Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
As the world outside our windows gets more and more surreal by the day, it’s natural to want to spend time with an artistic medium highly suited for giving back a sense of precious, hard-sought control: video games. But as much fun as losing yourself in a virtual world suited to your own tastes and anxieties might be, many of these candy-colored digital utopias frequently threaten to induce whiplash in the modern mind. Does the Mushroom Kingdom have a proper pandemic planning protocol in place? Has Doug Halo internalized the lessons of good social distancing? Why the fuck won’t Rayman stop touching his face? It’s a minefield of settings clearly out of step with our current climate of doom.
Luckily, gaming also provides no dearth of worlds in even worse shape than our own: a shining constellation of apocalypsi subjected to every manner of threat imaginable, from asteroids to nukes to sentient murder fungus. (Which, now that we think of it, might explain why Princess Peach and her ilk are so lax when it comes to routine hand-washing.) Games love to blow up the world and then let you run around in the wreckage—which, more often than not, is objectively beautiful, much like those pictures of suddenly clear Venetian canals people have been posting on Twitter, except with more radioactive mutants and killer robots running around. And so, what better way to while away our suddenly abundant indoor hours than to take a tour of some of gaming’s most scenic wastelands? We have no way of being comprehensive with this list—whither Dark Souls, The Last Of Us, Frostpunk, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Death Stranding, etc., we hear you cry! But really, it’d be a waste to pass these particular wastelands up. The locals might not be friendly, but at least they’ll probably keep a respectful distance.
No ode to gaming’s numerous blasted lands would be complete without a nod to the Big Boom itself. The Fallout games remain the high bar in player-friendly eschatons, but be warned, wanderer: Not all end-of-the-world scenarios are created equal. Fallout is a series about rebuilding as much as it is destruction, to the point where modern series MVP Fallout: New Vegas has people, like, paying taxes and stuff. If you want some real isolation, you might be better served by last year’s Fallout 76, which carries the distinction of being doubly abandoned: First, by the slain residents of its (gorgeous) virtual Appalachia, and then by the players who’ve bailed on it in droves. How’s that for social distancing?
This is where you end up after achieving every NES-blessed child’s deepest dream, and finally jump all the way over the flagpole in the first Super Mario Bros. game. Like Inside-Out Boy swinging himself over the swing set bar, though, your reward for doing so is little more than a lifetime of pain and isolation. There are no enemies, no obstacles, no reward for your great achievement. Just a clock ticking slowly down to death in a blank void from which there is no escape. Run, little Mario. Meditate on the transience of your own glory. Reflect on how much of life is little more than a hollow backdrop. Rent Synecdoche, New York. Then die, and try not to do it again.
Did people ever truly live in the Forbidden Lands? Were there commuters, farmers, or just plain regular folks eking out an existence in this vast expanse of grass, broken up by nothing more than the occasional mysterious ruin? Was there a grocery store tucked away beneath a colossi’s feet, or a cheap takeout place hidden in the shadow of the Shrine Of Worship? If so, no more. Now there is just the great emptiness, soothing in its breadth and beauty, chilling in its utter indifference to human life. The Colossi, especially, do not miss us—presumably because we keep shimmying up their leg hairs and stabbing them in their big, stupid brains.
After a devastating Chaos Dunk destroys New York, what are its citizens to do but rebuild, rebrand, and then exact bloody retribution, outlawing the once hallowed sport of b-ball and persecuting its practitioners? This is the world of the deliriously weird 2008 send-up of role-playing game clichés from Tales Of Game’s Studio, filled to bursting with former Space Jam stars, deadly bouts of basketball combat, and one man’s never-ending quest to save his son from an evil Michael Jordan. (Also, one of your party members is a cyber-dwarf with basketballs for skin.) Anyway, this isn’t a good place. Don’t live here.
For a big fancy legendary hero, Link’s not actually all that good at keeping his homeland from going into full shelter-in-place status all the time. Discounting the plots of the actual games, which typically involve some world-ending threat or another—looking at you, Majora’s Mask’s terrifying hell moon—at least four main-series Zelda titles (The Legend Of Zelda, Wind Waker, Breath Of The Wild, and Ocarina Of Time) feature Hyrule in some sort of pre-ruined or mid-ruined state. Despite the general happiness of its bright cartoon people, Wind Waker’s apocalypse might be the most drastic: That ocean you spend all your time sailing on? That’s Hyrule, buried under miles of water after an earlier Hero Of Time biffed his chance to stop recurring bad guy Ganon from wishing the entire kingdom into a watery grave. Poor form, little guy.
Thankfully, this is the only location on this list that’s based on an actual disaster—although we’re pretty sure the real Pripyat isn’t chock-full of gravity-defying magical artifacts being fought over by heavily armed scavengers. (Presumably, the skin-melting radiation is bad enough.) Like the later Metro games, which take it as an inspiration, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is all about the nitty-gritty of survival in a world that’s no longer suited for it. The bullet you fire today might be the ammo you desperately needed tomorrow, and the only thing keeping you alive is likely to be a semi-radioactive sausage and a banged-up assault rifle held together with nothing but duct tape and murderous hope. Also: The rampaging wildlife isn’t nearly as adorable as the radioactive puppies that live in the area in real life. Pass.
An exercise in terror by implication, the disappearance of the Androsynth—a race of synthetic humans who rebelled against Earth in the backstory of Toys For Bob’s beloved 1992 space sim—is never fully explained within the text of the game itself. Instead, we get hints: The sudden appearance of the buffoonish Orz, who look like parrotfish, and who speak in frequently untranslatable gibberish, in the race’s former sectors. Dark suggestions from a race of alien watchers who note that the Androsynth were researching something when their entire race just up and vanished. And a journal, dug up on the species’ abandoned homeworld, revealing that they caught the attention of something large, incomprehensible, and malicious just before their disappearance—with the firm suggestion that if humanity isn’t careful, it might start noticing them, too. On the other hand, real estate values are probably dirt cheap. Just watch out for the invisible monsters!
This one gets marks simply for how fully realized and weird it is: In the aftermath of the ridiculously convoluted Final Fantasy XIII-2, time in the XIII universe has functionally broken, leaving the remnants of humanity unable to either grow or die. Five hundred years later, series protagonist Lightning, uh, returns to this doomed and nightmarish world, discovering it’s exactly as stagnant as you might expect such a stasis-bound locale to be. The Final Fantasy games had dabbled with the end-of-times before—most notably with Final Fantasy VI’s wonderfully realized World Of Ruin—but Lightning Returns invests a huge amount of time and energy in exploring just how screwed up such a society of deathless, childless weirdos might become. Just don’t make any long-term plans: Lightning’s task is to help bring this particular dead end to its final and explosive close.
Much more clever than its “What if we applied Minecraft mechanics to a massively popular RPG franchise and made a bunch of money?” conceit might suggest, DQB takes place in an alternate-universe version of the world from the very first Dragon Quest/Warrior, albeit one with a nasty twist: The hero who was supposed to save the day gave up. That means it’s up to you, as a nameless Builder, to put back together all the crap he broke, a journey that manages to get legitimately heartwarming in its messaging about the value of community, creation, and perseverance. Through your efforts, and those of the friends you recruit along the way, Alefgard becomes the sort of wasteland where nothing goes to waste. It’s a world that ended—and then managed to start itself back up again, a place where individual efforts, connections, and courage can turn the tide on a crisis, even when it’s scary to contemplate the possibility of giving it your all. It’s a tender reminder that, just because it’s the apocalypse, it doesn’t mean it has to be the end of the world. Also, hitting monsters with a sword is always pretty fun.