Sunday, July 4, 2010

My Type of Post-Apocalypse (Part 2)

So Friday (or four day weekend is starting to blur together) I finally watched The Book of Eli. This was one of two post-apocalyptic films that came out last year that I never had the chance to catch in the theater, the second one being The Road. Back in January, while musing about PA and how dissatisfied I was with much of post-apocalypse gaming material I thought these films would...well, actually, I'm not sure what I thought they would do, but I expected them to be pretty good movies. Now, having watched both (I saw The Road a couple weeks back), I can safe with confidence that, well, I'm disappointed with both.

I would have to say I was MORE disappointed with The Book of Eli, probably because I was expecting more from it...I had read more positive reviews of the film after all (though possibly it just had more reviews period than The Road, a fairly bleak movie for something out of Holywood). But as far as an entry into the PA genre I found it fairly lacking. Despite a rather creative premise (no, I'm not talking about the Blind Fury rip-off...THAT's not creative...I'm talking about the whole Bible lust instilled in the primary characters). Here's the thing: the film didn't really meet the two standards I'm looking for in the PA genre (or at least, wasn't up to snuff in addressing them), namely the "Grim Struggle for Survival" and "Community Building."

Oh, yes, there was some struggle, but it was fairly paltry. Once the film-makers establish, pretty early on, that Eli is a consummate bad-ass that has little to fear even from multiple numbers of armed malcontents, the threat loses a bit of its sting. Plus, Denzel Washington is a little too goody-good to believe...I don't know, it felt more like I was watching a Frank Miller comic than a post-apocalyptic film.

I suppose it's difficult when comparing it to The Road, which is nearly too grim to watch. Yeah, I mean that. It's one thing to watch a guy with absolutely nothing going on starve to death by's another entirely to watch him do it with his child (while at the same time trying to protect said child from cannibal marauders). Hoo boy!

Anyway, compare and contrast how both films have a scene in which the protagonists find a "cannibal farm house" towards the end of the second act (i.e. about two-thirds the way through). Rather than posting spoilers here, I'd invite people to watch how the films with an eye towards how the film makers, including the actors, treat the scenario and the subject matter. Of the two, I find Eli to be considerably (and almost unforgivingly) lighter on the subject.

I guess that's what makes Eli more irksome in general...I find the whole subject of "Life After Boom" to be treated with a lighter and somewhat cliched hand. However, both films fail to scratch my PA itch by missing out on the 2nd, and more important to my mind, component...the process of Community Building.

I mean, if you don't have Community Building in a post-apocalyptic story, then there's only one of three things you've got, all of which run the possibility of lacking a social value:

a) a cautionary tale (see The Day After Tomorrow...this is kind of a "story-ized" version of Al Gore's global warming documentary).

b) a fantasy action film (see Six-String Samurai, perhaps The Book of Eli).

c) a depressing, fictional snuff film (The Road).

Actually, it occurs to me that perhaps I am being (as usual) a bit too harsh. It may be that I've actually left out a particular SUB-sub-genre of post-apocalyptic fiction. You see, the whole idea of "community building" assumes the protagonist of the story (in the case of an RPG, the player characters) is engaging in some of said community building. For example:

- in The Road Warrior, Max aids the village in its defense and helps them to move to greener pastures.

- in The Postman, Costner's character helps to network the bastions of civilization by resurrecting the mail system.

- in The Omega Man, Chuck Heston helps organize and provide leadership to the surviving, non-infected population while working for a cure.

- in Reign of Fire, Bale has organized and been leading survivors for years.

And both The Road and The Book of Eli seem to miss out on this crucial part of the genre by having protagonists that are active and deliberate loners avoiding civilization and other people altogether, whenever and however possible.

But, at least with The Road, the protagonist has some idea that he WILL be attempting to settle and make a life for himself, sometime in the future...he just needs to get to the end of the road to do so. Similarly Eli has some destination in mind (to get "out West") though with a less specific focus in mind (he's on a quest of sorts, following a vision that he only vaguely understands).

