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In Wasteland 3, the latest entry in the influential role-playing game series, a group of militarized survivors fight through the frozen shells of Colorado Springs, Aspen and Denver during a nuclear winter that makes most blizzards look tame by comparison.
The choice of setting was easy for the video game’s art director.
“We’d done ‘brown and hot’ for two games in Arizona, and we needed a change, so we went with white and cold for this one,” said Aaron Meyers, who lived part-time in Denver during the game’s development. “Colorado seemed like the perfect place to give us that feel and those aesthetics, as well as a wealth of interesting lore and locations to mine for our story.”
Wasteland 3, which was released for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC on Aug. 28, joins a long line of video games that have pictured Colorado as a blood-soaked landscape of zombies, foreign military invasions and robot dinosaurs, including acclaimed, multimillion-dollar earners like The Last of Us, Horizon: Zero Dawn, the Dead Rising series, Homefront, World War Z and Call of Duty: Ghosts.
Even those are just one category in a larger group of novels, TV series, films and comics that have mined Colorado for their apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories, from Stephen King’s “The Stand” — which imagined Boulder as the center of humanity’s resistance against a supernatural evil — to “Dr. Strangelove,” “Waterworld,” “Battlefield Earth” and “Interstellar.”
“You can really visualize Colorado when you mention it, even if you’ve never been here,” said Denver author Mario Acevedo, who has written wildly imaginative, urban-fantasy novels starring werewolves, vampires and zombies. “We’re shorthand for ‘mountains,’ but also the type of people who tend to live in the mountains. Scrappy people do what it takes to survive.”
But even as writers and artists paint Colorado with ashen skies, resource-driven riots and nuclear holocausts, the trappings of the post-apocalyptic genre have grown all too cozy in 2020.
Across the U.S., multi-state wildfires, a devastating hurricane, and civic unrest feel like cruel toppings on a summer already larded with misery in the form of a global viral pandemic that has killed nearly 200,000 Americans and left millions unemployed. As the line between depiction and prediction grows almost invisibly thin for post-apocalyptic storytellers, they’ve been forced to turn up the intensity to stand out from our increasingly grim reality.
“Over 40 years of popular culture, a lot of people have looked at what’s happening on a global scale and extrapolated these disasters that end up mirroring reality,” said Boulder novelist Carrie Vaughn, whose 2017 book “Bannerless” won sci-fi’s coveted Philip K. Dick award.
They just didn’t think it would arrive so soon — or all at the same time.
“The only thing that hasn’t happened yet is zombies,” Vaughn said with a laugh. “And I’m not going to make any bets against that.”
For centuries, apocalypse stories centered around humanity’s punishment from angry gods. That changed after World War II as people woke up to the possibility of global nuclear annihilation. Since then, post-apocalyptic stories and dystopian sci-fi have spread out into every facet of popular culture.
But with the events of 2020, the genre seems to be eating itself from the inside out, particularly as the tropes and clichés of the genre continue to pile up. Is there anywhere else to go?
A perfectly terrible place
Yes, things are messed up everywhere. Few people are immune to the “historic convergence of health, economic, environmental and social emergencies,” as the Associated Press called our “turbulent reality” last week.
But even during good times, popular narratives did not usually depict Colorado as a fun, happy place. Westerns and horror were two of the first genres to capitalize on the state’s isolated, hardscrabble reputation in the 20th century through both novels and films. Harsh winters, brutal landscapes, cabin fever and cannibalism are built into the state’s history — and thus the way people continue to perceive Colorado.
“People who aren’t from here view it as a frontier because it still has this kind of Old West-aura to it,” Vaughn said. “Montana feels remote, but somehow, Colorado is very accessible. You’ve got mountains, prairies and lots of pioneer credibility.”
In fact, the rugged lawlessness and individualism of Westerns, as well as tales like “The Shining,” helped set the stage for today’s post-apocalyptic Colorado narratives, which found their lasting visualization in 1979’s ”Mad Max” and its 1981 sequel, “The Road Warrior.”
