Show, Don’t Tell: Scarcity in Mad Max

Resource management is nothing new to video games. Survival games and RPGs have had players carefully manage their supplies for over a decade. However, Mad Max (2015) took that concept and ran it in a completely new direction. In the Mad Max franchise, the oceans have dried up, crops have withered, and the great machine of society has sputtered until it finally ground to a halt. The future belongs to those who control the last precious drops of water and guzzolene. By giving glimpses of a backstory and making resource management an integral part of the gameplay, Mad Max makes players fear scarcity both in the game and reality.

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In Mad Max, the player can only be healed by drinking water or eating food. Water is kept in an accessible canteen, but food can only be used once and always consists of either wild animals, canned dog food, or corpse maggots. Since the local warlord has deployed hundreds of his men into the dried seabed, Max will need to heal quite often. This gives the player a sense of risk over reward: they could waste their precious water to heal or they could explore the enemy camp a bit longer and hope they find some food before a murderous war-boy finds them.

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Your car runs out of gas in the tutorial missions, but that will probably be the only time.

Fitting with the theme of scarcity, all cars in Mad Max run on guzzolene. Some cars are more gluttonous than others and the player is required to keep their vehicles well fed or else be run down by the warlord’s convoys. In this post-society world, those without a car are quickly made into slaves or fertilizer for the maggot farms. Two aspects of gameplay can give the player pause when using guzzolene. The first is that occasionally Max must sacrifice a can of fuel to be used as a bomb. The second is that a major part of the story involves Max traveling from camp to camp, destroying the local warlord’s oil rigs. It’s explained that this is done so there’s no reason for the warlord’s minions to come back.
In a future where those with gas rule, it seems foolish to destroy multiple oil rigs and crude oil stockpiles, rather than to take control of them; especially when you consider that Fury Road’s opening narration established the oil wars by saying “We are killing each other over guzzolene.” Perhaps it was intentional that Max declares war on the oil producers of the new world, as if to show history repeating itself even in the post-apocalyptic age.

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Fallout 3’s Springvale: an untouched opportunity across the street from Megaton.

Compared to Bethesda’s Fallout games, one of the great things about Mad Max is that the world feels like people have been living in it. In Fallout 3, 200 years have passed since atomic fire and nobody in Megaton has bothered to scavenge the neighborhood across the street. For 200 years food, supplies, weapons, and building materials were just waiting to be found. In Mad Max, survivors have produced methods for collecting water and generating food.Scavengers go out into the drained seabed hoping to find a rare shipping container packed with canned goods. The world feels alive and lived in, something that has always been a hallmark of the Mad Max franchise.

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Playing the game for the first time, those new to the franchise might think that Mad Max takes place in a horrific sci-fi world of endless sand, like Arrakis in Dune. However, to the game’s benefit, one of the major collectibles in Mad Max are “history relics”. These items take the form of either pieces of cardboard with writing on them or photographs with messages written on the back of them. Max will speak about certain items, providing context either for the post-apocalyptic world or how the times before The Fall relate to present moment and Max’s state of mind.

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This handwritten touch adds a lot that reading a wall of green text in Fallout 3 doesn’t.

When looking at a picture of a lake Max will say “So much water. It seems wasteful now.” Likewise, when looking at a picture of barbecued meat, Max will say (with a hint of disgust in his voice) “We ate our fill and threw out the rest.”
None of the characters in the Mad Max game care about the old times. Many wastelanders were born into the new world and don’t know anything else. The soft exposition does a good job of informing  both completionist players and those who know more, without detracting from the primary quests.  These small cues combined with the resource based gameplay cause the player to consider the scarcity of our own world. Ultimately, the gameplay and the backstory combine to form a warning, even if the player doesn’t immediately recognize it.

The Mad Max game forms a subtle subtext that directly relate to the game’s world and our own, rather than making blanket statements against the lifestyle of a consumer based economy. This is surprisingly well done because Max isn’t warning about what might happen, he merely explains what has already happened in his world. Every person Max finds a picture of is dead. reflecting the loss of his own family (the first relic in the game is a picture of Max’s family).

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Unfortunately, as Max becomes more powerful, the feeling of being in a dying world wears off. Max is given the opportunity to upgrade his own abilities and the fortresses of his allies. Through spiritual experiences, Max can dramatically increase the amount of water he finds and the fuel efficiency of his car (making guzzolene only useful as a bomb toward the end game). By upgrading fortresses, Max is treated to a variety of benefits every time he returns to a quest hub: Full health, a full tank of gas, a full bandolier of shotgun shells, and a full canteen of water. Although this makes the world feel alive and gives the player hope for a better future, it feels wrong to allow Max to have the maximum amount of equipment at all times in a world where most people have nothing.

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It’s great to see a fortress grow into a village, but the gameplay rewards interrupt the tone.

Every post-apocalyptic scenario deals with scarcity in some form be it women (A Boy and His Dog), water (Fallout), or even life itself (The Road). The Mad Max game takes both the concept of resource management and post-apocalyptic scarcity and molds it into something new. Mad Max doesn’t give endless exposition to say how scarce everything is. Instead, (at least for the first few hours) it throws the player into an inhospitable world and tells them to survive. Combined with commentary and images of the old world, this game produces a surprisingly effective rhetoric that causes players to at least reflect on their current lifestyle, even if they don’t realize it.

Does providing players with unlimited resources support or detract from the scarcity based game play? Tell us in the comments!

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