We are learning to live in the Anthropocene, the term advanced in 2000 by Eugene F. Stoermer and Paul Crutzen to define a geological era caused by humans. Sinkholes open up in the icy places of the world and release clouds of methane. The Great Barrier Reef is the latest reef to disappear. In the film version, Jeff Goldblum would play a scientist trying to get this evidence, that catastrophe is looming in mere decades instead of centuries, to the President, and he would fly away, disappointed and frustrated, over fields and fields of cattle and livestock crowding out the land that soon will be covered and still not enough to feed the world’s people. The Anthropocene is all around us—is in us—so to write or see or play the apocalypse is to live in the Anthropocene.
Badland (2014) is a game living in the Anthropocene. It’s the story of a shadowy creature trying to survive an apocalyptic landscape. The beautifully rendered backgrounds are watercolors of natural splendor with monstrous traps in shadow in the foreground: motion-sensing guns, crushing pistons, stabbing spears. The movement is endless—the goal is to make it from one end of a level to another, where a tube sucks you in and deposits you in the next area. These features—the foregrounding of darkness against the backdrop of color and beauty, and endless movement forward—present an anthropocenic world and experience.
Nearly every day in 2016, we see news of the evidence of climate change’s effects in real time: The floods in Louisiana and North Carolina. The burning of peat bogs that threatens massive release of CO2. The Zika Virus and the links to climate change. Drought in the Amazon shutting down the carbon sink. The Anthropocene—the age of humans—is here and we are living it, say scientists and researchers.
The living creatures in Badland are cartoonish, even in shadow, and the world itself is rendered unreal or ethereal by the hand-painted graphics of the background, given watercolor appearance. The unreal and ethereal are offset by the darkness of the objects and machines of violence—the things trying to kill you are machines or monstrous extensions of nature. These shadows extend from the vertical margins of the screen and enclose your character as you side-scroll at varying speeds in an attempt to survive.
These shadows are organic, in a way, to the land—the violent objects are connected to the earth and the ceiling above. They are of the earth, of an Anthropocenic landscape haunted with the dead of Joyelle McSweeney’s necropastoral. The land is sick with the ghosts of human violence. Water is a vehicle for poisonous chemicals. Machines and production are responsible for emissions and soil erosion and the clearing of forests and habitats. McSweeney writes:
“We think of the Anthropocene as registering human-kind’s ravaging impact on non-human species and environments, but the Anthropocene is of course political as well—a single outsize permanent catastrophe made up of component catastrophes: genocides, depredations, the enslavement and debilitation of human populaces alongside the non-human.”
The machines here are echoes of human-kind’s imprint and are purposed only with destruction. They are no longer machines of production or manufacturing. They exist only as threat.
The ever-forward movement of the game serves to present the player with displacement and disorientation. Movement in Badland is constant and to stop is to be crushed or impaled or swallowed quietly by the screen. Nature is not a thing to be awed or considered. It is simply landscape through which the player fly-sprints in order to survive. This has the effect of rendering the character’s subjectivity inert—living at the mercy of the Anthropocene degrades the character and strips them of characteristics independent of the environment.
To move through this world is to be subject to an all-encompassing threat. That threat, of the earth, is already present. The character experiences the entirety of the world as an already-threatening object. In his book, Hyperobjects, Timothy Morton further defines hyperobjects as “things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.” Global warming (he prefers this term to “climate change,” as climate change does not denote immense threat) is a hyperobject that “sticks” to beings and is nonlocal, meaning that there is no single conjuring of the object in a single place. The threat of Badland—manifested in the machines and grotesque, mutated extensions of nature trying to kill your character—are encased in shadow and, as such, rendered boundary-less. They have no edges or beginnings or endings. In this way, the threat here is massively distributed across the space and time of the game. Like living in the Anthropocene, the environment of Badland always is in the act of creating catastrophe.
The non-human character of the game is an ontological extension of personhood—as non-human and unidentifiable as an animal we might recognize, the being at the center of the game is of-the-world rather than preceding it. The human, too, is changed in the Anthropocene. To live in the Anthropocene is to interact at all times with the climate as it changes and threatens. Whatever the world was, some Anthropocene thinkers say, it was changed with the invention of the steam engine or, possibly later, with the Manhattan Project and the detonation of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Morton claims that the world has ended with these dates (1784 and 1945), and so by extension has the human ended. We are arguably, then, post-human: changed from what we might have been into the subject always negotiating the hyperobject of climate change. Morton writes, “[e]very attempt to pull myself free by some act of cognition renders me more hopelessly stuck to hyperobjects,” and the threat of the world is always already there as you fly from one end of a level to the other. The surrounding hyperobject surrounds and encompasses as it corrupts and infects.
The experience of playing Badland requires the player to forget—or, ignore—the background as they are stunned into living only in the present of the game. There is no past or future, and the background fades. To be stunned as the player is by the ever-present threat is to be bombarded by the foregrounded objects trying to kill your character. The experience of the Anthropocene is that of constant foregrounding: we are always in the middle of things with the object. It is always with and around us. Playing Badland places the player in an endless attachment to the present where boundaries and backgrounds fall away into nothing.
In Badland, the ever-present threat of the foreground parallels the struggle of immersion in the hyperobject of climate change. We are swimming in it and made up of it. We are utterly altered by it. The post-human shadow-creature with its blinking eyes passes through foregrounded space and must continue to swim in the tide of the present. This is not a pessimistic position: the effect is one of an optimistic hope for adaptation and connection to the world. As we inhabit—and, are inhabited by—the Anthropocene, we face a future of adaptation, one that requires us to change and be transformed.
Justin Lawrence Daugherty lives in Atlanta and is the Co-Publisher of Jellyfish Highway Press.