Before We Leave: Memory and the Apocalypse

There’s something innocent about the post-apocalypse. All these games where people pop out of the ground fully formed – they cast their gaze on a devastated world, on the sins and failures of those who came before, and then they simply turn the page and move on. The German Catholic Romano Guardini wrote that our world today is in some sense disconnected from the past – that it isn’t an evolution or development of what came before, but a break. It’s easy to see that theme in post-apocalyptic games. In Horizon Zero Dawn, for instance, Aloy is literally born out of the mountain. She has no parents, no heritage – she finds herself deposited into the world with no immediate biological or familial link from what came before. The circumstances of her birth mirror the post-apocalyptic setting – the people of this world live in the rubble of the world that came before, but they are separated from it by a clean break. They have no responsibility for its flaws and they don’t really carry forward its mistakes.

Similarly, in the game we’re talking about today, the delightful Before We Leave, humans all just pop out of little fallout bunkers with no memory of what they were doing in there in the first place. The game obscures the exact problem that drove them into hiding – it only refers to “a galactic disaster” in the opening text – but your humans climb out of what appears to be a repurposed missile silo, so you have some idea. Again, this game emphasises the clean break from the past, constructing it specifically as an act of forgetting:

“Only centuries later, when the cause of the calamity was forgotten, did humanity emerge. Having lost all but remnants of their past history and knowledge, they began once again on a planet born anew…”

It’s interesting to see it spelled out like that. The humans of this new world have lost their history, lost their knowledge, and they’re starting over. It’s post-apocalypse as rebirth, as new beginning – as hope. And it’s founded on forgetting. It’s not enough to have a cultural and societal gap of hundreds of years – there has to be a severance, an actual amnesia that serves to break decisively this new society away from the old. It’s a refusal to carry the old world into the future, a determination that it cannot be redeemed, that it needs to be abandoned entirely. And there’s some evidence to suggest that have been a good decision. Where you do encounter fragments of the old world, it’s clearly destructive – the ‘Sphinx’, some sort of laser cannon mounted in the ruins of a high rise, will blow up your buildings. The ‘Minotaur’ will rampage through your lands, scaring your people back into their homes. The new world seems better off without the old – better to forget and move on.

And yet memory and reconstruction of the past are also really important aspects of progress. In order to unlock new technologies, you must scavenge through the piles of rubble left behind by your ancestors. You create libraries to reconstruct old world knowledge, pooling different types of understanding across islands. You literally ferry old world knowledge from place to place, cobbling together enough scraps to glean some new insight. You build your new world out of remnants of the old – maybe not so disconnected after all. However, the knowledge that you discover also reintroduces the damage and corruption of the old world. Newer inventions often introduce pollution into the environment, as with iron or stone mining. They make your people unhappy, they make nearby tiles gloomy and unwelcoming. It’s a costly endeavour – in some ways, the game suggests, it would have been better to leave the past alone.

What we have in this game, then, are two competing desires. There’s the desire to break from the past, to mark a point of separation and reconstruct a new society from scratch, and there’s the desire to reach back into the past and salvage whatever we can. These are – obviously really interesting attitudes to read as a commentary on society as a whole, as an articulation of the idea that we’ve in some sense broken away from the world that came before, that we’ve shed much of its values and beliefs (for instance about women or minorities). You could also read it as a commentary on the state of video games and their attitude towards earlier media art forms – they’ve broken away as a new form, but they increasingly feel this desire to look back and see if there’s anything they can salvage. Setting aside for a moment these broader interpretive questions, it’s worth asking whether the game does anything to show how these opposing drives interact with each other. Does it have anything more to say about their conflict?

One thing that might be worth investigating is the motif of connectedness. Every building on a given island must be connected to one long snaking road. You can build the road out and spread across the island, but everything must be connected. Similarly, as the game scales up, you build connections between islands and even between planets, with trade ships going back and forth. New colonies receive support from established homelands, and sometimes remain entirely dependent for resources that aren’t native. The island pictured above, for instance, didn’t have stone or iron. Every time a building required either of those resources, I had it shipped in. This pattern reflects the game’s broader preference for mutual dependency: as you develop your technology tree, you discover that it’s not practical for every island to have all of the different parts of your society. There are too many pieces and not enough space. Not every island needs a bakery – arguably it’s easier to have some of your islands dedicated to food and just ship it where you need it.

That kind of interconnectedness feels in some ways very utopian – it feels more like a feature of the new world than the old. There’s a respect for the economic ceiling, in a very Kate Raworth way – if you gather beyond a certain volume of resources, you run out of space, and need to build more warehouses. Those in turn take up space on your island, which is finite. My instinct – and this is only really preliminary – but my instinct is to say that in Before We Leave, the knowledge taken from the old world is reshaped around those principles of interconnectedness and mutual dependency, in an attempt to neuter some of the negative effects of the old way of being. It’s not necessarily a simple resolution in favour of one impulse or the other – it’s an earnest attempt to scrape something from the past and reconstruct it under different organising principles. The break creates the distance needed to articulate the new system, and then bits and pieces from the past are reintroduced in what (one hopes) might be a healthier, more robust context.

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