Most forms of fiction see well defined peaks and valleys with a natural ebb and flow. The post apocalyptic setting has only been on the rise. Books and 70s/80s movies set the stage for this limitless setting. Over the past decade the quality has only continued to rise, especially in newer forms of media. Maybe it’s a reaction to the times or a sign that more popular fictional settings are overdone. Either way, quality is at an all high time across all post apocalyptic media. It seems like a good time to break down the best work of art for each popular medium.
Book – The Stand (1978)
Stephen King has written a lot of books in his time (over 50), but The Stand might still be his finest work. The Stand uses a now tried-and-true catalyst to trigger the apocalypse. A virus breaks out, killing the majority of the population. From that event, two very different factions arise. One is lead by Mother Abagail and the other by Randall Flagg. One represents good and one represents evil. Inevitably, the two sides clash in a much more post apocalyptic version of Lord of the Rings.
Where The Stand really excels is in how King uses his diverse character cast to propel the story and show us bits of humanity. With good and evil clearly at the forefront of every turn, we follow the ins and outs of what truly motivates everyone. For that, some characters will be loved and some hated. Nothing feels without purpose and the lengthy book closes with a tidy sense of satisfaction. The Stand is a book that cleans up its character and plots points very well.
The Stand does use fantastical elements to a greater degree than most post apocalyptic fiction. That may diminish the draw for some. For everyone else, The Stand is a unique blend of post apocalyptic, fantasy, and horror that has no equal in literary form.
PC Game – Fallout: New Vegas (2010)
Fallout is a name that’s hard to avoid, with good reason. The series is known for producing games where choice and freedom take center stage. Players are able to build characters in a number of ways, which greatly impact one’s playthrough. A superhuman athlete with an IQ of 50 is going to interact with the world very differently than a charismatic genius. Many regard New Vegas as the pinnacle of the series, and I have a hard time not seeing it as the pinnacle of PC post apocalyptic gameplay.
New Vegas is absolutely riddled with choices. The game starts with you in a small town, which you could abandon immediately if desired. If you decide to stay, you’ll get embroiled in the town’s looming gang war. Based who you side with and decisions later in the game, you’ll witness one of five possible endings for that town alone at the game’s end.
New Vegas will constantly ask you to choose sides and make difficult choices. To me, these choices form the backbone of what makes post apocalyptic media great. When society has completely collapsed, how will humanity pick up the pieces? Unlike the other forms of media on this list, you as the main character will ultimately guide the answer to that question.
TV Show – The Walking Dead (2010)
The Walking Dead is not without its faults. Episodes can sometimes drag on and certain seasons feel rather lackluster. But when The Walking Dead is at its best, there isn’t much better TV of any genre. It also uses a favorite harbinger of the apocalypse: zombies.
The Walking Dead is a brutal show where every character is always at risk. Those who don’t deal well with loss might want to avoid The Walking Dead as it does not hold back its punches. The main characters desperately seek to survive without losing their humanity. Some to succeed better than others, but there’s no doubt a lot of tough choices stand in the way of survival. The predicaments in
which the protagonists find themselves will force you to ask yourself what you would be willing to do to survive.
The cast of The Walking Dead is extremely diverse, which gives rise to tension even when there are no zombies or evil human societies to threaten them. It’s this constant tension that makes The Walking Dead such a great post apocalyptic show. When the world ends, do we really expect reforming civilization to be easy? I don’t and neither does The Walking Dead.
Console Game – The Last of Us (2013)
Whereas Fallout: New Vegas is all about freedom and choice, The Last of Us is all about telling a tightly woven tale in a bleak future. Following primarily two characters, the story shows quite an assortment of believable roles humans might take on after a mutant fungus transforms most of their species into cannibalistic monsters.
Often times, creative works will ask a bit too much of us in our suspension of disbelief. The Last of Us feels completely natural and organic throughout. It’s easy to get attached to the main characters and the side characters admirably do their part in pushing their journey forward. Intertwined in that, the gameplay elements masterfully reinforce the intended tone. The player’s resource management, creative problem solving, and stealthiness will help determine the difficulty of the main characters’ journey. The Last of Us not only tells a fantastic story but might actually help its players prepare to live in a post apocalyptic world.
Movie – Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
This movie defied all of my expectations about what made for good post apocalyptic entertainment. From start to finish, Fury Road is a wild action ride. Somehow in that time frame, it manages to portray society, morality, religion, and humanity in all of its varying degrees.
The main story follows one individual and one group both fleeing the antagonist and his horde of Valhalla cravers. Certainly that journey has to end somewhere, and it does in spectacular fashion. Racing through the desert in the meantime is not a simple affair though. Myriads of landscapes will impress the viewer and give rise to a unique post apocalyptic setting. The protagonists aren’t just fighting against the people chasing them; they’re fighting against the environment itself.
Mad Max: Fury Road isn’t as nuanced as the other titles on this list. There isn’t time to delve into every little facet of human nature in two hours. However, it’s an incredibly fun ride that is incredibly efficient. At no point is there a lack of sheer entertainment, and yet the movie manages to convey a wholly immersive world while delivering said entertainment.
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