A truly apocalyptic game should not be confused with a game that merely contains apocalyptic elements. The industry is overflowing with games about "saving the world" which means a great many game stories feature some sort of apocalyptic threat. Most of these games do not qualify as genuinely apocalyptic since the threat never actually materializes. There are, however, games where the end of the world cannot be avoided, where watching civilization go up in flames is core to the experience. Games of this sort are often unforgettable, and if you haven't experienced them you are really missing something. Here are a few of the best ones...
Fallout (PC, 1997)
The apocalyptic nature of Fallout is right there in the title. In this game you are a survivor of the nuclear holocaust, part of a small community of people who escaped into Vault 13, a government-funded nuclear shelter miles underground. There your people have lived for nearly a century, functioning on the knowledge that human civilization has been utterly destroyed. Something goes wrong with Vault 13's automated water system, and you are the lone volunteer whose job it is to brave the surface in search of replacement parts. Thus begins your encounter with the horrors of nuclear devastation.
Fallout's sense of apocalyptic finality is established in the opening credits. They are haunting, featuring a scary Ron Perlman narrating how the world ends against real-life images of nuclear death. Its documentary vibe leaves you with the feeling that everything really is over. Everything you knew about this planet is gone, reduced to ash. And you were on the last lifeboat, with no home to come back to. By the time you reach the character creation screen, the mood is palpable. You feel the death, the hopelessness, the finality of it all. And then you're told to get out of your cave and explore, else the last handful of humans will be snuffed out forever, and Earth with be nothing but a rock, floating silently in space, waiting for the Sun to swallow it.
Of course you eventually discover you are not the last person left in the world, that there were other survivors of the holocaust, and that human civilization is, slowly, hobbling back into existence. But this is up to the player to discover on their own. Much of Fallout is about finding these people, about the player pulling back the veil of hopelessness themselves, piece by piece. Fallout goes to great lengths to ensure that you begin with this sense of hopelessness, that it is a very terrifying part of your journey. I don't think I've ever felt so alone as I have in a videogame as when I stepped out of Vault 13 for the first time, the voice of Ron Perlman still echoing in my head, wondering what out there could possibly be alive.
Odin Sphere (PS2, 2007)
Odin Sphere is one of the most apocalyptic games ever, featuring mass death and destruction on such a fabulous scale that by the time you even reach the last boss the entire world is already destroyed. When you, as the Valkyrie Gwendolyn, fight Levanthan, a dragon so gigantic to twists back and forth across the visible sky, the known world has already been swallowed up completely by the sea. This gives the last boss fight an eeire feeling, since what you are trying to accomplish is not entirely clear. It's certainly not saving the world. You and Levanthan feel like the last two creatures on Earth, and your only choice is to destroy each other. What's left afterwards, assumedly, will be nothing.
Odin Sphere is based very loosely on Norse mythology, with the concept of Ragnarok being central to the game. There are five playable characters in Odin Sphere: a Valkyrie, an knight, a fairy, and a witch. Each of them plays a part in the apocalypse, and for most of the game the player assumes they are destined to avert this apocalypse. But no. What happens is they all play a part in ensuring that the apocalypse happen correctly. Over the course of the game you collect books which cryptically describe the end of the world. If you interpret them correctly, and make the right choices in the final hours, the world ends with a chance of beginning again in the future. If you make the wrong choices, the world ends permanently. But either way, the world ends. The oceans boil. The skies fall. Cities are swallowed. People die by the millions. When they say Ragnarok in this game, they mean fucking Ragnarok.
The desperation of Odin Sphere is summed up by a brief cut-scene* at the end. Gwendolyn's lady in waiting, Myris, whom you've been friends with the whole game, stands atop the last mountain on Earth as it sinks into the boiling sea. She pleads, assumedly to God, that just two people survive so that her death and the deaths of untold millions won't be in vain. Then she sobs as the mountain crumbles into nothing. You only see this cinematic if you make a mistake near the end and get one of the "bad" endings. However, it is clear that this scene does take place, off screen, even in the good ending. As Gwendolyn is flying up to fight Levanthan, she looks down and sees the mountain crumble, apologizing to Myris that she couldn't save her. So there you have it. Even though in the best ending Gwendolyn and her lover alone survive to repopulate the world, civilization still gets wiped out in a wave of unimaginable horror. That's about as happy as Odin Sphere gets, making it one of the most melancholy games you will ever play.
Final Fantasy VI (SNES, 1994)
Every Japanese RPG is about saving the world. Final Fantasy VI is the only one where you don't. Midway through FFVI, when the typical genre elements are coming together, when the ancient power that will ravage the world is about to be unleashed, and you, the lone heroes, stand together to stop it... the unthinkable happens. You fuck up, and the world is ripped to pieces. Cut to one year later. The land is a waste. The sea is an endless brown sludge. The sky is red. All your party members are gone--dead, for all you know--and you are alone on a small island in the middle of a dead world, waiting to die.
