Earlier this year the Games Research Network asked if I could write a brief blog post introducing my research. Cue various conferences, college projects, impending deadlines, a series of viral infections and a fair amount of procrastination, and we’re finally here, my first ever blog post.
Before you a city lies in ruins. Buildings burn whilst flaming meteors fall from the heavens. Gathered on a roof-top, viewing the devastation, our heroes are addressed by their leader…
“Well this is it. The end of times. The beast is approaching and so we must act. You are all that stands between the Onion Kingdom and total annihilation.”
The apocalypse may not be everyone’s first choice setting for a fast-paced, chaotic multiplayer couch co-op cooking game. However, the apocalyptic has long served as a source of inspiration for writers, prophets, orators and creators of all kinds. Despite coming to prominence as a literary genre some 2,000 years ago in the Ancient Near East, visions of the apocalypse fill our screens, inspire our stories, inform our language of catastrophe and disaster, and shape our cultural imagination. From the cinematic offerings of machine uprisings (e.g. Terminator), virulent plagues (e.g. 28 Days Later), nuclear war (e.g. Jericho) and alien invasion (e.g. Independence Day), to the language framing the discussions of climate change and the 2008 global financial crisis. Notions of the apocalypse form part of our “social consciousness, part of a mythology about endings that hovers in the cultural background.”
Though no longer a purely religious phenomenon, the contemporary apocalyptic imagination principally derives from its religious antecedents – particularly the Jewish and Christian apocalypses in Daniel Revelation, and parts of 1 Enoch. This is not to suggest that all contemporary apocalyptic offerings are ‘religiously motivated and informed’, but that they draw heavily on this common store of “ideas, myths, symbols and language…particularly prevalent in [the West].” Whilst these contemporary uses of apocalyptic imagery have been increasingly explored in relation to film/TV, literature, graphic novels and more, games (digital and analogue) have received comparatively little academic attention. Even the landmark Sheffield Phoenix Press series, The Bible in the Modern World: Apocalypse and Popular Culture, contributed only one chapter in Network Apocalypse: Visions of the End in a World of Internet Media.
Despite this disparity in the literature, apocalyptic representation in games is no less prominent than in any other medium. Cataclysmic, world (or even cosmos) ending scenarios are common, with players often engaged to avert the disaster, e.g. Overcooked!. As with other occurrences of apocalyptic themes, the source of the cataclysm has diversified, taking in themes of viral-pandemic (e.g. The Last of Us), technology/science ‘gone wrong’ (e.g. Horizon Zero Dawn), environmental disaster (e.g. Catan: Global Warming), nuclear/bio threat (e.g. CoD: Modern Warfare 3), alien invasion (e.g. Half Life), and the rise of ancient, supernatural beings (e.g. Final Fantasy X). Messianic saviours commonly appear in roleplay games (RPGs) opposite a suitable anti-christ figure (e.g. Halo’s Spartan John-117 and Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard), guided by prophecies and divine/otherworldly revelations (e.g. Elder Scrolls: Morrowind and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt). The dualistic battle between forces of light and darkness and the battle for survival between the ‘unclean’ horde and a ‘clean’ remnant feature heavily in first-person shooters and survival horror games (e.g. Destiny and Resident Evil). However, some titles do make explicit reference to religious apocalyptic texts (e.g. Fallout 3’s use of Revelation 21:6), and a handful of titles even take direct inspiration from Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature and traditions (e.g. the Darksiders franchise). To borrow the title of Anne Collier Rehill’s exploration of apocalypse in popular culture, ‘The Apocalypse is Everywhere’.
I was first introduced to the topic in a final year undergraduate class, and given the choice of writing about ‘apocalyptic representation in film’ or ‘apocalyptic representation in literature’, I asked ‘why not computer games?’ The senior Old Testament lecturer thought it sounded interesting, and agreed, saying ‘let’s see where it goes’. Six years later and I’m researching apocalyptic imagery in computer games for my PhD, working with the senior Old Testament lecturer who encouraged the interest, and still enjoying it.
 Elizabeth K. Rosen, Apocalyptic Transformation: Apocalypse and the Postmodern Imagination (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2008), xi.
 Christopher Partridge, “Introduction: Popular Music and Apocalyptic Discourse,” in Anthems of Apocalypse: Popular Music and Apocalyptic Thought (Bible in the Modern World: Apocalypse and Popular Culture; ed. Christopher Partridge; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012), xiii.