Idea: people mix up dystopian and post-apocalyptic genres for two reasons:

  1. the precedent for many dystopias is a collapse or near collapse and significant loss, and hierarchies are put in place to mitigate against a repeat event (erroneously, disingenuously, or earnestly). Terrible concessions are forced on a population, justified through fear of The Past.
  2. we wish the protagonists to survive on their own terms in both cases. Also, both concern the struggle to be human in a dehumanising environment.

Dystopia is about control, restriction of freedom, acceptance of hierarchy, acceptance of inequality, loopholes and technicalities, banal certainty of the future, the struggle to be human within a confining structure, and to escape society.

Post-apocalypse is about loss of control, loss of shelter, horrible uncertainty of the future, the struggle to form a society and be more human within it than the environment will allow you to be outside it.

Dystopia can naturally follow a post-apocalyptic scenario, where the fear of external threats is used as a justification for the awful things that the survivors must endure, things that become commonplace. Perhaps there is a period of brief optimism when society is reformed; positive vision is needed to survive, and the dystopia can only be realised after the walls of utopia have been rebuilt. The switch happens once the citizens are no longer able to see clear into the abyss of the violent outside, once they have erected walls and turned their attention inwards, only listening to their leaders reminding them how much worse it is out there, and not bothering to check for themselves.

Some might ask why I make a fuss. I think it’s helpful to keep in mind for games or fiction, because you need to know in which direction your protagonists are running. So my handy rule of thumb is:

  • if they’re running into the settlement, it’s Post Apocalypse.
  • if they’re running out of the settlement, it’s Dystopia.

Job done.