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15 Nov

Human Extinction in The Last of Us

Written by Michael Fuchs
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Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Losing Control of the City in The Last of Us

In his book-length thought experiment The World Without Us (2007), Alan Weisman concludes that "the notion that … nature could swallow whole something so colossal and concrete as a modern city doesn't slide easily into our imagination" (21). Weisman's prophecy about nature's (re-)claiming of spaces which function as human settlements strikes a vulnerable chord, as "'man's' ability to 'conquer' nature" is "nowhere" as "visible and irrefutable" as "in the great cities of the world" (Stevenson 2). "The metropolis," Deborah Stevenson accordingly concludes, is "the antithesis of nature and the symbol of its defeat" (2). This is particularly true of the American city, which Neil Campbell and Alasdair Kean have defined as a "story written by people who sought to impose their vision of order, their designs upon the world, and … to control the wilderness into a contained and disciplined environment" (160).

To be sure, from an ecological point of view, cities are, in fact, more sustainable than rural settlements, as several studies have shown (e.g. Lewis; Meyer).1 However, by transforming humanity's desire to control the wilderness into lived reality, cities embody humankind's marks left on planet Earth like few other man-made creations. Living in this (apparently) unnatural environment, humans "have significantly altered their natural environments and have made decisions that have severely affected habitats of other species, natural resources, and the flow of substances in the wider atmosphere" (Schliephake xvi). Thus, urban spaces arguably epitomize what has been labeled "the Anthropocene."

While the Anthropocene conveys notions of human activity and agency, it simultaneously testifies to the increasing awareness that "the world we are making through our own choices and inventions is a world that neutralizes … [any] meaningful link[s] between action and consequence" (Allenby & Sarewitz 64–65). The German sociologist Ulrich Beck has suggested that this situation entails environmental risks due "to the limited controllability of the dangers we have created for ourselves" (6). To anyone remotely conversant in science fiction and horror, Beck's words call to mind the standard mad scientist plot, as hilariously sketched in Mathew Inman's cartoon "How Everything Goes to Hell During a Zombie Apocalypse." Indeed, as Kim Paffenroth notes in his book Gospel of the Living Dead (2006), "More than any other monster, zombies are fully and literally apocalyptic," since "they signal the end of the world as we have known it for thousands of years" (13). Consciously or not, Paffenroth's use of the phrase !the world as we have known it! suggests that the zombie figure exposes one of the underlying assumptions of Western civilization—human exceptionalism.

In this paper, I will suggest that Naughty Dog's triple-A video game The Last of Us (2013) reveals the powerlessness of human actors on the battlefield of life by oscillating between interactive gameplay and the (relatively) passive experience of watching cut-scenes. More importantly, however, the game text suggests, in the words of Roy Scranton, that the "biggest problem we face" today is accepting "that this civilization is already dead" (23).

The Last of Us is primarily set in 2033. In the future imagined, the human population on the planet has been devastated by a fungus mutation that causes an infection in the human brain and leads to humans losing their cognitive abilities, transforming them into zombie-like creatures. While the fungus has eradicated millions of people across the globe in merely two decades, human life in urban areas has become particularly sparse. The cities traversed in the course of the game—Boston, Pittsburgh, and Salt Lake City—have been abandoned by most humans. Of course, the density of the human population in these metropolitan centers made it easier for the fungus to spread. As a result, in the year 2033, the urban population is concentrated in militarized quarantine zones, on the one hand, and spread over the remaining urban space in small criminal bands, on the other. While the prequel comic suggests that "a giant concrete wall … stands between the hordes of infected and all the [people] living in th[e] city" (Druckmann & Hicks ch. 1) and thus establishes a sense of order and security in urban spaces, in the game, the city quickly becomes the place where danger lurks around every corner.

At this point, I should probably finally briefly sketch the story the game tells. Players primarily control Joel, a grumpy man in his early 50s, who lost his daughter during the night of the outbreak in 2013. In 2033, Joel is hired to smuggle 14-year-old Ellie out of the Boston quarantine zone. He only comes to understand later that Ellie is immune to the infection caused by the fungus. After finding the people meant to transport Ellie further west dead, Joel and Ellie journey westward together, toward Salt Lake City. A rebel group runs a hospital in Salt Lake City, where they hope to distil a cure from Ellie's blood.

