Countless catastrophes have followed the Wasteland’s nuclear winter since Interplay brought the post-apocalypse to gaming. In 35 years, we’ve seen Fallout’s Cold War vision of irradiated landscapes and collapsed cities, The Last of Us’ fungal zombie pandemic, and Horizon Zero Dawn’s turning climate disaster into robot apocalypse. Recently, Saltsea Chronicles and Jusant felt anthropogenic climate change — not nuclear bombs or zombie hordes — would end the world as we know it.
That scenario feels hard to dispute when climate change dominates the headlines, our communities, industries, and darkest nightmares. COP28 announced the beginning of the end of fossil fuels, but 2023 ends with record-high temperature rises and fossil fuel emissions.
Gaming’s bleakest setting combined with humanity’s greatest threat should just be yet another cause for climate anxiety — a feeling of despondent, helpless despair. Surprisingly, the new post-apocalypse doesn’t want to set the world on fire, it wants to find a way forward. And the way game developers reimagine our societies, economies, and values in the post-apocalypse can demonstrate the creativity, flexibility, and resilience we’ll need to get to a better, sustainable future.
How We Talk About the Future
The UN’s Playing4ThePlanet Alliance (P4P) guides gaming’s decarbonization efforts and explores how a billion players worldwide can contribute to climate action.
Hope, even in the nihilistic post-apocalypse, is a crucial element to understanding an uncertain, contested future, P4P co-founder Sam Barratt tells Inverse.
“How we talk about the future shapes it,” Barratt says. “If the dominant narrative is more pessimistic than optimistic, it sets default settings in many people's minds around what lies ahead. I think having a balance of narratives where people can see that resource scarcity, civilizational clashes aren't predetermined. And they are often stories as opposed to prophecies.”
“Music can't do this. Film can't do this. Games lean in.”
In a 2022 survey, P4P discovered that 80 percent of players want more green themes in games; Barratt sees a promising future of games answering that demand (including their Green Game Jam participants) by drawing communities to engage with sustainability solutions like Minecraft Education’s Climate Futures and Sony and P4P’s VR Carbon Footprint experience.
“A new generation of games are going to come through that are thinking about what could come next, made by people that think about the world from an environmental paradigm that is truer to the reality that we have now,” Barratt says, “With the environment being the greatest challenge of our time, how games can lean in against that opportunity as a medium is a rare and precious talent. Music can't do this. Film can't do this. Games lean in.”
Die Gute Fabrik’s Saltsea Chronicles is about those who remain after an apocalyptic flood, caused by a bygone civilization's greed. For studio lead Hannah Nicklin that’s not cause for despair for the charming ship crew of De Kelpie. She tells Inverse, “The one act of pessimism the game performs is the previous society failed to stop a crisis of climate which caused great harm.” It’s a harm they wished to minimize by reporting on their own game’s climate impact.
Generations later, Saltsea’s islanders live on archipelago villages, including aquatic shanty towns of docked boats and settlements embedded on an upside-down cruise ship.
“Most major religions have a flood myth in their heart,” Nicklin says. “What it represents is a fresh start, a way to think of things differently.”
Saltsea’s pastel-shaded post-apocalypse has the chance to build a better world on the ruins of what came before, living out the team’s diverse composition, perspectives, and politics.
Saltsea Chronicles’ development began in 2020. Alongside Covid-19’s hardship and floundering institutions, the emergence of community initiatives, such as mutual aid networks, also made leading better, meaningful lives a tangible possibility.
Nicklin recalls: “There were people in the first year of Covid saying, ‘This could destroy capitalism!’”
Guided by Nicklin, Die Gute Fabrik’s writer’s room intended to “actively model different ways of running a society.” Dystopian pessimism — like 1984 and A Handmaid’s Tale — wasn’t suitable, co-opted by politicians for oppression. Utopias, including Becky Chamber’s solarpunk fiction, risked simplifying solutions. They decided on a pragmatic approach determined to question the worldview laid down by imperialist thinkers from Thomas Hobbes to Charles Darwin onwards that, distorted, became neoliberal capitalism’s dog-eat-dog ethos.
Nicklin thinks our modern economy was never inevitable. Her wide-ranging research, including the anthropological and archeological evidence presented in The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, led her to believe many pre-industrial civilizations lived in self-determining worker-centric communities.
That’s why Saltsea Chronicles was intent on making players inhabit a collective. Your perspective fluidly shifts from one crew member to another as they debate their next imperfect move in a world without institutes to dictate or constrain their decisions, navigating competing desires in their myriad complexities and trade-offs. Nicklin is proud of her team’s efforts to abort the capitalist experiment and picture something new.
Where Fallout’s post-apocalypse has players scavenging for bottle caps as a degraded currency, capitalism resuming where it left off, in Saltsea’s post-capitalist life, money is unthinkable, a reminder of The Hoarders’ doomed foolishness. Offered a coin, the choice is yours: pocket it with a shudder or cast it into the sea.
