Thursday, January 21, 2010

Zapocalypse Now

I may be putting my foot in my mouth, but I think the recent surge in movies and games in an apocalyptic setting, as well as the zombie craze, is representative of a larger whole. Back in the day, the Western genre was huge. It had everything the aspiring American boomer could want: the lone, gunslinging hero, the absence of law, the stretching frontier, the founding of new settlements and all the freedom, exploration and exploitation that comes with it.

But the Western definitely petered out in our generation; rare is it that movies like 3:10 to Yuma or games like Red Dead Revolver (though that may change if they live up to the promises of the sequel) get much press or attention. We, as an audience, have moved elsewhere, and probably because there's not much left to exploring this genre.

I think that the current surge in apocalyptic movies and games is the second coming of the Western genre, and this accounts for this recent popularity. These games and movies share similar characteristics, they establish a frontier, they create a lawless world and they present the player/viewer with main characters who must create their own law and rules in a world gone half crazy.

The Frontier

The frontier, in the literature world, is a really big deal. It is representative of the American Dream; with the frontier, there's always room for expanding success. There's always room to make one's own path in life, and strike out from the world with just one's wits. The frontier represents a mentality in the American mind.

With satellites, population booms and other technological and economic growth, the American frontier, as we know it, has been effectively eliminated. We made it to the other side of the country, and we've settled in every place in between. There's nowhere new to explore. But the American mind still needs a frontier; it is important to our way of life and thought. So we continuously establish a new frontier. The oceans. The Internet. Space...the final frontier.

And, I believe, apocalypse settings. Suddenly the world, which has been fully explored, fully realized gets wiped clean. Now we have a clean slate, a fresh world to explore and conquer; a new place to settle and establish. Sure there are remnants of the old world, but a majority of them lose their meaning. There's little time for libraries and books, more basic needs must be met. Survival, mainly. You need a gun, both to get food and to not become food. You need a means of travel, and you need shelter. That's it.

Any of this sound familiar? Look at Fallout 3. Look at books and movies The Road. Zombieland. Dawn of the Dead. Borderlands. Left for Dead is more about immediate survival in a world that is currently losing its frontier, but imagine the Left for Dead world in another ten years. The Zombie Survival Guide. The Book of Eli. I am Legend. Bioshock too. I even googled "dead frontier" and the first thing that popped up was an MMORPG zombie apocalypse game named the same thing. All of these are lands that require a new frontier, and carry all the traditional themes of a good Western.

A Lawless World

Lawlessness represents freedom and autonomy. For the Western genre, this is critical. It allows a place where individuality has the most value, and internal morality rules the land, nothing else. It places the most emphasis on you, and whether or not you have the means to succeed and advance in a world where you have only your own moral compass to rely on.

Lawlessness also invites the possibility to impose order, and to take charge where no one else previously could. Imposing order, even over a few individuals, means power, and power is everything in the Western. Power can mean having a bunch of lackeys, having the biggest, baddest gun, or having the most attitude. With power brings advantages, and it is critical for survival in a lawless world.

A Lone Hero

The lone hero in the Western allows us to place ourselves in his position. This is always a guy that has the knowledge of the land and the way things work. He's, essentially, a badass. Think Clint Eastwood. John Wayne. Will Smith in I am Legend. Denzel in The Book of Eli. Woody Harrelson in Zombieland. You in Fallout. Borderlands. Left for Dead.

The hero gives us a means to establish order, or at least a way to traverse the lawlessness, and a means to explore the frontier. The hero needs to be hardened and unshakeable in his moral stance, regardless of what it is.

I think the parallels in these apocalyptic settings --and I include zombie games as a subset of this great apocalypse theme--and traditional Western genre games are all too glaring to ignore, and I think (at least for the time being) we have found an effective way to replicate a new frontier to be explored, filling our need for such thoughts.

And while something can also be said that the rise in apocalypse movies/settings can be attributed to a problematic economy and a nation stressed by healthcare and war, I'm convinced it goes beyond this. There are too many parallels to the Western. I think, until this "new frontier" has been really explored, we're going to see a lot more apocalypse movies now more than ever.

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