“Are you going on another one of your long journeys inside your brain? Are you well enough to drive?” — Chumbucket
“I am the one who runs from both the living and the dead, hunted by scavengers, haunted by those I could not protect. So I exist in this wasteland. A man reduced to a single instinct… survive.” — Max Rockatansky
“I don’t know, I just got here myself. “ — The Goose
If you don’t care about me and just want to read an essay about the 2015 video game, Mad Max, please skip this section. It’s fine, I don’t mind. But it has been a while, over a year, since I have published any written work about video games or media in general. It’s been a weird year. I moved across the country, started a new job, have gotten a lot better at coding, got into cycling, and I am still depressed. Why did I take a hiatus? I don’t know. Burnout? Not really. I got off of Twitter for, like, 7 months and that’s where my general games writing cohort is. I followed folks’ work, off of Twitter, as best I could. Being divorced from that space for a time coincided with me just not playing games at all for a long time. It was awesome, actually. Well, I’ve built some tiny games and game jam stuff, but that’s just been more in line with building my programming skills in order to be better at my day job. It’s not that I hate games, but most of what has come out this year hasn’t done much for me, and the state of AAA games is just not for me. And then Alan Wake 2 came out. Like a lighthouse on a dark, stormy night, I found my way home. That game revitalized me and my critical, academic interest in this art form. So, being reasonable, I’ve decided to shake the rust off by writing not about Alan Wake 2, but about a game from 2015 that most people don’t really like. Here goes nothing.
2015 was the year to be a Mad Max enjoyer. Mad Max: Fury Road, arguably the best action movie of its decade, was released and took the world by storm. The summer of 2015 was the summer of Mad Max—it started in May with the release of Fury Road and was capped in August with the release of Avalanche Studio’s underrated open-world masterpiece of a video game, Mad Max. And that game is the core focus of this essay.
Mad Max is quite possibly my favorite open-world game ever made. Or, at the very least, I find it to be the most interesting. It is weird and just incredibly bleak—more so than any of the movies. It leans hard into the end of the world and how all that’s left is violence, starvation, and madness. No one is okay. No one is having a good time (except, maybe, the War Boys, who themselves are living half-lives, as shown in Mad Max: fury Road).
The world itself is bleached and barren. There is little water and almost no flora or fauna left. Wars are fought over water, gasoline, and bullets. And these wars are waged in chariots cobbled together with the mechanical ephemera of the old world. The few bastions of safety are fortresses of wreckage (broken tanker ships, nuclear silos, and lighthouses overlooking scorched earth where the sea once was) run by leaders who are just a bit less evil than the game’s big bad—Scrotus Maximus (Mad Max naming conventions, baby). Desert is all there is. Sand, rock, and more sand.
For as bonkers as Mad Max is, it is just a tale of purgatory. Everyone is awaiting judgment of some sort, and even the best of them, such as Max himself, are going to hell. It just so happens that this purgatory isn’t some waiting room in the clouds, but rather a world of sand and endless violence. No one is happy. No one is on top. Everyone is suffering. Even the head honchos at each settlement (and even Scrotus himself) are suffering. Death is probably a relief, but the act of dying in the world of Mad Max is anything but that. And still, everyone is waiting for it. Even Max. He’s less of a man and more of a myth across this landscape. Max is an act of God. He rarely speaks, and everything he does is a means to an end; to cleanse the wasteland of its cruelty the only way he knows how. By fighting cruelty with cruelty. Max is a brute. His car, maintained and worshipped by his devout sidekick, and in many ways, only friend, Chumbucket, is a loud roaring beast. Max’s weapon of choice, minus his car, is his hands. He pummels the hordes of Scrotus to death with his bare hands, cuts their throats with makeshift shivs, blows them apart with his shotgun if he’s lucky enough to have ammo, and suplexes them onto their heads, powdering their necks and spines, killing them instantly. Max isn’t a good guy, but he’s as good a guy as the wasteland deserves. And those who stand against him, the devout followers of Scrotus, fear and revere Max in equal measure. They know his punches and kicks break bone and that he’s there to kill them, and to take what they have—be it gasoline, water, food (in the form of canned dog food or maggots), or all three. Max is Max—he drives and fights for the cause of ensuring others may live and eke out a marginally better existence in the wasteland. His home is temporary and it is within the gates of whichever faction he’s helping. Max is a nomad shuffling across the desert in a car that bellows smoke and spits fire.
