The Cyclical Apocalypse | Rust

A week in Rust is a lifetime. Seven days has passed and the terrain, once barren, is now littered with human structures. However, even their time has come and gone. The buildings, once homes, are now hollow husks devoid of life. The majority of them lie as empty and uninhabited as that original frontier. The warm glow of their campfires and furnaces have not been felt in days, the storage chests which once overflowed with treasures sit empty, and a cold wind whistles through the unnatural breaches in the walls. These homes have all been raided—this is life at the end of a cycle. Rust’s worlds end as T.S. Eliot predicted, “not with a bang but a whimper.”

Its seven day history leading narrowly from the primitive wooden spear to the Kalashnikov assault rifle

The last few days in a cycle always feel like the end times, but soon enough both the server and map will reboot and living chaos will ensue once more. A shocking and sudden death which annihilates every existing player structure and entity in the world, “Wipe Day” brings both apocalyptic glee and revolutionary fervour. Games of Rust may inevitably end with disaster and destruction, but Rust’s players are often all too happy to repeat the gruelling process of rebuilding. With a new map Rust offers new configurations as well as opportunities. Players begin once more to pool resources and construct their idiosyncratic bases, forts and castles—this time with more defensible ramparts, traps or perhaps cleverly hidden caches. Clans and alliances form, as do bitter rivalries. Over the course of the next few days player structures—both the cramped and the colossal—will be besieged as bands and gangs begin to violently dismantle each other in search of greater loot. A week of constant competition leaves servers exhausted and the majority of constructs wrecked and abandoned, but the impulse to log back on after a total reset and begin afresh is strong.

Although a member of the survival genre, Rust is much less about enduring natural disaster and more to do with dealing and defending against the primal hostility of other human beings. Trying to make small talk with the island’s residents never ends well. Rust, like so many multiplayer survival games, is structurally uncooperative outside of small, close-knit communal groups. Its world is a microcosm of barbarism and tribal dispute—its seven day history leading narrowly from the primitive wooden spear to the Kalashnikov assault rifle. This inherently destructive progress inevitably ends with ruin, yet Rust’s cyclical apocalypse succeeds in preserving a certain mood or emotion as a virtual snapshot of societal collapse.

Prior to the appearance of crude stone and sheet metal blocks thrown down by players, Rust maps begin as wild, empty stretches of procedurally generated tundra, rocky desert crags, and verdant hills. Alongside this natural terrain squat the primordial “monuments”. These structures are tactically positioned across the game’s post-apocalyptic island to entice wandering players with the scrap and high-level technological components. Whilst the week long wipe cycles mechanically establish and manufacture Rust’s structure of growth and decay, the monuments work to cement the game’s overriding atmosphere of societal breakdown.

The hulking metal sphere, rusted-orange, hums with all of the vigor of history.

Rust’s monuments haunt the island landscape—great trunks standing out from lone stretches of blank terrain, recalling a time before the apparent collapse that led to the game’s survivalist fantasy. As opposed to the simple and makeshift technology available to players, each monument is a ruined testament to high industry. The Power Plant’s crumbling cooling towers, for example, evoke hazy memories of the Chernobyl disaster. They loom over cracked, overgrown pavements and irradiated piles of rubble which click and crackle intensely. The Power Plant captures Chernobyl as a cliche—an eerie symbol of Soviet failure—it is but one of many purposefully designed architectures which build up this overarching sense of collapse.

Take Rust’s bus stops; there are dozens of them scattered across the procedural wasteland. These miniature monuments are in fact digital replicas based upon a real bus stop which now lies abandoned somewhere in rural Kazakhstan. The concrete shelter was originally photographed by Christopher Herwig in his book Soviet Bus Stops—a blend of the grand and banal—and the same image is used in Rust to evoke the “collapsing edifice” of the Soviet Union. In Rust‘s fiction, the creators of these neglected stops have ceased to be, all infrastructure has ended.

Further traces of Soviet-styled industrial decay are evident within Rust’s impressive centrepiece, the “Dome”: a monstrous, hollowed orb that in the past would have stored gas but now sits as empty as the future. The hulking metal sphere, rusted-orange, hums with all of the vigor of history. These monuments are titanic gravestones which again and again point towards that central idea of societal decomposition. Nostalgia for Soviet-style architecture and iconography isn’t new, even in games. Bohemia Interactive’s ARMA 2 and the original Day Z mod which helped pioneer the open world survival genre are both set in the fictional post-Soviet state of “Chernarus”. S.T.A.L.K.E.R’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and the Metro series’ underground Moscow are also similar in their fascination with crumbled and broken post-Soviet settings. The architectural influence of Day Z still exists powerfully within the survival genre today (flaring up once more in the recent PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds), and it’s no coincidence that Rust’s own post-apocalypse draws heavily from this source.

Rust’s worlds end as T.S. Eliot predicted, “not with a bang but a whimper.”

In his book Malign Velocities, Benjamin Noys puts forward the idea that apocalyptic fantasies become “real and pressing” in times of crisis. Desires for apocalyptic gaming is particularly strong and seen not just in the recent surge of survival games, but in bigger-budget experiences like Fallout, RAGE, Metro and Avalanche’s Mad Max. Rust not only sits comfortably alongside these, but in many ways offers a fuller sense of the end of the world. Mechanically, it allows for that radical reordering, a levelling where even Princes are stripped bare and bleakly exposed to violent anarchy—but its “consolatory fantasy” also offers up images of what Noys calls “deferred hopes”, a postponed future emblemised by the grand, rusted monuments: power station, military compound, airport, satellite base and soon, rocket facility. These dead shrines mark the extent of our past social ambitions—our hopes to control, master, fly, understand and even leave our planet’s atmosphere for the stars above. These desires of the past have been dumped by Rust’s barbarous players; but they will not be forgotten, and their spectres haunt the landscape.

On the seventh day of a wipe, Rust players may look back at the wreckage of the past in two ways. First and most immediately, they may reflect on the lost time and energy involved in all those levelled bases and spectacular demolitions. But also, very distinctly, they may feel hanging over it all, haunting the very landscape, the vestiges of a previous catastrophe. Amongst the creative crashes that players participate in are the remnants of Soviet dissolution. Rust has succeeded in creating a cyclical apocalypse, a digital recurrence that eternally preserves a moment—that moment of deterioration and then complete collapse.

If you enjoyed this study please consider supporting the Heterotopias project through purchasing our zine. Issues 001 + 002, featuring almost 200 pages of visual studies and critical essays on games and architecture, are currently available in a discounted launch bundle here.

Thank you for your support!