Perhaps the sub-sub-genre, falling somewhere within category #2 of my prior post, is the specific story of finding a place to begin community building. Certainly, a whole story can be told regarding nothing but the journey itself (as The Road and Eli both demonstrate), but this wouldn't seem to make for any particular episodic RPG.

Maybe one of the "story-now" variety, and/or a one-off adventure to "find the coast" or "head south" or whatever. But that's generally not Gamma least not the way it appears intended to be played.

I wrote before that one of the reasons GW works so well as an RPG is that it has similar exploration themes to recommend it, just as does D&D. Sure, one may have heard monsters live off in the dungeon (or strange mutants in the Forbidden Zone/ancient complex) but you won't actually know until you check it out...and who knows what fantastic artifacts (and hideous dangers) you're going to find until you get there.

But as Famine in Far-Go demonstrates (aptly, I think), you CAN do a story - heck, a whole long-term campaign - around a community, your characters' place in it, and the fight for survival of that community. I think that's a powerful way of role-playing.

Post-apocalyptic role-playing in an era when folks remember the Old World...well, there's no great mystery about what they're going to find "down the road:" cannibals, marauders, helpless people, destroyed bits of civilization. To run an RPG that is more than a one-off adventure...or that has any redeeming meat to its need to have the community building aspect to it. At least, that's what I think.

I was checking out Atomic Highway at the ol' game store the other day, and there was a lot about it that made me put it back on the shelf. I was thinking that I might get more of a hankering to buy it (or another PA game like the Barbarians of Lemuria extension Barbarians of the Aftermath), after watching some PA cinema. But as with these PA films, I'm afraid these PA RPGs might miss the point.

We fear the apocalypse. If the apocalypse goes down, we want to know there's some sort of hope that, hard or not, it will not be The End. If it IS the end...well, why the hell do I need to watch that? Because I want to depress myself? If there's some sort of hope, let me see it through the re-creation of some semblance of human cooperation...not some badass ass-kicker just wandering the roads looking for a way to charge his f'ing I-Pod. That's pathetic.


  1. Re: The Road.

    I'd recommend reading the book, but let me tell ya... it isn't any lighter in tone.

  2. I wouldn't. One of the worst books I've read in a while, enough to put me off bothering with the film!

    It has been said that American apocalypse stories are about the event, the explosions, the eruptions, the invasions, whatever, while British stories are about the aftermath, survival in the ruins, community building, and so on.

    This is much more prevalent in literature than in film or TV, as we don't tend to make too many post-apocalyptic movies, but you can see it in stuff like 28 Days Later, Day of the Triffids and Survivors amongst others.

  3. Philistine. The Book of Eli is a work of ART! You would rather have Mad Max Revenge of the Clones?! It figures since you like soccer...

  4. You've pretty much hit on exactly my dissatisfaction with most PA games - they are all about the individual survival rather than the rebuiding. (Really, that's true about most RPGs - very few focus on anything larger than the individual or tiny group of the PCs.). I'd like a game that was more like Jericho, Lucifer's Hammer, Dies the Fire, or even the 163* stories (not quite PA but certainly a related genre thematically). Even games like the Fallout CRPG, where the protection/rebuilding of the community is the excuse, that's not what the game is about - the water chip is just a McGuffin to drive the plot.

    My own idea PA game would have a second level to be played on, something akin to say Reign where the players not only play their individual characters, but also play at the level of their community. There would ideally be a lot of feedback between the levels - even more than in Reign - player actions would influence the success of community actions, which would in turn affect the options available to players. I would want the health and safety of the community to be the primary motivators for the PCs (rather than personal wealth and power) - and I'd want it clear setting-wise and mechanics-wise that they are screwed without it.

  5. You've pretty much hit on exactly my dissatisfaction with most PA games - they are all about the individual survival rather than the rebuiding

    I don't see how this sort of statement is true of any mainstream game in any genre. Chargen rules plus task resolution are the bulk of typical game books, and these are not what a game is "all about".

    A game is all about what happens at my table, and if the players want to build communities they can tilt at that windmill just as handily with Atomic Highway, Gamma World 2nd Ed or AD&D.

    Making that work is what I'm there for.

  6. @ Vincent: Sure, man...but the game can have a system that promotes a certain type of game play/theme.

