If we had to articulate the difference between post-apocalyptic fiction and dystopian fiction, we might say that post-apocalyptic fiction is about how everything is fucked, in a catastrophic end-of-the-world collapse-of-civilization kinda way, while dystopian fiction is about how everything is just as fucked but carries on regardless. In one sense, the perception that we’re fucked is the common thread between the two genres: they are linked by a belief that even if you can find a way to eke out some semi-stable existence, the veins of trauma and destruction run so deep throughout the world that life can never truly be considered happy or arguably even good. They are in a sense genres about the Biblical fall, about coming into consciousness as a human being and realising how bad things really are – how the people who came before us have fucked everything. The trope in 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead where the main character comes out of a coma to discover the world has gone to hell – from a psychological perspective, those motifs mirror the experience of children coming into self-consciousness. We wake, we come to, we begin to be – we find ourselves embedded in a cultural and social landscape, and we realise that it’s not going well.
In that sense, both dystopian and post-apocalyptic texts serve the same psychological function. They express the same basic feeling. The difference is that dystopian fiction shows how society carries on, both surviving the apocalypse and upholding its horrors. It’s almost an extension of the post-apocalyptic genre – where the latter renders the judgement that everything is fucked, that society and existence as we know it has irrevocably come off the rails, dystopian fiction agrees, but also recognises that apocalypse is not a static, one-off disaster. Rather than one single decisive moment that ends civilization, in dystopian fiction the horror of the apocalyptic moment is ongoing, something that we must exist alongside, rather than a statement of the immediate and final end of all things. The distinction is maybe better realized by thinking about what these stories are allegories for. Both the Mad Max films and Snowpiercer exist against the backdrop of climate crisis – but where the Mad Max films are post-apocalyptic, Snowpiercer is clearly dystopian. Where the Mad Max films are directly about the apocalypse, about its fallout and impact, climate crisis in Snowpiercer exists as a background element that’s assumed but not really the focus. Snowpiercer has absorbed the apocalypse, and is now focused on the filthy, brutal society that limps on within that context. Mad Max warns us that the world will end; Snowpiercer tells us that the world has already ended, and that we are living in the ruins.
This distinction gives rise to another key divide in how post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction handle the concept of responsibility. In post-apocalyptic stories, the apocalypse may or may not have been caused by humans. Sometimes it is (The Matrix, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower), and sometimes it’s not (certain alien invasion films or zombie stories). In dystopian fiction, by contrast, the ongoing horrors of the world are rooted in human structures and societies. In The Hunger Games, the horror stems from the Capital’s decision to force children into battle royale death arenas. In the Purge films, it’s the government making crime legal for a night. In terms of responsibility, then, the key difference between post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction is that in the latter, a given culture or society is directly responsible for perpetuating the horrors in an active, ongoing way. Dystopian stories therefore make an ethical demand of political resistance from both the hero and the audience. The horror can be stopped, but only if we change society. In post-apocalyptic fiction, on the other hand, even when humans are ultimately responsible, the apocalypse event is complete, closed off, no longer sustained or perpetuated by human activity. Post-apocalyptic stories can still potentially make ethical demands – for instance in the story’s moral, in its existence as a warning to humanity – but within the fictional world, the apocalypse event is complete.
With all of that in mind, we can turn to Horizon Zero Dawn, which we talked about earlier in the year. Back in June we talked about the game’s engagement with the power fantasy in how it designs its quests, and in May, we talked about Horizon Zero Dawn‘s opening scene, which focuses on the main character, Aloy, and how she’s shunned from her tribe as an unnatural, motherless being. And that’s really where we’re going to start today: given everything we’ve said, everything about responsibility and the destructive capacity of the generations who came before – what does it mean to mourn for your parents after the apocalypse?
So let’s quickly review the setting of Horizon Zero Dawn. As mentioned, the game is set after the apocalypse, in a new world emerging from the ashes of the old. The previous world – our world – fell to a swarm of self-replicating robot AI, created and set loose by humans who weren’t being careful. By our criteria, Horizon is post-apocalyptic, rather than dystopian: the previous generation caused the apocalypse, but it’s come and gone. It’s complete. Curiously, in this instance, although humans were responsible for the apocalypse, they are also responsible for the new world rising out of its ashes. The killer robots were apparently fuelled by biomass, meaning that as they wiped out humanity, they also completely destroyed Earth’s ecosystem. All living matter – birds, plants, animals – was turned into fuel, leaving the planet entirely uninhabited. However, once humans realised what was going to happen, they set into place a bunch of clever tech things to repopulate the planet over thousands of years. They created a suite of AI with seeds and frozen fertilized eggs and so on, and one AI had to spend a couple hundred years brute-forcing the code to shut down the evil robots – and then once the robots were shut down, this long, slow repopulation effort could take place. The AI regrew all the trees and plants, made the atmosphere breathable again, and raised up the first new generation of humans. It was another Garden of Eden – a fresh start, a new humanity, a whole new planet. Humans caused the end of the world, but they also set up the conditions for a new one.
