Post-apocalyptic myths busted
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
I'm an old-school gamer, D&D 3.5 DM, who occasionally found himself as an indie developer. Once I was tired of waiting for real Fallout 3 (Van Buren) and get to work on my own post-apoc setting with realistic and scientific approach (if you've read Peter Watts' works you know what I imply). Got support through the Greenlight, then first Kickstarter (failed), another 2 Kickstarters (both successful, one of them is successfully fulfilled, another one is still in progress). I've been reading Gamasutra for a long time. Found many of the articles helpful and useful. So I decided to repost here the most popular articles of mine and keep sharing my experience as an indie in return.
The most popular articles of mine are the "Myths Busted" type. So let me start from the first one...
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As many of you already knows, recently, in my work designing and analyzing concepts for another weapon from our game, I heard that there hasn't yet been a hard science fiction video game. In complete disbelief, I checked the Internet and Wikipedia. It's hard to imagine my surprise when I came up empty handed.
Yes, the international gaming community has industry standard space operas (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, etc.); space westerns (are you waiting for Firefly too?); purely apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic games (Fallout, Metro, etc.); cyberpunk (Deus Ex, Syndicate, etc.); steampunk (Arcanum, Dishonored etc.); alternate history games (Command and Conquer) and more.
But it turns out that no one has yet made a completely hard science fiction game, despite the fact that since the time of H. G. Wells, it has been considered the original science fiction genre. The difference lies in its strict adherence to scientific laws firmly established at the time of writing. What really made these books stand out was their detailed scientific and technical basis and their realistic extrapolation from that.
It turns out that the relentlessly scientific approach that we've been building into every nook and cranny of our setting since the beginning has the potential to make After Reset RPG the first hard science fiction video game in history.
After discussing this discovery with our team and gaming journalists, I decided to summarize and share some of the most enduring classic myths about life after the apocalypse that we intend to do away with in our game. I remind you that this is intended for an adult audience, and in order to convince that audience of the reality and authenticity of our game, and by the same token to allow the game to really let the players immerse themselves in their characters – it needs to be truly scientifically convincing as well as being based on facts and real world experience.
Well, what are we waiting for? Pour yourself a glass of something cold, lean back in your chair and let's keep busting those classic movie and video game myths about life after the end of the world.
MYTH #1: NUCLEAR WINTER
Myth: Setting off a large number of nuclear warheads leads to huge clouds of smoke, soot and ash rising into the sky. These thick, black clouds envelop the Earth in darkness. The temperature falls sharply. With complete blackness, low temperatures and falling radioactive residue, all flora and fauna will die, everything will freeze and be covered with dozens of meters of ice and snow. And only the smartest criminals will be able to claw their way out of the bomb shelters and Metro stations to hunt for mutants.
Reality: The Nuclear Winter model was developed and became part of popular imagination during the Cold War. In modern times it has become unlikely. However, the "Sagan-Moiseev" model didn't take into account factors such as the release of greenhouse gasses, heat loss from the earth's surface, the climate's ability to self regulate, and also the fact that fires will burn themselves out. Modern climatologists allow that Nuclear Winter is theoretically possible, but it could not be a consequence even of a massive conflict between Russia and the USA. What would be needed is regular (over many years) blasts in coal mines and other geologically defined places designed for this purpose and a nuclear arsenal over ten times larger than those of all nuclear nations in total.
In After Reset RPG: As a result of the resonant blasts of mankind's combined nuclear arsenal during the Reset a chain reaction in the atmosphere was nearly achieved. Nuclear Winter never came, but the ozone layer was significantly damaged. For reasons not understood by the subterranean United Governments, over the next ten years the Earth underwent a pole shift and some terramorphing-like changes. Together with that, Yellow Zones began to appear, which could support life. For the descendants of those who survived the Reset on the surface that new world is natural. It has been like that their whole lives.
MYTH #2: THE AVAILABILITY OF COMBUSTIBLES
Myth: Like any good character in a casual game or Hollywood film, after having lived through the apocalypse, you start siphoning gas from abandoned cars and gas stations on your wandering way. Fill up your ride and voila, you're back on the road!
Reality: Any combustible, including those used as car and motorcycle fuel, is a chemical compound with a life cycle of its own and therefore an expiration date. After as little as six months to a year, gas is no longer a useable power source for any vehicle.