    For example, Gamma World 2nd doesn't have "Experience Points;" instead it has "status points" by which one rises in esteem/prestige within one's community. Turning over treasure to the village elders or whatnot nets a person more "status" and rank gives one the ability to borrow/purchase more from the community. That type of system provides incentive to build up one's village...and I think it's possible to take this idea farther in game design, thereby helping you, the GM, at your table.
    : )

    @ drnunch: I'm not familiar with Reign, but I am intrigued with multi-tier RPGs...hell, I'm working on one right now (though mine is more multi-character similar to Ars Magica). The idea of "community as character" in an RPG is fairly novel...though way early sci-fi games experimented with "spaceship as character;" I wonder how thin it stretches the idea of role-playing...?

    @ Kelvin: We Colonials sure do like our explosions!

    @ Icarus: Jeez!

    @ Ryan: One of these days, man...

  7. Sorry to hear you didn't like "The Road". I watched it recently myself, and thought it was great, verry hard to take emotionally, but great none the less.
    I thought it had a gritty realistic look to it, as well as a protagonist that was realistic (to be honest probably the most realistic protagonist I've ever seen in a P.A. movie). This maybe what soured you to its potential as an rpg inspiration (and in this regard I agree with you, the father and son just don't come across as rpg heroes at all).

    I'm not sure I could articulate its theme, or "message" very well; but I found there was more going in it than just a series of random events as the father and son traveled together in a post apocalyptic world. I thought it was a powerful statement on the human spirit how hard the father fought for the survival of his son, in the face of absolute adversity. It gave us contrasts in showing the absolute most horrible things we're capable of, as well as some of the most beautiful. Both of which were shown in a very humanly realistic way.

    As for The Book of Eli, I haven't seen it, but from the trailers, it just didn't seem to be at all like The Road. That being said, the trailers for The Road were very miss leading to many people, which upset them when they went to a movie expecting something it so clearly was not.

    Anyway, I still felt your post had some iteresting food for thought. I must also agree with V. Diakuw though when he says it's less the mechanics, as opposed to the group and their goals that dictates the themes of the game.

  8. I don't really think a game system really has anything to do with the adventure the players are playing. Any system can be a group of adventurers wandering the wasteland in search of ancient artifacts or a village of survivors struggling for survival against hunger and marauders. Its up to the GM do determine the scenario and the players to decide what to do with what they are given.

    Having said that, I liked the "look" of Eli. The washed out colors and the scenery, but the story was lacking, the characters were too stereotypical for the genre and the twist ending ruined the entire movie for me

    as you can read, I other problems with it.

    The Road on the other hand was just as bleak and suicide-inspiring as everyone has said, which I actually found a refreshing change from the usual drivel we get in out PA movies. Would it have made a good adventure? Probably not, but its nice to see a horrific vision of a post-apocalyptic world. Haven't really seen one that depressing since The Day After (NOT The Day After Tomorrow)

    I may be the atypical American in this regard, but I don't want to see the big boom, unless it is a prologue to the apocalypse that's soon to follow. Survival in the wasteland is infinitely more interesting to me than flashy explosions

  9. All of the books that I've read by Cormac McCarthy are apocalyptic in tone. Check out "No Country for Old Men" if you want a film version that is incredibly intense on its own terms and also does a good job of capturing the feel of McCarthy's work. Personally, I found The Road to be one of the best books that I've read in the past 10 years, but I can't imagine watching it on film. The whole point of the book is to represent the love that a father expresses for his son by juxtaposing self-sacrifice with a world / society that has completely and utterly fallen apart. Community building has not place in this story.

  10. It has been said that American apocalypse stories are about the event, the explosions, the eruptions, the invasions, whatever, while British stories are about the aftermath, survival in the ruins, community building, and so on.

    J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World is a great example as well.

    I guess that's what makes Eli more irksome in general...I find the whole subject of "Life After Boom" to be treated with a lighter and somewhat cliched hand.

    There is that sub-genre of gonzo "Party at Ground Zero" PA fiction, as exemplified by the animated Rock and Rule, and some Gamma World conventions (giant bunnymen? dog-men who relish human hands?).