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Simulated Fantasy, Post-Apocalyptic Reality

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"Here it is. All you wanted. A world full of sunshine and sweets, where your cat Genna did not die, where your father and mother Joseph and Anne did not pass away, and where you have a TV Tropes themed shirt. All you need to do is put the headset on."note 

"The world is dead. I haven't seen the sun or anything green in years. Some of us are still fighting the cyborgs over control of the corpse, but so many more have just given up. I hear life in the pods isn't so bad, that it's like a hazy, pleasant dream. But I don't want hazy and pleasant. I want my own mind and freedom, no matter how terrible reality is."
—"Logical Conclusions – Post-Apocalypse," The End of the World: Revolt of the Machines

Virtual reality, super-lucid dreams, and other unreal experiences seem naturally drawn to Crapsack Worlds. As such, it's perhaps no surprise that simulated realities have found a happy home in post-apocalyptic fiction, regardless of whether it's the entire focus of the narrative or a minor plot thread.

However, the portrayal of VR in the post-apocalyptic genre differs strongly from its depiction in other genres of science-fiction: dystopian or cyberpunk fiction almost exclusively portrays these dreamworlds as a form of escapism or even government-controlled entertainment to sweeten an unpleasant reality; by contrast post-apocalyptic VR tales are much more varied, sometimes to the point of playing the VR for horror.

Though there are no shortage of Lotus Eater Machines After the End, there can also be functional artificial environments designed to shelter ordinary citizens while they wait for the world to recover from the apocalypse... or there can even be hellish Mind Prisons and Black Bug Rooms that can make the real world look positively pleasant by comparison. Or possibly even both, with the former used to reward obedient citizens and the latter used to punish dissenters.

In other words, the key aspect of post-apocalyptic VR is not escapism: the participation of the main characters need not be voluntary — and it's entirely possible to see unwilling visitors to the simulation being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the VR headsets.

Regardless of whether the simulation is treated as heaven or hell, it's common for plotlines featuring post-apocalyptic VR to end with the main characters escaping to the real world for a Bittersweet Ending in which the unpleasant reality is regarded as preferable to whatever delights or torments were on offer in virtual reality... unless, of course, the real world is on its last legs, in which case a Downer Ending might be in store.

Compare and contrast Crapsack World, Escapist Sanctuary, which concerns itself exclusively with voluntary, non-apocalyptic variants of this trope.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Expelled from Paradise: in the wake of a "Nano Hazard" that has ruined the surface of the Earth, the surviving population has put its faith in DEVA — a virtual reality paradise that human beings are digitized and uploaded to. Residents are granted immortal lives free of aging, disease, hunger, or any kind of physical suffering... but unfortunately, they're constantly under the watchful eye of DEVA's Central Security, are limited in what they can do by the amount of memory allocated to them, and are rated on their performance: high-rated individuals are rewarded with more memory, but those who are judged to not be contributing enough are archived in order to save memory — essentially imprisoning them in a very small space for the rest of eternity.
  • Shelter: Rin is stuck in a simulation she can control with a drawing tablet, which is aboard a spaceship created by her father to survive a planetary collision.
  • Touched upon in Overlord (2012). Satoru Suzuki, the protagonist, was a lowly office worker in a dystopian future in the year 2138, a bleak hellscape where nature has been all but destroyed, the atmosphere is poisoned beyond any possibility of recovery, the government plays second fiddle to fantastically corrupt Mega Corps and human life is dime a dozen to the point that seeing orphans slowly dying in the streets is not an uncommon occurrence. The fantasy world Satoru finds himself trapped in is not a simulation, but his new persona, that of the powerful undead caster Momonga/Ainz Ooal Gown, and the characters who end up accompanying him hail from the virtual reality MMO YGGDRASIL, a game that occupied essentially every moment of Satoru's life not taken up by work, food or sleep. The wretched dreariness of Satoru's real life, in conjunction with the fact that essentially all of his friendships and most of the happy moments in his life have occurred in a hollow fantasy, is what forms the crux of his character, and when it turns out that his new undead body numbs his feelings, it is only a matter of time for this profoundly broken man to become the Evil Overlord he used to merely roleplay.

