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American Studies
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02 Feb

Chapter in Edited Collection on Memory in Post-Apocalyptic and Dystopian Tales

Written by Michael Fuchs
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Naughty Dog's blockbuster video game The Last of Us (2013) presents the story of surrogate father Joel trying to keep Ellie, apparently the only human being immune to a fungus that transforms humans into zombie-like creatures, safe. When, at the end of the narrative, Joel—unlike Ellie's surrogate mother Marlene, who is one of the leading figures in a rebel group called the Fireflies—is unwilling to sacrifice the girl and lies to her about what happened at the Fireflies' camp, he consciously re-constructs the past, the meaning of which so strongly hinges on narratives.

However, beyond that, Joel's lie at the tale's conclusion also highlights the presence of the past throughout the gametext, for The Last of Us intelligently interweaves elements of cultural memory and personal memories: On the one hand, the characters, for example, traverse through a Civil War museum, embark on a westward journey (starting in Boston) that couldn't be more embedded in the American cultural imaginary, and come across various artifacts from popular culture that reflect the zeitgeist from the time before the zombie outbreak (i.e., the second decade of the twenty-first century). On the other hand, in the course of the game, players can find diaries, notes, and tape recordings that reflect both on the distant and more immediate pasts of individuals.

As I will demonstrate in my proposed chapter, The Last of Us thus not only highlights the disconnects and convergences between cultural memory and personal memories and underlines the myriad gaps that are so defining of memory per se, but also shows a distrust in digital media, for all the pieces of personal history-writing exist in the form of analog media. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, fans have assembled all the artifacts players can collect in the game in wikis and other digital repositories, which thus become essential to a fuller understanding not only of the meaning of these memorabilia in the gametext but also of the cultural meaning of memory.