In After Reset RPG: For the descendants of those who lived through the apocalypse on the surface, combustibles are a rarity. As a matter of fact, so are vehicles with internal combustion engines that derive power from them. Nonetheless, there are rumors about organizations in the New Confederacy having field oil refineries like the ones built by locals during the war in Syria in 2013 C.E. It is also known that some United Government technology by 123 A.R. uses special kinds of liquid fuel.
MYTH #3: WHEELED TRANSPORT
Myth: Whether breaking into an abandoned garage, or just checking the ignition in an abandoned vehicle, you're always exchanging one stylish set of wheels for another one and tearing off into the endless expanse of the Wasteland.
Reality: Even if you're able to find workable fuel and charge the battery, in ideal conditions, without a mechanic these vehicles can only do what they were made to do for 7-15 years more. As soon as the paint begins to peel off (which happens within a few years), corrosion starts eating the metal at a rate of 0,3 inches per year. After 20 years, any car abandoned in a coastal area will already have become an indistinct rusted skeleton. The same fate awaits these man-made constructions in other climate zones in 30-75 years. Man-made metal constructions will last the longest in a dry desert climate. The only consolation, no matter how senseless, is that the tires will stick around for 100 years after the end of the world.
In After Reset RPG: In the arid desert climate of the Great Desert even more than 100 years after the Reset, some parts of some vehicles remain in places as the metal skeletons of the Past Era. In coastal areas of the State of Eagle you barely make out these hunks of metal, long ago consumed by rust and buried in the ground. But tires… you find tires everywhere.
MYTH #4: EVERLASTING CANNED GOODS
Myth: Year after year you and your friendly band of courageous survivors search abandoned houses for canned goods. Of course, sooner or later you find these delicacies, and feast around the fire remembering the world before the apocalypse.
Reality: The good news is that ideally selected, sterilized food in a hermetically sealed container can be stored practically forever if kept at a low enough temperature. The bad news is that cans have two weak points: the packaging is susceptible to destruction and the environment can be a destructive influence. The true expiration date of canned food that you read on the can is not the time when the contents of the can will spoil, but the time when the metal of the can will corrode to the point of having holes if the protective coating is scratched away. Beyond that, the processes of conserving food for home storage (probably not long, 1-2 years) and for long term storage (50-100 years) are very different. So, first of all most packaged products left in homes will be destroyed by rodents (as well as the package); and secondly, what remains even after 5-7 years is unlikely to be edible. Of course, this does not apply in arctic zones where the constantly frozen climate helps protect food products both from decomposition and rodents.
In After Reset RPG: In some places in the expanses of the Great Desert or the State of Eagle, 123 years after the Reset you can still dig up some kinds of long-storage cans (mostly from the US Army) produced even before the United Governments came to be. But before slurping down the contents of the can, make sure to study the can for bulges, check it with the Geiger counter, and pray.
MYTH #5: SUPERTECHNOLOGY FOR PERSONAL USE
Myth: World's gone to pot? No problem! You and your group can set off into the ruined cities and dig up some radical laser Gatling guns. You can pick up some Power Armor from abandoned military bases. Reprogram abandoned robots. And just start technologically dominating in general, forming your own technocratic Empire on the ruins of the old world.
Reality: Due to the fact that an EMP is one of the surprising effects of a nuclear explosion, all electrical equipment not specially shielded in the blast zone will be instantly and irreversibly damaged. The basic mechanism of action of EMP is called the Compton Effect. Gamma rays force fast (Compton) electrons to come out of the atoms at very sharp angles from the vector of the gamma rays that knocked them out of place, instantly creating powerful currents and a radial electric field. These fast electrons in their turn ionize atoms in the surrounding area (a cascade ionization) as a result of which orders of magnitude more slow ions appear, which move in the direction of the force lines of the radial field, creating a conduction current in that area. As a result unprotected electronics are permanently and irreversibly burnt out.
In After Reset RPG: Setting off the United Government's nuclear arsenal actually had little to do with the EMP apocalypse because most strategic nuclear units (those that were not destroyed as a result of the formation of the United Governments) were located up high, not exceeding 10 km above sea level. Most of the EMP destruction was caused by resonant impulses, emanating from the alien artifacts over the last ten minutes before the Reset. As a matter of fact it was this that served as the trigger for the nuclear reaction on the part of the UG which resulted in the Reset. All this means that most of the Past Era gadgets you can find on the earth's surface in 132 A.R. (those that by some miracle have not yet turned to dust after a hundred years of corrosion) will be simply unusable and irreparable. This is a new world, a new civilization in which the relics of the past are well and truly rare artifacts. The origin and existence of all of these artifacts is accounted for in detail from a scientific viewpoint.