Final Fantasy VI has balls, to say the least. I remember opening the package for the first time and looking at the game map. It had two sides. On one was the World of Balance, which looked all nice and green, and on the other was the World of Ruin, which looked like Earth after God used it for toilet paper. I had assumed the World of Ruin was some kind of netherworld, some magical dark reflection of the World of Balance, which you would go to periodically though out the game. It never even occurred to me that it represented a permanent change to the game, that after a certain point in Final Fantasy VI that brown turd of a world would be the only one you had. This reality came as big of a shock to me as it did to the characters in the story. I remember sitting there slack-jawed in disbelief as the continents ripped themselves apart before my eyes, followed by the ominous on-screen text: "On that day, the world was changed forever..."
The rest of the game is about surviving in this horrible world, about pulling yourself up, out of the misery, and finding something to live for. It's not easy. You have to travel around this wasteland, gathering up all your old friends one by one, having to convince each one not to give in to despair. You start with nothing but a wooden raft. The beautiful overworld music has been replaced by the sound of desolate, ceaseless wind. And there isn't a pixel of green color to be seen as you trudge across the desert landscape. None of this ever goes away, making the final hours of the game a painful adjustment process. There is hope to be found, you eventually discover, as well as beauty, in this dead world. But, by God, you have to work to find it. The sense of loss Final Fantasy VI is unlike any other game. No other game so decisively takes everything away from you and simply tells you to deal with it.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (N64, 2000)
How can one of the most apocalyptic games be one in which you avert the apocalypse? Isn't that breaking the rule? Majora's Mask certainly is a game where, at the end, you successfully save the world and avert the impending apocalypse. However, by that time you've experienced Armageddon more times than you can count. Majora's Mask is a game about time travel. In this game the only way to save the world is to witness its end over, and over, and over. Each time the world ends you just rewind time with your magical Ocarina and let it happen again. You have to study it. You have to find the key that will help you, one day, successfully prevent it. But that day is long in coming, and you will fail countless times before you succeed, making this the most brutal, relentless, and numbing apocalyptic experience in videogames.
In Majora's Mask the world is ending in three days, and that is not enough time to save it, even though you are Link, the hero of all the Zelda games, whose saved the world countless times before. This time, however, things aren't so easy. The moon is crashing into the earth in 72 hours, and you've got exactly that long to stop it. Majora's Mask takes place in real time, meaning the clock is ticking. Look up at any moment and you will see the moon inching closer. Your magical Ocarina can slow down time, but not stop it. Either way that moon in crashing, so you'd better hurry up and do your hero thing. Oh, wait. You got stuck in a dungeon and it took you 2 days to get through it? Tough shit, Link. Get ready for the end of the world.
The most harrowing thing about Majora's Mask is the people you meet. They are all in various stages of denial about the end of the world, and as you get increasingly familiar with them, with their daily lives, you become a witness to how they all deal with death. I doubt anyone who played Majora's Mask can forget the story of Anju and Kafei, two lovers kept apart by a curse. Over the course of the 72 hours you see Anju's misery at being away from her lover, how it makes the looming apocalypse all the more horrible for her. You know at 2:00 on the Second Day she will go for a walk and cry by herself in the park, and that she will run for the hills, without Kafei, at 6:00 on the Third Day. If you try really hard you can unite them, although you cannot ever lift the curse that has transformed Kafei. The best you are able to do is lead Kafei, in his cursed form, to Anju in the final hours, so they can share a final moment together before the end. As the moon is tearing the town apart around them they thank you and prepare for death. Such bitter moments are typical of Majora's Mask, and they will haunt you even after you finally solve the time puzzle and save the world.
It occurs to me that all of these games except one are Japanese. The scholar in me thinks this probably has something to do with the stronger apocalyptic tradition in Japanese pop-art. Japan has a strong apocalyptic sensibility, which some say is connected with their shared cultural experience of the atomic bomb. Interestingly, the only game on this list which features actual nuclear devastation is the non-Japanese one. Perhaps for the Japanese nuclear war hits too close to home? On the other hand, you see them dealing with apocalyptic anxiety pretty openly through fantasy. It's hard to find a Western game that forces players to deal with the finality of apocalyptic change, realistic or imagined, whereas in Japan it is a little easier. That's how it appears to me at least, based on these examples, which, I admit, are pretty narrow.
* Unfortunately, the only clip I could find of this cut-scene was in English. The English voice-acting is somewhat hammy, so I apologize. One of the great things about Odin Sphere is that it has a Japanese language option, making it a lot easier to take seriously all its melodrama. Watch this clip with the sound off if you want. It's subtitled.