Re-imagining American Cities: Last of Us

By Stephen Dvorak

When you exit the militarized confines of Boston you find something unexpected – It’s green.  The ruins of the no-longer habitable areas of the city have been reclaimed by nature.  There is sun and wildlife  accompanying the bloodhound soldiers, fungally altered monsters, and violent gangs of human survivors living outside of civilized society.  It was so surprising and vivid that I felt like I was breathing fresh air and being warmed by the sun.

            It may not be the first of a kind, but The Last of Us (TLOU) stands out in my mind as a game that brought a new perspective to its genre that became a mainstay in how video games portray the end of civilization in the United States.  It’s not an open-world game, but the world feels open.  While it might be a stretch to call them challenges, circumventing physical obstacles using junk you find on-hand made me feel immersed in the environment.  And to the credit of the developers (Naughty Dog), this critically acclaimed action/adventure at times looks breathtaking despite its age.

            I would place it in the same category as Resident Evil or Silent Hill.  I had forgotten how ‘of a certain time’ the release of this game (2011) was; TLOU was released amid a slew of zombie-based survival games, movies, and books.  As fun as the zombie boom in the 2010’s may have been, at some point I was tapping my watch waiting for it to end.  This game was very much in-trend given the advent of the ‘fast zombie’ from popular films such as 28 Days Later.  And TLOU hangs on to the theme as well: an infection of some kind (fungus in this case) converts humans to zombies, throwing modern society into total disarray.

            Even still, I caught glimpses of Last of Us during its PS3 era and it managed to seem interesting despite relying on some tired tropes.  While other survival horror games lean heavily on neutral dark color palates and weather conditions like fog, rain, and gray skies, TLOU shows you the sun (seemingly) more often than not.  Don’t get me wrong, you see your fair share of inclement weather, but it’s not there just to make the world seem spookier.  Fresh vegetation and sunlight strips the fictionalized US of a haunting patina giving it a strong sense of ‘realness.’  The game’s feel in your hands helps with that too; the protagonist, Joel, is presumably a somewhat regular guy from Texas taken to the extremes of violence by his circumstances.  I made an important observation when playing Silent Hill 2: whether intentional or not, the combat felt clunky.  This made sense because your character is not a soldier—he should have trouble fighting when you consider the other-worldy monsters on top of inexperience.  TLOU holds some of this awkwardness, making gun fighting at the outset seem difficult.  In fact, the combat was so tough that I felt incentivized to avoid it if possible.

            The Last of Us sits with me as one of the most violent games I’ve ever experienced.  The sense of ‘realness’ found in the environment translates to other facets of the game—as Joel, you probably spend more time fighting other humans than you do monsters.   Let me take an aside to say that it features a somewhat typical cast of enemies that get progressively weirder, more unsettling, and monstrous concurrent with the duration of their infection.  You have your standard dumb monsters that are easy to kill and you also have huge ones that shoot projectiles from their bodies and make gurgling noises.  Those things are a small memory in my experience of this game.  I remember more, as Joel, strangling countless humans to death.  Outlaws gunning down unarmed survivors as they begged for their life.  It’s not exactly a gory game, but it doesn’t pull any punches in the violence department to an impactful effect.

            The way the zombies, which are the impetus for the entire story, fade from memory is perhaps the developer sending the message that the true evil lies within humankind.  This is not a novel concept, but is very well executed nonetheless.  The selfishness of many of the characters is gripping—there is no mustache twirling villainy to be found, even at the extremes of violation and depravity.  When you ‘rescue’ Ellie (the main character) from the hospital, it was the moment I wanted.  I wanted Joel to save her and for them to live on in this adventure, but I cringed when you were forced to shoot the medical team about to perform surgery on her.  It was a good cringe though, one of the hallmarks of a great survival adventure game is that you’re forced to make an excruciating decision to get something you want.  TLOU is not option heavy, but still forces you to feel the weight of human morality.

            As violent as it is, TLOU gives you plenty of time just feeling the world around you as you travel to various real-life cities with the objective of escorting a young girl to a facility where she might help doctors create a vaccine for the infection.  Everywhere you go, nature has taken back what humans had built.  It gives you an eerie feeling that is not entirely bad.  I’m from Chicago, and if you’ve ever been out on the city streets during a snowstorm you know what I mean.  It gets to be so peaceful that you can hear the flakes of snow land on the ground.  That’s what TLOU did for me.

            If we look back at how game makers have portrayed the post-apocalypse in the United States, we can easily conjure the imagery provided by the Fallout series.  Similar to the family of survival horror, the ‘new west’ setting tends to feature gray and brown colors and cities that are dirty.  In the Washington DC of Fallout 3, there’s not much in the way of greenery.  The setting of TLOU is an interesting pivot in how the country is portrayed.  Look ahead to 2019, where in The Division 2 you are dropped into Washington DC after a virus has wiped out the population of the US and… the ruins of the city are covered in green, the sun shines, and deer wander the streets.  It was almost a double take for me (since I played the two games a month or two apart).  Other major titles have made a similar impression on me–Destiny 2’s vision of Earth features the European Dead Zone, Far Cry New Dawn shows the world after the end in a lush, scenic Montanta that is green all over and dappled with vibrant pinks and blues.  TLOU holds hands with the Fallout style of game in that you take up the DIY attitude, making weapons and equipment from junk that you find, eschewing the ‘treasure box’ method.  Any building you enter might be a resource; you search drawers and file cabinets to find supplies.

            Frankly, The Last of Us borders on visual novel.  I was often so moved navigating the scenery that I was mostly irritated when I had to run through another encounter.  While I attempted to do more research to write this article, I realized you could probably make a PhD out of it.  There is something that appeals to people about living post-apocalypse.  If people in the US maintain the attitude of frontierism from the 19th century, this is how we express it in the 21st.  We reconstruct the cities of our real lives, wipe them out, and let nature take over.   I can only guess why our cities are now wiped out by forces of nature rather than of man, but I imagine I’m somewhere in the ballpark saying that those writing the narratives for these games have aged-out from a generation where military threat was the predominant mode of annihilation to one where fears of climate change upending the world economy are ever-present.

            You can walk down the yellow dashed line of the expressway strewn with abandoned cars and listen to the sound of your own boots on the road.  Birds chirp, you hear a rifle crack somewhere far off.  The only thing you really have in life is the young girl who tells you a joke, and asks you a question that she already knows the answer to just to hear you lie…

            OOPS PSYCH SEQUEL TIME!  Sorry I couldn’t help it.  I’ve tried to come to grips with the fact that most people in our society cannot consume narrative media with an irresolute ending, and so I’m glad that Last of Us made that leap.  It surely didn’t put people off, but given how popular the game was, I’m surprised they even held out this long.  TLOU does leave you wanting more, which is what makes it a gem.  The developers seem to have caved to the desire to see where the rest of the story lives, even though the leader of the Fireflies spells it out in terms of an inevitable violent death for all parties involved.  But now Ellie is not a kid anymore and she’s ready to go Rambo!  Which unfortunately takes a little of the luster out of the first game, but as the way things go you can’t be too surprised that Naughty Dog wants to milk the cash cow. 

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