MYTH #6: SPORTS EQUIPMENT AS ARMOR
Myth: You often come across gangs, raiders and just armed groups of people in general dressed in massive pieces of defensive material originally made as padding for American football with cool trapezoidal shapes, stylish shoulder pads, knee pads, helmets, masks and other impressive "found armor."
Reality: Football pads? Lineman shoulder pads? Hockey helmets? Iron masks? Guys, are you serious? Even if we overlook their unwieldiness and the discomfort of constantly wearing sham props from classic post-apocalyptic films, the fact is this sport equipment's real protective ability is laughable. Your appearance will be fear-inducing, but you'll die from one bullet, knife jab or even just a simple hammer strike. There is one small exception related to improving the wearer's mobility – trainers. that is why Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan and professional mercenaries in Iraq would often carry trainers, and change into them, preferring them to standard issue military boots.
In After Reset RPG: You'll hardly be likely to run into people in sports pads and idiotic unwieldy masks carrying hockey sticks and the like. Most things from the Past Era not made of synthetic materials have turned to dust or rags. The new civilization that lived through the Reset on the surface has already been making its own clothes, armor and weaponry for decades. However, as was already noted above, most things from the Past Era, even those without a functional application, are perceived as rare artifacts in societies capable of satisfying basic human needs. There are even whole groups completely devoted to seeking out, identifying, selling and reselling such artifacts.
MYTH #7: RELIGIOUS CULTS FLOURISH
Myth: Those who lived through the End of the World, as predicted by all major world religions, have been plunged back into the Dark Ages, full of strange cults and witch-hunts. There are cargo cults and other fanatics everywhere.
Reality: Sociological studies of the change in level of religious adherence among the populations of European countries before and after the First and Second World Wars have shown the opposite reaction. Rejecting the possibility that the Creator could allow such cataclysms, the number of atheists among survivors of those wars and among the following generations leapt from 1-3% before to 20-50% after. Of course there are always the crazies, but there's no reason to expect any kind of religious domination of society.
In After Reset RPG: Among the survivors of the Reset on the surface, there are many atheists. However you can find the echoes of the major world religions everywhere. Traveling through the Great Desert and the State of Eagle you can come across some cults and acquaint yourself with the huge, stable religious society The Indian Alliance, and small churches in the New Confederacy.
MYTH #8: LEGIONS OF ZOMBIES
Myth: Zombies. Hordes of man-eating zombies everywhere. And you, with your perfectly fitted sheriff's hat, or closely trimmed Brad Pitt-esque beard, go about gunning these abominations down, with the help of other survivors. Of course, in roaming across the country you are able to avoid being bit by these creatures as you valiantly hold off wave after wave of zombies.
Reality: Zombies are nothing more than a mythical archetypical character of modern mass culture. The key word here is mythological. Even if we suppose this unbelievable pandemic, which spreads ideally and allows necrotic neurogenesis (a process that allows dead brain tissue to grow again). Yes, with the completely dead husk of a brain, which is what makes a person human, you can achieve reanimation of the part of the brain that deals with basic motor functions and primitive instincts. Sure, you could contract brain parasites such as Toxoplasma gondii. But, even with this kind of pandemic, it will not multiply by infecting others by biting, even if you eat all the calories from your victim, i.e. absolutely everything to the bare bones. Beyond that, after only 30 days a fantasy pandemic of zombies cannot get food by itself, but instead by constantly burning energy, will simply shrivel up and die off the natural way. They have no way to run after you.
In After Reset RPG: No brain-eating zombies. In some regions (for example in zones with abandoned Artifacts) you can come across people that don't seem "quite right in the head," but even they are not going to eat your brains, what's more, they won't even try. Living people will present a much bigger threat than hordes of these invented and popularized beings.
MYTH #9: MUTANTS, SUPERMUTANS, ULTRAMUTANTS
Myth: After a nuclear apocalypse many people will have turned into hideous mutants, and some will even have attained superpowers from the radiation.
Reality: Studies on the consequences of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and also the Chernobyl disaster have shown that people exposed to the effects of ionized radiation simply die. There is simply no biological basis for adaptive mutation, like those seen in Drosophila flies, for the human body. The problem here is hidden in humankind's insufficient birth rate and extremely long lifespan. As it relates to the effects of radiation on the next generation – that is just a sad story.
