Who Killed the World?: An Analysis of Mad Max (2015)

Note: This article contains major spoilers for Mad Max (2015) as well as moderate spoilers for every film in the series.

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The conventional wisdom is that the only way to create an adequate video game adaptation of a property is by lifting its existing elements and then expressing those elements through the aesthetics, narrative, and play of a game. But I disagree; I think there's as much or maybe even more of a case to be made for a game that complements your non-video game media as there is for one that imitates it. Mad Max: Fury Road is a film with relentless forward momentum and a carnival of grisly antagonists who we frequently feel are only two steps behind our gas-injected heroes during any given scene. But Mad Max (2015), released later the same year, is far less urgent and much more pensive than its cinematic sibling.

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Obviously, some inconsistency has to exist between the two because they belong to different art forms. The film teleports us across the Australian desert, cutting from beat to beat and rarely showing the periods of travel between any two locations. In the game, there are hard edits only when we fast travel, and we have to reach a location at least once to be able to fast travel there in the future, so we spend a lot more time with the camera fixed on Max as he makes his bloody pilgrimage across the unforgiving wastes. Showing us much more of the protagonist's journey, the game gives us a view of how expansive and desolate that wasteland is that a film never could, and even if such a prolonged gaze at the world made for riveting cinema, a movie couldn't possibly find the time for it that a game does. Feature films rarely stretch to three hours, while Mad Max (2015) is around nineteen. It's also easier for a game to be a solitary experience than it is for a film. Cinema often needs multiple characters in the same settings to facilitate dialogue, but games frequently spend their time on action rather than talk.

The Mad Max films explore what the communities of the post-apocalypse are willing to do to survive and what values they hold dear. They're also interested in how Max is never comfortable enough to settle into these communities, but nevertheless, can't refuse helping them. Theatrical, morally bankrupt villains are another area of focus for them. But Mad Max (2015) spends much more time showing Max scavenging hideouts and shipwrecks with no one around for miles. As games go, this action-adventure also has a lot of featureless and empty environments. Play in which we must scout them with our binoculars leaves us periodically standing still and letting them wash over us. You'll recognise that a film like Fury Road does not have nearly as many moments for us to pause and stare at the scenery. What's more, Mad Max (2015) spends an abnormal amount of its time forgoing music or accenting play with a whispering, retiring score, letting the desiccation of the desert speak for itself. While the Max of this story is meant to be seeking out the fabled Plains of Silence, some fans suggest that he's already found himself there.

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But while Fury Road and Mad Max (2015) are oceans apart in their energy levels, I don't mean that the developers of Mad Max, Avalanche Studios, ignored the content of the films when composing the game. They were so committed to honouring the saga that they turned even passing details in the movies into whole mechanics. We can trace most of the concepts showcased in Mad Max (2015) back to the second film where the loose collection of tropes and attributes that we identify as "Mad Max" took root. The original film of the series is barely recognisable as a post-apocalyptic sci-fi; it could just as easily be taking place in the Australian countryside on an otherwise intact Earth, but Mad Max 2 (released in some regions as "The Road Warrior") is the genesis of the series' arid deserts and unhinged car cults. From Road Warrior, Mad Max (2015) imports its locktight gang strongholds, the ritual of scouting out enemy emplacements with binoculars, the flamethrowers guarding the compound gates, the canine companion, Max's shotgun, and the vehicular chase scene which has become the obligatory denouement of Mad Max narratives.

Avalanche's work also has a cage fight lifted right out of Beyond Thunderdome, and from Fury Road, it takes religiosity, a broad scope, and the symbol of water. The characters of Fury Road were primarily concerned with the procurement and conservation of good old-fashioned H2O which brought to the forefront their desperation and their will to war over resources. This game takes place in a dried-out seabed, distinguishable from the rest of the undulating desert by the husks of ships entombed in the sands and our use of a harpoon in play. This is the central theme of the post-apocalypse bared before us: The dry ocean is a scarcity of the means to live where there was once an abundance of it. Through their armageddoned Australia, Avalanche also shows us that basing your game in the post-apocalypse is not an excuse for a homogenous environment; it is breathtaking how discernible the neighbourhoods of the map are from each other. It may all be desert but some of it's sandy, some of it's rocky, and some of it's a literal dump.

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In both this game and the films, the most interesting phenomenon that unfolds against the backdrop is automobile-based religion. Most post-civilisational worlds are written to be acultural or frozen in the practices and touchstones of their country pre-apocalypse, and there are good reasons why storytellers write that way. We express our cultures most emphatically through art, fashion, holidays, and rituals which are secondary concerns for people finding it hard enough to stay alive. Most post-cataclysmic fiction also takes place soon after the extinction event meaning its characters were brought up in a culture that predates the current world, and where that culture does resurface, it's a bitter reminder of what they lost. However, it's also true that in the real world, even human populations that have fought tooth and nail to live have developed cultures, and given enough time, the people of the post-apocalypse should too. You can witness it in sci-fis such as Fallout where the uncertainty and conflict of the world pushes people out into their own isolationist factions, but Mad Max has perhaps the most believable proposition for what a unified end-of-the-world culture would look like.

