A river of ink has already been spilled around The Last of Us Part 2, the much anticipated sequel to its critically acclaimed predecessor, The Last of Us. The game’s pre-release development was fraught with content leaks, spoiling important plot points, which turned out to contradict story beats revealed in earlier teaser trailers. It’s LGBTQ representation got people rallying to their well-worn trenches, and Naughty Dog’s (the development company of TLOU2) infamous “crunch culture” drew plenty of well-deserved criticism. Needless to say, it’s reception upon release was highly divisive within the disparate gaming community. Gamers’ reactions went from toxic review-bombing, to raising the game up as another example of games as (fine) art, …and not too much in between. There were of course the gaming extremists who have proven once again that their cowardice knows no bounds, going so far as to send death threats to the voice actress of a character in the game they disliked (this timeline sucks).
Divisive in some ways by design, and others by accident, TLOU2 nonetheless went on to do record sales. Oh, and, in case you didn’t know, the series is set in the post-apocalyptic U.S. where a deadly virus has spread across the world, killing a majority of the population, and turning many into scary fungus zombies.
Now, months since the game’s release, my luke-warm take is: TLOU2 can be an enjoyable experience, but its just not my kind of post-apocalypse. Its level-design, its game balance, it’s technical artistry, are all worth marveling at and learning from. And not all the story beats fall completely flat, as some might argue. For example, there were some heart-warming father/daughter moments like the dinosaur museum scene and the spotted seal aquarium bit. There were some pretty intense moments that had me on the edge of my seat as well, like the hospital supply run, where I literally yelped out in fear (to the embarrassment of my dogs). My gripe as a Native guy (besides the fact there are no Native people left!) is the developers didn’t really say anything new about human nature with it’s post-apocalyptic backdrop. Rather it doubles-down, reaffirming how “tribalism” is just bad, bad, bad.
TLOU2 couches its story of revenge in yet another remix of the Hobbesian savage/civilized dichotomy. In so doing it places itself on the galaxy’s edge of colonial literature (fine art?!) where you might find Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), along with American cowboy westerns, and a never-ending regurgitation of high-tech colonialism stories, so common to the SF genre. The difference in this game is, instead of civilized Europeans going to the ‘frenzied’ Congo, or a far-off planet where blue furries communicate to nature through their tentacle-braids, the white protagonist in TLOU2 goes west from a relatively peaceful and very Western-esque fort-town in Jackson to the lush, green, decay of a dilapidated Seattle, where its people have splintered into two opposing camps who are at each other’s throats in a cycle of tit-for-tat violence. Wyoming civilized, Seattle savage. In the end, the ho-hum moral of the story seems to be, “an eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind, but now with diverse gender representation!“
Look, I don’t hate the game, and I don’t mean to diminish attempts at LGBTQ representation either. I was just a bit bored by TLOU2, mostly because I couldn’t escape the civilized/savage dichotomy the game sets up in order to tell its, at times, interesting story… and how incredibly long it took to tell it. But, why care so much about this dichotomy anyhow, …and why the concern about stories set in the post-apocalypse in the first place? Well…
I tend to gravitate to stories set in the post-apocalypse. When someone gets me talking about movies, I don’t hesitate to tell folks The Road Warrior is one of my all-time faves. Nor am I shy about confessing my enduring love for Fallout 3, or how one of my top subreddits is r/AbandonedPorn. Something, just on a gut level, gives me a feeling of pleasure when viewing old abandoned buildings being swallowed by nature, and cyborgs… and…
For a short while, I wondered why this was. I looked up some common explanations of why someone might be drawn to play post-apocalypse games. No, I don’t play post-apocalypse games to flex my will over others in some sort of post-morality power fantasy, and I don’t necessarily enjoy its promise of freedom to fully express myself through role-play. As a Native guy, who very much identifies with my ancestry, I certainly don’t go to the genre to confirm my unwavering devotion to liberal democracy by bringing law to a lawless land. So what is it? The answer I’ve come up with is the genre affords the possibility of a kind of post-apocalyptic verisimilitude. Let me explain.
I don’t love Fallout 3 for its story. For the most part, my enjoyment of the game consisted of listening to the radio while wandering around on foot, exploring the nuked-out Capital Wasteland, scavenging for weapons, bullets, and food. Every once in a while I would get into a scuffle with some mutants, or bandits. It isn’t particularly satisfying to have to put them down, but its just the way things are out there in the wasteland. And that’s pretty much it. That’s what I love to do in the game for the most part, and I can do it for hours and hours until my map is filled with explored locations.
FO3 is an “open-world” game, where you can pretty much go wherever you want on the map. You don’t have to fulfill a gruesome revenge story in order to progress through the game like TLOU2. You’re just a person that came out of a vault in the year 2277 who can choose to look for their dad who ran off somewheres, or not. Perhaps because game design practices weren’t so good at railroading players at that time, FO3‘s main story is easily avoided, and the other story bits in the game you might trigger by wandering around are more vignettes than novelesque. This is unlike Fallout 4 where, more often than not, by wandering around you end up triggering main story-events that velcro you back onto the main story-path. Or like Fallout: New Vegas, where no matter where you go, you seem to get ensnared in a never-ending web of crisscrossing story missions. Anyhow, playing FO3 in my way means I can have my apocalypse without contending much with the “H-Dichotomy”, leaving me to fully enjoy all the bliss a scorched D.C. has to offer.
