Now more than ever, we need the optimism of '90s JRPGs because climate change will only worsen.
The summer of 2022 will go down in history. Millions of people were uprooted by flooding, wildfires raged over North America and Europe, tens of thousands perished in terrible heatwaves, and water in reservoirs dried up, revealing long-forgotten remains. All of this is terrible, and it appears that if nothing is done, it will only become worse. Remarkably, more severe action isn't being done in light of these prominent, many, and lethal warning indicators that we must dramatically alter our way of life or face progressively catastrophic levels of climate devastation. We may simply be waiting for the glorious post-apocalyptic future that contemporary video games are so anxious to tease us with to materialize. Saving this Earth is pointless since we will get to live in fantastic Knot Cities when the Death Stranding occurs. Perhaps a Vault will have a spot available for someone with just our abilities, or we can put our faith in the GAIA AI. We have countless alternatives!
The post-apocalyptic setting has been more prevalent in video games over the past ten or so years, and although it's scarcely shown as a secure or lovely future, it has still established itself as a cozy location for players to reside. We can't get enough of making-believe scenarios in which people put the pieces back together after a catastrophic disaster. Fallout, The Walking Dead, The Last of Us, Nier: Automata, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Dying Light are among the examples. These are universes where people manage to live after terrible events. The fact that post-apocalyptic scenarios are so prevalent in video game narratives suggests that we are either satisfied with the concept that this is where things are going, and there is nothing we can do to stop it or that we have accepted it inevitable. But...why? Previously, this wasn't always the case. What happened to stories in which characters attempt to preserve our current reality?
Video game storylines started to develop in the early to mid-1990s. The RPGs of the era showed that gameplay could support the telling of a story, whereas most games of the age only utilized the story as the connecting tissue between gameplay times. The rise of ecologically centered storytelling in video games and other forms of media has given us genuine hope for a brighter future at this early stage of video game narrative development.
Our planet is in danger.
These first five words open each episode of Captain Planet and the Planeteers. The statement "Our planet is at risk" is blunt. It isn't enjoyable, you guys. The 1990-launched series introduced environmental consciousness to the Saturday cartoon slot. The messaging was overt by portraying the Eco-Villains, the program's antagonists, as actually abhorrent. From Looten Plunder's deforestation and shady business transactions to Hoggish Greedly's pollution plans, each villain represented a component of civilization that was steadily ruining the world. Along with the French-Canadian animated series Stop the Smoggies, which pitted a group of brave, nature-loving characters known as the Suntots against a trio of polluting, greedy, oil tanker-dwelling humans, Captain Planet and the Planeteers brought environmentally conscious stories to a form of entertainment meant to sell toys to children in footie pajamas eating frosted flakes.
Numerous environmental concerns have never been so prominent in the media and the general public's attention.
- The population of Ukraine and Belarus and the surrounding ecosystem sustained terrible long-term harm due to the Chornobyl tragedy in 1986. The first catastrophe to involve a significant discharge of radioactive material over a large region with long-lasting effects was Chornobyl. This came after several crises that narrowly escaped becoming significant incidents, such as Three Mile Island.
- In the 1980s, it was discovered that a hole was developing in the ozone layer. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which may be found in various goods ranging from aerosols to refrigerants, were shown to be a significant contributor to ozone depletion. CFCs were hammering the 220 Dobson Unit typical ozone concentration threshold, causing ozone levels to record-low 73 DU in the fall of 1994.
- With 10 million gallons of crude oil spilling into the Gulf of Alaska, the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off the Alaskan coast devastated almost 2000 kilometers of shoreline. Animals could not live in vast portions of the area after the spill, which also killed wildlife. Even now, Alaskan beaches still contain the gloopy remains of that disaster.
Where environmental issues had previously been an afterthought or the exclusive domain of Greenpeace campaigners, these events jolted society's collective conscience and made it impossible for us to disregard our influence on the environment. It was time to consider change since we were trashing our house. Video game stories took up this mantle and started to think about the damage we were doing to the environment. They started showing us dangerous fantasy worlds that were similar to our reality.
In addition, Japan's "Lost Decade" began during this period due to the collapse of its economy. Many people questioned if the capitalism they had relied on was sustainable for the environment when a bubble of inflated asset and real estate values burst. There must be a way to avert this catastrophe for the entire planet. Video games were the ones to start investigating these options.
Simply a Small Town Boy
A hero's journey must always include a figure who comes from nothing to one day save the world. These kinds of protagonists were common in RPGs in the 1990s. Will from the Super Nintendo RPG Illusion of Gaia matches this description; however, we might also mention Terranigma's Ark, Tales of Phantasia's Cless, Crono from Chrono Trigger, Ratix from Star Ocean, or Randi from Secret of Mana. They are all variations of the same character, which was developed at the time to appeal to young boys who dominated the video game market. In addition to producing a character that reflects the player base, this decision serves a few other purposes in the game.
