The 2015 open-world game 'Mad Max' featured one of the most convincing wastelands we've ever seen.
All images courtesy Warner Bros
Few games have made me feel as insignificant as Mad Max has. In the wasteland, I face something much larger and much more powerful. And if the wasteland defines Max, it is the storm that defines the wasteland.
Randomly, as you traverse the map, a powerful magnetic storm will pass through the desert. It’s clearly inspired by the similar storm in Fury Road, with the great wall-like maelstrom of dust and metal that Furiosa drives the War Rig into in a desperate attempt to shake her pursuers. It is framed as an act of near-madness in the film, a chilling reminder that Furiosa will do anything to protect her charges as they flee from the clutches of Immortan Joe.
You can’t fight the storm, and it doesn’t even play much of a role in the story. It’s just there to be, to remind the player that the squabbles of humankind were what created this world, and this world will reap its revenge on who survived.
Mad Max is an odd game. Developed by Avalanche Studios (who are currently developing Rage 2, which takes place in a different post-apocalyptic waste), Mad Max is set somewhere between the aesthetic & storyline goals of the original 1980s films and the then-recently-released 2015 Fury Road, it’s a game with one foot firmly in each side of the Mad Max chronology. It takes the visual style and color treatment of the newer film (with its trademark bronzes, golds, and sky blues) and pairs it when a story that feels relatively bland in comparison, taking cues from the 1980s films much more than the 2015 one.
Mad Max is an open-world game set among the Plains of Silence, a vast desert region between a few scattered settlements in the trademark Mad Max post-apocalyptic setting. You, as Max, are tasked with recovering your stolen V8 Interceptor from a warlord whose dominion you have inadvertently stumbled upon in your travels. The game’s tone wildly swings between comedic and self-serious, as Max works to rebuild the peaceful settlements of the region and to fight off various enemy factions with led by rulers with names such as “Scabrous Scrotus” and “Deep Friah.”
In the wasteland of the Mad Max universe, there is no respite. Sure, raiders occasionally park by the side of worn dirt roads, but they aren’t really resting so much as positioning themselves as sitting ducks for a turbo-charged opponent to smash through. They show up on the map, and I turn Max’s wheel toward them for an easy kill. What’s another wreck in the desert, anyway?
Like all open world games, there is a conceit necessary for the player to be able to run roughshod over the space. Different games have approached this in different ways but most can be defined by the way that rules are laid out for the player. Either the player is not beholden to the laws of the land or the land itself is lawless, and thus the player faces no (immediate) consequences for their actions. Grand Theft Auto categorizes the player as an anomalous criminal in an otherwise pristine city, while the Elder Scrolls casts the player as a bringer of order to a world in crisis. Of course, plenty of games blur the lines on this divide—Red Dead Redemption is a game about being an “outlaw” in a “lawless land,” but in general, either the player is lawless or the world is.
The game, like Max himself, is defined by the wasteland.
Mad Max is the latter. The game, like Max himself, is defined by the wasteland. The desert is the canvas upon which the vehicular violence takes form, the backdrop of the scene at every moment. The game does occasionally foray into enclosed, smaller arenas or buildings, but these moments are rare in juxtaposition to the omnipresence of the wasteland. It is always surrounding and encompassing the player, a constant reminder that there is nothing here but the distant lights of small settlements and the far-off roar of unfriendly engines.
There is often a sort of stasis in post-apocalyptic stories. Mad Max’s various installments touch on the few civilizations that have clung to life in their respective wastelands, but few, if any, resemble our modern societies. There is hanging-on, but there is not much that could resemble advancement. There are few new technologies, just the ones that have been cobbled together out of the ruins of the old.
The storm explains this, in its own way. It is unstoppable and devastating. In-game, driving into the storm even with a fully equipped Magnum Opus is a nearly-certain death sentence. Your car is nothing to the terrifying maw that is an earth made angry, wounded by its own children. The storm always comes back, and rebuilding is slow.
It’s a specific sort of wasteland that fits the ethos of the Mad Max series. It is dotted with the relics of the old, pre-apocalyptic world, but the symbols are twisted and warped in this new world after the bombs have fallen. Everything is smoothed out, half-swallowed by sand, the few remaining outcroppings of metal becoming monuments, shrines to something that is long since gone.
In one setpiece area, an airport covered in dunes becomes a madcap racetrack through the terminals, now buried underneath the sand. Bridges, long since been abandoned, sink into the mud at just the right angle to be a sick ramp for Max’s modified Magnum Opus—a car that doubles as a religious icon for Max’s engineer companion, Chumbucket. Everywhere, the world has forgotten what it once was in favor of what it is now, a massive arena of bronze and brown scarred through with roads and pockmarked with the remains of conflicts past.
Across the catalog of fictional worlds, the Time Before takes different levels of precedence depending on on the work’s particular flavor of post-apocalyptia. In Mad Max it serves primarily as prop. There is no reason to look back, Mad Max says, to the specifics of the old civilizations. Things were bad then, and they’re bad now, albeit in different ways. Not just the inhabitants, but the meanings themselves of the ruins across the landscape are lost. It is futile to even explain the original use of an airport, when there are no planes, no countries, no destinations to speak of. There is no glorious past, just the raw world that we have at the moment, littered with what is left of another cruel world just under the sand.
The Mad Max movies dip in and out of reminding the viewer of the hostility of the planet’s climate. Like many narratives around a post-apocalyptic landscape, they’re often more principally concerned with the goings-on of what people and societies have developed in the world after the apocalypse. The Mad Max game, by virtue of being a more character-action focused title with a heavy emphasis on driving, doesn’t have quite as much room to dive into the political complexities of its setting.
The game finds itself focusing more on the moment-to-moment action of driving, fighting, and surviving in the wasteland. It’s not a “survival game,” other than having some vague gestures toward the concept with the Magnum Opus’ fuel gauge and Max’s own water canteen, two elements that are barely developed in the game’s design. But when you are living in a world out to kill you, there is always some element of survival.
Buried under all of this—the overwhelming scale of the wastes, the environmental indifference to the past, the cruelty of the storms—there is a central, ironic exception. Even with the heavy-handed references toward climate change that the Mad Max universe often employs, it is still always a love story about cars, and gasoline, and in turn pollution. There is no way around it, the wasteland is desolate, and nothing from the old world matters anymore… except for cars, the very objects that pushed the world to the brink to begin with.
There’s a sort of sad poetry to this, that in the twilight hours of the planet, the few inhabitants left find themselves addicted to the same thing that brought them here: boxes with wheels that run on explosions and finite fuel. The wasteland is a consequence of the great folly of mankind, but it is not dead. It’s alive, and it’s angry.