This structure confounds some of the assumptions that we’ve made going in. One of our key distinctions is that the post-apocalyptic genre represents a severing from civilization – the whole thing’s fallen over – while the dystopia embeds the disaster inside ongoing social structures, which have a history and a sense of continuity over time. In Horizon, neither is true. It’s a fresh world, severed from the past by the apocalypse event, but also created by the past and therefore tethered to it. The new world was custom-built by the old, meaning that even though there’s no strict continuity of civilization, the decisions of the old world shape and inform the new world in quite a granular way. The overarching plot of Horizon involves fighting off one of the remnants of the AI suite, who’s started behaving in a rogue manner – you’re essentially just tidying up loose ends from the global reset. In a weird way, Horizon is almost a post-apocalyptic utopia. It has strong roots in the past, like you find in a dystopia, but those roots have in some way been purified by the apocalypse event. The people of the past have paid for their mistakes, and you are released into the new world as a free agent, with no cultural or societal debt, and no experience of the trauma of the apocalypse. In terms of responsibility, the old world has collapsed in on itself: the apocalypse-event is complete. There is no Snowpiercer train, no battle royale for children. It’s a post-apocalyptic utopia. Your parents killed themselves, and gave you a new world with which to start again.
Is that severance from the past good or bad? The game doesn’t come down firmly on either side. Aloy feels a keen disconnect from her past – she was birthed by the mountain, people say, thrust into the world with no heritage or history. She wants to know where she came from. And yet that desire to re-enter the past is dangerous: the entire plot revolves around the rogue AI’s attempt to reawaken the killer robots. The past is dangerous, and when it threatens to erupt back into the present day, the entire world is put at risk. Separation is a form of protection. As if to hammer the point home, the rogue AI is aided by a wandering historian, Sylens, who repairs and supports it in exchange for knowledge about the old world. Sylens’ curiosity about the past is the bridge by which those historical threats emerge into the present.
And yet ignorance is not framed as the better option. Early in the game, Aloy picks up a piece of ancient tech called a Focus, which allows her to predict the movements of the machine-animals roaming the Edenic landscape. This tech makes her a superior hunter, as she can time the patrolling of machines to sneak past them or lure them into traps. Her knowledge brings power. In a similar vein, her tribe, the Nora, are negatively portrayed as being superstitious, incurious people. One of the clan’s matriarchs, Lansra, constantly harangues Aloy for being demonic or dangerous, leveraging taboos and cultural stigma to make her life difficult – not for any good reason, just because she’s a superstitious old bat who’s scared of things she doesn’t understand. Near the game’s climax, Aloy shouts at the Nora, condemning them for their backwards, isolationist ways. The game clearly doesn’t see the Nora’s ignorance as any better than Sylens’ dangerous curiosity – and in Aloy’s case, curiosity can even have benefits.
So I don’t know if Horizon Zero Dawn ever offers a convincing resolution to this tension. There’s no single path that emerges as the fix for the problems of the past. On balance knowledge is probably better than ignorance, but it’s a slim thing. Dystopia and post-apocalypse struggle against each other – the latter embodying the desire to forget, and the former the desire to carry through. All that the game really offers us as a potential thread is hope. In the game’s final scene, Aloy travels to the site of her mother’s body, and listens to a recording of her mother imagining what her future daughter might be like. Despite living through the literal end of the world, Aloy’s mother has hope for the future, hope for what comes next. There’s hope in knowledge – and actually hope in ignorance too. When one of Aloy’s Nora friends asks her what she was told by the ‘Goddess’, the sacred mountain treated as divine by the Nora, Aloy doesn’t confront him about his belief. She doesn’t explain that it’s all superstition, doesn’t enlighten him to some higher scientific plane of knowledge. She simply gives him hope. In a way, hope sanctifies both present and past. Everything’s fucked, the world has ended – and yet hope carries Aloy forward. She is imbued with hope by the past, and sends it forward into the future. It doesn’t solve any of the problems that we’ve raised – the conflict between knowledge and ignorance isn’t really fixed. The past is still dangerous, and there’s no clear consensus on what to do with it. Our parents fucked the planet. They were swallowed by their own apocalypse. But they also believed that we could do better. That hope is Aloy’s inheritance – perhaps ours too.