A Vulnerable Retrospective: Desolation Games

Welcome to a Higher Level Gamer Critical Retrospective! Retrospectives can take many forms: some focus on a single franchise while others are more expansive. For these retrospectives, I’ll be taking the latter approach.

These retrospectives aren’t meant to be best-of lists. Rather, I’ll examine some of the tropes of particular game genres, their historical contexts, provide some examples, as well as explore why I think these genres are fun.

This second retrospective will focus on games that I’ve played in a genre that I call desolation games. Part post-apocalyptic, part resource management, part survival, desolation games span many recognized genre, but nonetheless share some common traits: loneliness, emptiness, vulnerability and despair.

So let’s begin with this week’s critical retrospective!

I’ve been playing Kenshi lately. Or rather, I should say that I’ve been trying to play Kenshi, and failing miserably in my attempts. To make matters worse, I don’t know why I’m failing.

By failing, I don’t mean that I’m not succeeding at particular in-game tasks. Failure here means that I load up the game, walk around for a few minutes, and then log out. I’m confused as to why this is happening, because Kenshi is a game that I should thoroughly enjoy, even though it’s still in a very early alpha state.

On its surface, Kenshi possesses everything I love in a game: it’s open-ended, it’s got a beautifully designed huge world, it allows me to build things, and it allows me to create my own stories. But I can’t play it. Each time I try, I feel overwhelmed in some way and I stop.

Kenshi is just the latest of what I like the call desolation games: games that rely on emptiness, loneliness, and on fostering feelings of despair to create a strong atmosphere. However, I’ve never played one that made me feel as Kenshi does.

Desolation games aren’t new, but it’s a genre – or maybe a better word would be concept – that seems to have gained some momentum in the last few years. Rust and DayZ are desolation games, and are part of a genre – survival games – that seems to be increasingly popular, judging by what Steam keeps throwing at me.

One of the earliest desolation games that I’ve played was SEAL Team. Released for PC in 1993, SEAL Team puts you in tactical command of a squad of US Navy SEALs during the Vietnam War. Graphically, the game was a product of its time. However, its attempt at recreating the actual Vietnam War experience results in a surprising depth of gameplay and mechanics complexity.

However, my strongest memories of SEAL Team are linked to the loneliness and emptiness of war that it so perfectly reproduced. You spend most of the game traveling through dense forests, crawling through marshes, or crossing river deltas in order to reach a particular position.

And then you wait. Waiting is an important element of SEAL Team. In fact, I can’t think of another game that uses doing nothing as a game mechanic as perfectly as SEAL Team does. When playing SEAL Team, you’re alone and you wait. Your target eventually comes into view and you’re able to take it down, but by then you’ve probably spent long periods not touching your keyboard. Even subsims aren’t that slow.

The next desolation game that I remember playing was Dune, released for the Sega CD in 1993, though I played it a bit later. Dune is a bit difficult to describe because it doesn’t really have a clear focus. Or rather, it has too many foci.

Dune is a game of political economy. As a member of House Atreides, you’re tasked by the Emperor to collect spice from Arrakis. How and where you collect is left up to you, as long as the Emperor receives his – often increasing – allotted quota.

Dune is a game of covert operations. You might be in control of Arrakis now, but the wily Harkonnen are continuously attempting to undermine your position, both on Arrakis and with the Emperor. As a result, you launch several covert raids to deal with them.

Dune is a game of exploration. As particular regions become depleted of spice, you have to push deeper and deeper into Arrakis’ forbidding worm-infested desert, which leads to some extraordinary discoveries.

Dune is an ecological game. As you advance through the game, you encounter the Fremen who will try to convince you to transform Arrakis into a verdant paradise. Doing so increases Fremen support for your rule, but can have dire political consequences beyond Arrakis.

