Aphelion Issue 293, Volume 28
September 2023
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All Fun and Games

by Wes Vanderburgh

It’s Finally Here: First Look at Living History 2020: Pandemic Apocalypse

8/30/2xxx, 09:16, by staff collaboration

Overall Rating: 11 out of 10

Game of the Year stand-out candidate

Well, we’ve had to wait about six years, but the latest installment of the Living History franchise, Living History 2020: Pandemic Apocalypse , is finally among us. And what a wait it was — the last major release in the acclaimed (if controversial) simulation series was 1929: The Greatest Depression , and we at least are still haunted by the specter of food insecurity and shantytown riots. Those who braved 2008: Bubble Burst had less of a wait but perhaps a blander taste in the mouth. Trust me, the series is worth coming back to — especially now that the highly-anticipated VR chamber has become accessible on the consumer market. This game and that ‘console’ (if the word still applies these days) were seemingly made for each other.

This is a paradigm-shifting video game, one that will make us rethink the possibilities of the genre as a whole.

Pandemic Apocalypse substantially ups the simulation experience gamers have come to expect from the franchise. The player is cast as a homeless person during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. And, as we’ll mention later on in this review, though nearly 200 years have elapsed since the event, Pandemic Apocalypse has been no stranger to controversy . Not only has the game been prepared seamlessly for the next generation of VR gaming systems, but it also comes replete with an entire suite of accessibility features that are to this century what Last of Us was to the 2000s. And the accessibility enhancements by no means diminish from the gameplay or rich sensory experience.

The game is so expansive that no two days — either in-game or between sessions — are ever going to be the same. The newly developed AI system for the NPCs is so lifelike that we suspect it will be nearly impossible to write an in-depth guide or how-to. Simply put, NPCs act like real people. While most walk right on by the player, some of them will kick, spit, or otherwise lash out; some will provide hand-outs or charity; some may offer ‘quests,’ i.e., jobs the player can do for money or other resources; some indeed are the cops, and they will respond to anything the player does with contempt and even violence. In short, the AI mechanism makes the game breathtakingly lifelike. Combined with an environment that’s nearly fully interactive, it’s no wonder Pandemic Apocalypse has caught the attention of social critics, urban planners, homelessness advocates , policymakers, artists, and more.

Keep reading for a spoiler-free breakdown of what to expect.

Graphics, Design, and Sound:

Let’s start with the audio-visuals. To put it succinctly, the game is visually stunning and symphonic in its attention to detail. The graphics engine is literally the most up-to-date on the market, and assuming you’re playing it how it’s meant to be played in the new VR chamber, you’re going to have a hard time believing that real life is ‘real’ after walking out of each play session. The details are so minute they will absolutely absorb your attention and distract you from the gameplay. From legible print on the newspapers (which, it goes without saying, correspond to contemporaneous articles) to stray hairs on rats’ backs, to shadows that move as the sun does and even the player’s reflection in glass or puddles, the display takes advantage of all that current tech has to offer.

One of the coolest features is that of the ‘map,’ or the playable world. The developers loaded real plans and GPS data from the 2020 versions of five major U.S. cities — LA, Miami, New York, Washington DC, and Chicago. So the player is quite literally living where their ancestors may have during the real pandemic. Though many areas of these cities have been radically altered since then, it’s possible to compare stills from the game to archival data and old photographs, and in nearly every case it’s almost a perfect one-to-one match. They even captured construction that was ongoing back then - all made possible by complicated algorithms trawling through decades of plans, construction logs, camera footage, GPS data, and more. It’s been rumored that future DLCs may offer other cities as well, but for now we already have our hands full exploring even just one of the stock world maps.

The character design is also nearly flawless. The player will be able to fully customize their in-game avatar. Even though this is a first-person simulation, your appearance does matter and will influence how NPCs interact with you. For their part, NPCs are just as individuated as in real life, and no two of them will look exactly the same (unless they’re twins, which we believe we came across during one playthrough). Just as the playable areas of the cities resemble their real-life counterparts, so too did the developers match the demographics of each city as they were in 2020. It literally feels as if you step back in time into these iconic cities, making the game live up to the title’s name of ‘living history!’

As for the audio, Pandemic Apocalypse follows its predecessor Bubble Burst in that there is no in-game music. Though of course players have the option to stream in their own if they wish. But make no mistake: the lack of background music does not leave the game silent. Instead, it’s populated by the real noises of the city: cars, buses, voices, the occasional stray cat, planes overhead, construction crews blasting away, sirens, and more. There is audio coded for nearly everything, which makes for a disturbingly accurate experience. For example, if the player is lucky enough to find food (a necessity, sure, but harder to find than you might think!), then they’ll hear their character chewing and smacking their lips.