The game's start screen cleverly introduces the game text's ecological subtext: Against the backdrop of simultaneously soothing and uplifting music, players can see a sunlit window. Like the background music, the visuals are calm; there is only minimal movement—wind softly moves the curtains and the vine making its way through the broken glass. While the interplay between light and dark foreshadows events to come in the gameworld, the visual configuration highlights the difference between the illuminated, bright natural world outside and the gray-colored man-made environment, suggesting that the nonhuman world may function as a beacon of hope in the story to come. In addition, the start screen highlights how nature invades the human sphere by depicting a vine creeping into the ruins, as nature takes over the human space.

This idea foreshadows the symbolism attached to the main foes in the game. The Infected come into being when a mutated strain of cordyceps (a parasitic fungus) infiltrates the human body. In reality, cordyceps do, indeed, take over animals' bodies. Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, for example, attacks ants and, consequently, takes control of their bodies, effectively turning them into what Katherine Harmon referred to as "zombie ants" in a piece for Scientific American. In the Planet Earth episode "Jungles" (2006), Sir David Attenborough describes this monstrosity born in nature as follows:

Attenborough's description implies that fungi are terrifying. Indeed, as Brenda S. Gardenour Walter has explained, "Unlike animals and to lesser extent plants, both of which facilitate the construction of the environment, fungi are decomposers whose growth signals death and decay. Collective and amorphous, fungal colonies respire anaerobically, reproduce asexually by digesting fetid matter and shooting invisible spores into the air" (95). Fungal penetration of the human body accordingly questions the idea of the completeness and sealed character of the human body, as "chaotic" nature invades, colonizes, and ultimately consumes the "rational" human (tellingly, the cordyceps attacks the brain function). The fungal–human hybrid "confounds the distinction between 'me' and 'not me'" (Dudenhoeffer 9).

Similarly, the nonhuman occupation and subsequent conquest of architectural structures and entire cities, designed to offer a sense of security and control of the forces expelled from the urban space, highlights the inherently flawed binary opposition of human and natural worlds. During their journey from Boston to Salt Lake City, the game text's protagonists and the players controlling them witness the incredible force of nature, which has retaken spaces human beings had occupied for decades, if not centuries. While the deteriorated buildings seen all across the gameworld may be considered the ruins of American civilization, Susan Sontag has suggested that "[t]here is beauty in ruins" (76).

Indeed, the man-made constructions overgrown with various plants are aesthetically appealing (if not to say "beautiful"). Whereas William Cronon has concluded that "our very presence in nature represents its fall" (17), in The Last of Us, nature invades the constructed world usually assumed to be the human domain; accordingly, nature's overpowering presence in the urban sphere symbolizes humanity's fall. Of course, the overgrown urban spaces of The Last of Us may be considered emblematic of the characteristically American attempt to build the "citty upon a hill" following the "lawe of nature" (Winthrop 64; 55). Accordingly, urban spaces either become deeply entrenched in the American pastoralist tradition of imagining "a harmonious relation between city and country" (Machor 11) or embody the yearning for a return of a pastoralist past that never truly was but always could have been. However, instead of embracing pastoralist ideals, Joel and Ellie's path takes them away from the city, as they journey against the westward stream of progress. Their route thus becomes a swan song to humanity's dominance of the planet.

Humankind's loss of control in face of the overpowering force of nature becomes nowhere as tangible as in a brief scene set in Salt Lake City. The Mormon city, Joel and Ellie believe, will mark the end of their journey; it is the place imagined to produce a cure against the mutant fungus. Significantly, the Salt Lake City chapter opens with Ellie looks at an engraving depicting a deer. The rather simple image invokes the past of the human race—a time when life was simple and human beings lived (more or less) harmoniously with nature. This moment anticipates a more telling seen a few minutes later when Ellie sees something and runs off. Joel momentarily fears for Ellie's life (as he expects danger to wait around every corner). However, as Joel and the player come to understand a few seconds later, there is a group of giraffes outside the building, grazing in the middle of Temple Square. One of the animals comes so close to the building that Joel and Ellie can touch it. The two go up a floor and witness the beauty of nature.

