It's all over
There’s something about grimly fascinating about the End of Days. Like scratching at a livid scab, it’s horrid but somehow alluring. Perhaps it’s the promise of anarchy; never having to take the bins out again, because the bins have melted and everybody’s on fire. Or perhaps it’s because modern life is more demoralising than that giant stone wheel from Conan. Whatever the appeal, games let us explore armageddon without ever having eat squirrel or defecate into a sloshing bucket.
Why not rank the finest apocalypses on PC? For this I’ve devised an empirical process to judge the Judgement Days: by using a combination of eschatology and weary speculation, I’ll help you sort your ragnaroks from your raptures.
Left 4 Dead
Let’s ease into a warm bath of armageddon with something obvious. Zombies are tediously familiar, but Left 4 Dead makes this list because of the predicted scale of devastation. The cause of the outbreak is ‘green flu’: a rabies-like pathogen of unknown origin, which is probably neither green nor flu. Even if you’re immune to green flu, a fresh hell awaits you; it’s been a great day if you haven’t been belched on, strangled with guts or torn into human lardons.
Devastation-o-meter: Assuming ‘green flu’ spreads, billions will die. Only one in three men and one in nine women are immune, which equates to 22% of the population. That leaves 1.5 billion survivors, with the remaining 5.8 billion either dead, undead, or somewhere in between.
Catastroph-glee: It’s a zombie apocalypse, so you at least get to put your meticulous survival plan into action. Enjoy your canned peaches, and don’t forget to scrawl conspiratorial graffiti on the wall of your bunker. Downside: you’re probably already dead from flu.
Gaming apocalypses usually rely on dirty wastelands and worlds destroyed my mankind’s inhumanity to man. Doom is different. Hell has done the work for us—even if technically, it’s still humanity's fault—and they’ve done a smashing job. By the time we get to Doom II, almost every human on the planet is dead. At one point, Doomguy is the only human left alive on Mother Earth, which would be horrid if it wasn’t for the option to shoot rockets into demonic brains. Doom even gives you a bonus apocalypse: the retaliatory attack on Hell results in the death of thousands of demons, assuming the non-robot bits are technically alive to begin with.
Devastation-o-meter: Billions die. A spaceship containing the miserable remnants of humanity takes off in Doom II, so we’re saved as a species, but it’s assumed we’re mostly dead.
Catastroph-glee: If you love the bubbling hatred of all-consuming revenge, perfect. Otherwise, your choices are dead, dead and in hell, or homeless and lost in space.
Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl
Shadow of Chernobyl features a localised apocalypse, which strictly speaking isn’t an apocalypse at all; more a pocket of numbing despair. The cause is a second nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, which is both careless and interesting: you get two cataclysmic events for the price of one, layered atop of each other like irradiated blankets. Stalker is exceptionally good at recreating what I assume is the feel of an actual place ravaged by nuclear disaster, thanks to sophisticated systems for monitoring radiation, blood loss, and hunger.
Devastation-o-meter: Chernobyl itself isn’t hugely populous, but the aftermath would be horrendous—some sources suggest as many as 100,000 people will die as a result of the real-life Chernobyl disaster.
Catastroph-glee: There’s no room for the thigh-slapping larks here, but it’s a captivating science experiment. The radiation in Stalker causes otherworldly changes to the local flora and fauna, and even alters the laws of physics.
Who said we were limited to post-apocalyptic games? Nobody writing this feature. Redditor Lycerius played the same game of Civilization II for 10 years, creating an Earth so hopelessly cursed it’s worthy of its own feature. The polar ice caps have melted 20 times, covering the planet in an irradiated swamp. The three remaining powers are locked in endless conflict, scrabbling for what limited resources remain. The current war has lasted almost 2000 years, making the 100 Years War look like sickly boys scuffling over milk money. The situation is so famously awful that it even has its own thread, appropriately named the Eternal War.
Devastation-o-meter: After years of flooding, war, famine and more war, only 15 million people remain. That’s over 7 billion people dead, give or take a few million.
Catastroph-glee: If Waterworld is your favourite film, this is a dream come true.
Wasteland is the yellowed grandaddy of apocalypse games, and the inspiration for Fallout. It starts, somewhat inevitably, with a nuclear war. The only nations to remain neutral are Switzerland, Sweden, and Ireland, so nobody even notices. The remaining superpowers carelessly launch 90 percent of their nuclear missiles, flattening the Earth. Almost 100 years later, a surviving pre-war A.I. then decides to create a genetically pure replacement for humans, creating an army to exterminate the feeble, probably-to-blame remains of mankind.
Devastation-o-meter: An A.I. that makes Skynet look like Clippy wants to kill all humans ‘lucky’ enough to have survived World War 3. Pretty bad, then.
