Top 10 Post Apocalyptic Games of All Time

Eric Swain takes a look at the ten franchises that define the post-apocalyptic genre in video games.

Updated: 06/14/13

Note: The list has been updated with the latest title from Naughty Dog, The Last of us, a post-apocalyptic game where humans have been zombified—more or less—by a terrible fungus called the cordyceps.

We are all enamored by the end of the world. There is something titillating in the idea that everything we know and love will be destroyed, and that we will have to start civilization anew. Why do we fantasize so much about being reduced to barbarism, even when simple conveniences like toilets or clean running water are gone? Why do so many people want to experience something that were it to happen in real life they wouldn’t survive a week?

Maybe it’s the "what if" factor of seeing humanity rise and fall after staring into the face of total oblivion. Maybe it’s just the desire to end inequality for a few minutes before everyone races to stand on top of one another. Or maybe it’s perverse desire to see people and systems you don’t like completely obliterated from the world.

Video games are unique in their ability to place us within a world, within conditions far outside ordinary life. We can walk the barren apocalypse, see our world broken in a virtual "what if" and discover our reaction to it all. The game puts us in a situation where the world has ended, and we get to experience what happens after the disaster. Unlike films and books, we get to experience the post-apocalypse not just through a lens filtered by immersive graphics and clever writing, but also through game mechanics—like starvation, radiation poisoning, and every other hardship one can think of in a post-apocalyptic world. Looking at it from that point of view here are the top 10 post-apocalyptic video games of all time.


10. The Walking Dead

the walking dead

The Walking Dead is based on the comics of the same setting but tells an original story, unlike the TV series on AMC which follows the comic book story almost page by page. The game focuses on a man and a little named Clementine who stick together, and find other survivors of the zombie apocalypse to make a living in the post-apocalyptic world.

Just as it is with the comic book, tensions flare when people of different personalities just can't get along, and have various motivations and biases underlying their presence in the story. In many ways, the human drama of The Walking Dead is as cynically post-apocalyptic as it comes.


9. Fuel

This open world racing game is set in a world ravaged by extreme weather fueled by global warming. (Insert your own joke here.) You encounter tornadoes and dust storms all across one of the largest maps in gaming, covering roughly the same square mileage as Connecticut. You traveling the map in fast cars, but the even so the sheer size of everything is crushing. Seeing a wasteland with everything destroyed or gone is one thing seeing keep going and going hammers it home. Existing in such a massive empty space conveys the result of utter destruction than anything else could. The game comes with a large selection of vehicles, lots of story races, even more challenges found through exploration of the world and most of all vista points, giving you picturesque views of the desolate landscape.


8. Borderlands 2

Like its predecessor Borderlands, Borderlands 2 takes place on the post-apocalyptic planet of Pandora. Well, it's not exactly "post-apocalyptic" but it comes pretty close to what you'd expect from a planet destroyed more or less by corporations who are hell-bent on digging up resources and finding something called The Vault.

The planet's full of raiders—disenfranchised miners and former employees of corporations who were left behind on the planet to fend for themselves—and survivors who eke a out a living as best they can.

The game's not exactly post-apocalyptic in the traditional sense but it has a good Mad Max-esque feel and it offers something different from the usual tropes.


7. Gears of War (series)

With most of the focus on the war against the Locust and the bromance of the main characters, we seem to forget how royally screwed the human race is in this series. Marcus is even congratulated at the end of the first game for blowing up a significant portion of the planet. A world that has devolved to a point where destroying large chunks of a planet are A-OK, I think counts as post-apocalyptic. No matter where Marcus and crew seem to go it’s always in ruins. We know for a fact that there are civilians, but the situation is even worse for them than it is for the military. There is so much that is disgusting and horrible about their lives I don’t want to get into it here. A great game series set in a place I’d never want to visit.


6. Wasteland

The original post-apocalyptic game, first released in 1988, Wasteland is a turn based roleplaying game where you take command of a squad of Desert Rangers who police the Wasteland, solving problems and bringing about justice. Set after a nuclear war punch up between the US and the Soviet Union. Survival is paramount in this world and the game itself is pretty difficult too. It was also one of the first games to feature a persistent world where it would save the changes you as the player enacted upon it. It also allowed multiple solutions to challenges that would arise. Due to technical limitations, instead of having all the dialogue and descriptions on the disk it came with a printed book and would tell you what paragraphs to read at a given point in the game. It allowed for a lot of detail and information and at the same time enough blanks space for one’s imagination to fill in the gaps.

Continued on Page 2.


5. Left 4 Dead (series)

There is probably no apocalypse so engrained in the present public consciousness as the one of the zombie variety. Unlike most zombie games, however, where they are just in the indiscriminate enemy dujour, in Left 4 Dead it feels like the zombie apocalypse has happened and you are one of the last 4 unluckiest people alive trying to escape. The horde is everywhere and you can’t hole up forever because of the Tank zombies will break down the entire wall, Smokers will pull out and Hunters will take out any stragglers. Left 4 Dead not only presents us with a zombie apocalypse, but also feels like a zombie apocalypse, with a strong emphasis on the apocalypse. Zombie apocalypse is how the living deal with each other as much as the dead. Here: cooperate or die.


4. Day Z

Day Z's setting isn't much to speak of but it's post-apocalypticness lies within its gameplay, which sees players attempting to survive a zombie apocalypse while also fending against each other.

Taking place on a large island, the players must pool together their talents and find a way to survive the environment, while occasionally making runs into zombie-infested cities for resources.

As a post-apocalyptic game, it's more of an experience than anything else.


3. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (series)

Another game with an Eastern European ethos with regards to the Apocalypse, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and it’s two expansion packs are sandbox FPSRPG games with their worlds being based in “The Zone” a highly radioactive desolate environment vaguely based on Chernobyl. The people aren’t much better. The fact that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. stands for Scavenger, Trespasser, Adventurer, Loner, Killer, Explorer, Robber and this is a common enough profession should be telling enough. Radiation, hunger and persistent wounds are all mechanics furthering the game’s emphasis on survival. Keep your finger on the quick save key, life in the Zone is nasty, brutish and short.


2. Last of Us

The Last of Us is developed by the makers of the Uncharted series, and is set to offer a new take on the post-apocalyptic genre in a future where humans have been zombified—more or less—by a terrible fungus called the cordyceps.

The game follows the story of two survivors, Joel and Ellie, as they traverse through the post-apocalyptic urban jungle, that's literally overrun by flora, while avoiding both the zombified plague victims and hostile scavengers alike.


1. Fallout (series)

This is the big enchilada of all post-apocalyptic games. With six titles to its credit, and 5 of them actually good, it shows us the future as the 1950s imagined it and that we all did in fact drop the bomb. The role-playing game series is not just about survival, but being able to move forward as a society. To rebuild in the aftermath of total annihilation, in the face of power hungry group, in the face of the repercussion of an unconscionable corporation, in the face of being lied to, in the face of running out of supplies. In the face of all this, you choose who you will be.