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05 May

Paper at Gothic Nature

Written by Michael Fuchs
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Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: The End of Human Dominance over Nature in The Last of Us

In The World Without Us (2007), Alan Weisman remarks that "the notion that […] nature could swallow […] something so colossal and concrete as a modern city doesn't slide easily into our imagination" (2007: 21). However, he continues, if mankind were to disappear, "the asphalt jungle [would] give way to a real one" (2007: 21) much faster than we might think. Weisman's prophecy about nature's (re-)claiming of spaces which function as human settlements strikes a vulnerable chord, since "'man's' ability to 'conquer' nature" is "nowhere" as "visible and irrefutable" as "in the great cities of the world" (Stevenson 2003: 2). Naughty Dog's survival horror video game The Last of Us (2013) taps into these ideas by imagining future versions of Boston and Pittsburgh which feature overgrown buildings and numerous indicators for the presence of nonhuman life, transforming these beacons of human civilization into liminal spaces between the natural and the cultural.

Among others, these cities in ruins are inhabited by zombie-like monsters (humans invaded by a mutant fungus whose origin remains a mystery, to be precise). In this way, The Last of Us consciously draws on the tradition of the zombiecalypse and utilizes the genre's potential to raise ecological questions (see Lauro 2011) to great effect. However, as I will argue, The Last of Us adds crucial elements to the ecological subtext characteristic of the genre: The video game's constant oscillation between interactive gameplay and the passive experience of watching cutscenes reveals the effective powerlessness of human actors on our planet. Indeed, the video game's ludo-narrative package suggests that only the end of humanity's dominance over the planet can lead to a better future for planet Earth. This idea, I will show, becomes powerfully manifest in the concluding hours of the game. First, the two main characters and players gaze at giraffes grazing in the middle of Salt Lake City's Temple Square. This image encapsulates the loss of human control over the city and comes to symbolize humankind's loss of dominance of the planet. However, the game text takes this idea even a step further, as the video game forces players to abandon the idealistic notion of saving humankind. In the end, I will argue, The Last of Us acknowledges that "the Anthropocene presents novel challenges for living a meaningful life" (Jamieson 2014: 8) and, in fact, suggests that living in the Anthropocene entails learning to accept that humanity's expiration date is near.