Its societies of violence and hierarchy have birthed an honour culture. This, combined with a resource drought has coerced people to live for the formidable car which can be both a weapon and the means to reach more resources. The better part of the play in Mad Max (2015) has you using your vehicle to these ends. As the car is a tool of agency and power in this future, and history books are a luxury of the past, the people view the automobile as a divine instrument, so central to their societies that even the dialect they speak in is stacked atop engine blocks. Avalanche smuggle the religion and language of this universe into the game through the character of Chumbucket. The story opens with the vicious Lord Scrotus stealing Max's trademark car, the Interceptor, but Max picks up a trusty mechanic called Chumbucket who works with him to build a hotrod they call "The Magnum Opus" which Max can use to reclaim the Interceptor from Scrotus. Chumbucket rides on the roof of the Magnum from one shore of the game to the other, giving us lines like: "Here it comes, the mighty duster!" or "Come and see, oh saint. The dream, the hallucination become truth! The Angel made steel".

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The vernacular of Mad Max's Australia is not just characterised by its unique slang and frequent references to power and deism in the context of engineering, but also by a declaratory, almost poetic structuring of sentences, even in casual speech. And Chumbucket's sporadic commentary and yelps of glory would seem out of place in another piece of fiction, but considering the pious and delirious composure of this wasteland's inhabitants, they fit right in. By contrast, Max's lack of religious investment or futuristic dialect emphasises that he does not identify with the communities he visits. He could never assimilate into any one of them; he is a nomad, which is what facilitates the sequelisation of Mad Max. As opposed to chaining one story to the bumper of their franchise and dragging it to death, the series creators can have Max wander in and out of new narratives with every film or game. This also means that, besides Max, anyone in any of these fictions can die because they are not necessary for the continuation of the series, which is why Mad Max (2015) can have such a merciless ending but we'll put that to one side for now.

We've got our world, we've got our cultural trappings, and we've got our main characters. Next, we need to know how the story and interactivity can best play off of these elements, but that's a question that Mad Max (2015) and a saddening number of other AAA games give unsatisfactory answers to. If you want all that "loot the dungeon", "upgrade the character", "conquer the map" meat of the genre, Max and Chumbucket have you covered. At the same time, you can poke all the holes in Mad Max (2015) that you can in most other open-world games. The realism of the title adjusts to suit the current play scenario rather than it settling into equilibrium. E.g. The height of your jump depends on whether or not you're in front of a highlighted handhold, and sometimes you use scrap metal to upgrade the Magnum Opus, but other times you nonsensically use it to enhance Max himself. The game is also chock full of tactical options you'd never use; there's a whole garage of cars to take for a spin, but the Magnum is the one you've spent the entire game tricking out so why would you burn rubber in any of the others? And the game has an excessive length; it doesn't take nineteen hours to tell this story or to see every possible dynamic in the game so why is it that long?

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There are unique pockets of brilliance in here. For example, my favourite activity in the free-roam was using the harpoon to pull down clans' scarecrows. It's a brief but cathartic burst of tension and release which has you attacking these tribes on the cultural and idolatrous level they operate. Or there's the shotgun. You have to scrounge for your bullets, and your ammo pouch is puny, but this lets the designers balance it so that when you do use this firearm, it unleashes godly force. In the language of shooters, it functions more like a grenade than a gun. But it's in the combat that the game feels like it could have done with a steadier pair of hands guiding the design. If you want to damage the vehicles marauding about the wasteland, the best thing to do is to ram them with the Magnum, but as that grinds your car to a halt and you have to do it multiple times to disable one of these rustbuckets, the vehicular combat suffers from hesitant pacing. Sometimes, because you and your opponent are trying to crash into each other at the same time, you can end up spinning in futile circles, unable to make contact.

It's worse on foot, as there are quite a few enemy types but not all that many ways to attack and the game's go-to method for increasing difficulty is just to disgorge more angry mobs in your direction, creating a war of attrition. Unless you're amply upgraded, higher level strongholds have enemies plinking away at your health with attacks you could barely see coming until you've died purely through gang members piling on cheap shots. You can then run right back in to have the same thing happen again. Because there's typically only one path into any gathering of foes and fights mostly rely on hitting the right button in response to the corresponding prompt, switching up your strategy isn't really something that happens. But the most fascinating problems exist within the structure of the story and play.

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Mad Max (2015) can't keep the categories of main objectives and side objectives straight in its head. In games, optional play is intended to give the audience agency through letting them pick what content they experience and when they experience it, and upgrade systems allow them to customise the game to their liking and see creations in the world that came from their own design. Having clearly-defined activities exclusive to main missions and other activities exclusive to side missions also helps diversify play. In defiance of these standards, Mad Max (2015) has a surplus of mainline missions which demand that you go off and complete side activities or apply specific car upgrades. It gives the impression that the developers couldn't think of enough story missions and so had to pad the experience out by making ostensibly voluntary activities compulsory.