    Audio Plays 
  • In the Big Finish Doctor Who What-If episode "He Jests at Scars" it's ultimately revealed that the Valeyard's time-spanning empire and its capital of Chronopolis is just a simulated reality created inside the TARDIS. Outside, his attempts at altering history in his favor have caused a universal scale apocalypse, to the point that the TARDIS is keeping the Valeyard and Mel paralyzed in its console room so their movements can't make anything worse while the rest of the universe recovers, allowing the Valeyard to live out his fantasies in a simulation while Mel tries to restore the Doctor's personality. Unfortunately, in the final scene, power drain forces the TARDIS to switch off the simulation; the story ends with Mel and the Valeyard trapped for all eternity in the console room, unable to move or even speak.

    Comic Books 
  • Batman: Last Knight on Earth begins with Bruce Wayne waking up in Arkham Asylum, and for a while, it seems as if his experiences as Batman have just been an elaborate fantasy... but then he happens to notice A Glitch in the Matrix, and the truth is soon unveiled: the world has been reduced to a post-apocalyptic ruin as a result of an unspecified cataclysm, all the heroes are either dead or have given up, and Alfred has been keeping Bruce trapped in a simulation in order to keep him from trying to be a hero — even preparing a recreation of Wayne Manor and a stretch of Gotham City for him to have an ordinary life in. With Bruce unwilling to remain in the comforting illusion now that he knows the truth, Alfred sadly allows him to leave for the wasteland of the real world...

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Matrix is set in a sunless post-apocalyptic wasteland caused by a war between machines and humanity. Most of the human race is now serving as batteries for the machines while their minds are kept occupied by the eponymous virtual reality simulation, a Mind Prison based on the world as it was over a century ago. However, the rebel humans that have been freed from the Matrix still use simulations throughout their lives, not only to train and fight back against the machines, but — as Enter the Matrix demonstrates — simply for the sake of fun.
  • Mindwarp: Following the apocalyptic depletion of the ozone layer, some of the last unmutated survivors (known as "Dreamers") have found safety in the underground settlement of Inworld, where they spend most of their time plugged into VR fantasies maintained by the Infinisynth computer. As such, the story kicks off with one such Dreamer, Judy, being exiled from Inworld, forcing her to spend the rest of her life in reality and in the radiation-scorched wastelands on the surface. Except the ending reveals that the whole thing was just another simulation designed to teach Judy the dangers of longing for the surface.