The 1990s video game industry provided so much promise for the future. The planet might yet be saved.
Beginning as a young person from a small town enables the gradual introduction of gaming mechanics while maintaining immersion. A child from the country may require advice on surviving in a hostile environment where monsters prowl. But more importantly, it enables the narrative stakes to gradually rise as the hero advances. The illusion of Gaia's Will's first objective is to deliver some of his father's belongings to the neighboring Edward Castle, but by beginning small, more about the world may be revealed as the hero is introduced to new characters, new villages, and new tales of misery. Before they know it, the hero works with the Knight of Light to annihilate a comet heading straight for Earth.
This ongoing escalation not only serves as a motivating factor for the player to keep playing and the protagonist to keep battling, but it also illustrates the straightforward idea that seemingly insignificant actions may snowball into bigger ones. This is messaging solid that also acts as an encouraging analogy for the actual world, where even seemingly insignificant deeds have the potential to have profound effects. Thinking about the hero's journey to achieve real change on an issue as significant and humanity-threatening as climate change might inspire someone to take that initial step into the unknown. Granted, the forces of capitalism and the oppressive (un)work performed by the majority of elected politicians present a genuine obstacle, but at least these 1990s RPGs convey the notion that change is attainable and deserving of being fought for.
Precisely what are video games?
Due to their intrinsic involvement, video games have a special place in contemporary mainstream culture. The characters are under our power as a player. Although there is (often) a planned path that leads us through the game, the actual button pushes we make a move these characters. We develop a stronger connection to the virtual worlds we engage in by engaging in this interactive activity. Due to the metaphorical storylines and immersive worlds they create, video games are a particularly effective medium for interacting with complicated systems (political, social, or cultural institutions) from our own reality.
On the subject of narratology vs. ludology, there has been much discussion among scholars, casual gamers, and game reviewers for a long time. Defined, is a video game, first and foremost, a game or a narrative? Are we playing for the story, or should the focus be on the gameplay and our abilities as players to achieve goals in the game world? There is no correct response because there is value on both sides of the debate, but against this background, we can begin to contrast and compare '90s save-the-world games with contemporary post-apocalyptic games.
I recently played through Quintet's 1993 SNES game Illusion of Gaia again, and playing a game like this makes you realize how passive the experience is right away. Even though the game is an action RPG, you spend a lot of time just looking at static scenes. The only thing to pay attention to is regularly slowly scrolling text boxes. The story is unmistakably the center, even though the gameplay aims to keep you interested and delivers interesting mechanics and thrilling boss fights to the player. Quintet contacted the acclaimed science fiction author Ohara Mariko to compose the narrative for this game. They aimed to develop a compelling tale that would appeal to gamers and cause them to consider the planet's future.
Despite some awkward language, Gaia's presentation of its message to the user is razor-focused. There is just one side quest in the game, and completing it yields nothing. It requires you to gather 50 red diamonds placed across the environment. Why are you wasting time gathering these diamonds? The absence of a reward or even fanfare for achievement makes the player uncomfortable. Are you unaware that the world is ending?"
The question that video game narratives have posed over the past ten years has changed from "How can we rescue the world?" to "How can we survive in a world we were powerless to save?"
Playing Illusion of Gaia takes just 6 to 8 hours, and each place the player goes has some connection to the approaching calamity threatening the Earth. There is no time for diversion because the globe's destiny depends on Will, his allies, and, ultimately, the player. The future of humanity is at stake. Acting is best done right away.
The text box is slowed down throughout crucial parts of the story so that the player may read each letter as it appears. This is done on purpose to drive home the point of the tale. After taking down the last boss, our main heroes discuss the meaning of their quest while standing in front of a background image that doesn't change for 10 minutes. There is no glitz and glamour. A narrative is being read by the player.
Modern video games have systems that are getting more complicated while we play them. Battle mechanisms, sidequest, and NPC interactions, crafting systems, weapon management, skill tree optimization, achievement hunting (which isn't even in the game but serves as a meta-level gamification of a video game), and more may all be acceptable areas of attention for the player. The drawback of all these features is that they may occasionally get overpowering to the point that players may even drown in the details of everything and lose the plot while attempting to focus on the game's narrative. We are distracted from the hopelessness of the post-apocalyptic world we have mastered by the dopamine rushes we get from mastering these systems. So perhaps we don't take the story as seriously since it's more enjoyable to hit striking combinations with our max-level character.
Our focus is being drawn away from narrative components in favor of spectacle and systems on top of systems in game design. The fact that the participant is engaged in gameplay appears to be necessary.