In After Reset RPG: 123 years after the Reset, most of the descendants of those who lived through the nuclear apocalypse on the surface of the Earth look and genetically are the same Homo sapiens. Of course, with the passage of time there are some adaptive changes such as increased liver size (for better filtration of harmful substances) or in the retina of the eye (for more protection from UV radiation), but in most cases this is practically unidentifiable without serious medical study. From time to time in the settlements of the survivors, children with visibly noticeable mutations are born, but they rarely survive birth and natural selection in general. And if they survive, they suffer persecution worse than Tyrion in Game of Thrones. As a rule these mutants are called Deviants. They lead unsociable or reclusive lives. Despite the fact that most of them are infertile, if they can have children, they are born completely normal.
MYTH #10: CANNIBALISM AS A FOOD SOURCE
Myth: Whether suffering from a lack of food or just to have a little extra, people started to eat each other. These cannibals started to pop up in groups and hunt other survivors in order to eat the slowest of them. These monsters, having tasted human flesh, are easy to pick out from a crowd due to their characteristic tremble.
Reality: We won't be discussing modern instances of cannibalism here, borne out of fairly rare psychological deviations. It's better to consider cannibalism as a result of hunger, which is truly unavoidable in the case of a nuclear cataclysm. A great number of instances of cannibalism out of need are known, when people faced with death from hunger had to eat the flesh of those who had already died of natural causes, or even more rarely were killed by the cannibals. But we shouldn't forget that these people became social outcasts, and the psychological trauma and feeling of guilt of those forced into cannibalism remained with them until the end of their lives, even leading some to suicide. What then are the "characteristic physiological signs" by which we can distinguish a cannibal from a normal person? Well in popular media, movies and video games they show the consequences of very real prion diseases, which are spread by eating an infected subject. But these diseases are very rare and as a rule wipe out populations on their own before they can spread.
In After Reset RPG: Everywhere in the new Western America, where the game takes place cannibalism is judged and acknowledged as a taboo. In the cities of the New Confederacy a proven act of cannibalism can easily lead to a hanging. For the small contingent of the United Governments in the region, cannibalism is so barbaric that they would never consider it. Some tribes of the Indian Union have resorted to ritual cannibalism from time to time, but with the development of agriculture and livestock farming even these rituals have been replaced with symbolic ones. But this relates to the major factions of the region as a whole. If we consider the question on a smaller scale, abnormal people can be found everywhere, and of course "what happens in the Wasteland stays in the Wasteland." But, of course you cannot tell a normal person from a cannibal by purely physiological attributes.
MYTH #11: CONSTANTLY MIGRATING RAIDERS
Myth: Total chaos and submissiveness reign in the world. In all four corners of the earth, roaming bands of raiders threaten, rob and murder the simple peaceful settlements and scattered solitary homes of other less aggressive groups of survivors.
Reality: According to Game Theory, after the apocalypse in the first years, surviving migrating groups of people will interact in a way similar to the prisoner's dilemma. All the same, it will only take a few decades before some kind of union of similar groups into larger societies comes about. As far as raiders on motorcycles are concerned we should look to social biology. It's fairly conventional to see the archetypal roaming raiders as wolves, and a settled hardworking community as wild sheep. This conventionally "herbivorous" community can allow itself to produce and support a fairly large population in the long term thanks to farming, gathering, hunting or any other productive specialization aimed at making goods. Raiders are just like wolves in nature, they take just enough to fill their bellies from the weak members of the "sheep" groups, and in order not to cause them to die off, they have to cover a huge territory with a lot of food sources. A similar model in nature does not allow a large population of wolves, but only small groups of these predators over a fairly large territory. What's more, a similar model of behavior (once again over a long period) wastes a lot of energy. That is, for example, if a "pack of wolves" finds a "rabbit den," it spends weeks threatening and frightening them in order to convince them to pay them off. And that means they spend a huge amount of calories, which as a result leads the predators themselves to exhaustion and the brink of starvation. Let's say they just simply quickly attack and destroy the "den," if they survive that day, they are once again without a source of food and resources. Instead of that, human history shows that a community of "wild sheep or rabbits" that produces resources can be quite aggressive and even more violent than predators when defending their young and resources.
In After Reset RPG: During your travels through the State of Eagle and the Great Desert you'll come across small settled societies who have no problem defending themselves from marauders and raiders. You'll also witness the birth of one of the global factions of the new world – the New Confederacy. You'll come across the united tribes of the Indian Alliance. And yes, you'll find raiders. But not cool bandits like you see in popular media. People who become raiders and marauders don't come from good backgrounds. The structure of these opportunistic groups will largely remind you of small wild bands of the early Wild West. At the same time, you'll also come across societies, completely built on evolved and adapted "prisoners" concepts.
