Another season of The Walking Dead is in the books. Many zombies died and people were mean to each other. By the end of the season, Rick has abandoned the law of the jungle for democracy rule; The Governor massacred a bunch of people; Rick's son, Carl, appears to be heading down the kill-or-be-killed path that has created men like The Governor in the post-apocalypse. I'm still enjoying the show, but it feels like it's drifted from gritty survival horror into character-driven drama, with traditional dramatic character arcs. Even Mearle had a change of heart this season, before becoming zombie-Mearle and having one of the best death sequences on the show. Or maybe the show was always this way and I'm only noticing.
Near-term apocalypses are well-represented in popular culture. World War Z will be coming to theaters this summer, adapted from the best-selling book from a few years back. In recent years, we've had TV shows like Jericho (nuclear apocalypse), Falling Skies (alien apocalypse), The Terminator franchise (machine apocalypse), I Am Legend (vampire apocalypse), Revolution (the no-electricity apocalypse), and the aforementioned zombie apocalypses. Stephen King's The Stand is an old favorite (plague apocalypse).
I have to wonder why there hasn't been a dominant RPG that has enabled tabletop play in such a target rich environment. Just about the only game I can remember getting a lot of traction when it came out was Twilight 2000, which spawned a host of setting books and even the Dark Conspiracy spin-off. Lets not forget everyone's favorite tentacle monstrosity, Great Cthulhu himself. Pelgrane Press had released a Cthulhu Apocalypse adventure a few years ago, The Dead White World, and I noticed they've been trying to revive the series and continue the story. If you want the world destroyed right, dial up the Elder Gods.
It seems to me the tools and techniques of old school gaming - hex crawls and resource management - could play well in a near-term apocalypse game, but getting away from elves and magic and amazing psychic powers is a big leap. We get to be ordinary folks every day and want to be somewhere else during game time. Gamers are quick to say they don't play for power-fantasy escapist reasons, but the fantasy gaming has been king of the mountain for a long time. Just saying.
For similar reasons, it's not surprising the post apocalyptic game with the most name recognition is still Gamma World, a game set hundreds of years after a far future apocalypse, creating so much distance between us and that future world that it's fantasy all over again. There certainly is a dearth of media based in far future post apocalyptic settings - I can think of Thundarr, The Planet of the Apes, and Stephen King's Dark Tower series. Maybe The Matrix trilogy would qualify, tangentially.
I'm still on the lookout for that lightweight system that lets you play your own range of near-term apocalyptic gaming - or even better, combine your own destructions! The aliens arrived, bringing a virus that turned the dead into zombies, which triggered the defense computers to take over and evolve into artificial life forms that nuked the major cities and started making humanoid robots to fight the aliens. Wahoo.
In the meantime, I'll keep hoping WOTC reprints the 1st Edition of Gamma World.