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The Evolution of Extinction

December 11, 2011 Written by Sebastian Moss

Since the dawn of man, we’ve been fascinated with how it will all end. With post-apocalyptic The Last of Us now revealed, we take a look at how the end of days has been presented throughout history.

Probably the most famous, and one of the oldest, instances of a prediction of the apocalypse is the Mayan Calendar, which supposedly predicted the end of the world on December 12th, 2012 (or 21st or 23rd). Disappointingly, it’s now believed that that’s wrong, and the 5383-year old Mayan Calendar’s final date simply marks the end of one cycle, and the beginning of another. In addition, of the 15,000 registered glyphic texts found scattered across the ruins of the Mayan empire, only two mention 2012.

The ‘proto-apocalyptic’ age of Jewish literature brought about the some of the earliest forms of recorded apocalyptic prophecy based on religious beliefs. In a paper read at the Joint British-Dutch Old Testament Conference, John Barton talked about the proto-apocalyptic phase, where prophets transitioned from short-term predictions to the longer-term predictions “which is the touchstone of the true apocalyptic”. As the texts were written around the period of Jewish exile, some predictions were based on the “divine punishment to the nations surrounding Israel”, like in the Book of Jeremiah. Others were heavily-cryptic, coded descriptions of surreal new beginnings. The predictions were similar to creation mythologies, and talked of complete reform after a Divine victory. Jewish apocalypticism doctrine believes in two eras – the current era of evil, and a coming era ruled by God.

As a messiah is thought to usher in the coming era, people throughout history have claimed they were the messiah, with Moses of Crete, a rabbi in the 5th century, promising to lead people through a parted sea back to Palestine. He was so convincing, some followers cast themselves into the sea, believing it would open up, only to drown or be rescued by sailors.

In Christianity, The Book of Revelation, the last book in The New Testament, introduces the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The chapter speaks of a “‘book’/’scroll’ in God’s right hand that is sealed with seven seals”, Jesus then opens the first four of the seven seals, summoning four beings that ride out on white, red, black, and pale horses. Definitions and interpretations differ, but generally the four horsemen are believed to symbolize Conquest, War, Famine and Death.

I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come and see!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.

The horsemen then ride forth and bring about Divine retribution and are harbingers of Judgment Day (Last Judgment, Day of Judgment). Prior to Judgment Day, the dead rise from the ground, with the Nicene Creed saying:

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

Most Christian religious groups believe that, after the second coming of Christ, the truth of each man’s relationship with God will be revealed, and every single person who has ever lived will be judged with perfect justice. People will then go to Heaven or Hell (or Purgatory, depending on which Christian group). After this, the universe will be recreated and a new heaven and a new earth will be formed.

There are also various interpretations of the rapture, which includes one where the holy are brought up to meet God, while heretics will be “left behind”.

In Norse mythology, Ragnarök will bring about a great battle that will result in the deaths of key Norse figures, such as Odin, Thor and Loki. During the battle, various natural disasters will ravage the world, only for it to be entirely submerged in water. The world will then regrow, with humanity repopulated by two survivors.

An apocalyptic setting has also been used repeatedly in fictional literature, with one of the first English instances being The Last Man by Mary Shelley (of Frankenstein fame) in 1826. At the time, the story of a world brought to its knees by a plague was held in contempt by critics, who called it “sickening”, and criticized its “stupid cruelties”. Failing to sell well, The Last Man was not republished until 1965, where it finally received moderate critical acclaim.

1885 saw one of the first post-apocalyptic fictional novels, After London by Richard Jefferies, where an unknown disaster wipes out most of mankind. Here, London is overrun by nature, with man no longer looking after the city.

H.G. Wells’ The War of The World was one of the first stories to focus on a new potential threat – aliens. Published in 1898, the novel is about a martian invasion of England, with the, now-famous, extraterrestrial tripods easily destroying our primitive armies. Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of the novel in 1938 was so convincing that it is believed to have caused mass panic (although the true extent of the hysteria is not known). One known example of panic was were listeners, believing the end was nigh, called Future Tonight Show host Jack Paar for more information. He replied:

The world is not coming to an end. Trust me. When have I ever lied to you?

Paar was then accused of “covering up the truth”. After the actual truth was revealed, some listeners sued CBS for the distress caused, but all cases were dismissed other than one claim for a pair of black men’s shoes by someone who had spent his money to escape the Martians, rather than on shoes.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1913 novella, The Poison Belt, provided another example of early apocalyptic literature, where the Earth travels through a poisonous belt that pollutes the air and kills all who breathe it in.