Hope in an Arid Wasteland
Where Saltsea’s problems come from too much water, Jusant deals with the other extreme: drought. In developer Don’t Nod’s latest game, players ascend a mysterious tower surrounded by expanses of parched desert. Along the way, you’ll uncover remnants of a society dependent on waterwheels and reach for precipices once submerged, as evidenced by the barnacles clinging to each rocky ledge.
Jusant’s creative co-director Kevin Poupard explains their meditative climbing game’s ecological themes. “We wanted to tell a story which brings people and nature together and tell something about the importance of nature.”
Drought was an appealing reason for the exodus that emptied Jusant’s abandoned environments of its populace.
“It speaks to everybody,” Poupard says. “No water, no life.”
Abandoned civilizations are usually forlorn. Compare Jusant’s terracotta architecture to the chaos and societal breakdown of Mad Max. Poupard feels his game is too optimistic to call post-apocalyptic. Players can’t even die!
“We wanted to deliver a message of hope,” he says, “Something that says that it's not lost and we can still do something - even if we don't have much time left.”
Jusant’s developers maintained their optimism in 2020, making their game in the midst of a pandemic.
Poupard lives by the hopeful principles he wishes to inspire in others; attending climate protests and protecting nature in his town from development. “I'm trying to be more local because sometimes global causes are overwhelming and you feel like you don't matter,” he says. “Since I moved from Paris to a smaller town, it's easier to see the effects on the struggle that you can act on.”
“No water, no life.”
Like Nicklin, he feels past science fiction, exploring outer space and alien planets, is inadequate for today’s challenges.
“I believe science fiction is based on what human hopes were like 50 years ago,” Poupard says. “But now maybe we need to work on something new and also something positive because it will help people to see something new and also to have new dreams. I think we need to dream right now.”
Jusant’s mystical, poetic approach lends itself to dreams, evoking Studio Ghibli’s folklore environmentalism. The ecological message never quite takes center stage but is embedded in Jusant’s hopeful tone, its central striving metaphor of climbing to great heights to restore a landscape, supplemented by artful worldbuilding. Japanese game designer Fumito Ueda’s fantastical epics Ico and Shadow of the Colossus clearly inspired Jusant’s hushed atmosphere and winding levels, but Don’t Nod decided against emulating one hallmark feature: a melancholic ending.
Poupard describes a scene cut from the final release but symbolizing their attitude.
The player drops something from the tower’s summit. It plummets, doomed to shatter… until an unknown figure reaches out and catches it.
“It's a relay,” he says. “‘I've been doing this, now it's your turn.’”
From “Gentle Radical” to “Radical Radical”
How useful is the post-apocalypse for navigating a real problem when the setting already accepted defeat? It’s a problem we must face before melting glaciers have us living on the hilltops remaining above sea level. Books, films, and television series How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Don’t Look Up, and Woman at War tackle climate action here and now. Games lag behind. There are no shooters about Extinction Rebellion gunning down the Mona Lisa with paint guns.
Saltsea Chronicles developer Hannah Nicklin defends the futurist approach, citing Star Trek’s success in tackling contemporary problems and the long-term effects of colonialism.
“There has been a need for ‘gentle radical,’” she says, “just as a beginning to say there's more than the dystopia the world has been slightly obsessed by - coming out of the dystopias of the Cold War, the dystopias of capitalism that zombie movies predicated, this sort of great man, survivor kind of hero.”
“It's our responsibility to push forward more radical messages and more radical games.”
She hopes Die Gute Fabrik’s next game moves from Saltsea’s “gentle radical” to “radical radical.” That depends on acquiring funding, a challenge in this investment landscape. There’s ethical challenges to authentically depict a place’s social and political reality. As much as she’d like to design a game around one example from climate fiction novel The Ministry For The Future, where a wet bulb temperature crisis prompts Catalonian communes to become self-governing states, it’s not her story to tell. These concerns can push games from reality to fantasy, especially if local gamemakers deeply connected to these locations aren’t supported.
For Jusant’s Kevin Poupard, games fail to address political and ecological concerns as effectively as films and television. As a cultural industry, it must do better.
“It's an audience that we need to hit with this kind of message and it's fine if they don't like it,” Poupard says. “At least we create a debate. As developers and as individuals, we need to push this subject forward everywhere we can. It needs to be the focus of everything we see, play, watch and hear because we don't have much time left. It's our responsibility to push forward more radical messages and more radical games.”
It just takes a search through indie-game depository Itch.io to prove his point. The “Climate Change” tag currently shows 109 games, while “Roguelike” returns 11,012.
Studios and platform holders have significant work ahead. Meaningful decarbonization progress is happening across the industry supply chain — like reducing Fortnite’s carbon emissions — but the industry isn’t yet the authentic climate leader that can mobilize its communities for good. For now, P4P’s recent report shows how studios and players can keep fighting to avert a real-life post-apocalypse.
“The challenge we have now to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030 requires everyone everywhere to play their part.” P4P co-founder Sam Barratt says. “And everyone everywhere includes people who love and play games, to not necessarily use their play to make a difference but to think about what role they could play to join that challenge. We can't play games on a dead planet.”
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