Dune is a game of survival. As spice becomes increasingly rare and Arrakis becomes increasingly green, the Emperor becomes increasingly greedy. As the game progresses, his personal spice quota keeps getting larger and larger, to the point where it becomes impossible to satisfy him. And that’s when the Sardaukar arrive.

I’m not even sure if it’s actually possible to “win” Dune. In any case, I’ve never managed to do it. Rather, playing it left me with a true feeling of loneliness and despair. I was alone, mining the harsh environment, and I was left alone to face the Emperor’s dreaded legions. All I could do was survive until I was inevitably eliminated. At the time I thought it was a very unfair game, but now I’ve gained some appreciation for its design.

After Dune came DayZ. I’ve written about DayZ before, so I won’t elaborate too much here. All I’ll add is that I thoroughly enjoy the lonely experience of DayZ, I thoroughly cherish it’s emptiness. If you aren’t playing with a group, few other games manage to make you feel as alone and vulnerable as DayZ does.

Our foray into desolation games ends as it began, with Kenshi. When playing, I tend to gather a small group of followers, and then leave town to explore. This is the point where I can’t manage to get past. As soon as I leave town, I meet the vast open desert and start building a base. And that’s it. My base remains unfinished and my companions fade into oblivion as I stop playing. I just can’t do it, and I don’t know why. There’s something about the environment and the atmosphere that affects me deeply, but I can’t put it into words. All I know is that it works.

My love for desolation games also extends to other media. When playing Dungeons & Dragons, my favourite setting is Dark Sun, so much so that I run my home campaign as an instance of Dark Sun’s mytho-historical past. Alternatively, my favourite table-top RPG is Twilight: 2000, that, despite it’s complications, manages like no other game to immerse me in a world where vulnerability is a prime characteristic of the game play.

It’s also why I enjoyed Gaines’ table-top MechWarrior campaign where my character lost an eye, had a finger cut off, and got one of his lower legs blown away. He was also 60 years old, of Japanese descent, sporting a kepi, a Fidel Castro beard, and toting around an M249 SAW, but once he got his prosthetics, that just meant he was awesome.

Discerning readers might have noticed, with some surprise, that I’ve yet to mention the Fallout series. Have no fear, I’ve played it extensively. However, for some reason, I can’t really think of it as a desolation game. Despite the series’ vast post-apocalyptic environments, I’ve never felt lonely, in despair, or even vulnerable while playing any of the games. When playing the Fallout series, I’ve always known that I’d end up winning. I always knew I’d end up somewhere that would be relatively safe.

I also haven’t talked about games that take elements of desolation games for finite portions of the game. To me, the best of these will always be Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. The boss fight against The End is highly reminiscent of SEAL Team, but makes you feel even more alone and vulnerable than the older game manages to.

In their last podcast, Candice, Laquana, Gaines, and Nick discussed briefly the value of failure in games. Nick has expanded on this topic with his discussion of Action Painting Pro. I wouldn’t say that desolation games espouse failure to the point that Nick would wish they do, but I think they come close. Individual desolation games are a product of the historical moment in which they are created, and so don’t entirely deviate from the major tropes and design strategies that existed at their times of release.

However, they do teach us that emotions other than joy or fright are okay. Contrary to games like Spec Ops: The Line, desolation games don’t attempt to illicit guilt and remorse as part of a narrative strategy, however effective and welcomed such strategies are. Rather, desolation games delve deeply into marginalized emotions, not as a game mechanic or a narrative device, but as basic human experience.

And that might mean that Kenshi is the best desolation game ever designed, even surpassing Dune. I know that I’ll one day manage to play it, but, secretly, I hope that I never do.

About Erik Bigras

Erik Bigras is an independent scholar. He studied as a PhD Candidate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He graduated with a BA in Anthropology (2009) from the University of Prince Edward Island (Canada) where he focused on the creation of subjectivities through digital media. He's been playing video games since the mid-1980s, but expanded his gaming interest to table-top RPGs in the early 2010s.
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