To many Native folks, colonization was – is– synonymous with apocalypse, and we have experienced multiple waves of it, where settlers destroyed the delicate balance of the ecosystems which our ancestors depended on, straight up committed genocide on our ancestors, and through federal termination policies tried to destroy our ways of knowing and being,… because at some point settlers conveniently decided that murder just wasn’t cool anymore. Spoilers, Native and Indigenous folks are still here and we have been living in a post-apocalypse, for the last 500 years or so. We are in the post-post apocalypse, in the rebuilding phase as Tribal nations, while simultaneously living under settler-colonial political frameworks. Its like we have to somehow navigate two realities. /s
For a white settler going about daily life in a settler-colonial nation, one might think that there wasn’t anything particularly awry, unless maybe someone cut them off in traffic. But for many Native folks, having to go about the mundane tasks of everyday life in white/settler spaces requires we manage the cognitive dissonance of walking through an ugly McWasteland of what was once our bountiful homelands, while having to engage in American life as if everything was hunky-dory.
In order to deal with such incongruencies of reality, I have to be prepared. I have to be able to defend my existence as a Native person against those who would write me out of history. I have to be prepared to clap back, and speak my truth, my history, to the masses whose settler-claims on reality often go unchallenged. FO3 affords a post-apocalyptic play space, a safe, therapeutic analogue to my everyday struggles to exist as an Native American, a Rosebud Sioux, a Sicangu Oyate, man. Through Indigenous end-gaming, my experience of being in a wasteland in reality, and its accompanying existential stressors, now become more explicit than implicit. Playing this way makes me feel acknowledged in my everyday struggles for verisimilitude of viewpoints, where for short time the world isn’t so upside-down and I can see and engage with the post-apocalypse, and not be denied my viewpoint like I often am in everyday life. How different is it really when I virtually wander a wasteland, with power armor and hand-crafted weapons, defending my existence from mutants and bandits, from when I go shopping at Costco, jostling against the Karens and Kyles to get my power greens and hot dogs?
Of course, I’m merely using Fallout 3 as a hermit-crab might use, say, a Mountain Dew can, for a home,… opportunistically re-purposing a mass-produced product for a little bit of comfort.
Readers might wonder what a story might look like if Native writers intentionally explored the themes around the end of the world. Well, like Afrofuturism, Indigenous Futurism has taken up the mantle, and shouldn’t really be anything new to folks. But what about Indigenous games that explore those themes? As luck would have it, the in-betweeny time between being a full-time uni worker-bee and a full-time doctoral student has allowed me to do a little more wandering than usual. I’ve recently had the pleasure of playing not one, but two, Indigenous-made video games with apocalypsiness as part of their setting: Umurangi Generation and Terra Nova – both totally amazing, and neither of them are nasty, or brutish,… although one is pretty short. 😉 I’ll start with Umurangi Generation.
Umurangi Generation is an indie game that released this year (2020) on Steam. It was made by a Maori fellow who goes by the moniker Veselekov, …who up until this point I was only aware of as someone who made super cool Dark Souls fan videos.
Umurangi Generation is a uniquely stylized photography-based game that uses the game’s environment to tell the story of a group of friends. No dialog, no text. You play by walking around each stage, getting the right angles to complete the photo challenges given to you, all the while soaking in the details of each stage… which are intricately-crafted exploratory scenes that are themselves like snapshots along the friends’ story-line. Once you complete the set of challenges in a stage you are free to go to the next stage. I listened to a podcast featuring the Veselekov, where he explained that the focus of the story is on a group of friends who are from the last generation of humans, a generation who have to witness the end of the world and be powerless to stop it.
Being an Indigenous photographer, and unable to affect the trajectory of the story makes the game especially poignant. That is, playing as someone whose ancestors faced the apocalypse of colonialism in such a setting reflects on both the past and of the future. It’s a truly moving experience, as it gets players to ask ourselves the kind of existential questions we all must face, Indigenous or not. What would we do when facing the end of the world? Would we stop dancing? Would we stop making art, and telling stories? Would we do everything in our power to be closer to those we hold dear? What did my ancestors do when facing the end of world as they knew it? Oof!
Unlike Umurangi Generation that leads up to a world-ending, Terra Nova takes place after one, …thousands of years later in fact. Imagined by Maize Longboat (Mohawk), Terra Nova explores what contact might look like thousands of years after a climate related catastrophe split the human race into those who stayed on Earth, and those who left, presumably in search for a new place to live. Soon after starting the game, a space colony crashes onto Earth, where it happens to be that someone whose ancestors stayed (Indigenous knowledge-based) and someone whose ancestors left (Western science-based) must come together to make their way to safety. The game is short, but packed with meaning, putting a hopeful twist on an the otherwise bleak history of contact and colonization. I absolutely love it.
The game is a split-screen platformer (like, jumping around on platforms to get through a stage), and honestly it kinda blew my mind. I didn’t know it was a two-player co-op game, and so I played both characters at the same time, one with my left hand, and the other with my right hand. I was (awkwardly) walking in two worlds, which I had certainly never done before in any game. And it felt rad. Full disclosure, I believe Indigenous ways of knowing are the future, but I respect and often have to use the power of “Western” empirical science with its emphasis on objectivity. Controlling and seeing both knowledge paradigms simultaneously was a trip. But hey, if you can, why not see things in 3-D epistemic bicameralism, I always say.
It’s not often a videogame gets me waxing epistemology, …and I wouldn’t have written anything without the creativity of (and a push from) Indigenous game developers who are tackling this theme in such a fresh, new way. Now, will someone make a game where I can play as a wasteland scavenger and a Trader Joe’s shopper looking for orange chicken …at the same time?
Thanks y’all, you rock.
Get Umurangi Generation here:
Get Terra Nova here: