ASLE Conference 2021 – Embedded Eco-Narratives and the Last of Humanity in Post Apocalyptic Video Games

Extremely Rough Transcript

Since their inception, video games have imagined future spaces. Video games make it possible for the player, to not just envisage but explore, post-apocalyptic spaces through environmental storytelling and embedded eco-narratives. These post-apocalyptic spaces are manifestations of contemporary anxieties, allowing the player to interpret the causal relationship between current practices and the collapse of social order and ecologies. Video games that explicitly engage with contemporary eco-anxieties utilise mechanics of exploration and discovery to craft narratives that both depict the destruction wrought by the Anthropocene and help the player navigate the associated guilt and culpability.


For this presentation, I have chosen to highlight my analysis of Horizon Zero Dawn, Some Distant Memory and The Aquatic Adventures of the Last Human. These third-person exploration games present visions of the world after human industry and corporate interests have caused the human population to be all but wiped out. They are games that tackle ideas of human culpability and whether we are capable of atonement and change as a species.


Over two months I conducted immersive player observation. Using these observations, I undertook a thematic analysis of the narratives and gameplay in an attempt to understand their depictions of post-apocalyptic ecologies. One prominent narrative that emerged was that of the survivor, of the last humans to survive the mass extinction of humanity. In the case of Horizon Zero Dawn, that status as the ‘Last Human’ is complicated through the use of cloning technology, whereas in the Aquatic Adventures of The Last Human it is facilitated through interstellar travel.


This slide features gameplay from Horizon Zero Dawn, which follows the quest of a young warrior called Aloy who lives in an Arcadia that was rebooted from an arc by a series of AI protocols. The game takes place long after the extinction of all life on earth at the hands of ‘Peacekeeping Robots’ who consumed all life on Earth. Aloy is the direct clone of the woman responsible for the technology that made it possible for the AI, Gaia, to orchestrate the rehabilitation of the Earth once it was safe to do so. Aloy is presented as being of two worlds through her status as a clone, the world of her creator Elisabet Sobeck and the world that she has known all her life. She is, in essence, the last human of the pre-apocalypse.


This slide features gameplay from Some Distant Memory which envisions a future in which the world’s ecologies have been all but destroyed and only small pockets of humanity exist in the wasteland, forced to wear protective suits to survive. The player plays as the Professor, searching for a solution to a dire environmental crisis. The Professor falls through the ground into the ruins of a house of the quote, ‘pre-collapse era’. With the help of an AI called Aurora and their colleague on the surface, they piece together not only the narrative of a family in the early 21st century but also the events that lead to the apocalypse.


This slide features gameplay from The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human which is a disanthropic game in which the player controls a spaceship come submarine which shoots out of a wormhole and back into the seas of Earth thousands of years after it embarked on its journey. The Earth’s surface is completely frozen over, but below the surface, there is evidence of a long-abandoned sub nautical settlement that humans retreated to once the surface became unliveable. The ship containing the last human explores this underwater labyrinth, discovering monstrous sea life, the remnants of human endeavour and the fate of humanity. The game hinges on boss battles with subaquatic monstrosities that represent different threats to and from humanity.


The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human (YCJY), Horizon Zero Dawn and Some Distant Memory (Galvanic Games) are games that deploy embedded narratives and storytelling artefacts to show the cause and effect of human violence and exploitation. The player is invited to explore spaces and find these narrative capsules that show the effect of our current practices on, not just the non-human ecology, but on the gradual extinction of humankind. According to Domsch these ‘textual, visual, or auditory narratives embedded into the game-world can heighten the non-unilinearity of the game’s storytelling’ (2013). The player can choose their level of engagement in this form of environmental storytelling, whether they skim the documents, pursue them intently or ignore them together. Some Distant Memory foregrounds embedded and environmental eco-narratives. Whereas Horizon Zero Dawn’s rich eco-narrative is often completely obscured by the combat mechanics and primary storytelling, making the destruction of all life on Earth due to human hubris a secondary concern. This flexibility in player engagement allows designers to incorporate explicit environmental advocacy outside of the genre of serious, educational games.