Gameplay is also very much attuned to sound. From being aware of threats or taunts to hearing the first drops of rain on a car roof, sound is very important to a rewarding playthrough. The VR chamber does a great job of eliminating any feeling of being overwhelmed too, with many of the audio accessibility tweaks helping out with that. If you’ve only got a VR headset, don’t worry — the auditory experience is still very impressive.

Overall, this is probably the most advanced video game ever in terms of offering an almost seamless transition from real life to the audiovisuals of the game. We say ‘almost’ because, like us, you may end up feeling that those of the game are better!


Pandemic Apocalypse is a single-player, first-person virtual reality simulation game in which the player plays as a homeless person during the Covid-19 pandemic of the early 2020s. As a simulation game, there is no ‘goal’ per se — just hang around, do whatever the game’s physics allow, and have fun! Of course, it’s not a spoiler in itself to mention that there are ‘hidden’ objectives, such as surviving one day more, avoiding catching the disease (harder than it sounds!), banding together with other indigents, and perhaps even pulling yourself out of homelessness. As you may have heard by now, if your character dies, then your playthrough is over, and you must start anew. We can’t really say much more beyond that here, so check out our blog describing some of our staff’s playthroughs in more depth.

But it would hardly be appropriate not to describe some anecdotes! VR gloves are a must — there’s literally no option to play with old-fashioned controllers — and they make for an impressive range of possible player inputs. It’s just one more link you have to your character, blurring the lines between ‘virtual’ and ‘reality’ ever more. We’ve built makeshift shelters, changed tires for kind passersby, stolen coffee cups folks were too foolish to set down and forget about, and even picked our character’s nose!

The NPCs you’ll interact with are complicated and unpredictable as if they were being controlled by other players in a kind of MMORPG — yet it’s just the incredible sophistication of the game’s AI pulling all the strings. We’ve had NPCs come up to us and ask about our day just to show a little humanity. We’ve had them donate to our cup of change and even buy us an ice cream cone. Sometimes you get NPCs willing to offer you a job, show to you a shelter where you can get some sleep or apply for necessary resources like Medicaid, or even leave a shopping cart for you to carry all your things (no auto-inventory here! You must manage your resources yourself!).

On the flip side, NPCs may try to sexually harass or even assault you, physically assault you (which resulted in the death of one of our characters), or even just be mean and nasty. Once someone ran away with our cup of change. Another time we had the police called on us just for sitting on a flight of stairs in front of a luxury apartment. But most of the time they simply ignore you, which is perhaps the worst part: feeling like this character you’re incredibly invested in is just another piece of the background environment.

In a recent interview, the head of the game’s AI development noted that they trained their AI on centuries’ worth of documented interactions among the housed and houseless. “This is ‘Living History’ after all: we wouldn’t be doing our job if we watered down some of the violence,” they said. The result is an unpredictably accurate, if sometimes sadistic, gamut of reactions NPCs will have toward your character.

The police will be your mortal enemy and should definitely be avoided at all costs. They are coded just like any other NPC but have the advantage of the legal monopolization of force. And there’s never just one lone cop. We did a playthrough in Washington, DC, a city long known for its disproportionately high police presence, and we found it nearly impossible to continue, even after several deaths’ worth of accumulated knowledge and strategy. We found ourselves in jail a number of times, though once we were able to escape. Usually the police will harass you, knock down your shelter, and, by their very omnipresence, make it difficult to engage in the furtive tasks required to survive. But it’s not impossible to skulk out of their reach. The stealth aspects of this game should not be underestimated, even if they are a bit difficult to pull off. Nevertheless, it’s safe to assume the police are always watching you.

This brings us to an important and revolutionary aspect of this game: how save data is managed. In between sessions, even while the game and whatever you’re playing it on are turned off, some in-game decisions are still being made. This is thanks to a little-talked about but genius piece of technology that stores electricity while the game is powered on to power a mechanical, analog device to continue playing certain aspects of the game even after it is switched off. What this means is that certain things like the weather and passage of time will continue even after you power off for the day. You may have saved at night but come back and its daytime.

But it doesn’t stop there. Certain NPC actions are also governed by this device at random. So you may come back to discover that some bum pickpocketed you in the night and all your change is gone. Or the police may have raided your shelter and now you’re freezing and wet with bugs crawling all over your feet. The point is that you have to be incredibly careful where and when you decide to save — but know that despite your best intentions, the game is working against you! Speaking about this feature, the production studio’s CTO remarked that “It gives the player an extra challenge. It’s too easy to play a game where everything works out nicely for you in the end. Besides, that’s hardly akin to the real-life experience of homelessness. We wanted — and needed — to put the player precisely into the shoes of someone going through the real thing.” Some accessibility features mitigate this effect, so consider activating those to make things a little less hectic. No matter what you think of it, though, you’ll have to account for the unaccountable!