  • Animorphs: The Ellimist Chronicles features the Ketran people being subjected to an apocalyptic invasion by the Capasin that nearly wipes out the entire species, followed up by outright extinction after the Ketran refugees try to find a home for themselves on Father's world. The only survivor, Toomin, is captured by Father and imprisoned inside his Hive Mind to serve as his opponent in endless games of strategy, all of which take place in imaginary worlds conjured from the memories of Father's many victims. As a reward for cooperating, Toomin's allowed to spend time in a comforting illusion of his life as it would have been if the invasion had never happened, but if he refuses to play, he'll be woken up and forced to witness the real world — an apocalyptic Corpse Land where all his loved ones are floating dead around him — until he agrees to cooperate. This remains the status quo until Toomin finally figures out how to beat Father at his own games, allowing him to claim all his knowledge for himself and begin his transformation into the Ellimist.
  • Colony begins Just Before the End, with Eddie O'Hare leaving the dying Earth aboard the Willflower — only to suffer fatal injuries and be preserved as a head in a jar. Generations later, with Earth well and truly dead and the Willflower the last surviving refuge of the human race, Eddie is rebuilt as a cyborg... but in order to ease him into the unpleasant reality of his new existence, he's awoken in a utopian illusory world where everything is calming and tranquil before the crew finally break the news to him.
  • In The Futurological Congress by Stanisław Lem, the hallucinated Earth of the future is an overpopulated frozen wasteland, so the people are kept under crazy amounts of hallucinogens and believe themselves to be in a beautiful utopian world. George Simington, who is revealed to be the mastermind behind it, tries to convince Ijon Tichy that keeping people in a sweet delusion is an act of "the last Good Samaritans", only for Tichy to counter that if Simington really thought so, he would have fed Tichy a pill or two of belief-inducing hallucinogen and Tichy would have become his biggest fan instantly.
  • Red Dwarf:
    • As with the series, Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers features Lister emerging from stasis three million years in the future to find that he's the last human in the universe. When copies of the illegal VR game Better Than Life are found on Red Dwarf, the Cat plays out of curiosity, while Lister and Rimmer start playing in a drunken attempt to rescue him... only for all three to have their memory of starting play erased by the game, leaving them trapped in worlds based on their deepest desires. Once Kryten reveals the truth, however, the three decide to continue playing despite the fact that it will eventually kill them — in Lister's case because he can't bear to leave his happy life in Bedford Falls with his wife and children in favor of the dull, joyless, post-apocalyptic real world. After Rimmer's subconsciousness ruins the game in Better Than Life and finally forces them to leave, the post-apocalyptic nature of the setting is brought into sharp relief when the four of them stumble upon the ruins of Earth floating in Deep Space, having long since been repurposed as Garbage World by an uncaring human race before slipping out of the solar system entirely.
    • In Backwards, Lister — regressed to his teenage years due to the decades he spent in the Backwards universe — becomes obsessed with VR gaming to cope with life aboard Starbug, which is now even more tense than usual due to Red Dwarf's disappearance. As with the episode "Gunman Of The Apocalypse", this becomes the basis for saving Kryten from the Armageddon Virus when he tries to combat it in his Western fantasy world. However, unlike the episode, the story ends with the virus being purged from the system too late to save Kryten, Rimmer, or Starbug, forcing Lister and the Cat to flee for another dimension — leaving the human race effectively extinct in the universe they just left.
    • Last Human is set in a completely different dimension, but with a similar history to the main one, complete with the apparent extinction of the human race. Three million years later, GELFs who escaped from human captivity have built their own nation in a remote asteroid belt and now use virtual reality as a form of punishment: individuals found guilty of crimes against the GELF State are sentenced to Cyberia, a Penal Colony where their bodies are left to float in a suspension lake while their minds are imprisoned in simulations designed be as uncomfortable, awkward, and depressing as possible, as Lister discovers first-hand. The twist is that the GELF State is on the brink of its own apocalypse: the asteroid belt is being drawn towards the Omni-Zone, and in order to survive the crossing, the GELFs need to terraform a planet and move their population to it... but the terraforming can only be enacted by godlike entities born from multiple sentient minds — taken from Cyberia's inmates.
  • Played With in Scrapped Princess: the magical fantasy world inhabited by the main characters is eventually revealed to be a chunk of Earth crust isolated from the rest of the planet after it was conquered by an Alien Invasion. The aliens showed mercy to the human survivors and resettled them in a reservation and taught some of them a limited control of alien tech as "magic" to lock humanity in Medieval Stasis. Thus, while the setting is physical, it is heavily augmented by alien machinery and surrounded by terraformed wasteland.
