E3 2017: In Videogames, It's the End of the World and Nothing Feels Fine

At E3 this week, the world ended. Again, and again, and again.

In the Russia of 4A Games’ Metro: Exodus, the bomb brought extinction. The protagonist fights his way out of the underground tunnels into a world blanketed with desolation and snow, and trod by mutant creatures. People no longer rule this land, but with a gas mask and a functional gun, maybe they can survive it.

In America, according to Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, armageddon came via Nazis. While technically taking place in an alternate past, it’s also a vision of a future dystopia: a Third Reich that never faltered, that marched across the Atlantic, crushing everything in its path. In the futures of State of Decay 2, and Days Gone, it was the zombies. A more fantastical plight, maybe, but one with the same result: a world that shucked off most of humanity with what feels like cruelty, but is in truth simply indifference.

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Gaming has always been obsessed with apocalypse—what better scenario to encourage a player to do whatever they want?—but this year, on the main stages and show floors of E3, there was scarcely a vision of the future that wasn’t apocalyptic. There were no bright futurescapes, no sparkling sci-fi worlds or secretly sinister utopias. Even the games that self-consciously evoke those ideas, like Bungie’s Destiny 2, do so within the context of rebuilding after a cataclysm that nearly destroyed humanity. In the present moment, at least, mainstream videogaming seems incapable of imagining a future where things turn out OK.

It’s easy to read too much into broad trends, and reading the cultural tea leaves isn’t always the most productive way to spend your time. But games are a massive cultural output, and their ways of imagining are bound to become a part of the pop culture landscape at large, alchemizing with television, music and film in helping us describe the world as it is and the world as we think it will be. And right now, at least, with reality heading sideways in a dozen different directions, those games are looking at the world through woes-colored glasses.

This pessimism seems to run deep. Even Bioware, whose games have imagined awe-inspiring adventures in the Mass Effect universe and the golden ages of the Star Wars Old Republic era, has fallen before it. The scant glimpses the developer gave of its new game, Anthem, show a scavenger’s future; people called Freelancers don suits of powered armor to explore a harsh wilderness outside the walls of a cloistered city. The technology is wondrous, and the scenery is beautiful, but the overriding mood is hostile.

And maybe that hostility is more honest than I like to admit. Maybe the seas will rise, and tyrants will take over, and the future will simply be a fight over the small, jagged pieces that are left. After a week surrounded by videogames about various terrible futures, I’m having a hard time imagining anything else.

But apocalyptic fiction is about more than literally imagining the future. It can exaggerate the worst parts of the present by way of commentary. It can theorize about the nature of humanity itself. When everything is at its worst—when history itself is literally over, and everything comes crashing toward oblivion—what are we like?

The most memorable thing I saw at E3 was a brief demo for Wolfenstein 2, which acts as direct follow-up to Swedish studio Machinegames’ 2014 title The New Order. BJ Blazkowicz, Nazi fighter extraordinaire, is confined to a wheelchair, hidden in a stolen U-Boat. As the game opens, he’s been found; Nazis are storming the vessel, explosions everywhere. Rather than panic, BJ muses to himself, embittered and traumatized. “The old and the weak are doomed,” he says—then picks up a weapon and begins to fight, one hand on a gun and the other on his chair.

If mainstream games have anything optimistic to say in 2017, it might be this. Even if we’re doomed, we’ll fight anyway. So far as takeaways go, one could do a lot worse.