Manipulating the in-game environment is another big perk and makes gameplay that much more rewarding. You’ll probably have to build yourself a shelter at some point, and you can literally use anything you come across — garbage cans, tarps, wooden pallets, bits of this and that. You can wrap yourself in just about anything and use it as clothing. You can try to eat most things, too, though you may end up sick if ingesting inedible materials. Frustrated at how the world’s treating you? Grab a stick and smash in some car windows. Break into a building. Trespass! The world is your oyster, subject to the in-game physics and, of course, the legal repercussions. NPCs will not like your engaging in out-of-the-norm behavior, especially of an illegal nature, so be careful when sculpting the urban scape to your wishes!

Overall, the gameplay is truly outstanding. All the stops were pulled out to provide as lifelike an experience as possible. You truly will feel the tension, grit, and struggle to survive, almost as if you were experiencing it all yourself. Such immersion makes Pandemic Apocalypse perhaps the biggest and most engaging video game ever. It has already been touted as game of the year and may well become the game of the decade, even the century. Words don’t really do it justice, so go get your copy today!

A Word on the Controversy:

We couldn’t end this review without discussing the controversy surrounding Pandemic Apocalypse. It has been called everything from “a dangerously fetishistic dystopia” to “the culmination of centuries’ worth of anti-homeless attitudes and public policy.” Historians and retro gamers will instantly recall titles such as Hogwarts Legacy, Grand Theft Auto, etc., that similarly inspired critiques both genuine and hysterical while also providing fans with incredible gaming experiences that pushed the boundaries of the genre ever further. That dilemma — between a testy, possibly unethical subject matter and a mind-blowing gaming experience — will no doubt prove difficult to resolve for many who may otherwise be interested in playing it.

Ultimately the decision is up to every individual. We can’t impose our morals onto our readers, but we will suggest that everything be taken into account before making your decision to get it or not.

Sure, the violence of homelessness is presented without any filters or watering down. The game’s producers are indeed profiting off of our voyeuristic exploration of what is certainly a blight on humanity’s progress and better nature. It would obviously be better if homelessness were a historical relic that could be safely interacted with from the benefit of enlightenment and advancement.

Unfortunately, that’s just not the world we live in. And for the world as we live in it now, we have to consider that a simulation experience like Pandemic Apocalypse may inspire the kind of empathy needed to finally motivate voters and policymakers to end homelessness once and for all. That is exactly what some campaigners are hoping for.

Even if such a goal is far-off, or even indeed if we can’t expect such a lofty social goal from something as humble as a video game, it is still true that the game is probably the highest point ever reached by the genre as a whole. For centuries, humanity has been seeking to recreate social life, allowing for individuals to live lives other than their own. What have the old historical forces of globalization, the development of AI, and the convergence of cultures that used to be so different all been leading to? A recreation of social life without the risks of doing actual harm — an experience freed from the web of social obligations and the omnipresent risk of death that hem in the truest freedom of expression. It’s certainly premature to say that Pandemic Apocalypse is the culmination of such forces, but it is at the very least the highest point on that road hitherto reached. Therefore, the game must be reckoned as an artifact of humanity and an expression of our collective will to transcendence.

Does this invalidate objections to the game’s subject matter? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Perhaps such an explanation points toward the fulfillment of that subject matter’s purpose. As one of the chief programmers recently stated, “Objecting [to the game’s content] misses the point entirely.” Perhaps the point is to grapple with such content and allow the result of that grappling to inform your life IRL. Perhaps Pandemic Apocalypse can make the world a better place. Even if it can’t, perhaps it will still be worthwhile as a highly advanced means of entertainment. Is that good enough? We’ll let you decide.

No matter your take on the controversies, no matter if you’re a casual gamer or a professional, Living History 2020: Pandemic Apocalypse is a game that is grabbing everyone’s attention. And it probably will continue to do so for some time yet. We’ve still a long way to go before we see how things pan out, as the game has only been available for a week (but has already sold out in many places). Nonetheless, we hope this review provided a place to start. Of course, nothing could ever replace the experience of playing the game for yourself, so the best means of checking it out is simply to jump right in!

As always, we wish you happy gaming!


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2024 Wes Vanderburgh

Bio: Wes Vanderburgh is an independent creator currently interested in art’s potential to rekindle politics for an overripe age.

E-mail: Wes Vanderburgh

Website: Wes Vanderburgh's Website

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