Thy Race is Run – Apocalypse Now?


Why are we so drawn, perhaps increasingly so, to visions of the apocalypse? Mike Pinnington, via a variety of mediums – from poetry to gaming – interrogates our seemingly endless appetite for the end… 

“We are twins in death, proud Sun,
Thy face is cold, thy race is run.”

Thomas Campbell

Lately, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying playing a sequence of games by indie developer, demagog studio. Set in the near future, from Golf Club: Nostalgia (2018) to The Cub, and Highwater (both 2024), they form a loose trilogy addressing a ‘Great Ecological Catastrophe’. Each operates as entertainment, warning and sharp social satire in which the elites and super-rich have the means and connections to flee our increasingly hostile home world – to Tesla City, Mars. The trilogy depicts, from different points of view, the shape of things to come, and how life might play out for those left to contend with the short- and longer-term aftermath.


In The Cub you play a skinny, bald, and so pale as to be almost translucent, youth. One of the left behind, and fending (seemingly) for yourself in the mire of civilisation’s toxic, crumbling ruins, you come across various items on your travels through the wasteland – ephemera and media that trace the presumed coming, and eventual, fall. Amongst them, newspapers, books and magazines first attempt to control the narrative, then enter into full-blown panic. Digital communications between friends and colleagues found on discarded USBs tell the story on the ground and memorialise the time before. Some way into the game, one such communiqué reads:

“I feel like all the latest series, films and games are apocalypse porn! It’s as if people can’t wait for the world to come to an end. We’re already knee deep in floods and pollution, but the entertainment industry seems hellbent on further narrowing our imagination. I don’t get it.”

Sound familiar? With sewage being poured unblinkingly into our rivers and the Met Office recently reporting England’s highest rainfall for any 18-month period since records began, the statement could have been made by any one of us, such is its timely urgency and the feelings of unease it inspires. And, yet, we know that we’re hardly the first generation to imagine, depict and even seemingly welcome with open arms, the end; culture has long toyed with the possibility of, and allowed itself to wallow in, the frisson produced by tempting the ultimate fate.


Often, as now, this has been in response to key cultural and/or historical moments, or significant chronologies such as the advent of a new millennium; times, in short, which we sense have something of the apocalyptic clinging to them, when fundamental change seems inevitable. For centuries, the apocalypse was rendered and understood through a Biblical lens; Dürer’s The Four Horsemen (1498), for instance, dramatically depicts a passage of the Book of Revelation:

“And I saw, and behold, a white horse, and its rider had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer. When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, ‘Come!’ And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that men should slay one another; and he was given a great sword. When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, ‘Come!’ And I saw, and behold, a black horse, and its rider had a balance in his hand; … When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, ‘Come!’ And I saw, and behold, a pale horse, and its rider’s name was Death.”

More than 300 years later, in The Last Man (1849), John Martin responded to the same text (and Thomas Campbell’s 1823 poem, from which he took his work’s title). The painting (top) vividly depicts a lone remaining human  amid deserted ruins; at his feet lie a lifeless woman and child. Low in the sky there hangs a faintly glowing, presumably dying, red dwarf of a sun. The artist would return to the subject of Armageddon again and again, and his oeuvre – bearing titles such as The Plains of Heaven, The Great Day of His Wrath (both 1851–3) and The Last Judgement (1853) – was explored at length by Tate Britain in 2011. The exhibition’s name? What else but John Martin: Apocalypse.

The Great Day of His Wrath 1851-3 by John Martin 1789-1854

Like today’s blockbuster movies, his epic and portentous paintings – while frequently critically derided as crass and distasteful – were hugely popular with the public. But if his scenes of judgement and the sublime took Bible stories as their departure point and explicit inspiration, they were surely (knowingly or otherwise) a response to the rampant industrialisation and modernity Martin bore witness to both at home in Northumberland and in the heaving metropolis he encountered in London. Between then and now, artists – from Picasso (Guernica, 1937) to the Chapman brothers’ (Hell, 1998-2000) – had seen in 20th century warfare a new kind of mechanised apocalypse. God, by then long dead, had been replaced as the key player in end times narratives, by man.

“Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited.”

Thomas Beckett

And it seems almost unusually apt today, morbidly so, that Martin’s fire and brimstone paintings of disasters to come were made against a real-world backdrop of: ongoing imperialism, fossil fuel extraction, the railways and unfettered urbanisation. Because each of these elements would help (if that’s the right word) precipitate the formation of our present, calamitous, age of the Anthropocene. Amid the maelstrom and good old fashioned millenarianism of swirling Y2K tensions, both term and concept – the Anthropocene is the epoch in which human activity has had an irreversible impact on the planet’s ecosystems and climate – were introduced in 2000.

Since the turn of this century, then, artists, authors, poets, screenwriters and, yes, games developers, have all rushed in their multitudes to respond (and keep responding) to the precipice on which we currently find ourselves. And audiences have flocked to consume the results in their droves. It might seem to some, as in The Cub, to amount to no more than apocalypse porn, but culture should reflect the world in which it is situated. Art has always played its role in facing the coming storm. Hence a deluge of what we refer to today as cli-fi, a genre addressing specifically the climate catastrophe upon us.

“Are we

extinct yet.”

Jorie Graham, To 2040, Carcanet Poetry

As it is in the first game of demagog studio’s ‘Ecological Catastrophe’ trilogy, Golf Club: Nostalgia, in which you play a hazmat suit wearing pilot, homesick and back from Mars. Deep in a state of ennui, he is caught between worlds, neither one of them fit to call home. Scroll to the bottom of the game’s webpage and you’ll find, without context – for, if you’ve been paying attention, none is needed – a pair of quotes. The first, from Samuel Beckett’s dystopian play, Endgame: “You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that!” The second, meanwhile, is attributed to Elon Musk who, over moneyed man baby that he is, asserts:

“I plan to travel to Mars and make it my home.”

In that pithy eleven-word statement lurks the hubris of a man that, instead of sticking around and fighting for what, even in our hands, is a near perfect place for humanity, would sooner jack it all in and make his escape. Rather than plough his vast wealth into eradicating poverty or, indeed, helping salvage the planet we call home, he would put it instead toward terraforming a dusty, inhospitable Mars.

Apocalypse narratives, whether they be envisioned by artists, authors, poets, screenwriters, or games developers, remind us that we can’t afford to bury our heads in the sand, ostrich-like, anymore than we can afford to sleepwalk into a future dictated to us by tech billionaires. And, even in the worst case scenario, every apocalypse must have a post-apocalypse – a world after in which we can reserve a glimmer of hope for a different, more equitable story.

Mike Pinnington   

Images/media, from top: The Last Man (1849), John Martin, Walker Art Gallery; The Cub; The Four Horsemen (1498), Albrecht Dürer; The Great Day of His Wrath (1851–3), John Martin; homepage image: Golf Club: Nostalgia, demagog studio 

Posted on 07/06/2024 by thedoublenegative