Gamers prepare for the apocalypse: Why we can’t stop thinking about the end of the world, and why developers should start listening to our fears.

When the nuclear holocaust finally happens, I want to be face the future with a bunker full of gamers. Not just because an end-of-the-world LAN party in an underground vault would be a truly epic occasion, but because gamers are ready for the apocalypse. You see, we’ve been gearing up for it all our lives.

Cast your mind back to the last first-person shooter you played. How did you decide when to expend your scarce, powerful ammunition, and when to try and make do with lesser armaments? As a game progresses, the enemies tend to become more challenging. The player’s arsenal also improves to match them. Half-Life is typical of this – you start off using a crowbar against headcrabs and zombies, before eventually wielding automatic weaponry and a rocket launcher against the military. This matched progression is true for role-playing games as well as first person shooters: Oblivion‘s system, which scaled the difficulty of every enemy to ensure a challenge – making rats and bandits a real threat throughout the game-  was controversial because it drew our attention to the expectation of scaled challenge by unintentionally parodying it. In short, we expect our power as a player to increase hand-in hand with the difficulty of the enemies encountered, with neither side ever gaining an advantage over the other.

This progression isn’t always smooth, so we make sure that we’re ready to deal with a sudden hike in enemy strength, without being granted an increase in our own power. We try and imagine what a really tough battle would be like – something of a different scale of difficulty to what we’ve encountered so far. Whilst fighting our way through each game world we begin to build up a ‘worst case scenario’ projection in our heads. We begin to imagine just how tough things could get. So we prepare for this cataclysmic imagining and hoard our resources for it. Gamers are ready for the apocalypse, because the apocalypse is always on our minds.

But this instinct to prepare for a tougher fight isn’t simply an urge to safeguard against the unthinkably deadly pack of monsters that might be lurking round the next corner. Rather, it’s a desire to slowly increase in power relative to the world around us, to move ever closer to a situation in which we no longer have to fear for our safety. We aren’t satisfied with simply staying on par with our enemies – we want to slowly outdo them, so that they can’t hurt us any more.

In order to achieve this, we constantly hoard our most powerful weaponry, and try to avoid having to use it by becoming ever more efficient (and proficient) with our lesser armaments. The gradual increase in player skill over the course of a game that this encourages means that we begin to outclass our opponents without having to rely on new weaponry, irrespective of any increase in enemy strength. In preparation for our imagined apocalypse, we lock away our potions, high-level spells, med-kits, grenades and rare ammunition, scraping our way through the game’s toughest fights in the knowledge that we will use them when we really need them.

Unfortunately, most games don’t capitalise on our apocalyptic dreamings. Most boss battles aren’t particularly apocalyptic, and don’t draw upon the nightmares we’ve been thinking up throughout our play-through. Two particularly disappointing climactic battles are those in the original Bioshock and in Borderlands. What developers need to do is to smash us out of our comfort zone, because when things go wrong and when we’re threatened, is when we have the most fun. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Shadow of Chernobyl, I completely messed up my preparations for venturing in to the nuclear reactor at the end of the game. For whatever reason, I went in with a handful of anti-radiation drugs and small number of bandages (which heal a pitiful amount of health). No medkits, and certainly none of the fancy cure-all military-grade kits I’d been hoarding back at my base. Limping through the dark, taking enough medicine to keep crawling onwards; as a wounded lion lashing out at mighty enemies on all sides I was truly alive. I’d fallen off the difficulty curve, and was fighting my way back up from hell. It felt amazing, and the primal might of my triumph was visceral.

Developers could draw upon the way that the player has been preparing for/imagining the end-game, and use it to generate a suitably epic encounter tailored to their needs. This could be done through some sort of AI director, similar to the system employed by Left 4 Dead. Figure out the player’s apocalyptic nightmares, and make them play through them. Say the player’s been hoarding up his shotgun shells and rocket ammunition: make him fight through a steam of armoured enemies and vehicles, until he’s on his knees and out of ammo. Say he’s been hoarding mines and static defences: make him conduct an epic base defence. This kind of sensitivity to the fears and dreams of the individual player would allow developers to give gamers the apocalyptic fights we’ve been waiting for. Anything less is a disappointment.

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3 Responses to Gamers prepare for the apocalypse: Why we can’t stop thinking about the end of the world, and why developers should start listening to our fears.

  1. achkas says:

    I’d say this reflects my experience with Demon’s Souls (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demon%27s_Souls) – I began by being trounced by everything, including other players who would essentially cannibalise my body to obtain a new one for themselves, and have slowly managed to outpace the game’s difficulty curve, not just through stat advancement but by learning, brutally and repeatedly, numerous strategic lessons that would not just help me in other games, but probably any real life dangers I faced also.

  2. IG-88 says:

    Excellent article! I always find I hoard for that “oh shit” moment, only to find I have grown proficient enough with other weapons that I feel to use my super-weapon stockpile would be both cheap and something of a disservice to myself. I WANT to be able to prove myself using the skills I have honed, rather than use something which might make things easier, yet undermines my previous work and actually may dull the fun of the encounter.

    As you mentioned, STALKER was very good at removing you from your “safety zone.” However, even with medpacks and well repaired armor, I always felt under threat. I can’t imagine just how wonderfully grim that final section must have been :D. What I loved was that all I really had were the skills I had acquired throughout the game; there was very little in the way of ultra-powerful weaponry to fall back on, and everything of value had to be actively tracked down. I particularly enjoyed the approach to the reactor through the old city – alone in the dark in the pouring rain, and having to be ever-alert for the soldiers on the roofs and hiding among the buildings. Fantastic stuff.

    I agree that both Bioshock and Borderlands were deeply disappointing, especially in that the ignore all the mechanics you have learned previously through the game (perhaps less so with Borderlands, it was fairly simplistic in scope and gameplay, but seriously, it could have at least moved. Also, no loot???). I actually think Bioshock went a step beyond what you suggest; it’s not only that it’s not terribly apocalyptic, it actually gives you NO scope to even try to use the skills you have honed OR the EVE, medpacks and rare ammo you have been hording the whole game. You can’t really use them, even if you want to. It’s a complete disconnect. I just ended up beating the final boss to death with my wrench…

    I think another really interesting subject to address, whilst we are thinking along the lines of apocalyse, is WHY we are so focused on it. What about it makes the end of the world so appealing to us? I’ve read articles stating that actually, deep down we are all miserable people who long for the world to end because we actually secretly despise what we see and what we are, and the only way we feel we can become the heros we play is if the world starts anew, but I don’t really buy this. The apocalypse offers a fresh start, sure, and everyone loves to play the hero/villain in a bold new world, where your past need no longer apply to what you do. What’s more, a new world allows developers a great deal of freedom to let their imaginations go. However, I think there is more to it than this :D. Just some random musings. Perhaps something for a future post?

    Once again, great article. Looking forward to the next!!

  3. Genny says:

    Nice article. One of my most favourite moments in the original Half-Life came when I ended up in vent shaft with only crossbow and rocket ammo, and having to fight through with c-bow and c-bar! Games like STALKER and HL2 that force you to fall back on simplistic weaponry and raw adrenaline I have always found more memorable. Perhaps this is why I will never finish Bioshock: I tried again and got bored by the chamber save system. If I wanted control I’d play Rollercoaster Tycoon.
    On the other hand, I don’t think I’d want to face the apocalypse with gamers: they’d just get lost in side quests and loot hoarding and forgot about the need to eat! Also, the end of the world does not have hotkeys…

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