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Look at all these apocalypses! Do they look familiar? Hope not.
Look at all these apocalypses! Do they look familiar? Hope not.

Pop CultureSeptember 16, 2019

The gaming apocalypse scenarios most (and least) likely to happen in real life

Look at all these apocalypses! Do they look familiar? Hope not.
Look at all these apocalypses! Do they look familiar? Hope not.

Covering Climate Now: Grim post-apocalyptic settings are a dime a dozen in gaming, but which ones are the most realistic? Sam Brooks talked to climate expert David Tong to find out.

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Every year there’s a good chance that some of the most-bought, most-played and best-reviewed games will be ones with a post-apocalyptic setting. The Last of Us? Check. Metro: Last Light? Check. The Division 2? Hey, we said best-reviewed.

There are obvious reasons for this. Developers don’t need to spend as much time populating a world if it’s under a DNR order, and mutated monsters are far easier, emotionally, to blast into smithereens than other living, breathing people.

But seeing as there’s so many of these games, I wanted to know which of them might be worth playing to get a head’s up, on, you know, our impending apocalypse. Should I be prepared for plant zombies? Nuclear winter? Giant robots lumbering through Auckland? Mutated monsters hiding in a Russian train station? I don’t know, y’all!

Thankfully David Tong, the climate change programme manager at WWF-New Zealand, answered a call-out I made on Twitter to get to the bottom of this. Even more thankfully, he was willing to humour me with some serious, thought-through answers to my queries. What follows are his answers to a few screenshots of each game, as well as my silly descriptions of the game in question.

The Last of Us


In September 2013, when Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ was storming the charts, a mutant fungus was also ravaging the United States, transforming humans into aggressive creatures called ‘the Infected’. Look, they’re zombies. It’s just zombies.

Twenty years later, civilization has been destroyed by the Infected/Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’. Survivors live in quarantine zones, or in little groups dotted around. Trashcan fires, you know the drill.

How likely is this scenario for us?

“I’m an expert on climate policy not mutant fungus, but I’m fairly confident that we won’t see mass zombie outbreaks this century.

“What is more likely is that people may have to retreat from some or many areas – especially, for example, coastal cities – leaving nature to reclaim abandoned areas.

“The stark distinction between quarantine zones and abandoned areas of wasteland is also evocative of the extraordinary inequality in how climate change and other environmental crises impact people worldwide. The people, communities and countries who’ve done the least to cause these problems are facing the impacts first and worst.”

Is it a better-case scenario than what we’ve got in store currently?

“Let’s be honest. Fighting zombies is basically as worst-case as worst-case gets.”

The wasteland of Mad Max.

Mad Max


Uh, it’s Mad Max. Big old Australian desert, Tom Hardy’s lips, electric guitars that spit fire. Following an energy crisis, the world has become a desert wasteland and civilization has collapsed.

How likely is this scenario for us?

“We aren’t going to see an energy crisis from running out of oil any time soon. Existing known, owned fossil fuel reserves are around four or five times our emissions budget for keeping warming this century below two degrees.

“But it is a possible but unlikely worst case scenario that we will see a collapse of organised civilisation as we know it this century. Warming of above 3-4 degrees might not be compatible with civilisation as we know it – which is part of why it’s so critical to keep this warming below 1.5C.”

Is it a better-case scenario than what we’ve got in store currently?

“That’s up to us. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year confirmed that we can keep warming below 1.5C and avoid many of the worst impacts of climate change – but that doing this would require a global economic transformation of unprecedented scale.

“If we pull this off, our future can be much better and brighter than any of these games’ scenarios. Together, it’s still possible to unlock a future we people live and thrive in harmony with our natural world – with a net zero emissions economy, powered by 100% clean, renewable energy. ”

Maybe a better outlook than the actual Vegas exists in Fallout: New Vegas.

Fallout: New Vegas


The game is set in a post-apocalyptic open world environment that encompasses a region consisting of parts of Nevada, California, and Arizona. It’s set in a world that deviated onto an alternate timeline (still might be better than our current one) thanks to atomic age technology, which eventually led to its devastation by a nuclear apocalypse in the year 2077 in an event referred to as “The Great War”.

This war was caused by a major international conflict between the United States and China over natural resources. Fun times!

How likely is this scenario for us?

