This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.
The Mad Max franchise is unique. Not only does it depict a very different apocalypse than the zombie-ridden radioactive tragedies we’re used to, but it also stands as a distinctly seminal Australian film in an age where America dominates the box office releases.
The beauty of its Australian influence originates with director George Miller, who grew up in the infamous outback with a love for film – particularly Westerns – that inevitably lead him to create the character of Max Rockatansky, legendary Road Warrior. In an interview with Variety, Miller himself calls the films “a Western on wheels.”
Mad Max’s striking visual style and enduring legacy not only captured movie audiences worldwide this year with Fury Road, but also launched a big budget game with equally stunning graphics. But its influence on the interactive medium goes far beyond that.
In the Mad Max films, the environment serves as a main character alongside Mr. Rockatensky and his compatriots, depicting the sprawling, intimidating roadways of the Australian Outback According to Miller, Australians have a “love of the open road” that he wanted to include as a theme in the films.
But beyond the spiked car frames and feral marauders, you’ll find the series has a long history of hitting on important social anxieties in Australia, particularly with oil and water. Both are precious commodities in the Mad Max canon, and both draw parallels to modern-day concerns about oil and water scarcities in Australia and around the globe.
In an essay for The Guardian, writer Ben Wilkie explains the symbolism of the Outback and the comforts of the road:
“As we traverse the outback upon these artificial pathways [roads], our greatest fear is that we will become lost, stranded, or our lifeline – the petrol that fuels our vehicles – will disappear,” Wilkie writes, pointing to the topical anxieties upon which much of Mad Max’s fiction is based. “In depicting a society at war over that precious liquid, it is precisely the fear of having to face our last great adversary, an unforgiving landscape from which we settlers are alienated, that the Mad Max films have always recognized [sic].”
Game developer 2K’s Borderlands franchise is very much the same. The open world of Pandora is one that fosters the violence and depravity its inhabitants express. It’s a barren wasteland devoid of hope, surviving on a wild sense of hostility.
In the same piece, Wilkie explains it’s the land’s unwillingness to permit these people comfortable lives that leads to the violence. Put simply, it’s that “their identity and very existence is frequently defined in relation to an often foreboding, unwelcoming land that violently opposes their presence. They are out of place, and they do not belong here.”
Like the land itself, both Borderlands and Mad Max are partially defined by the characters contained within each world. There are no heroes; only self-serving thrill-seekers content with speaking from the barrel of a gun. In Mad Max’s world, fighters are largely cannon fodder, grunts who dream of greatness but rarely achieve anything more than death beneath massive tire treads. The psychos, bandits, midgets, and bruisers of Borderlands all share a similar twisted, grungy, and off-kilter appearance, their bodies scarred and deformed, their outfits a utilitarian blend meant to double as armor and a weapon.
But that’s what makes the Borderlands world so distinct. It’s easy to mow down hordes of screeching enemies with randomly-generated weapons when they’re portrayed as inconsequential, just as it’s difficult to feel anything for War Boys as they fall to their deaths.
There was a surge of vehicular combat games in the late ‘90s to ‘00s who borrowed ideas from films like Death Race 2000, but it’s the best-selling PlayStation franchise Twisted Metal whose roots are deeply embedded within the design of Mad Max’s vehicles. They’re abominations; machines with semi-recognizable frames littered with spikes, chains, blood, paint, and mounted weapons. These once-everyday vehicles have been changed into veritable war machines, created for the use of destroying others with brutal efficiency.
The Twisted Metal series focuses mainly on the combat between cars and how much damage they can inflict on one another. In Mad Max, many of the villainous characters are motivated by the pulsations and roars of an engine serving like war drums as they prepare for a fight. Twisted Metal is similar, arming players with a machine lovingly crafted for the intent of doing harm to meet one’s self-serving needs. It’s a characteristic the franchise has become known for, and one of which Max himself would be proud.