Rage 2’s Bright Bouncy Apocalypse Both Helps It and Hurts It
There’s something about the apocalypse we just can’t quit. Whether its a nuclear war, zombies, robots, games (and gamers) have a morbid fascination with what comes after society breaks down. The infatuation is long-standing, but in 2019 we’ve seen an interesting style shift starting to form: In games like Rage 2 and Far Cry: New Dawn, bleak wastelands are set in the seemingly grand tradition of end-of-the-world stories, but brightened with neon color palettes and a healthy dose of explosive, double-barrelled escapism. You not only get to survive the end of the world, but you also get to thrive in it.
It sounds like a subtle distinction, but it creates a disconnect between the state of the world and how you move through it. The people around you, friends and, often, foes, struggle, but you’re more powerful than ever. That distances you from the desperation you’d expect to feel in such hard existence and the characters who aren’t as lucky as you, which waters down the story. But that distance also makes the ride even more fun, as you aren’t burdened by the weight of that experience.
A Study in Pink
Rage 2, aesthetically speaking, leans heavily into that prototypical Mad-Max-style wasteland. A dust bowl, where most lived in rusted basements and metal shacks. This type of world, as depicted in game series like Fallout and Gears of War, are mostly drawn in shades of gray and brown: Muddy, depressing, bleak they set a foreboding tone for the world around you. Rage 2 follows suit in this regard, but also provides relief from that gloom using its primary accent color, neon pink. Like many games, Rage 2 uses pink to highlight interactive items and paths forward, which adds a bit of brightness to any area. But it’s also used to achieve a certain mood synthy pink lighting adorns underground bars and other areas. Whether it serves a utilitarian purpose or simply makes the world seem more interesting, it acts as a reminder that you shouldn’t get too down that the world is in shambles. Pink is a fun color it’s light and it’s bright and the world is full of it.
Far Cry: New Dawn uses pink in a similar way. Post-apocalyptic Hope County is smothered with pink flowers; a seemingly fantastical byproduct of a nuclear blast. Roaming the wilderness, you often come across beautiful fields of flowers between ruins and other points of interest. The flowers and nature in general serves as a stable distraction from the game’s sad circumstances. You may know that most of Hope County’s residents died when the bomb went off, but you don’t need to think about that all the time, right?
In both games, the use of a flashy color gives you permission to “take it easy,” and avoid concerning yourself with the greater concerns of the world. Extremely bleak depictions of the apocalypse without making light of it. Metro Exodus find ways to break up environmental monotony and inject color into the world by changing locales. In Rage 2 and New Dawn both some humor, which cuts the tone, and their use of color re-enforces that tone without reaching zaniness of the Borderlands series, which isn’t technically post-apocalyptic, but paints with a similar brush.
The aspect of these games I found most striking was their propensity for making you, the player, feel powerful in a setting that is deliberately designed to make you feel powerless. The prototypical end-of-the-world scenario paints the world as a struggle – there are things that go bump in the night that even your character, who can presumably hold their own, aren’t ready to fight unless the circumstances are right. Both New Dawn and Rage 2 completely dismiss that notion, making you easily capable of mowing down anything that comes your way without hesitation. Pairing that power fantasy with a new, frontieresque world gives a very specific sense that you’re the “king of the jungle,” that you are literally the most powerful thing in the world.
I’m certainly not the first person to say it, but Rage 2’s powers and weapons effectively turn you into a superhero. Even compared to other games, you are obscenely powerful: You have a shockwave attack that can kill a whole wave of enemies, and a shotgun that can send a mutant flying across the room. It’s pretty rare that you come up against an enemy that will take much time to dismantle, nevermind give you pause. That power, paired with a world that’s already been destroyed, gives you an unbridled sense of freedom. Many games give you the choice between being creatively violent and being a “hero.” In the wasteland, you get to have it both ways.
New Dawn achieves a similar sensation simply by sticking to the Far Cry formula. Taking down entire camps full of enemies on your own, when mixed with the survivalist overtones of the post-apocalyptic world, go beyond “having fun” and creates the hyper-powerful predator vibe.
While it feels good to complete challenge after challenge without missing a step, that level of power can obscure your understanding of the world. How can you understand what these new frontiers are like if you’re experience is so far removed from every other character living in it. I found it hard to care about the story in either of these games: There are many reasons for that, but part of it stemmed from the large rift between the world as explained by the games’ supporting casts, and the one I experienced.
Which begs the question, does this combination make for a good video game? Do post-apocalyptic stories demand a certain level of grounded mechanics to draw you into the experience or is that double-fried escapism tasty enough to be its own reward? Based on these two examples, I’d say both are true. Both games’ narratives paled in comparison to their gameplay, and suffered for structuring their games around those stories. On the other hand, giving players the chance to feel like they’ve risen out of the doldrums of a wasteland to find a place at the top of the new order is undeniably enticing, and I expect to see more games chase it.