There's no sense of freedom in carrying out these tasks at the beck and call of unseen masters, and the Magnum is only so much your car when a third of the components you've affixed to it are what the game demanded you bolt on. When main missions include side activities, those side opportunities also seldom act as a palette cleanser for the typical quests. It's not as if the game needs to inflate its length artificially, it was long enough already, and Mad Max (2015) forgets the spirit of side content in a way that's too common. We could be living in a world where story modes in games never overstay their welcome and where content that might otherwise be part of the campaign can instead find a home as part of the optional play, ready and waiting for anyone who wants more after exhausting the story mode. It would seem obvious that games should be built this way when one of the advantages of side content is that the player can decide how long or short the game is for themselves. But that's not what we get.

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We often bring up the excessive length of AAA games only to hear commenters telling us that they value the amount of bang you get for your buck these days and don't want anyone to cut down on it, but the perceived dichotomy between content-rich open-world games and open-world games that don't outstay their welcome is a myth. Arguing that there should be fewer quests proper is not arguing that those quests shouldn't be part of the package and so not advocating for less content in games. The problem is not that there are too many things to do in a game like Mad Max (2015); it's that traditions of game length mean that the chum is thrown in with the prime meat just so the game can reach an arbitrary hour count. Instead of us sliding into the ending wanting more, we get there fatigued and baying for it to finish.

Speaking of the ending, Mad Max (2015) has one of those weird plots in which you find almost nothing happening for several hours, and then everything happening at once as it panics, trying to tie up all the loose threads. In the last two missions, the protagonist's sidekick steals the MacGuffin, the sidekick is tortured, we kill the secondary antagonist, we recover the MacGuffin, the female lead is bumped off, a child close to the protagonist is murdered, the protagonist kills the sidekick, the protagonist destroys the MacGuffin, the protagonist kills the primary antagonist, and the protagonist claims their prize. It's all packed so close together that there's no time to absorb any of it emotionally, and even if it all happened at half-speed, Chumbucket is the only one of Max's allies that engenders any empathy.

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During his travels, Max frees a concubine named Hope and rescues her daughter, Glory. When Max faces down General Scrotus and his convoy in the finale, it's meant to be in revenge for Scrotus ordering the murder of Hope and Glory. But why their deaths cause anguish for the otherwise callous Max is unclear. One maddened dream suggests he sees some of his wife in Hope, but that never translates into him expressing feelings for her, either privately or in her company. In fact, when Hope tries to kiss him, he pushes her away, and when Glory tries to give him one of her toys, he drops it to the ground. The relationship between these characters that the story alludes to doesn't exist. It's also transparent that the game introduces Glory for the express purpose of fridging her: she dies in the mission right after we rescue her. You can't have a revenge quest if your character doesn't have an attachment to the people they're supposedly avenging. Max killing Chumbucket almost works though. Chumbucket's grateful servitude to Max and exuberant, organic dialogue make him an affable character, but when the time comes, Max murders him and trashes his work without a moment's hesitation. It's this protagonist at his most odious and selfish. But as we need a car mechanic to complete any optional content post-game, the second the credits finish rolling, you'll find Chumbucket alive and well on the back of the Magnum.

Mad Max (2015) is lax on character writing and giving the player options, but I've saved the big one for last: it's also not quite Mad Max. The series' world is contingent on a thirst for resources: It's what drives its conflicts and makes existence within it so harsh. As Fury Road demonstrated, the only person who could ever have a wealth of goods in this post-apocalypse is someone who abuses their power. But Mad Max (2015) lacks that resource crisis as you can go for days without water or shelter, and the gameplay is about piling up masses of scrap. The world is full of resources ripe for the taking which you hoard and spend to your heart's content, so the illusion that anyone could be wanting in this world is left in tatters.

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On paper, Mad Max and Avalanche Studios should be a dynamic, ass-kicking duo. With Just Cause, Avalanche crowned themselves kings of the large map and the explosion animation, both of which count for a lot in a sprawling desert of fuel reserves, and in Mad Max (2015) they not only create a vast space but also convey its culture, expansiveness, and morbid atmosphere with remarkable expertise. Just Cause used to the big map to make you feel like the world was one huge playground, whereas Mad Max (2015) uses that same scale to make you feel like you're trapped in an infinitely vast graveyard. But Just Cause never had worthwhile combat or story, and we only looked the other way because it gave us so much choice in how to rip apart its bases and made it spectacular every time we did. Mad Max, especially this quieter Mad Max, can't be the same orgy of destruction that Just Cause was, and Avalanche is unsure of what to put in its place. Like their previous work, Mad Max (2015) retains their subpar narrative and ineffectual fight mechanics but without the showmanship and free movement that made Just Cause a smash hit. The studio is left reinstating old protocols that don't work for these kinds of worlds and systems and is frequently at a loss for activities you could perform on the map if you're not sending up petrol tanks in plumes of fire. Thanks for reading.

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