  • In "Store of the Worlds" by Robert Sheckley, a man comes to someone who offers a year-long Lotus-Eater Machine experience at the cost of half his property and ten years of his life. The man seems to refuse, goes back home to his family and his office life... a year passes, and he wakes up back in that postapocalyptic future, pays the price of a pair of boots and some canned food, and takes the non-radioactive path back to the nuclear shelter.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: In the fifth season, the Team find themselves transported to a Bad Future where the Earth has been almost completely destroyed and the remnants of humanity were relocated to a space station controlled by the Kree. There they find one of their residents, Deke, is running a Framework simulation that lets people experience an approximation of Earth before it was destroyed. Daisy lampshades it as an opium den, and Deke admits that the Kree let him get away with it because it keeps the people docile.
  • In the Doctor Who episode "Forest of the Dead", it's revealed that the Library's population was saved from the apocalyptic release of the Vashta Nerada by its central computer CAL — "saved" in the sense that she literally saved them to her hard drive, where they could live in a comforting virtual reality scenario while they waited to be rescued. Unfortunately, the Library was officially quarantined afterwards, meaning that nobody has even approached the planet for a hundred years, leaving everyone trapped in the VR neighborhood — including CAL herself thanks to the strain on her memory.
  • Red Dwarf: Numerous episodes feature Lister using virtual reality in order to cope with being the last human being in the universe; in others, less-scrupulous entities use it interrogation, imprisonment, and even torture.
    • "Better than Life" serves as the first and most prominent of these, with the eponymous Total Immersion Videogame quickly being seized upon as the perfect escape from the post-apocalyptic bleakness aboard Red Dwarf: the game allows players to do anything they want, including making their dreams come true. Unfortunately, Rimmer's self-loathing ruins the gaming experience, turning the whole thing into a nightmare.
    • "Back to Reality" is set on an ocean world where a monstrous squid created by evolution-enhancing techniques has wiped out all life on the planet, including the researchers who were testing the enhanced evolution in the first place. The Boys From The Dwarf soon discover that the squid's ink is a hallucinogen so powerful that it plunges them into a shared dream designed to attack their self-esteem and drive them to suicidal despair. Ironically, this particular delusion begins with them waking up to find that their experiences on Red Dwarf were just a four-year-long VR gaming experience.
    • Early in "Gunman of the Apocalypse", Lister starts obsessively playing VR games in an effort to cope with life aboard Starbug during their search for the currently AWOL Red Dwarf... which becomes a bit of a problem when they're supposed to be in Silent Running Mode to avoid Simulants and Lister is busy playing a Film Noire gumshoe game so he can shag the game's Femme Fatale. However, Lister's stockpile of games come in handy when Kryten has to battle the Armageddon Virus in a Western-themed Mental World, allowing Lister and the others to use characters from the game Streets Of Laredo in order to help him.
    • Early in "Stoke Me a Clipper", Lister is so bored and horny from the lack of female company in the post-apocalyptic future that he resorts to cheating in an Arthurian VR game just so he can have sex with Guinevere. Once again, it becomes more practical later in the episode when Ace uses the VR simulator in an attempt to unlock Rimmer's true potential.
    • "Beyond a Joke" kicks off with Kochanski taking Lister and the Cat on a virtual adventure in Pride and Prejudice — only for Kryten to get annoyed at the lack of appreciation for the lobster he was cooking them for dinner and violently sabotage the game.
    • Season 8 begins with Lister, Kryten, Kochanski and the Cat returning to Red Dwarf only to find that the crew have been unexpectedly brought back to life by the nanobots. Since Captain Hollister has no idea why the four of them were flying a Starbug with no pilot's license (or that he's three million years in the future and among the last remaining human beings in the universe), he subjects them to a Virtual-Reality Interrogation in an attempt to learn their true motives.
  • Star Trek: Voyager: in "The Thaw", a once-thriving colony has been wiped out by an apocalyptic combination of solar flares, magnetic storms, and major glacial freeze. The last survivors of this disaster have put themselves into cryogenic stasis and have spent the last nineteen years waiting for the chaos to subside while their minds are kept stimulated by a shared virtual reality environment. Unfortunately, it's quickly discovered that the survivors have been trapped in VR long after it should have been safe to leave; upon entering the simulation, the Enterprise crew discovers that the survivors have been imprisoned and tortured by a Monster Clown manifestation of their own fear — and soon find themselves becoming the Clown's latest playthings.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In The End of the World: Revolt of the Machines, the post-apocalyptic stage of "Logical Conclusions" features many survivors of the nuclear apocalypse being brainwashed into mind-slaves by the ultra-nationalistic cyborgs — assuming they're not valuable enough to be converted into cyborgs themselves. When not at work, these mind-slaves spend their days podded up in a collective Mind Prison, bombarded with patriotic imagery and pleasant sensations in order to ensure their compliance. However, scenario notes indicate that the cyborgs are also building an immersive VR environment for "deserving citizens", based on an idealized, Rockwellian vision of 1950s America.

