No, not the literal apocalypse. I’m referring to The End of the World, an IOS and Android game developed by Sean Wenham and released in late 2015. From the App store description: “The End of the World is a side-scrolling exploration game for the brokenhearted.” Essentially, the game is about coping with the aftermath of a breakup. Why am I playing this you may ask? I wasn’t just dumped, I swear! The art style caught my eye and considering it only takes about 20 minutes to play start-to-finish, I figured it couldn’t hurt to give it a try. Let’s dive in!
Going through the Motions
In this game, you take on the role of a lone man wandering through the decaying ruins of Newcastle, England. You move left or right by holding down the appropriate edge of the screen and interact with shimmering objects by tapping on them. So far, so simple. As it surely would in real-life Newcastle, time manipulation makes things more interesting. Interacting with clocks found throughout the environment overlays your surroundings with visions of the past. Your dank, crumbling bedroom is replaced with a cleaner version of the space, which is inhabited by a younger version of the player character and the woman they are in love with. Letting go of the clock causes everything to revert to its ruined state, leaving the player all alone once more. Right from the get-go, there is the sense of an absence. It is heavily implied that this missing element is the woman from the past and without her in it, the player’s world is falling apart.
The game places a lot of agency firmly on your shoulders. The majority of the interactions on offer in this game are completely optional. Want to smoke till you run out of cigarettes? Go ahead. Want to drink an unseemly amount of coffee? You can do that (and in true-to-life form, I did). Want to spend the entire game in your underpants, rejecting the option to put on clothes? Oh, you bet I did.
Living the amply caffeinated dream
These interactions are all made appealing by the art style, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s minimalist, particularly in terms of architecture, but remains recognizable. The light streaming through your character’s bedroom window or the myriad of buildings that make up the game world were genuinely appealing to look at despite their simplicity. In terms of colour, drab shades of brown, green and grey are used throughout the present day, whilst glimpses into the past are presented through much warmer tones.
The sound doesn’t fare quite as well in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong, it gets its point across; I just didn’t feel it matched the level of care that went into the artwork. I found the track that played upon leaving the apartment for the first time to be overkill, adding a tone of melodrama to the otherwise somber experience. Also, some of the sound effects were a bit grating (I’m looking at you, sound of rain falling).
So it gives you a lot of freedom and looks good doing it. What’s the actual goal? Pretty simple. While exploring, you find objects to interact with, buildings to enter and clocks with which to wind back time. The latter is the most significant, as these windows into the past reveal scenes from the main character’s formerly happy life. Stepping into an abandoned pub and pressing down on a clock caused the interior to be framed in its former, less shambolic glory, playing host to a romantic meal for the player and his absent love. As stated before, letting go of the clock abruptly dismisses the memory. Warm reds and oranges suddenly give way to bleak greys and greens, ruined furniture and a stark sense of loneliness. I found this effect to be one of the most powerful aspects of The End of the World, a strong visual device for imparting just how crushed this lone wanderer is. Your exploration eventually gives way to finding objects that enable progression: for example, a build-board or poster. Interacting with one of these objects displays a classically romantic scene, then the player is transported back to their room, seemingly at the start of a new day. You can interact with the same objects as before (a few more cups of coffee never hurt anyone), use the clocks to view the same scenes as before (except the one in the bedroom - the scene there changes each day) and continue to explore Newcastle, in search of the next significant object, which will trigger the next day. This is the central hook of the game and a process you will go through a few times during its 20-30 minute run-time.
What’s Love got to do with it?
This game is ripe with imagery and opportunities for interpretation. As previously mentioned, progression through the game is tied to interacting with objects that trigger classically romantic scenes. Is the main character torturing them-self, seeking out reminders of what they have lost? Standing on a bridge in an abandoned, ruin of a city in England, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the first few scenes of 28 Days Later. Each day brings more decay to the nightmare realm the player inhabits, reinforcing a sense of things getting worse. Interacting with clocks represents rumination, as the main character continues to grasp onto a happier past, while the present falls further and further into disarray. Did I mention this is not a cheery experience?
Expecting to run into Cillian Murphy at any moment
The World Ends with Her
The relationship presented in this title is not overtly dramatic, but down to earth - even a little mundane. A night out in the local pub. Reading in bed. Then eventually, it’s over. She packs her bags and leaves. In my experience with the game, there was no explicit explanation for this turn of events. Maybe the developer is trying to impart that it is the everyday, simple aspects of relationships that we miss the most when they end. The things we may take for granted at the time suddenly become so much more important when we can’t experience them anymore. A room, once warm and comfortable, becomes barren and grey when the person who helped you furnish it and lived in it with you is gone. I found it refreshing that this game presents a more realistic relationship, as opposed to something steeped in Hollywood tropes.
I, like many others, use games as a coping mechanism for difficult times. It’s in their very nature as escapism media. Stepping out of a crap day to explore Hyrule, Rapture or any number of other virtual spaces can be just what the doctor ordered sometimes. Many games can become coping mechanisms even though they aren’t designed to be. Others, like this one, can be created with a specific purpose, event or trauma in mind. The advantage of this more focused approach is that the experience can resonate more with someone who is going through the trauma the game is designed to explore. Another example of this sort of design would be That Dragon Cancer, which is built around the horrendous process of losing a child to cancer, based on the developer’s’ experience.
The End of the World didn’t resonate with me as much as I expected it to. I’m not currently going through a breakup and just didn’t find any kind of deep connection with the game. I didn’t recognize many aspects of breakups from my past within it: when in that process, I internalize my feelings, whereas the character in this game externalizes his emotional state on the world around him. That said, I appreciate it for what it is and most importantly, has the potential to be for someone else. If this game can help people deal with something upsetting and difficult, that is a truly wonderful thing. The games industry is expanding, changing and mutating with the advent of indie development, crowd funding and other factors that enable the creation of increasingly diverse titles. I believe there is a place in the market for games like this that speak to a smaller crowd about something specific, personal and challenging. It may not be for everyone, but that’s OK. In fact, that’s kind of great.
Games are often full of passion and creativity and a lot of both went into this unique, brief title. I can’t say that I was crazy about it, but maybe you will be. It’s exceedingly easy to pickup and play, free on Android (very cheap on IOS) and will only take 30 minutes out of your life. Who knows? Maybe you’ll fall in love.