“My Life Didn’t Begin Until The World Ended” — Sunset Overdrive and the post-apocalyptic identity
Sunset Overdrive is the kind of game we don’t get anymore despite the fact that Fortnite, the biggest game in the world right now, bears more than a passing resemblance. It’s the kind of loud, brash game that you’d expect from a California studio filled with 30-something men, men who had just spent the last few years developing Fuse. Fuse was the result of their irreverent second-coming being ground into a dull grey paste by their publisher, EA. There’s even a side-quest where you face off against waves of corporate robots spouting focus-group jargon, as you violently refute arguments that seem extremely familiar to the writers. It’s welcome in a warm, fuzzy, “don’t think about it too hard” sort of way. I grew up playing Insomniac’s “irreverent” games; the ones where they named each sequel with a “B-Sharps”-level pun about butts. But any game, even one where dying gets you a joke and fast-travel just means getting drunk, can’t just be irreverent without a point of view.
Sunset Overdrive is first and foremost, a game about identity. Each sequence of missions, tied to a faction in the world, is roughly themed around an identity, in a very late 90s-to-early-noughties sense of the word. There are the Eagle Scouts, the Private School Nerds, the LARPers, and the Latinex Cheerleaders. The Eagle Scouts model themselves on the character of their charismatic leader. The nerds define themselves through their school. The LARPers… LARP, and the Caterinas are Day-of the Dead-themed cheerleaders who help children(?).
Truly, a cross-section of global subcultures.
These identities are all formed in response to the post-apocalypse that Sunset Overdrive is oh so keen to remind you of. “Have a great murder-time in the post-apocalypse” barks a vendor. Like all post-apocalypse settings, there’s an fantasy buried under the rubble of the end of the world. Sometimes it’s the fantasy of the badge; the idea that one can mete out your own personal justice as you see fit. Right all those wrongs that society did you, perhaps. In others, it’s a thinly-disguised desire to return to the days of colonialism, as seen in the more recent Fallout games, where players are given a new frontier to be tamed, conveniently erasing the history (and sometimes the very existence) of who was there before the last taming of the so-called New World.
In Sunset Overdrive, the fantasy is to be able to be yourself, or at least, and extremely capable version of yourself who everyone thinks is strong and cool. The player character is all snark, only occasionally dipping into the dementedly violent glee that old Insomniac games revelled in. They uniformly think everyone else is a massive dumbass, and just want to fuck shit up on the real. At one point, the character even says that their life didn’t start until the world ended. Before energy drink started turning people into blistering orange zombies, the player character was living in a dirty apartment and picking up trash at product-launch parties. “Why isn’t my life better?” is something we’re constantly asking ourselves, but we all know the difference between disillusionment and the sense of entitlement spurned. The player character in Sunset Overdrive represents the latter. The energy-drink apocalypse is their perfect opportunity to shed the boring responsibilities of sustaining yourself; maintaining healthy relationships; and generally not being a dickhead in order to be awesome and kill things with guns that are also jokes. Don’t get me wrong, work is bad and should not happen, but you’d have to look to Ernest Cline for a more direct escapist fantasy tailored to the pathologically media-literate.
In the detritus of Sunset Overdrive’s near-future - unmoored from school and jobs and personal obligations - people in Sunset City choose to define themselves solely by the subcultures they belonged to before it all went to shit. The Engle Scouts, (or “Troop Bushido” because vaguely racist humour is funny or something), kept on Engle-Scouting. The LARPers continued to LARP, but with a greater suspension of disbelief. Everyone gets to be the person they were hiding, or being in their free time. The apocalypse frees them from any obligation other than survive, and follow your bliss.
It’s this optimism that epitomises Sunset Overdrive’s extremely late-90s view of subcultures. As a text, it scans like a 20-something forum moderator defending their online life to their parents. The internet isn’t just a network, it’s a place where people live in their own little spaces that they’ve carved out for them and their friends. It’s where people from all over the world can connect with people who share their interests etc etc. We’ve all been here.
More recent events have shown us that this utopian vision of what the internet could be obscured the caustic corners of the internet and their intimate relationship with white nerd culture. Speaking of, Sunset Overdrive even references Neogaf, promising its developer’s evisceration by said forum for the bluffed weak ending in tortured gesture towards Mass Effect 3’s controversial finale, a backlash that involved death threats and a campaign of sustained harassment that would seem brutally familiar to women in the industry in a year’s time.
Sunset Overdrive goes out of its way to blow smoke up the asses of the kind of people who define themselves by the media they consume and feel they have a unique ownership of it. It asks “what you could be the anonymous asshole you like to be online, IN REAL LIFE?” and then sets the parameters to make that particular nightmare a playable reality. In the years since the game’s release in 2014 however, this is no longer a hypothetical scenario. We can see every day in the news, and in our Facebook feeds, open bigotry from people emboldened by the global electoral success of the right. Success enabled, in Trump’s case, by people who live online like Sunset Overdrive’s protagonist — an anti-social, extremely online deadbeat who lives for the day they no longer have responsibility for anyone or anything. And when that day comes, they emerge phoenix-like from the ashes of society spouting non-sequiturs and generally being a snarky prick because the social contract was what was holding them back, not their work or personal obligations.
But because Insomniac is somewhat progressive in its approach to the player character — you can switch genders on-demand with no restrictions on hairstyle, clothing, or makeup — and the friends they make along the way, Sunset Overdrive isn’t nearly as caustic as its thesis suggests. The game ends with the multiple disparate, dysfunctional groups coming together to take on Fizzco, the game’s avatar for disaster capitalism. There’s the implicit message that in this bizarro corporate apocalypse, the marginalised; the fandoms; and most problematically, the gamers will unite to take on The Man.
It’s a pipe dream, one which was debunked in 2014 and which continues to be refuted through the coordinated abuse of game developers, actors, directors, comic-book writers by fan communities who have repeatedly proven themselves to be better allies to corporations than to the oppressed. Audiences like these don’t deserve to have their grievance-based existences validated so thoroughly and specifically. And yet, Insomniac has gone out of its way to present a scenario where letting the nerds have their way is A Good Thing. In doing so, Sunset Overdrive reaffirms that this dream is pure snake-oil and always was.