This moment of harmony between humans and nonhuman agents is repeatedly foreshadowed in the game's narrative and ancillary texts. In the prequel comic, the only time an emotion is visualized occurs when Ellie is introduced to a horse, underlining the significance of this very moment. In the game, Ellie marvels at nature time and again. When Ellie, Joel, and the player approach the fictional town of Lincoln, located "a few miles north of [Boston]," they traverse a forestry area. Flabbergasted, Ellie notes right away, "I've never seen anything like this," explaining that she "[n]ever walked through the woods" before. During the brief walk through the woods, Ellie approaches rabbits, while at a later stage of the game, she runs after some butterflies, having never before seen them.


In Salt Lake City, this subtext about Ellie's infatuation with nature becomes one of the narrative’s main messages. Significantly, the encounter between Ellie, Joel, and the giraffes takes place in the city known among urban planners and urban historians as the city that saw the birth of the "Mormon Grid," an extremely rigid street layout that may be considered the culmination of mankind's desire to control the wilderness through the built reality of the urban environment.

The spectacularization of nature in the middle of Salt Lake City allows both characters and players to reflect on the scene playing out in front of their eyes. Revealingly, players are practically forced to gaze at the giraffes in this moment (at least momentarily), as the game takes control away from players in the urban setting, much like mankind at large has lost control (or what mankind believed was the control) over the city. Yet more importantly, Joel begins to understand that Ellie's blood may be the salvation for humanity, but the harbinger for the decay of the nonhuman world.

After having reached the hospital, Joel and Ellie are separated. While medical staff prepare Ellie for her surgery, Joel gets to know that in order to distil a cure, the scientists need Ellie's brain. Joel cannot accept Ellie's impending death and thus kills dozens of humans while making his way to the operating room. On his way, Joel discovers some voice recordings: "We're about to hit a milestone in human history equal to the discovery of penicillin. After years of wandering in circles, we're about to come home, make a difference, and bring the human race back into control of its own destiny."

When players finally reach the operating room, they may expect to be given the choice to kill the surgeon or to allow the doctors to do their job. However, players are railroaded into killing the surgeon before he can lay a finger on Ellie. The players' loss of control becomes meaningful here; similar to the way in which players are forced to cede power to a higher being, Joel renounces human intervention in the fate of the planet. As Attenborough explains in the Planet Earth episode mentioned earlier:

One may argue that, problematically, The Last of Us thus imagines a self-healing mechanism inherent in nature that will stop human dominance at some point. In addition, the game text offers not only little in terms of an alternative way of living in the present but also little to no hope for humanity. In their "Zombie Manifesto," Sarah Juliet Lauro and Karen Embry suggest that the zombie "cannot call for positive change" (91). One may argue that the same holds true for The Last of Us. However, Lauro and Embry's argument is trapped in humanist thinking. Likewise, leading ecocritic Greg Garrard has warned against employing apocalyptic narratives to communicate ecological messages, since "[o]nly if we imagine that the planet has a future … are we likely to take responsibility for it" (116; italics in original).

However, Joel's decision not to save humanity prioritizes nonhuman over human life (which also suggests that the "solution" to human dominance is not entirely out of nature born). As such, the game's ending imagines "the end of the human dream that reality is significant for them alone," which heralds a truly new beginning (Morton ch. 6). Tellingly, in their first extended exchange, Joel tells Ellie that he is "killing time." This end of human time may not be the end of the Anthropocene quite yet (since the large-scale effects of humanity’s actions will be felt long after the species has disappeared from the face of the Earth), but it still opens up "the prospect of forging new alliances between humans and non-humans alike" (Morton ch. 6). The Last of Us thus demonstrates that "Anthropocene apocalypse might not be exactly hopeful, but it demands a kind of depressing redemption: realizing that the question is not how to continue present ways of life, but the deeper challenge of crafting new ways to respond with honor and dignity to unruly earth forces" (Ginn 8).


1 As Martin W. Lewis stresses, "An environmentally sound society should encourage the growth of high-density urban centers, cities in which residential, commercial, and industrial functions are closely configured. But any concerted movement toward urban intensification would be strongly countered by neighborhood activists, individuals who mistakenly believe that in opposing development they are protecting the environment" (99–100; emphasis in original). Similarly, in their book Environmental Problems in an Urbanizing World (2001), Jorge E. Hardoy, Diana Mitlin, and David Satterthwaite emphasize that "[b]efore describing cities' many environmental problems, it is worth nothing the environmental opportunities that the concentration of production and population in any city provides" (20). | return to main text |

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