“I personally find the idea of a full nuclear exchange between two superpowers very unlikely. Both the US and China are so embedded in global interlinking trade and diplomatic networks that this seems unlikely to me. In 2014, the two reached an unprecedented bilateral agreement on climate change, paving the way for the Paris Agreement. When Donald Trump was elected president on a promise of pulling out of the Paris Agreement, I was at the UN climate talks and I heard Chinese diplomats doubling down on the promises they’d made in Paris.”

Is it a better-case scenario than what we’ve got in store currently?

“Las Vegas is already facing some pretty terrifying things from the climate emergency. The city is already seeing temperatures as high as 46C. It’s the fastest warming city in the USA. The Union of Concerned Scientists projects that by 2100, Las Vegas will face around 60 days each year with temperatures about 40C. Heat related deaths are already rising. Las Vegas could become an indoors city, where no one who can avoid it steps outside, not because of nuclear fallout, but because of extreme heat.

“But the future is in our hands, and people, businesses and lawmakers in Nevada are acting now. Since 2016, Las Vegas has powered all government buildings and streetlights with renewable electricity, and the state aims to reach 50% renewable electricity statewide by 2030.”

Icy winter in 1886? Sign me up.



This one is a bit of a twist – it’s actually set in the past. The eruptions of some volcanoes, the dimming of that big ol’ aun and other factors have caused a worldwide volcanic winter. Crops fail, millions die, people have to put an extra layer on.

To combat this, the British government has built generators in the north, designed to be city centres just in case temperatures force mass migration from the south. But good luck getting a Londoner to cross the bridge, even in the event of constant winter, am I right?

How likely is this scenario for us?

“We’re not going to see a new ice age. Just no.”

Is it a better-case scenario than what we’ve got in store currently?

“Very different. We’re looking at dealing with warming, not cooling. People won’t be huddling around ‘generators’ for warmth, but many people could still be forced to mass migration – within countries and between countries. The World Bank estimated last year that we could see climate impacts drive as many as 143 million people from their homes in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America by 2050.

“Cities play a critical role in dealing with climate change and other environmental crises though. By embracing smart new forms of urbanism we can step up our quality of life while lowering our impacts on the natural world.”

Does our post-apocalyptic future involve zombie dragons? Probably not!

Metro: Last Light


In 2013, nuclear war had devastated the Earth, wiping out billions of lives, as it tends to do. Among the affected nations is Russia, including the now-desolate wasteland of Moscow – somehow more desolate than it would be otherwise. A handful of survivors manage to hide in the Metro system, salvaging spare parts and growing mushrooms for food.

As is par the course, animals have mutated into horrific monsters – including somehow dragons – and in many areas nobody can breathe without a gas mask. Also, there’s war between the Communists and Nazis, because some things never change, and civilisation has appeared to collapse.

How likely is this scenario for us?

“Predicting nuclear war is way outside my field of expertise.

“But we know that New Zealand is nuclear free – and that our nuclear free stance in the 1980s had diplomatic impacts well beyond our borders. On climate change too, we can provide a positive global example – by banning offshore oil and gas, and (hopefully) by passing the Zero Carbon Act. If climate change is our nuclear free moment, now is the moment to act.”

Is it a better-case scenario than what we’ve got in store currently?

“You can’t hijack a train out of the climate emergency.”

The 31st century, accoring to Horizon: Zero Dawn.

Horizon: Zero Dawn


This one is set a while in the future – in the 31st century, in fact, when Cher is still making hit songs. Humans live in scattered tribes with limited access to technology, and their predecessors (who are absolutely not us) are remembered as ‘Old Ones’. Big robots roam the Earth and, for the most part, co-exist with humans. However, slowly, these machines are becoming more and more aggressive towards humans (probably because we suck!) and bigger machines have started to appear.

It also looks really pretty!

How likely is this scenario for us?

“The 31st century will be something very unfamiliar to us. Most projections around climate change impacts focus on what could happen by 2100.”

Is it a better-case scenario than what we’ve got in store currently?

“That’s up to us – and our children, and their children, and so on. The future is what we make it. This century, we stand with an incredible opportunity to unlock the end of extreme poverty, with technology and innovation unlocking new ways to access democracy and justice – but also face unprecedented threats at a civilisational scale. Together, we can make the future we want possible.”

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