E3 presents the literature of catastrophic apocalypse

E3 is a conference where all the new games for the next year are announced and displayed. Everything looks pretty great from my perspective as a gamer. From my perspective as a rhetorician, something else was presented: a budding literature of human extinction.

The new games at E3 all seem to address one begged question which is: How will we address the coming inevitable collapse of society, the extinction-level event, or apocalypse? I believe the games displayed this year are attempts to address a coming catastrophic collapse of global order. At a visceral level, we recognize that we do not have a rhetoric, a discourse, or a literature to help us make sense of what that collapse will be like for the survivors. In short, we can’t imagine what gaming, literature, entertainment, or life will be like after the  global market system fails for the last time. We are not sure what life will be like after democratic systems both state and interstate collapse. We need a new literature, and E3 presented it to us in what I’m calling “afterlit” – an open ended literary form that is participatory and is about “trying on” attitudes and motives that we might use or need in a post-governable world that has suffered a catastrophic, extinction-level event.

I believe video games are a literature in all the ways that literature matters. They show us potential attitudes and motives of various characters allowing us to react to those situations. They also set up something we could call the “haunting familiar” where the scene is such that no reader or participant in the narrative would recognize the game world, however that world is haunted by the ghosts of what was – more than ruins of a burned out world, like we get in the Fallout games, we get ruins of a burned out human sensibility – there are the structures and the ethics and economics that they used to reify, that they still somehow compel. The player is something like a ghost, haunting the world with attitudes and motives that are long dead, and the game world “haunts back” – absent the normal reified supports for particular systems of being and doing and thinking, the player is under a lot more pressure to justify their actions in this world. This is similar to Philip K. Dick's theory of what makes good science-fiction. It's not "cowboys in space," it's the guy going to work every day, but one thing is vastly different, and that drives the story.

We identify ourselves via our place in a very complex and very fragile interconnection of treaties, markets, currencies, and governmental arrangement such as party identity. When those go away – as we are more often imagining they will in a quick and painful jolt – what is left? Humanity, defining itself through Fiat money and work roles will have no discourse of identity left. How will people “size one another up?” How will we discover/recover/uncover our modes of interaction? How will life be arranged and lived? There are few literary resources available by people for people who are not trying to be consubstantial to a reified, institutional ideology that, post collapse, will only be fragments of a building and whispered memories.

This literature of human extinction presented to us at E3 communicated a universal pressing need to develop texts that help us navigate the impending implosion of the world, whether that is via weapons or financial markets subsuming governmental structures. The stage is set up by these games but this literature cannot be presented as a finished product. The games are open for the joint creation of these narratives. Think of these games as flight simulators for the apocalypse. What will you do? How will you know what could be done? How will survivors make sense of the silent ruins and each other?

Todd Howard from Bethesda put it best in discussing parts of the game Fallout 76: “We put a bunch of nuclear missile sites on the map, scattered the codes, and let you do what you want with them.” This after driving home the point that in the game, “everyone you meet is a real person.” As an online game, we can engage in social authorship, co-authorship of a literature meant to convey motives and attitudes and responses to situations that we are imagining while they are moving toward happening. All things are possible, except the normal tropes of meeting another person. Now we meet over nuclear silos and fight about destruction, becasue of destruction. 

Watch Todd Howard's entire Fall Out presentation from the Bethesda E3 2018 press conference.

Many games point us toward a world of a few individuals fighting back mobs of mindless creatures, while others suggest that the best use of our burned-out buildings and rusted signs of ideology are as cover for shootouts that are a cross between Hollywood-style gang warfare and the wild west. Groups of friends are meant to assist one another in these incredible military-style assaults. A clip of gameplay from The Division 2 showed how intertextual this new literature is. A group of friends playing online are moving through the ruins of Washington D.C., all of them carrying an array of weapons, saying “what do you guys want to do?” and “we need to level you” – “yea sorry I’ve been busy at work” – the conversation is the same at DuPont circle both before and after apocalypse. A teammate goes down from enemy fire: “Ooh, sorry guys!” “I’m coming to revive you” – connecting the dialogue of the anarchic world of the near future something like the dialogue at an ultimate frisbee event. The crossovers are eerie if not also evidence of a need for a discourse that can address a burned out world. The Division 2 gameplay is an attempt to see if we can wear what we are wearing now to the new party. It raises more questions than it tries to answer.

