There’s an old saying in the video game industry that’s as true today as it ever was: You can’t spell “G-A-M-E” without “P-O-S-T-A-P-O-C-A-L-Y-P-T-I-C-W-A-S-T-E-L-A-N-D.” So this year’s E3, currently underway in Los Angeles, has been good news for gamers but terrible news for a wide variety of fictional planet Earths. In game after game at the big Microsoft and Sony press conferences, developers showed off crumbling cities, violent hordes of survivors in various states of physical and mental decline, and lots of nigh-indistinguishable gunplay. (Nintendo, which will hold its conference on Tuesday, tends to be a little kinder to its fictional Earths, unless the cardboard Nintendo Labo turns out to be a prequel to a series about deforestation.) To help you tell one post-apocalyptic wasteland from another, we’ve sorted the trailers based on which horseman seems most responsible. Giddyup!
Nothing says “apocalypse” like “global thermonuclear warfare,” so it’s no surprise that mushroom clouds play a big role in several of these upcoming games. Fallout 76’s new trailer gets pride-of-place for showing a doomed soldier take it all in before the blast wave knocks him or her to the ground for what looks like a pretty slow and painful death, as deaths caused by nuclear weapons go:
Fallout 76 turns out to be an online multiplayer game rather than the single-player adventures that have characterized the Fallout series so far. In practical terms, that means that after more than two decades of Fallout games in which nuclear war was the cause of all evil, players will finally get to team up to re-assemble nuclear launch codes so they can … do more nuclear war? The Russians in Metro Exodus, the newest entry in the Metro series, seem to have a healthier attitude toward the nuclear weapons that destroyed their country. But if the guy speaking during the trailer’s opening is any indication, the pendulum has swung back the other way, since he seems to have outlawed locomotives:
But the series’ backstory has a major credibility problem: the nuclear war that brought everything down in the Metro games is said to have happened in 2013, during the Obama administration. If Obama had nuked Russia five years ago, surely there’d be more than one video game recreating the aftermath in loving detail by now!
When Pestilence rides into your video game, it usually means one thing and one thing only: zombies, and lots of them. Whether the initial cause of the zombie plague is a fungal infection, an airborne virus, or just plain old zombie bites, the illnesses of the video game world tend to skip right past runny noses and headaches and head straight for “insatiable lust for human brains.” The plague to beat in this horseman’s realm is the one from the last great post-apocalyptic game, The Last of Us, and The Last of Us Part II has the inside track:
One of the unique things about The Last of Us—at least among games where the core gameplay mechanic is killing people—was that it took its violence a little more seriously than most games: Killing zombies was as meaningless as ever, but killing humans was difficult and emotionally jarring for both the player and the game characters. As the trailer shows, the sequel will be the same only more so, whether that means beautifully animated intestines dangling from a freshly-disemboweled prisoner or enemies who beg for mercy. We’ll have to wait for the full game to see if all that grossness has consequences for the characters, but the tone of the gameplay in the trailer—desperate, frantic, awful—seems promising, even without a look at the zombies.
But the supernatural doesn’t really fit with the late Tom Clancy’s brand, so for his pestilence driven post-apocalypse, Ubisoft went with a zombie-free smallpox breakout:
It’ll be amazing to wander around The Division 2’s version of Washington, D.C., a post-apocalyptic city that gamers would otherwise only be able to visit in Fallout 3, the upcoming Fallout 76, or Sam and Max: Abe Lincoln Must Die! But if you don’t really consider something post-apocalyptic until the zombies show up, don’t worry: you can still hang out in the nation’s capital in Overkill’s upcoming Walking Dead co-op game:
And if you need your Walking Dead zombies but don’t care about Washington, you can choose Telltale Games’ upcoming Walking Dead game, which has all of the zombies and none of the ruined landmarks, unless this is supposed to be Rock Creek Park:
That’s Pestilence for you: consumer-focused apocalypses, designed for the fans.
Famine is more of a leitmotif than a driving force in most video game apocalypses, but he steps up in We Happy Few, with the help of two Ponymen of the Apocalypse: Drugs and Denial. The game’s burned-out version of the Swinging Sixties has plenty of pills but very little food:
If you get a choice for your own personal apocalypse, We Happy Few is definitely the way to go: bright colors, good drugs, beautifully tailored clothes, and at long last, the gaunt frame to wear them perfectly. Thanks, Famine!
Typically, the video game industry gets through E3 without too many references to legendary fullback Elmer Layden of Notre Dame’s 1924 football lineup. But he’s technically a Horseman of the Apocalypse, and if you have a better idea of what the hell is going on in this trailer, we’d all love to hear it:
Traditionally, the fourth horseman is Death, but when it comes to video games where violence is the main gameplay mechanic, Death holds illimitable dominion over all, so you have to be more specific.
A fifth horseman? An entire column of fifth horsemen? It seems hard to believe, but who else could possibly be responsible for the corporate-controlled consumerist playground of Cyberpunk 2077?
Staggering inequality, readily available assault weapons, and the distinct sound of fossil-fuel-driven internal combustion engines, all working together in perfect harmony to create the kind of post-apocalypse Republicans crave. Rich Republicans, I mean—the base can barely afford regular horses of the apocalypse, never mind dancing ones. But the award for the most chilling dystopia goes to Session:
From the crumbling infrastructure to the trash-lined streets, Session depicts a world in which humans have essentially left the field, abandoning our communal rights and duties in favor of ever-lower taxes, rugged individualism, and skateboarding. The last shot, of the iconic Brooklyn Banks skate park—a vital and vibrant public space that would surely only be closed in some kind of apocalypse scenario—is a chilling warning about the devastation wreaked by the most dangerous horsemen of all, even if they’re calling themselves independents now. Let’s hope this nightmare world never becomes our reality!
Post-apocalypse stories can be trenchant warnings that make the audience consider possible futures and how to avoid them, or they can be narcissistic power fantasies about being stronger and better than the other survivors. We won’t know until these games are released which are which—but at least the trailers gave us a pretty good idea which horseman to blame.