But movies such as 1984’s ”Red Dawn” — which imagines Calumet (a former mining town north of Walsenburg) as ground zero for a military invasion by the Soviet Union — also influenced a generation of storytellers.
“I was 11 or 12 when that came out and it was a big favorite of mine,” Vaughn said. “It’s just ridiculous, though. How realistic is an army coming in and trying to occupy the Rocky Mountains? And yet the movie was so iconic that it imprinted on a lot of people.”
Vaughn is a self-described military brat who first came to Colorado when her father was stationed in Colorado Springs. She believes our concentration of military bases plays a big role in the casting of the state. For decades, storytellers have returned to Colorado to visit the command center inside Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs, which has been imagined as both a catalyst for a global nuclear disaster and the last refuge in an irradiated world (see “Dr. Strangelove,” the “Terminator” series, “Jeremiah,” “Interstellar,” etc.).
“I love it because of ‘WarGames’ and ‘Stargate SG-1,’ ” Vaughn said of Cheyenne Mountain’s recurring role in science fiction. “But I got to tour NORAD in high school through my Girl Scouts troop, and again in my current events class, and of course it looks nothing like the underground city you see in most movies. The big blast door, at least, is accurate.”
Some storytellers, such as Wasteland 3 art director Meyers, lean into their artistic license.
“We tend to parody cliché rather than avoiding it entirely, so a few of Colorado’s pop culture connections get a nod and a wink,” he said. “But we didn’t go out of our way to include or exclude any trope based on whether it was well known. If it worked for the story or added to the atmosphere, we put our own twist on it and used it.”
Like Meyers, Wasteland 3 senior concept artist Dan Glasl has lived in Colorado (in the latter’s case, growing up just west of Colorado Springs) and visited most of the iconic areas depicted in the game, from Garden of the Gods to downtown Denver’s Union Station, the Colorado State Capitol and even the former Stapleton Airport.
“We did try to pick locations and landmarks that would be iconic to Coloradans and interesting and visually appealing to outsiders,” Meyers said. “So you can visit places like the Garden of the Gods and the Denver (International) Airport, and see our takes on them, as well as lesser-known places like Peterson Air Force base, and then sillier places like Santa’s Workshop — which is in fact a front for a drug operation.”
While outsiders may see us a mono-culture, Coloradans know how radically different the conservative Eastern Plains or Western Slope are from ritzy ski-resort towns and liberal Front Range cities. Like Stephen King’s Maine, Colorado is diverse enough in geography and culture to welcome a variety of fictional interpretations.
But that doesn’t mean they’re accurate.
“If you say ‘Colorado’ to someone in the Midwest, they’ll have certain stereotypes about us,” Acevedo said. “And storytellers use that to their advantage. We’re remote enough that they can fill in the blanks and people will buy it.”
Most of these stories don’t reach beyond the history of European settlers as their implied starting points, whereas Colorado’s Native American, Spanish and Mexican history runs much deeper. Until the last century, birth rates in the mountain west were persistently low, Acevedo said, due to the persistently harsh conditions.
That led to constant, life-or-death clashes between indigenous tribes that were, for all intents and purposes, their own versions of the apocalypse. (And that’s not even considering the arrival of European settlers.)
“The Arapaho, Comanche and Utes all had low survival rates,” Acevedo said. “You can’t go to any one part of this land and say, ‘Well, this is the pure, original history of it,’ because everything is folded over everything else. When each previous civilization or society ended, it was truly their apocalypse. You have to look at the history of a people, not just the history of a region.”
For example, few Colorado stories — apocalyptic, western or otherwise — dig back to the Cliff Dwellers of Mesa Verde, whose civilization collapsed near the end of the 13th century due to drought. Despite their essentially Stone Age technology, the Ancestral Puebloans traded with travelers from all over the region and left spectacular marks on their environment.