MYTH #12: PERSONAL HAREMS
Myth: Being physically stronger, and having a lot of endurance and bravery, surviving men will become objects of desire for all women they come across. Men who have survived the apocalypse will dominate, form their own personal harems, fuck whoever they want and those who don't submit will be taken by force and kept in chains. Gender relations will revert to their primitive form.
Reality: In sociology and ethnography it is well known that gender roles even in primitive societies are not the same from group to group, and they depend on each group’s level of economic development as well as their societal norms. During the apocalypse and in the first few years after it, a large part of the population will really die, and women are just as likely to die as men. Even slightly more likely due to their position serving men in modern society prior to the cataclysm. If anarchy comes, the first few years create the real possibility of a patriarchal alpha mindset, all the same in the time to come they will be restricted to non-natural selection. There are noteworthy social experiments in history about this issue. For example, during the Second World War, a group of women and one man were cut off from the mainland on an island in the Pacific. The man quickly oriented himself, hoarded all the food supplies, armed himself and declared all women his property. He set up a harem and an order for seeing his concubines. During the first "wedding night" the first girl simply slit his throat and the women began living together in peace, waiting to be rescued by friendly forces.
In After Reset RPG: In the new world After the Reset that came to be on the ruins of the Past Civilization, male and female roles (and with them ideas about what someone in each of those roles should do and be) vary considerably from one community to another. So, among a small population in the former North America, there is really a weak form of patriarchy, however at the same time, any woman with skills deemed useful for the survival of the community is generally seen as a member of that community rather than as an object. In the newly formed New Confederacy, people traditionally treat women with respect, and women have equal voting rights. But that only extends to female citizens, and not to female slaves (enslaved women are not citizens of the NC). Among the multitude of tribes of the Indian Alliance there is a highly developed system of female and male roles, and also rites and traditions for determining masculine and feminine genders. All the same, de facto, hidden matriarchies can freely flourish in these tribes. And only in the cities of the United Governments and among their social groups will you encounter an earnestly equal relation to women, under which gender discrimination is punishable by law.
MYTH #13: THE REBIRTH OF SLAVERY AND THE SLAVE TRADE
Myth: In a post-apocalyptic world, might makes right so you can easily take other people as slaves, becoming their unquestioned master. At the very least you can live without a care in the world, forcing others to do your work for you. At most you can even make a handy living trading in human cargo. And with your newly obtained, trouble-free sex slaves this radiation soaked world starts to take on a certain charm.
Reality: This may sound cynical, but in the first few decades after the apocalypse, even if people return to a primitive state, slavery is not a livable or economically effective solution. To achieve effective production, a division of labor is necessary for life. When organizing this division, hard labor (above all physical) is the least attractive. If we look at the history of humanity, we see that only after achieving a certain level of development (when technological developments can provide a laborer with a larger amount of products than he needs to support his own life) can a society take those captured in war, who would once have been killed, deprive them of their freedom, and force them to do hard labor for a master. According to modern concepts, in the epoch of primitive society, slave ownership was initially completely absent; after that it did appear, but it was not on a massive scale. In that period, naturally there weren't slaves as such, but captives taken in war. In intertribal warfare, the captives were men, or as a rule they either weren't taken at all, were accepted into the victorious tribe, or were simply killed. Sexual slavery is another kind of slavery all together, but I already wrote about that in the section on personal harems.
In After Reset RPG: The year is 132 After Reset. It is the time of opportunists and big possibilities for the descendants of those who survived the apocalypse on the surface. A time in which the first seeds of the new future empires are sown. It is a historical period for the new world, in which small settlements are starting to farm once again. The period when the New Confederacy is born. It is the period when slavery becomes economically efficient and is only beginning to become popular. In addition, it takes considerably different forms from community to community. So, for example, some communities reject it out of principle. Others, like the New Confederacy use it and integrate it into their culture in a way not dissimilar to the Greco-Roman model (a citizen of the NC cannot be made a slave, and any slave after 10 years of service, or earlier if the master, which could be the NC itself, decides can become a "proper citizen"). Among the united tribes of the Indian Alliance slavery is not very popular. They generally hold "white savages" in contempt, and avoid contacting them. At the same time, many whites have tried every possible way to assimilate into the Indian tribes due to the relatively happy and dignified existence of these descendants of the native population of the former America.
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Well, I hope, you like what you’ve read and, I assume, my hard sci-fi approach will help other indie game designers to ponder on the game concepts for grownups and their suspicion of disbelief.