Illustration by Ben Juers.
The apocalypse is one of the most enduring settings in video games. It’s right up there with high fantasy, space opera, and military warfare in its ubiquity. It verges on an obsession, and dovetails with another more established popular culture obsession: zombies. While apocalypse has often been an inconsequential backdrop, a mere graphical theme, at the moment a certain more thematically coherent iteration on the apocalypse genre is very popular. It merely asks the player to survive.
This is interesting, because death has always been the most common failstate in video games. You die and everything is over. It’s easy to understand. In games, death usually prevents the player from achieving something important: from rescuing a damsel, saving the world, defeating a vague evil, and so on. Your death is tragic, but not so tragic that you can’t use another life, or respawn with only ten minutes’ progress lost. Overall, mere survival has never been greatly important in games. Death is a punishment for not playing correctly; it’s circumstantial, and warding it off is not often the sole motivator. But what is the meaning of death when there’s no reason to live?
Recent games like Minecraft, DayZ, The Forest, and Rust have no particular goal, nor any correct way of playing. There is no embattled civilisation to save, no royalty to retrieve from the clutches of evil, and no sentient android race to fend off. These games simply ask that you survive. You don’t survive in wait of something, and nor do you survive in order that you might achieve some more specific goal. Your aim is simply continued existence.