Catastroph-glee: You make an android friend called Max—which sounds like the plot to an unmade '80s buddy movie—and the deaths are wonderfully inventive: “Thug explodes like a blood sausage.”
Fallout’s Great War only lasts two hours, but the results are disastrous—civilization as we know it ends, and humanity is almost extinguished. The famous Fallout Vaults only have room for one person in every 3000. While some areas aren’t hit as hard as others—New Vegas, for example—the death toll is still staggering. Radiation also caused widespread mutation, leading to a persecuted subspecies of humanity known as ghouls. The only good news is that this alternate future includes charming robot butlers.
Devastation-o-meter: It’s impossible to put an exact number on it, but according to the Fallout Bible, the U.S. required nearly 400,000 Vaults the size of Vault 13 to house its 400 million inhabitants. Unfortunately, Vault-Tec was only commissioned to build 122. Worst case scenario: in the US alone, over 390 million people died.
Catastrophe-glee: I mentioned the robot butlers, and there are also massive pneumatic fists for punching mutants. Every nuclear mushroom cloud has a silver lining.
A nuclear war in 2013 forces the population of Russia underground, and they take shelter in the Metro system. The surface of the Earth becomes toxic, and irradiated material blocks out the sun, leading to nuclear winter. Plant life can no longer maintain photosynthesis, and the food chain destabilises. While several billion people may have survived the initial conflict, the lethal conditions that follow have wiped out most of humanity. There’s no joke here. Things are properly awful.
Devastation-o-meter: The scale of the nuclear war isn’t entirely clear, but we know the surface of the Earth is an uninhabitable, toxic dust bowl. It’s a world that isn’t going to recover, either—unlike many of the other entries on this list, Metro 2033 is about embracing the brutal conditions which are now part of everyday life.
Catastroph-glee: The death or mutation of most plant life on Earth is very handy if you suffer from hay fever. Unfortunately, you’re probably allergic to toxic radioactive dust, too.
Mass Effect starts off with a utopic vision of strangers on a leafy Citadel having transgressive alien space-sex. However, the whole universe is trapped in a cycle of ancient, ubiquitous annihilation. While you pretend to like poetry so Ashley thinks you’re deep, implacable doom-squid plan yet another apocalypse from the godforsaken reaches of space. If we’re examining scale, nothing else comes close.
Devastation-o-meter: The Rachni, Quarians and Krogans have all already suffered cataclysmic events, and the Protheans are long gone, but it barely matters. The Reapers will wipe out life on every planet—a cycle which has been repeated countless times. There probably isn’t even a number to accurately describe the scale of devastation.
Catastroph-glee: At least there’s still alien space-sex.
Beneath a Steel Sky
Unlike the other entries on this list, Beneath A Steel Sky doesn’t rely on a huge death toll: life continues, it’s just awful. It takes place in a grim, dystopian future, on an Earth scarred by pollution and nuclear fallout (although this might not be obvious at first, because it’s set in Australia). Democracy is failing, and corporations control much of the planet, throttling workers’ rights and engaging in industrial sabotage. Imagine life now, but worse, with robots.
Devastation-o-meter: As well as the pollution and radiation, Earth has also been through a Euro-American War. The death count is lower than other entries on this list, but all labour representation and social benefits have been revoked.
Catastroph-glee: Despite the gloomy state of society, many people seem surprisingly chipper. Also: Fosters lager still exists—great/terrible news, depending on your preference.
Much like Left 4 Dead, Day Z offers a suspiciously commonplace apocalypse. It’s set in the post-Soviet state of Charnarus, where a plague has turned most of the inhabitants into murderous zombies. That isn’t what’s interesting about it, though. The real horror of Day Z comes from seeing your fellow humans go Full Bastard when they’re forced to compete for food, water, weapons and medicine. It’s a world which reduces us to our basest instincts, which is almost as scary as giant mutated crabs. Almost.
Devastation-o-meter: Instead of focusing on numbers, here’s an anecdote: PC Gamer’s very own probably-murderer Ben Griffin killed a friendly survivor with an axe, just because she was there. In turn, the PC Gamer team killed Ben, perpetuating the endless cycle of violence.
Catastroph-glee: Killing Ben is enough to make any apocalypse tolerable
Honourable mention: Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden
Literally a game where a supremely powerful basketball dunk causes the death of millions of people, and Charles Barkley wrongly gets the blame. Seriously. This might be the best wiki page in history, because it includes the phrase ‘cybernetic Vince Carter.’
Devastation-o-meter: Millions die, and basketball is banned. Dark days.
Catastroph-glee: Nothing. You can’t even play basketball.