Saving the planet
In a handful of titles in the 1990s, environmental issues served as the primary plot device. Behind these stories, there was a definite feeling of crisis. a feeling that these games were yelling at us to act because our own world was in danger. These games frequently urged us to think about our own circumstances as we assisted our heroes in navigating theirs, forcing us to contemplate why the world (both virtual and real) was worth rescuing.
The planet in Illusion of Gaia is on the verge of disintegrating. Will travels the globe and notices the planet quaking under the pressure of approaching disaster everywhere he goes. Animal populations are dwindling, people are contracting unidentified illnesses, enslaved people are being exchanged in black marketplaces, and famines are obliterating communities. Humanity's rapid evolutionary progress is the root of all of this. As we recklessly loot and rule over nature, we severely harm the environment in our pursuit of development.
In sure tales, the Earth's inherent energy (Mana in Tales of Phantasia and Secret of Mana, Mako in Final Fantasy 7) is coveted and ruthlessly plucked for advancement, technology, and monetary gain. In other tales, the future is revealed, demonstrating the effects of a cataclysmic disaster on the globe and the necessity of preventing them (Chrono Trigger even informs you that "The Future Refused to Change" if you lose the game). Narratives on human callousness and avarice (Star Ocean, Illusion of Gaia, Terranigma). The illusion of Gaia, Terranigma, and the original story of Final Fantasy 7 are just a few examples of stories where our heroes are forced to make the ultimate sacrifice for the benefit of the planet. This tragic plot point demonstrates how these heroes are giving their lives in exchange for a future they will never witness and one in which they will eventually be forgotten.
The story constantly serves as a reminder that the issues at hand are more important than any of the frequently brilliant individuals. This is seen in a game like Chrono Trigger, where the player can switch out any party member from the main party. Even Crono, the apparent protagonist of the entire narrative, can leave the group, demonstrating that when the world is in danger, not even the main character means all that much.
Personal narrative beats are frequently modest and only employed to provide background information or motivation for a supporting character to support the hero's goal. Not every character requires the same level of analysis as Tony Soprano. A fantastic character is Frog, a strong knight who may join your party. He is, in fact, an anthropomorphic frog. Do we have complete knowledge of him? No. Is it necessary? No. His few narrative interactions with his mentor Cyrus are enough to fully flesh out his persona. We only need his theme to play a couple times throughout the game to build excitement. Stopping Lavos from destroying the Earth is still more important.
These games prompted us to consider protecting the Earth from our own arrogance because so many of the scenarios were on preventing global catastrophe. Why, then, have we given up on preventing the destruction of the future and instead chosen to live in an increasingly apparent and impending world due to climate change in the twenty-first century?
Getting By in the World
When it comes to video game storylines, the question has changed from "How can we rescue the world? ", which was prevalent in the 1990s. Instead, it is "How can we save ourselves?" to "How can we survive in a world we were powerless to save?"
For speculative fiction authors (and readers), the post-apocalyptic world is alluring. What does society resemble once it has recovered from a nuclear conflict? Can the enigmatic viral pandemic be stopped? When we forsake our cities, how does nature regain them? Video games are hardly an exception; the period following a catastrophic occurrence has evolved into a playground for ideas in all forms of media.
After witnessing the devastation caused by the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and during the early stages of the Cold War, when many people believed that the arms race between the world's superpowers would ultimately result in total annihilation, novels were written that explored the world after the end of days.
Media sources are avoiding any in-depth coverage of the problem of climate change, and major studios have shifted away from storylines about rescuing the globe. This is not how it ought to be.
In post-apocalyptic literature, it is assumed that the end of the world was inevitable. Now that the globe has already been fried, the challenge is to survive what comes next. Additionally, the Earth is put in the backdrop regardless of the destruction, including nuclear wastelands, climatic calamities, and virus outbreaks. Since preserving the Earth has already been declared impossible, most post-apocalyptic fiction mainly addresses a particular social critique. There is frequently no win-win situation that benefits all of humanity. Even if the bad fascist people are defeated, everyone will still have to live on a depressing, empty planet. Those guys won't be around to continue randomly killing people. Although it may be mentioned, the characters in the novel are not motivated by the impending doom. Already, the world has been obliterated. Why doesn't it really matter at this time?
Because the author may rearrange society in a way that best emphasizes the specific features of the world they want to criticize or the connection they want to examine, the post-apocalypse works so well as a vehicle for this type of reflection. The Last of Us is fundamentally a personal tale, even though it shows us a society clearly in a state of social breakdown. We're not intended to ponder too much about how or why society is in disarray; instead, the connection between Joel and Ellie is being studied.