    Video Games 
  • The ultimate reveal of 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is that the entire world the game takes place in is a simulation and everyone except the 13 main characters are virtual. There's no time travel; the different eras are all different, separated sectors of the simulation. In reality, Earth has already been destroyed and humanity's original population is long-since extinct; the simulation was supposed to train the main characters with the knowledge to repopulate humanity when the ark ship would have landed on a new suitable planet, but the process was interrupted when a virus was introduced to the system, causing the appearance of the Deimos in the simulated world.
  • In the climax of Bioshock 2, it's revealed that the Little Sisters are brainwashed into a waking dream state so that the apocalyptic ruin that Rapture has become doesn't negatively impact their work. Here, the dilapidated halls look like the corridors of a golden palace, the crazy Splicers appear to be refined men and women in eveningwear, fly-eaten corpses look like angels shrouded in butterflies, and the pieces of the Big Sister suit you're trying to collect for Eleanor look like the gown, gloves, and tiara of a princess. Only gathering ADAM or being directly attacked can temporarily bring the Little Sisters back to reality.
  • Fallout:
    • Fallout 3:
      • In the main plot, your quest to find your father eventually leads you to Vault 112: here, the residents have spent the last two hundred years plugged into virtual reality, the current simulation being Tranquility Lane, an idyllic 1950s suburbia. Compared to ruins of Washington outside, it's a paradise... except that the Vault's Overseer, Dr Stanislaus Braun, routinely uses his power over the simulation to torture the residents for his own amusement. Worse still, your dad's ventured inside and can't escape, forcing you to follow him in. The only way to escape is to play along with Braun's sick games... or make use of a Corrupted Contingency to break Braun's control of the simulator, put his victims out of their misery, and leave Braun trapped alone in virtual reality — forever.
      • In the Operation: Anchorage DLC, you find yourself in an abandoned VR facility hidden deep in the Capital Wastelands with priceless loot on the other side of a locked door. The only way to get inside is to take part in a pre-War military simulation sending you on a journey through a heavily biased depiction of the Liberation of Anchorage.
    • Fallout: New Vegas:
      • Nellis Air Force Base is still equipped with a full set of virtual reality loungers, though you're not allowed to use them. These were originally used as flight simulators by the air force prior to the nuclear war; two hundred years later, the Boomers continue using them as flight sims — even though they have no aircraft and the only possible use for the loungers is escapism. Unless you can get them access to an antique bomber, which will eventually be put to use on the behalf of your chosen faction during the endgame.
      • In the "Old World Blues" DLC, you can find a VR chamber in the depths of the Big Empty. It's not known what it could have been used for, but during the last two hundred years, someone has sabotaged the VR equipment; a note found on the body of the saboteur implies that they and a group of test subjects were forced to take part in a simulation against their will and that it "killed us."
    • Fallout 4: In Goodneighbor, Irma's Memory Den allows her clients to relive their memories via VR loungers, enjoying some much-needed escapism in the brutal post-nuclear ruins of Boston. One repeat customer is Kent Connolly, a ghoul old enough to remember the War, and he's practically moved into the building full-time. You can make use of Irma's services if you desire. Later in the main plot, after you kill Kellogg, you can take his brain implant to the Memory Den to explore the dead mercenary's memories and find some clues as to where to go next.
  • Prey (2017): The ultimate twist of the game is that you're not actually Morgan Yu, and your adventure on Talos I was just a virtual reality simulation based on the experiences of the real Morgan. In reality, the Alien Invasion that Morgan feared has already come to pass, and Earth has been left in Coral-infested ruins by the Typhon. Meanwhile, you're actually a captive Typhon entity that Alex Yu is attempting to teach empathy via simulations in a desperate attempt to save the human race. Depending on how you performed over the course of the game, the experiment can end in success or failure - the former offering you the opportunity to make peace with Alex on behalf of the Typhon... unless you feel like ignoring the epiphany and furthering humanity's extinction.
  • Following the invasion of Earth in Saints Row IV, Emperor Zinyak abducts the Boss and their lieutenants, imprisoning them in a colossal virtual reality prison aboard his flagship while his men go about the business of hammering Earth into submission. Soon after the Boss manages to escape, Zinyak destroys Earth itself out of spite; as such, the rest of the game is spent waging a post-apocalyptic rebellion against the Zin Empire from within the simulation... and in the meantime, given that this is a wide-open sandbox game, it's very common for the Boss and the rest of the gang to use the parts of the simulation they control for nothing more than personal amusement.
  • Most of Shin Megami Tensei II is set in a fantastical post-apocalyptic landscape; however, going through a spatial distortion in the Abyss takes you to a mysterious facility full of people plugged into computers. These people are residents of the Arcadia area: the paradise you may have visited earlier was actually a simulation run by Gimmel on the Center Elders' behalf.
  • SOMA:
    • The game is set in the aftermath of a comet striking the Earth in the year 2104 and wiping out the entire human race; the only survivors are the inhabitants of Pathos-II. Soon after, researcher Catherine Chun developed a means of copying the minds of the base personnel into a utopian virtual world known as the ARK — essentially an Artificial Afterlife designed for a satellite-mounted computer. It was meant to be a method of preserving the human race after its extinction, but a crisis has prevented it from being launched into space; as such, it's up to Simon and Catherine to find the ARK and complete the launch. The game ends with Simon successfully copying himself to the ARK and launching it... only to find too late that what was sent up was a copy, not a transfer: while the other Simon and Catherine get to enjoy eternity in a virtual paradise, our Simon is trapped alone at the bottom of the ocean for what little remains of his life.
    • Pathos-II's Warden Unit (a.k.a. the WAU) has also created its own virtual world for similar reasons, but with a much more disturbingly organic twist. The WAU was designed to preserve humanity by any means available, and has gone into overdrive following the comet collision, using methods that human beings might not find desirable — either copying their minds into robot bodies or keeping their bodies in a horrific state of living death. At Delta, the WAU's proxies have been violently abducting human base personnel and forcibly incorporating them into life-support systems made of Meat Moss while their minds are lulled into a dream state where their desires come true. Simon himself briefly experiences this after being captured by Terry Akers, finding himself in a dream of being back in 2015 and in a committed relationship with Ashley.
  • Viewfinder: The bulk of the game is set in a utopian virtual world used as a laboratory and rec room by a group of scientists in their efforts to save the planet many years ago, and you're the explorer sent in to uncover their research via your ability to warp the simulation. In the real world, Earth has been ruined by climate change and industrial overdevelopment: the sky is a hellish red, the environment is dominated by derelict high-rise towers, Jessie admits she's never seen a tree up close, and citizens have to wear a personal oxygen supply whenever they leave their sealed skyscrapers. Your goal in your exploration of VR is to uncover a Weather-Control Machine that the researchers developed in the hope of using it to restore the planet... and society is so fractured in this apocalyptic future that you're one of only two people at work on the project.