Horizon Zero Dawn communicates the apocalypse through audio and video logs which are pictured on the current slide. There is a wealth of auxiliary embedded narratives in these logs that tell a story that otherwise would go unarticulated. They reveal the history behind the ruins of humanity and the genesis of this Arcadia, so different from the late Anthropocene dystopia.The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human also requires the player to explore ruins. As the player is represented as a ship rather than a human avatar, the player can discover narratives in this inhospitable environment by hovering over holo-tape stations pictured on the current slide that offer implicit and explicit critiques of the human approach to the environment. That is the environment is separate from the human, the environment as a commodity and the environment as a threat.
In contrast, Some Distant Memory requires the player to explore ruins of a more domestic and personal kind. As the player moves through the home the AI Arora aids them in constructing the everyday lives of a family. Supplementing ARORA’s futuristic holograms are everyday means of communication, magazines, paintings, emails, letters and photos (pictured) all depicting the everyday life of a family whose environment is collapsing around them.
Each of these games features corporations that play an undeniable role in the extinction of humanity. Corporations form such a pervasive threat in these video game spaces that they need a discussion all their own. Embedded narratives demonstrate patterns of consumption and destruction that are reinforced by the predatory practices of corporations to the detriment of the ecosystem.


As Canavan and Robinson note about human expansionism and capitalism
“Despite the urgency of these increasingly undeniable ecological constraints placed upon human activity, however, late capitalism remains a mode of production that insists (culturally) and depends (structurally) on limitless expansion and permanent growth without end..” In The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human, the Googleplex and Edison corporations (satires of Google and Tesla respectively) interrogate the idea that tech giants and millionaires will save the world through technology and altruism. Despite the disastrous impacts of consumerism and expansionism on the surface of the Earth, they perpetuate these cycles in subaquatic settlements. This expansionism and commodification of their new underwater home sees the continuation of the human retreat away from their own toxic contamination and destruction.


The Faro Corporation in Horizon Zero Dawn turns mercenary and sells dangerous self-replicating war robots to warring nations. Terming them ‘Peace Robots’, they place the Faro company in a position of extraordinary power and culpability for the ultimate destruction of the Earth at the hands of these robots. Some Distant Memory links corporate deception and destruction to the domestic family experience. The patriarch of the family home that the Professor is exploring works for the oil company Exxell and is complicit in covering up a massive pollution event that contributes to contamination and mass extinction leaving the ecosystem vulnerable to the toxic algae known as the bloom. To echo the observations of Abraham and Jayemanne, I have found explicit discourse on climate change to be rare in video games. However, all three of the games examined feature climate change to varying degrees. There are logs in Horizon Zero Dawn that indicate that climate change was solved through some kind of terraforming facilitated by Elisabet Sobeck and the Faro corporation. It is a mere hurdle, a point of rising tension in the future history of Earth.


Whereas in Some Distant Memory climate change is a key part of the mass extinction that precipitates the dominance of the bloom in the ecosystem pictured in the current slide. The oil spill may be the final straw for the earth’s ecologies, there is evidence of the systemic destruction of the environment before the ‘Collapse’. In the rubble of the house, the player can find part of an article about the ”villains of climate change” which outlines the details of corporate exploitation and its effects on the global environment including disastrous limnic eruptions. However, almost all the manifestations of climate change happen outside of the player’s field of vision. Professor’s engagement with the “pre-collapse” experiences of the family and the post-collapse bloom storm on the surface are mediated through the AI ARORA.


The most direct representation of the effects of climate change can be found in The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human. This in-game ecology shows the impact of climate change across thousands of years, even after humans have been forced from the surface of the planet due to the effects of global warming. It also challenges our anthropocentric notions of what a post-climate change ecology would look like. There are no burning deserts, instead, the world has descended into an ice age picture on the current slide and below the surface of the water tells a story of anthropocentric destruction and ecological evolution and adaptation. Humanity has left an indelible mark on the ecosystem, but the strange creatures that lie below the surface are ecophobic manifestations of our anxieties about non-human ecologies. Highlighting that whilst our contaminants remain, we cannot survive the problems we have created for ourselves.
As I touched on briefly there is a tendency to place hope in tech giants and technology, but each of these games gives the player narrative cause for suspicion of future technologies and AI. Whilst Horizon Zero Dawn is ultimately pro-technology and Gaia and her associated protocols are responsible for reviving the ecosystem, the history of Horizon Zero Dawn’s apocalypse is a cautionary tale for what happens when future technologies get into the wrong hands. The Faro Plague, the out of control, self-replicating robots pictured that can turn everything into biofuel are unleashed through the greed of a corporation.


