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Wonderful Wastelands

It's the end of the world as we know it, and we're totally fine with that.

  • Text: Sam Bishop & Mike Holmes

There's something rather fascinating about wastelands. Perhaps our collective obsession with post-apocalyptic settings ties into the same curiosity we have about how humanity fares when societal restrictions are taking away, much like in survival situations like The Poseidon Adventure or even Lord of the Flies. Will you resort to lawless theft, or will you be the ones to reestablish the law and order that separates man from beast? Wastelands are an opportunity to explore these various avenues of morality, and provide us with a world where you either adapt to the climate around you or stick to the humane logic of a world long forgotten; who are you inside when the gloves are off and the rules are out the window?

It's not all super serious moral debates though, as there's the other side of the coin: wastelands let you do weird and wonderful stuff. We're talking about hulking mechs, cars made of salvage and spikes, and a hostile world full of asses to be kicked. Whether it's a nuclear blast that has flattened cities or a plague that has killed off humanity, you know that there's always fun to be had crawling, jumping, and battling across what's left of the world... even if it is a little bleak wading through all the skeletons.

In terms of where these wasteland wonders are set, most developers tend to go for real-world settings. Why? Because it means that you get to see the juxtaposition between the remnants of a familiar world that's overgrown or overrun and whatever comes after the fall. Fallout prides itself on this, letting you see the crumbled Washington in Fallout 3; flattened Vegas in Fallout: New Vegas; and a decimated Boston in Fallout 4. Each location includes just enough detail to keep it feeling familiar, however, all of the landmarks that once stood proudly are now reduced to nothing more than a run-down mess.

When civilisation falls, all that's left are the ruins of what once was.

Not every wasteland is set in the land of the free and the home of the brave though, as plenty of stories draw inspiration from the nuclear tensions of the Cold War, meaning Eastern Europe is also a big focus when it comes to depicting the aftermath of the nuclear apocalypse. Notably we're talking about Russia, which we've seen in the Metro games. Metro 2033 and sequel Last Light both had us taking shelter in Moscow's metro system, but in a move that's classic apocalypse, different factions are at war with one another and the player-character (Artyom) is embroiled in these events while trying his best to survive the mutated beasties.

The infamous town of Chernobyl, the site of a notorious nuclear power plant explosion in 1986, has also been the subject of a lot of curiosity when it comes to wastelands and post-apocalyptic fiction, and in contrast to most of the scenarios mentioned in this article, this is an event that actually happened in real life. Liberties have been taken though, as you can see in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, where we encounter plenty of mutated monsters during our excursion into the ill-fated town. A load of ex-S.T.A.L.K.E.R. developers more recently went on to work on the upcoming Battle Royale game Fear the Wolves, which operates on a similar premise of fighting to survive in a hostile, irradiated world.

The ruins of Chernobyl serve as a bleak backdrop for S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

Not every wasteland as an overgrown wreckage, however, and there seems to be a mysterious fascination with sand, as we can see in games like Rage and its upcoming sequel. Perhaps it's the Mad Max influence, but a ton of games - including online shooter Crossout - love the barren nature of the desert, which of course goes hand in hand with vehicular traversal and combat. We're not complaining though, because the rolling hills and dunes make for pretty epic jumps, especially when you're colliding with others in screeching battles to the death.

Then there are the games that take the post-apocalypse in a whole new direction, like Nuclear Throne. Vlambeer's twin-stick shooter doubles as a roguelike that takes us past the apocalypse into a time when humans are gone. Like, extinct gone. Here it's all about the monsters such as huge scorpions and giant explosive grubs. Meanwhile, in the Brütal Legend version of the end of the world, Jack Black takes us to a wasteland that's more attentive o the music. The sombre vibes of other wastelands are thrown out the window and we're instead treated to the light-hearted side of over-the-top post-nuclear action. Who said the apocalypse had to be depressing?

What is slightly more depressing though is Frostpunk's unique brand of survival. In this version of the 18th century, an ice age has brought humanity to its knees, and you're not a glorious hero here, a wanderer of the wastes, but instead you're the leader of a community who has to make tough calls that hopefully ensure the survival of your people. Every move you make can have negative consequences, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and if you need policies like child labour and sawdust in your food to stay alive then so be it. Impact Winter pulled a similarly ice-cold trick.

Frostpunk introduced a chill to the wasteland setting.