How does trauma affect people's lives? How far are people willing to go for love? The post-apocalyptic backdrop produces an ongoing tension that wears out the individuals and drives their interpersonal interactions to emotional extremities that would not occur in our "regular" world. We have been trained to look for ways to experience that feeling, to get hit in the feels in our postmodern, affect-rich culture. It makes the game's emotional moments more powerfully delivered. It doesn't matter if you are concerned about the environment or broader socioeconomic issues. All we need is to FEEL Joel and Ellie's connection.
Some post-apocalyptic video games attempt social criticism; however, there are arguments to the effect that, despite the impression that something is doing so or bringing attention to a social wrong, the criticism is ineffective. There is cause to assume that, despite the appearance of anti-capitalist messages in the media we consume, post-apocalyptic stories could really be strengthening these institutions through a phenomenon known as "interpassivity."
Our planet is in danger. Namely this. The one that we presently inhabit. It can be saved.
According to the theory put forth by author and philosopher Robert Pfaller, we experience a sense of anti-capitalism when we consume media that essentially "does the work for us" by protesting on our behalf. We are satisfied with it and continue our lives without ever considering deeper issues or being motivated to take action. The system's criticism is included in the system. Intentionally. The Last of Us subtly depicts an authoritarian regime as a formidable foe looming in the distance, allowing us to act like the Rick Dalton Meme and exclaim, "There it is! Authoritarian! Bad! "We congratulate ourselves and conclude the discussion. No need to consider the places in our natural world where authoritarianism can be found. A lot of work.
Even video games that make an effort to focus on the natural world find it challenging to address the issue of environmental catastrophe with any demands or calls to action. In Horizon Zero Dawn, the GAIA AI, sophisticated computer software that can terraform the soil and create new plant and animal species, controls the whole planet's environment. It is threatened by rogue, sentient subordinate system functions that want to wipe off humanity as quickly as possible. Even while an over-dependence on technology led to the collapse in the first place, the game's ecomodernist solution to its catastrophe proposes that technology will save the Earth.
While there are undoubtedly technologically-assisted tactics that may be used to lessen our environmental effect, the Zero Dawn protocol has the same air of utopianism about it as many of the recommendations that the tech oligopolies of our world would make for us. This Earth will be saved by capitalism. Aloy may be viewed as a real-life technical instrument that is a part of the GAIA system because of who she is. The most likely scenario is portrayed in Adam McKay's 2021 movie Don't Look Up, in which the CEO of a tech company with branding that is similar to Tesla and Apple comes up with an absurd plan to save Earth from an asteroid (while also profiting from the said plan), and the failure of said plan leads to the extinction of humanity. Even if the GAIA system is successful and technology saves the day, the scenario depicted is more likely to occur since we are already getting near it.
The post-apocalyptic world is one of regret, mistakes, and missed opportunities. Additionally, given existing narrative tendencies, it appears to be the only area where we may envision something distinct. It is a profoundly pessimistic view to believe that destruction is the only way we may rearrange our lives. Preserving our current reality becomes less critical when we view the post-apocalypse as the only scenario where things may improve and the only perspective from which we can evaluate the present.
Because we can't think of a way to fix our own world, we can only think of the end; we seem obsessed with writing stories that take place after the end of the world. In his book Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher makes this claim. Since the Soviet Union's fall, there has been no viable alternative to capitalism. As a result, we have grown so enmeshed in this system's workings that we cannot envision a path out. Due to algorithmic culture's constant barrage of rubbish and media's reduction to being regarded simply as content by vulture capitalist CEOs with little regard for original thought and ideas, this has only worsened in the internet era. We are imprisoned by the massive weight of systems built to make us consume more and more while exercising less and less critical thought. The only way out is to experience total devastation before trying again.
The 1990s video game industry provided so much promise for the future. The planet might yet be saved. And Fisher argues that one of the few effective ways to criticize capitalism is through environmental destruction narratives (like those found in '90s RPGs) since they reveal a fact that capitalism cannot refute and is therefore unavoidable. In creating narratives with themes, they wanted players to remember video games were on the right track. All we had to do to improve would be to take better care of the planet, live in harmony with nature, and remove megalomaniacs with a thirst for power. Was it a fantasy? Certainly, but it was optimistic. Unfortunately, the ship has departed, yet it need not disappear over the horizon. Still, there is time.
Our planet is in danger. Namely this. The one that we presently inhabit. It can be saved. Instead of giving up and contemplating how we'll pick up the pieces, it would be fantastic if video game storylines once more stepped up to the plate and began driving home this point. Media sources are avoiding any in-depth coverage of the problem of climate change, and major studios have shifted away from storylines about rescuing the globe. This is not how it ought to be. At these AAA studios, there are undoubtedly creative individuals who could carry on the legacy of their predecessors from the 1990s. Although it's a start, it shouldn't be left to independent developers like Giannis Milonogiannis and his game Eco Breaker to make us consider taking action to protect the environment.