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Bicycling After the End of the World

Post-apocalyptic scenarios are everywhere in media. I’m sure you know the whole song and dance by now: zombies and the walking dead roam the earth, there’s no more room in hell, humanity fights for its survival and splits into small communities, lone heroes bring people together and travel across all the shitty world. (The world outside human settlements is literally called “The Shit” in Days Gone.) And lone heroes wander this shit by foot, by motorbike and by car. Sometimes, even by horse. But they never ride a bicycle.

Bicycles are usually absent from apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction and this absence is so marked that there’s even a proper trope listed on TV Tropes “No Bikes in the Apocalypse.” This situation became really evident to me while I was playing the last two PlayStation 4 post-apocalyptic survival open-world games with dead/zombified/infected people invading USA: the aforementioned Days Gone and above all Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding.

Sam Porter Bridges, protagonist of Death Stranding, is a deliveryman in a world where something known as, well, the “Death Stranding” shattered the border between life and death. This brought the Timefall — rain that makes people age and buildings rust — and the Beached Things, souls of the dead stranded in the world of the living. Fine, but why does Sam have to walk from delivery to delivery after he loses his motorbike at the very beginning of the game? Why can’t he use a bicycle at least? Aren’t bicycles good enough as means of transport for a deliveryman?

Days Gone
Days Gone

No Bikes in the Apocalypse

Fictional works can sometimes have good explanations for the lack of bicycles in their worlds. For example, in Days Gone I’m Deacon St. John, a former member of a motorcycle gang. Deacon is clearly fond of motorbikes, and infected wolves run as fast as a car in his world: cyclists would just deliver themselves straight into their jaws. And you could say that the US is just too wide to be crossed coast to coast by bicycle in Kojima’s last work — but Death Stranding’s world is way smaller than the real North America and you can just walk across the whole continent.

Of course there are exceptions to the No Bikes in the Apocalypse rule. One of the very first novels about a nuclear apocalypse, Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon, features the quote “Now that gasoline is scarce, two bycicle tires are worth more than an expensive car.” In more recent times, we have François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell’s movie Turbo Kid, where BMX bikes are the main means of transport. In Turbo Kid, BMXs are above all a tribute to the 80s, but since nowadays the 80s are as omnipresent as post-apocalyptic fiction it’s surprising that we don’t see more stuff like this in movies and video games. 

It’s even more surprising when you consider that bicycles are born from apocalypse itself. The dandy horse (or laufmaschine), the forefather of bicycles, was invented as an answer to the events of 1816, “the year without a summer.” In 1815 Mount Tambora erupted in Indonesia, its ash clouding the sky and blocking sunlight. The global temperature dropped maybe 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit/3 degrees Celsius (other estimates are more cautious) and the following summer was rainy and cloudy. The cold, together with the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and their pillages, a period of low solar activity (the Dalton Minimum) and the ending part of the so-called “Little Ice Age”, caused crop failures and food shortages in Europe. Horses either died from starvation or were killed and eaten. Mystics foresaw the end of the world.

Historian John D. Post called what happened in 1816 “the last great subsistence crisis in the western world,” so these events should be an important reference for everyone writing post-apocalyptic fiction. They even shaped the dark and stormy environments of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written during that year, but this climate crisis influenced someone else, too: German forest officer Karl Drais invented the laufmaschine (a bicycle without pedals) as an alternative to horses.

Psychogeography for Beginners

So, bicycles are the true post-apocalyptic means of transport. Why should I Mad Max my way around looking for rapidly-evaporating fossil fuels when I can use a bicycle? All vehicles are electric and solar-powered in Death Stranding, but is that really the best way to power cars and motorbikes in a future where the main problem is the rain?

Bicycles don’t need batteries, they don’t need sunny weather and above all they are still way faster than just walking. They are fragile, but also easier and cheaper to repair than motorbikes — not an unimportant fact when you are not sure your trusted mechanic won’t become a zombie. There are an estimated 1 billion bicycles worldwide: will all the cyclists just stop riding after the apocalypse? 

But there is something more: bicycles would be the perfect means of transport for open-world games. To explain this point I’ll borrow some words from the Italian Associazione Psicogeografica Romana (Rome Psychogeographical Association). Psychogeography is the study of the emotional and physical effects of urban environments. It’s a discipline developed by Letterist International and then by Situationist International during the 1050s as a way to understand how cities and authorities guide citizens and their lives using architecture, light and sound.

Does it sound familiar? Compare psychogeography to level design, the study of how developers can lead players across their digital maps. The psychogeography of a space is studied through the “drift” (“dérive” in French): randomly walking through the city to see where you end up and how places makes you feel. Members of the Situationist International used to explore cities by foot, but new Italian psychogeography alumni understood that bicycles were even better suited to this end. The Associazione Psicogeografica Romana says:

We believe that the optimal mean for a drift is neither walking or cars, but a bicycle. Walking must quicken its step until it becomes dromomania in order to feel the shift from a unity of ambience [a video game area, in our case] to the next. As a result, it is too shocking […]. Cars don’t convey the feeling of urban landscapes, the gaze gets lost in the undifferentiated, both in traffic jams and fast moving traffic. A bicycle has the right speed to be alert and aware of the gap between unities of ambience. Furthermore, it is more keen to read the everyday urban landscape without getting lost in useless details.

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Turbo Kid
Turbo Kid

Bicycles are OP

In open-world games we walk within the boundaries of each area and we drive from an area to a different one. Walking allows us to enjoy the finest details of the game world, sneaking into every nook and cranny and discovering secret routes; on the other hand, vehicles are fast, but limit our freedom. As far as game balance is concerned, bicycles would be just too good, an over-powered endgame vehicle that behaves like a pedestrian, disrupting level design as much as it disrupts urban design. Italian cyclist and psychogeography explorer Cobol Pongide writes in his last book: “Bicycles invite people to violate preemptively organized urban spaces. Bicycles are like water: they find the shortest way. But they also allow the discovery of the longest, windiest roads, perhaps just because those are the most beautiful, thrilling or inspired.”

And maybe that’s the point: level designers should let us disrupt their level design. Urbanists should let us disrupt their cities. Above all, post-apocalyptic fiction should let us disrupt the urban order of towns and landscapes and create something new. Death Stranding is the main offender here. Its post-apocalypse is completely different from the grim survivalistic nightmares we are used to: it’s presented as a chance to collaborate, to “make America whole again” connecting scattered towns and outposts into the United Cities of America (UCA).

We are building a new world together with other players, we are giving new meaning to landscapes, mountains and rivers, we are creating new paths in the wilderness. But at the end of the day, roads for motor vehicles are still the most important structures, and we can only build them where the designers decided; we are conquering the Far West again and the country we are creating is just the USA under another name. The disruptive power of the bicycle is, in the end, too imaginative for Death Stranding’s America.

About the Author

Matteo Lupetti

Matteo Lupetti is a Marxist video game critic and indie comics author. They founded the indie comics collective Gravure and write for various Italian, British, and US outlets.