There’s no hope. Max knows this. What he fights for isn’t hope, but for others he meets along the way. And even then, it doesn’t feel like his heart is fully in it. It seems like the only reason that he has his crosshairs on Scrotus and his horde is because they all but destroyed his holy V8 Interceptor at the start of the game (a start very similar to that of Mad Max: Fury Road). So, everyone he helps is a means to an end; to ensure Scrotus dies and that his ironclad grip over the wasteland is dismantled. There is a nihilism inherent to Mad Max. The game is far darker and devoid of hope than any of the movies, especially Fury Road. I think it is this tonal whiplash, and the massive, oftentimes fully barren open world that rubbed a lot of folks the wrong way. But that stuff is what makes this game sing, in my opinion. Rarely do we see AAA open-world games this committed to their bit, so to speak. Max can regenerate health by picking and eating maggots from the chest cavity of a rotting human corpse. And none of it feels dark for the sake of being twisted or fucked up. The game is saying something. The world is dead and this is what we’re left with. Survive for the sake of it, there’s no real purpose to living. Max has a purpose, but like I said, it’s fleeting. He repeats the same tasks over and over again for the same, often diminishing returns (cue the abysmal Far Cry 3 “What is the definition of insanity?” cutscene). Mad Max uses the trappings of open-world games to hammer home its point. When there isn’t much to fight for, why fight? When those you fight for are themselves hoping to become the next subjugator of the wasteland, like Scrotus, why fight? It’s all Max knows, and it is kinda all that we, as players of open-world action games, know. Violence is the only verb, so we go ahead and press X to ram a shiv through the eye socket of another War Boy. And that is a key difference between Mad Max the video game and Mad Max the film franchise.
The Mad Max movies situate Max as a savior of sorts. He’s a fable, a story passed orally across campfires after the end of the world. But those stories usually end with him saving someone, or helping those who need it. That alone is what makes the closing minutes of Fury Road so powerful. Max goes through hell and back with Furiosa only to give her a nod of acknowledgment before slipping into a mass of people and disappearing. Where is he off to? It doesn’t matter. He’s a myth. A savior. A story to instill hope.
The Mad Max video game situates Max quite differently. He’s a hammer and the wasteland is a nail. He helps those who need it, but when the time comes for Max to be a true savior, everyone he’s helped starts to die. And he barely bats an eye. The final act of Mad Max is one of the most downer endings in modern video games. Max becomes a villain in order to kill Scrotus. When push comes to shove, Max willingly kills his only true friend to get closer to killing Scrotus. He sacrifices Chumbucket without batting an eye. It is genuinely one of the most harrowing things I’ve seen a protagonist willingly do in a video game in some time. Chumbucket spends the entirety of Mad Max helping Max to repair and upgrade his car. He worships the V8 Interceptor and sees Max as a prophet. Chumbucket is one of the few characters Max tolerates and willingly converses with, and Chumbucket is who rescues Max after the game’s opening mission. To Chumbucket, Max is akin to an angel. Chumbucket sees himself as redeemed and bathed in the holy light of some glorious purpose. And yet, Max kills him as one would squash a bug. It is horrifying. And from there on out, Max is a true villain, even after he kills Scrotus. There was no redemption for Chumbucket or any of those who Max helped; just unrewarded servitude. Max may still exist in that endless purgatorial desert, but he’s going to hell all the same.
We killed the world, and we have to live with that. Mad Max confronts us with the cruelties of humanity towards one another and to the very Earth we call home. Right now this waiting room is full of water, trees, food, friends, and family. It’s worth living in and fighting for, but we’re still killing it all the same. I don’t think there will ever be a time when this world becomes a wasteland of marauders in badass cars, but that doesn’t mean this whole thing will end sooner than it probably should. And for now, this waiting room we’re all in still contains beauty behind all the cruelty; especially in the natural world. But someday, hopefully long after us, this waiting room will be an endless desert—that much I truly believe to be true. We are killing the world, and we have to live with that.