Watch the full reveal of The Division 2 with gameplay at the Microsoft Xbox E3 2018 press conference.

The Last of Us 2 is the most interesting, maybe even promsing, of what afterlit can be – placing our current uncertainties on a continuum with future uncertainties. This is explored well in the trailer that parallels female homosexual desire with an escape from a group of violent thugs. The Last of Us 2 gameplay/trailer blends the fear and awkwardness of teenage romance with the fear and awkwardness of a teen girl taking on a group of militant thugs in the post-apocalyptic wilderness. After watching them brutally murder someone in the name of “justice” she is detected and chased through the typical, double-haunted environment of the afterlit game world. The violence is personal and immediate in a way that is uncomfortable. People are hurt; they suffer – nobody goes down in the quick video game style we expect. At the end, she comes face to face with her opponent who is unable to fight back and delivers a lengthy killing blow. We are sent back to the teenage dance and are told that fear is a matter of perspective. It’s a really well done trailer not just for the game, but for the space we now imagine we occupy, a space just before collapse where we sense its imminence yet are going to be just as surprised as this young person who will have to transfer her concern from how to deal with romance to how to strategize against a five person group out to murder her.

Finally there are several games that move well past the normal venue of afterlit to what comes next. These games feature kingdoms run by humanoid animals, animal-human hybrids, or suggest a return to a Byzantine age of courtly intrigue where the most advanced weapons are swords. These are very related to the large category of historical-themed games where we work out how to be and act in previous catastrophic moments – such as the Mongol invasion of Japan, World War 1 and 2, and other tectonic conflicts – as training for our coming collapse. These don’t seem as connected to the more immediate games dealing with the recognizable collapse, but address the question as to what ideology and order look like after the last vestiges of our symbolic order have dissolved. We work through our coming dissolution by going back to past dissolutions to work out what works and doesn't in that time and place. We try to learn from opening up history, playing through it, and seeing what our attitudes should and could have been, if that tense makes sense.

The most bizarre and confusing game demo was for the new Hideo Kojima game - a mystical director and creator of games known for being able, in Burkean terms, to "see around the corner" - called Death Stranding. This gameplay and trailer were nearly unrecognizable to me as either game, TV show, or film. It could not be placed what was happening, other than someone was trying to get somewhere and had enemies to deal with. But the dialogue, the interactions, and motives of the characters remain somewhat intelligible. This game, as afterlit, serves as a placeholder for what will become tropistic in ten years as games continue to work toward providing imagined discursive test spaces for coming collapse. Death Stranding is as creepy as it is confusing, and seems interesting and desirable to play, yet the situation, and all intelligible rhetorics of what could be happening are fully detached from our current world. It's tough, maybe impossible to translate, but this might be the point. We need a Rosetta Stone for apocalypse.  Kojima rhetorically sets off our anxiety by offering us a world where it's post-apocalyptic and ordered, yet we cannot make sense of the order. They are not anarchic, nor are they connected to our comfortable ideological arrangements. It reads as new and foreign and familiar all at once. We want to translate it, but can't. 


E3 was great this year, particularly because of the undetected recognition that our desire for more shooter and zombie multiplayer games is our desire to identify and practice a discourse of pending apocalypse. The instability of democratic orders, the tremors in the global caplitalist system, and rising frustration and anger among populations have indicated to us, however collectively, that we need a new way of talking about our place in a world that is coming to an end. We need an afterlit, and the video game industry is offering the first glimpses of how it will be made.