  • In Not a Villain the ecosystem has been wrecked, most of human civilization lies in ruins, and the survivors spend most of their time in virtual reality. People who live in the remaining cities have the time they spend in that virtual reality restricted in an attempt to encourage them to work IRL, while "outsiders" in isolated compounds are given unlimited access and sent shipments of nutrient paste because they can only reasonably be productive in virtual.

    Western Animation 
  • Adventure Time: The Islands miniseries episode "Imaginary Resources", Jake, Finn, and BMO end up on a lost colony of humans who have survived the Great Mushroom War where all the citizens have become hopelessly addicted to virtual reality, leaving the entire city and their basic needs to be taken care of by robot drones. Jake "unplugs" everyone, only for them to find that the human population has become so used to living in Cyberspace that they have no clue how to function in reality.
  • Gravity Falls: "Weirdmageddon Part 2: Escape from Reality" reveals that, while Bill Cipher has been unleashing Weirdmageddon and transforming Gravity Falls into a postapocalyptic World of Chaos, Mabel has been imprisoned in a magical bubble containing "Mabeland," a dreamworld existing outside of reality where all her dreams can come true. Naturally, she's very happy there, so Dipper's biggest challenge in this episode is to get Mabel to come back to reality.
  • Not exactly post-apocalyptic, but the "Gotta Kiss Em All" episode of Jellystone! has Augie and Yakky playing a VR game where you have to hug and kiss everyone, run by the Great Gazoo, looking like a Sugar Bowl. When Yakky takes off her VR visor, she sees the town in a state of complete chaos — they've been unknowingly zapping everyone with lasers the whole time they were playing, wrecking everything in the process.
  • Not quite post-apocalyptic rather pre-apocalyptic. In Stargate Infinity episode 'Reality.' An entire city is under threat of solar flares, but they're all using a VR game to ignore the situation. The situation is so bad that one of the citizens was disconnected from their feeding tube and they weren't even aware.