“The people living in Colorado 1,000 years ago were a lot more aware of what was going on around them than we give them credit for,” Acevedo said. “But with oral history and no written language, it was harder to keep track of things. You could go back however far you want and find an interesting story about some of the early Cro-Magnons coming across the land bridge, and the onset of the Ice Age — that being an appropriately apocalyptic event for them.”
As in reality, not every fictional character is affected the same way by disasters. People with money and privilege tend to see the effects last, insulated as they are from the rusty clockwork of everyday life.
But when a story involves disasters that affect us all — climate change, water shortages, viral pandemics and zombie/alien invasions — there’s opportunity for pointed social commentary and personal reflection, authors say.
“There are 10 million stories about how computing is going to change our lives,” said Paonia-born Paolo Bacigalupi, a bestselling sci-fi author and Hugo award winner, in a 2015 interview. “I think we can have a few more about climate change, drought, water rights, the loss of biodiversity and how we adapt to a changing environment.”
Bacigalupi’s acclaimed sci-fi novel “The Water Knife” imagines a near future in which the Southwest is dramatically remade by clashes over water resources. Bacigalupi was inspired, in part, by watching the fortunes of the rural area he grew up in rise and fall over dwindling water resources.
“I’m constantly looking over my shoulder,” he said shortly before “The Water Knife” was published, “because it seems so glaringly obvious that someone else would be writing about this exact same thing.”
Before the title screen for Wasteland 3 appears, players are shown a disclaimer: “Wasteland 3 is a work of fiction. Ideas, dialog (sic) and stories we created early in development have in some cases been mirrored by our current reality. Our goal is to present a game of fictional entertainment, and any correlation to real-world events is purely coincidental.”
The game’s art director, Meyers, declined to answer questions about the reasoning behind the disclaimer, but that’s understandable. Games like Wasteland 3 typically take several years, hundreds of people and millions of dollars to produce. Appearing too topical, or turning off potential players with real-world, political overtones, can limit a game’s all-important appeal and profits.
Legal concerns also trail post-apocalyptic games set in real locations. When the PlayStation 4 exclusive Horizon: Zero Dawn launched to critical acclaim and massive sales in 2017, its publicists pitched The Denver Post on an article exploring their high-tech location scouting, which resulted in stunningly detailed Colorado foliage, weather patterns and simulated geography.
However, game developers would only agree to an interview if trademarked names were not mentioned, given that the studio had apparently not cleared their usage. While The Denver Post declined to write about it at the time, other media outlets ran photos of the game’s bombed-out, overgrown takes on Red Rocks Amphitheatre and what would become Empower Field at Mile High, as well as various natural formations and instantly recognizable statues in downtown Colorado Springs.
That gives Wasteland 3 — which uses elements of parody — some leeway, in the same way that TV’s “South Park” has mocked local celebrities like Jake Jabs, Ron Zappolo and John Elway without getting sued.
“We did have to change a few things here and there, but the references should still be clear to those who know,” Meyers said of Wasteland 3 items like Boors Beer (take a wild guess). “We’re part of the Xbox Game Studios, so there are teams of folks involved in ensuring we have things like proper rights clearances for names.”
Of course, that’s part of the problem in 2020: Bit by bit, it’s beginning to resemble any number of fictional, worst-case scenarios for the collapse of modern society. Competing political factions often label each other as violent cults. People who don’t wear masks have been described as zombies. Police violence and gun-toting civilians are everywhere.
In that way, it’s getting harder for writers and artists of post-apocalyptic stories to stay one step ahead of the news. There’s a creeping feeling that we’ve seen it all before — even if only in our heads. But good writing can be its own virtue, regardless of subject matter, and the post-apocalyptic genre has always stood proudly on the wobbly, irradiated shoulders of others.
“We’re obviously inspired by others and we wouldn’t even be the first post-apocalyptic game set in Colorado, but we have pretty unique sensibilities,” Meyers said of Wasteland 3. “It’s a very serious and dark world, but we put a unique twist on just about everything, and we really enjoy dark humor. You’re going to have brutal ethical decisions to make about life and death, but there’s a lot of humor throughout as well.”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
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