WWI caused an increase in popularity for apocalyptic books, and the genre expanded and grew over the next 30 years. The Cold War then caused a profound shift in apocalyptic literature, with Nuclear Warfare being a strong recurring theme.

The 1950s also saw the refinement of the zombie genre with Richard Matheson’s I am Legend and the series of comics Tales from the Crypt. Before that, Mesopotamian poem The Epic of Gilgamesh is cited as the earliest example of flesh-eating undead, with the genre further evolving with Frankenstein, Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft.

As the 20th century progressed, apocalyptic stories found a new medium – motion pictures. For example, Peace on Earth, shown in 1939, was a cartoon about a post-apocalyptic world populated only by animals, where the creatures read books on human rules and start building houses using dead soldiers’ helmets. A post-WWII remake added far more destructive weapons, and changed the book of human rules to the Bible. As production quality increased, so did the number of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic films.

Late 1970s and early 1980s Australian dystopian action films Mad Max and Mad Max 2 had a profound influence on the post-apocalyptic genre. In the US, on the other hand, there was a surge in popularity for disaster films in the 1970s, causing the period to be called “The Golden Age of the Disaster film”. Most films weren’t actually apocalyptic, and rather about smaller-scale disasters, but as the Golden Age waned a few apocalypse movies like Meteor were released. While the genre’s popularity had dropped, science fiction films remained relatively strong, like 1984′s The Terminator, which showed a world where technology and robots caused an apocalypse.

The disaster genre’s revival in the late 90s was marked by the smash hit alien-invasion film Independence Day, and continued with apocalyptic meteor films Deep Impact and Armageddon in 1998. 2003′s awful movie The Core explored the possibility of the Earth’s core slowing down, while The Day After Tomorrow in 2004 exploited the growing fear of global warming. One of the most expensive apocalypse movies ever, 2012, was based on the Mayan apocalypse, and showed earthquakes, and megatsunamis decimating the human population. Recently released Contagion took a look at the growing fear of contagious diseases.

Equally, the subgenre of zombies exploded with the advent of films, starting off with the 1920′s silent German horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The modern conception of a zombie is almost entirely based on George A. Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. Night was the first of six films in the Living Dead series, which further popularized the genre. The 2002 film 28 Days Later helped push a different, faster zombie. Zombies also found a home on comic books, with hundreds of different zombie comic books in existence – most notably Robert Kirkman’s incredible The Walking Dead.

By this stage, computer games were a reality, and, once again, the apocalypse theme made a successful transition over to the more recent medium. Games like Robotron: 2084 introduced rudimentary plotlines that were based on apocalyptic events, but as graphical and processing power increased, so did developers’ ambitions. For example,  Doom, id Software’s seminal game that essentially started the first person shooter genre, was about trying to stop hellish demons pouring onto Earth.

Another example of an apocalyptic game, Wasteland, was developed by the original Fallout developer, Interplay, and is often seen as a precursor to the Fallout series. Set after a nuclear war, the RPG is about you surviving the harsh wasteland and fighting mutated monsters – much like the subsequent Fallout games. Both Midwinter and Beneath a Steel Sky were also both about the nuclear apocalypse, and later S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl and Metro 2033.

Half-Life 2, while not exactly an apocalypse game, is about the downfall of man as an oppressive multidimensional empire takes command. With humanity no longer able to procreate, their extinction is an ever-present possibility. Equally of note for its story-telling prowess is Deus Ex, where a lethal pandemic known as the “Gray Death” killed most of the world’s population.

Apocalypse games have continued to be popular, with the recent release RAGE being about a meteor armageddon, BRINK about a flooded Earth, and Battlefield 2142 about a fight for resources. 2010′s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West presented a world overrun by nature and populated by machines with animalistic brains.

Games like Darksiders and Too Human were based on mythology, showing apocalyptic worlds with Christian and Norse influences respectively. Alien attacks have also featured in a wide array of games, including Crysis and Duke Nukem.

Similarly, Zombies became a popular video game genre, with titles like Resident Evil, Dead Island, Dead Nation, Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising all set in mid or post-apocalyptic worlds. In general, zombie games have stuck to the two main types: shuffling and running, but due to the length of games, and boss fights, zombie games are often filled with monsters and mutated creatures that are far less human than their movie counterparts.

That brings us to Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, a survival action game where the population has been “decimated by a modern plague”, presumably Cordyceps. Little is known about the game, other than that it is probably set some time after the fungus outbreak, considering Ellie says that a populated city has only been described to her. One thing is for sure, however, The Last of Us has a lot to live up to if it truly wants to be “genre-defining“.