned townships and the ruins of Brutalist architecture. There’s been a zombie apocalypse, naturally, but zombies are the least of the player’s concern. The primary concerns are a) eating, drinking water and staying healthy and b) dealing with the other human players in the world.

At first it is disorientating to lack a specific goal. There are plenty of short-term goals—scavenging for food and water, running away from zombies—but these don’t culminate in any way that might be regarded as a success. Encounters with other human players on the servers are fraught with tension. The odds that another player will kill you are very high, though occasionally you’ll find a benevolent wanderer willing to part with a tin of food, so long as you let them borrow your tin opener if you own one. Tin openers are prized possessions in DayZ; you’d kill for one. In DayZ, few people ask before they borrow.

Informal allegiances form in DayZ: large packs of players can often be found roaming the countryside looking to either recruit or terminate other players on a whim. If a player in DayZ has the right equipment and the requisite level of malice, they can apprehend a player, tie their legs together, and leave them to rot. It’s possible to shoot another player in the leg and leave them stranded, unable to move faster than a crawl – after which they will either starve to death or be consumed by a zombie. It’s possible to be saved by another human player, but this is rare. It is rare to find a friend in DayZ. Ill will prevails. Search ‘DayZ’ on YouTube, and you’ll find a lifetime’s worth of janky apocalypse films in miniature. Digital snuff films glazed with despair.

DayZ becomes an obsession because despite the lack of a goal or other markers of progress, it makes death powerful and important.

DayZ is a depressing game. It is not very fun to play, but it becomes an obsession. It becomes an obsession because despite the lack of a goal or other markers of progress, it makes death powerful and important. If you die in DayZ, you lose everything. Your character is permanently dead, and all items looted are gone forever. You can respawn, but you’re back to square one: useless, lacking resources, close to starvation, weak. If you happen to find a useful axe with which you can chop down trees and defend yourself, you’ll lose it forever if a zombie happens to catch you off guard, or if another player wants to shoot you or tie you up for no reason.

In DayZ, it’s possible to climb to the top of a gutted tower block somewhere in lonely rural Soviet Russia, and to stare into the distance and just relish being alive. But who is that figure running erratically over there to the east, and will they kill? Usually, they will. So you hide in one of two dozen interior rooms until it’s dark enough to sneak back into the woods. It is possible to spend hours in DayZ just hiding, staring at a wall, maybe eating some raw, diseased meat you found earlier in the day, or supping from a bottle of murky water.

Recovering from death is usually within arm’s reach in games. In modern first-person shooters, it’s a matter of waiting behind cover while your health regenerates. This health regeneration mechanic usurped the genre’s early handling of death, which required players to collect health packs scattered throughout maps in order to increase their health bar. But recovering from sickness in DayZ is never that easy: if you injure your leg, it’s necessary to bandage it. If you have no bandages, you can tear a piece off your clothing, but only if your clothing is dry. If your clothing is wet, you’ll get sick. The variables are complicated, the rules hard to learn, and the chances of recovering remote. A gammy leg can be a death sentence, because this is the apocalypse after all. If you die, you’re going to lose your tin opener forever.

Minecraft is a bit less taxing. The player is spawned on a procedurally-generated map with no purpose except to somehow protect themselves from night-time monsters. Players do this by quickly mining the resources needed to build a small enclosed area, which will eventually evolve into a home, maybe later a mansion, maybe later a replica of the Starship Enterprise. Minecraft is a whimsical survival game – it foregrounds creativity and world building – but the rules are the same: survive. There is nothing else to do. Build and survive.

Why are survival games so popular at the moment? It’s easy to associate their rise with Fisher’s thesis. It’s simple to draw the parallel that our culture is so battle worn from the realities of modern capitalism (his book is called Capitalist Realism, titled after the concept attributed to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek), that we may, somehow, subliminally welcome the razing of our society in order that we might build something radically different in its place. This corresponds with the burgeoning political philosophy of ‘Accelerationism’, borne of an unconventional reading of Marx, which proposes that the only way to combat capitalism is to let it grow so large that it self-destructs. A convenient philosophy under the Abbott government.

Minecraft is an astonishing success not because it foregrounds survival, but because it foregrounds creativity. It’s possible to build an ad hoc shack at the edge of a resourceful forest, but why not instead build the house from The Simpsons? Why not build a floating fortress in the sky? Why not build a functioning recreation of Mario 1-1, and hide in the green pipes? Better still, why not build something you could never have even dreamt of before. Of course you can do that, and many players have, but you must be smart enough to survive.

What most survival games share is a certain slow-paced, meditative boredom. None are especially, conventionally, fun. They do not present a series of challenges so much as they do a state of being which is sometimes challenged. These challenges are usually inconvenient, and not at all relished: they are to be avoided. In Minecraft survival, most of the player’s time is spent chipping away at trees and rocks for building materials. Hours can be spent doing this: standing at the foot of trees and pressing a single button. In DayZ, most of the player’s time is spent rifling through abandoned buildings for scarce survival aids. It’s astonishingly rare, in DayZ, for players to be rewarded for their efforts.

What most survival games share is a certain slow-paced, meditative boredom. None are especially, conventionally, fun.

These games appear to mirror the realities of our condition – busy work with rare instances of elation – while capturing a fear of death closer to the sensation of our real fear of death than anything which has come before. It’s possible that this tension is appealing because it shares so much in common with our lived realities.

It could also be a response to the nature of the games industry itself. Video games are so corporatised that business lingo is commonly adapted among audiences. In the modern Triple A development sphere, much anticipated news regarding forthcoming blockbuster games is usually gleaned from investor calls. Players refer to games as ‘content’, and we wonder about how much ‘content’ the game will provide us, mirroring the way publishers market their games. We are bombarded with talk of “visceral experiences” and “unprecedented innovation”. We no longer have cheats, but instead “micro-transactions” (ie, small purchases made within a game in order to aid progress). Indeed, responding to a particularly aggressive monetisation scheme in its recent free-to-play title Dungeon Keeper, a corporate spokesperson for publisher Electronic Arts suggested that the criticism was borne of the game having “innovated too much,” ‘innovation’ being a much overused buzzword in video game marketing.

Survival games are uniformly developed by independent studios. In a true rags-to-riches ascent, Minecraft has made its creators unfathomable millions. DayZ is a minor cultural phenomenon. Both were birthed independently of the imperatives that drive the blockbuster games publishers, and both have, to different extents, dwarfed the successes of games with larger budgets, at least in terms of how they will endure in our collective memory as ‘important’ games.

And while the reality of why they are popular may be too incalculable, survival games all share an innate sense of starting over. All are about starting with nothing and trying – and usually failing dismally – to start afresh. All place their onus on the individual, their survival instincts, their ability to stay alive, to quench thirsts, to build shelters, to eat well, and to build something out of nothing. This theme may mirror what some believe to be an inevitable second video game industry crash, but maybe it mirrors something broader and more subliminal: a disaffection with our own world, and a sense that no matter what we do to change it, it’d probably be best to knock it all down and to start all over again. These are the opportunities we find in the unpopulated wasteland of DayZ, or the blank canvas worlds of Minecraft.

This is achieved through making life—and death—more important, and by eschewing the hard and fast rules we’ve come to accept as gospel.

This piece originally appeared in The Lifted Brow #24: The Medicine Issue. Get your copy now.

Shaun Prescott is a writer, and is the editor of Crawlspace Magazine and Australian editor of games websites CVG and PC Gamer.