In the Aquatic Adventures of the Last Human, humans create an AI called OSIRIS, programmed to protect the ecosystem. However, as OSIRIS repeatedly tries to protect and rehabilitate the environment from the destruction at the hands of humanity, it decides that the only way to protect the environment is to eradicate humanity. In-game future technologies are often named after gods of different pantheons, which demonstrate their intention towards humanity; the AI GAIA performs a nurturing, protector function, she brings forth life and manages her subordinate functions, ARORA, like the similarly named Roman goddess of the dawn shines a light into a new era for humanity and OSIRIS stands in judgement over humanity in the traditional role of the Egyptian god of the same name. While GAIA and ARORA help constructs a second chance for humanity, a chance to put things right, OSIRIS determines that humans are incapable of atonement.
So have we learnt from our mistakes?


When Horizon Zero Dawn’s GAIA (pictured) rebooted the Earth the history of humanity was lost due to Ted Faro sabotaging the APOLLO protocol which was supposed to provide the rebooted human race with the knowledge and culture of the pre-apocalypse. As a result, learning from the mistakes of the past was not previously possible. Technology acts as a deus ex machina, saving humanity from itself and offering a fresh start without the need for atonement. Where is the imperative to learn if GAIA will fix our mistakes?Despite ARORA performing a similar DEUS ex Machina role, improbably guiding the Professor to an uncontaminated cavern, Some Distant Memory perhaps has the most evidence of a lesson learnt, with the protagonists explicitly expressing regret. There is an environmental idealism at the centre of the new start for humanity, symbolised by the discovery of plants in the subterranean labyrinth beneath the surface wasteland. The process of retelling the stories of the late Anthropocene has been a process of atonement, in which the Professor navigates feelings of guilt, anger and despair, ultimately finding hope and fresh air in the caverns pictured on the current slide.


Some Distant Memory and Horizon Zero Dawn offer humanity a second chance, a chance at redemption, through improbable and distinctly science-fiction mechanics. The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human offers the player no such relief, providing an unflinching critique of the Anthropocentric exploitation of the environment, forcing the player to confront their violent behaviour in-game. Whilst the player has been conditioned by adventure shooter games to kill anything large and threatening, OSIRIS points to those actions as the murderous actions of an aggressor, a predator and murderer who comes into the homes of other creatures and attacks them. OSIRIS appeals to the player not to seek revenge, to stop the cycle of senseless violence and murder. It is at this point that control is taken away from the player and the ship fires at the OSIRIS, making the player complicit in the continuation of the cycle of violence. The Last Human, as the last representative of our species destroys nature’s protector in a fit of rage and vain vengeance, before sinking on the seafloor, entombed in their ship, never to move again.


These games provide a window into the power of embedded eco-narratives to engage the video game consumer in critical ecological thinking. Through the process of discovery, the player reconstructs a story that implicates the human in the apocalypse, confronting the player with their own culpability, an examination of these games prompts the question…will humanity get that chance at ecological atonement? Or are doomed to a cycle of violence and destruction?

References
– Abraham, B & Jayemanne, D 2017, ‘Where are all the climate change games? Locating digital games’ response to climate change’, Transformations.
– Canavan, G & Robinson, KS (eds) 2014, Green planets: ecology and science fiction, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut.
– Chang, AY 2019, Playing Nature: Ecology in Video Games, University of Minnesota Press, retrieved May 2, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctvthhd94.
– Condis, M., 2020. Sorry, Wrong Apocalypse: Horizon Zero Dawn, Heaven’s Vault, and the Ecocritical Videogame. Game Studies, 20(3)
– Domsch, S 2013, ‘Storyplaying: Agency and narrative in video games’,.
– Estok, SC 2018, The Ecophobia Hypothesis, retrieved June 18, 2021, from https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9781315144689.
– Fernández-Caro, J., 2019. Post-Apocalyptic Nonhuman Characters in Horizon: Zero Dawn: Animal Machines, Posthumans, and AI-Based Deities. MOSF Journal of Science Fiction, 3(3), pp.43-56.
– Garrard, G 2016, Teaching ecocriticism and green cultural studies, Springer, UK.
– Kelly, S & Nardi, B 2014, ‘Playing with sustainability: Using video games to simulate futures of scarcity’, First Monday, retrieved June 10, 2020, from https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/5259.

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