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David Callahan: The Last of the US: The Game as Cultural Geography

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 This chapter constitutes a reading of the geographical locations in Naughty Dog’s survival-horror, stealth action adventure game The Last of Us. To complete the game the player, in the form of protagonists Joel and Ellie, has to traverse a good portion of the United States in the classic East-West motion of American identitarian myths. The supposition is that the principal sites that the gameplay takes players through may be read as leveraging historical and cultural subtexts with respect to the progression of the characters and the player toward what resolution the game affords. While the first spatial location in the present of the game, Boston, may easily be apprehended as a form of commentary on the broken ideals of the establishment of a would-be morally pure settlement on the part of the early invader-settlers and/or the American Revolution against British control, the rest of the localities in which player actions occur are slightly or much less obviously legible. For example, the fact that the game does not take the protagonists to California and that its most westward point is Salt Lake City appears to interrupt the myth of westward motion and asks questions with respect to the cultural reference points which become staging grounds of the game’s significant areas. As Dawn Spring claims in an article about how video games have the potential to be used as academically respectable iterations of history, “[t]he historical narrative and the video game both examine and form points of view about how cultures, economies, polities and societies function” (208). From the Austin, Texas, of the prologue to the Wyoming compound at the end, the locations in The Last of Us, as with most American places, may accordingly be read in terms of the accretion of meanings over the American landscape through competing cultural scripts evidenced in such discursive activities as education systems, public pronouncements, historiography, and creative work from poetry to, well, video games.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The basic scenario of the game is, in general terms, one in which social systems have broken down under the impact of a cataclysmic event. This event has been the spread of a virus which transforms human beings into rabid creatures who attack and bite any uninfected person they can, which transforms the bitten person into an infected one. The ability of a virus to take over human beings in such a manner is a well-established scenario in science fiction and dystopian narratives. Inspiration for the specifically-named virus, however, came from witnessing a David Attenborough program in which he explains the actions of an actual family of fungi, Cordyceps, which targets insects in certain tropical jungles (Lexzie). Each species of Cordyceps targets a particular host insect, taking over its brain, directing it to a location which will aid the Cordyceps in spreading its spores, and then bursting out of the host’s body in the typical bulbous-headed shape of a fungus prior to sending out new spores to repeat the cycle. In The Last of Us a mutation of the fungus has targeted humans, progressively taking over its victims until they are grotesque and blind, their heads transformed into fungal growths, but always dangerous whatever stage they are at. Holger Pötsch offers a critical assessment of this narrative foundation when he argues that, “[b]y taking recourse to a sudden breakdown of order that is unequivocally connected to a clear external cause, the game loses its ability to meaningfully comment upon key tendencies in contemporary society and politics” (170). That is, narratives of social breakdown basically offer the possibility of dissecting systemic failures and highlighting what is wrong in the ways in which societies are currently organized. However, when the cause of social breakdown is a fungal mutation which has accidentally taken hold, no critique is supposedly being directed at those in power; the ways they have used their power have not been the cause of the disaster. Even that staple of infection narratives from Stephen King’s The Stand to currently running television series Z Nation—the government or a company it has hired has been working on weaponizing a biological agent which has then escaped the laboratory—is not targeted in the game. Given that the Cordyceps fungus actually exists, and that mutation is a common phenomenon in all species, the infection could be quite unrelated to the ethical deficit of the military-industrial complex. The game does not tell us, and in this sense one opportunity to comment on socio-political phenomena is indeed absent.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 However, disaster narratives tend to comment in two main ways on the deficient dedication of those in power to the welfare of their citizens. While one takes Pötsch’s point, in the sense that it has not been social or political trends which have led to social breakdown, this is only one of those ways. The other is that in which the vision of the defective response of those in power to destabilizing events becomes a critique of the mechanisms and priorities of power, whatever the cause of the destabilization. This critique has indeed become the default narrative in contemporary US culture: those who wield power cannot be trusted to act in the best interests of their populations, horrifyingly revealed in real time in the lackluster and racially-inflected response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Last of Us conforms to this second sedimented social script, and this establishes its central scenario in which individuals have to negotiate social breakdown without official help. Indeed, official power is quickly revealed in the Austin prelude featuring Joel, his daughter Sarah, and Joel’s brother Tommy, to be ruthlessly prepared to murder its own citizens. Citizens become a potential threat to be exterminated without any assessment of their condition, with the callousness of government instrumentalism highlighted in the killing of Joel’s young daughter Sarah by a soldier under orders to shoot anyone attempting to flee the city.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 In responding to this scenario of social breakdown and survival, The Last of Us does not appear to be set in random locations, to the extent that the spatial movement in the game also participates in the generation of meanings with respect to the game’s possible commentary on American history and culture. Amy Green has drawn attention to the narrative of the game as passing through “the creaking, unstable, and rusted remains of all of humanity’s progress,” with America having “died as a culture and an ideal” (753). In a eulogistic review for Eurogamer, editor Oli Welsh pinpointed that the game was “the classic journey into the west, the pioneer’s tale—but turned on its head, because this anti-Western isn’t about the birth of a nation. It’s about the death of one.” My article expands on these general observations in order to suggest how highly attentive Naughty Dog has been to national history and its mythologies in the game’s movement through types of national locations. Thus it is that at the beginning of the game’s present-day, while social systems may have broken down under the rapid spread of the virus, the attempt at official social control has not, as was seen in Austin. The Boston of the beginning of the main game exists as an ironically overbearing and vicious attempt at official repression. Ironically, given the established narrative in which it was precisely overbearing British control of its citizens which led to the emigration of thousands of people into the New England region at the start of the colonial process, followed by overbearing British control of its colony in the Bay area which had to be shaken off for the nation of the free association of citizens to establish itself. Even though, as Bernard Bailyn has shown in his classic works on the demographics of early North America, the established narrative is reductive of the motives for emigration and the settlement patterns which ensued, the myth remains an active component of American cultural flows. In this myth, the initial settlement was likened to a biblical exodus, to the extent that, in Sacvan Berkovitch’s words, “from the start, the colony was knit together, rhetorically, by a cultural ‘errand’ into the wilderness” (32). This could be applied to Joel and Ellie’s trek across the country, except with a significant loss of optimism in the potential project which the “errand” might lead to.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Joel and Ellie’s plight may thus be seen as a veiled commentary on the possibilities available to current Americans if placed in a loosely analogous situation to both the early wandering settlers and later colonists of western lands. No biblical script endorses their actions, and little sense of the possibility of a spiritually superior community animates the game’s journey. Little, but not none: Joel’s deracinated sense of life as solitude and survival is countered by the purpose of their quest to deliver Ellie to a laboratory at first imagined only as somewhere in the west. Being immune, Ellie may provide clues leading to a cure for the virus and therefore the potential to recover a functioning community or even nation. The vagueness of the destination at first parallels the unfocused hopefulness of the movement west in American history. Later, the destination becomes less significant than what happens there, and this also may be seen to loosely parallel what happened to many early wanderers: their optimism was tempered by encountering people with very different priorities—Indigenous nations—and material conditions that were uncomfortable and resistant. During Joel and Ellie’s cross-country trek, in vaguely parallel fashion, almost all of the non-infected they encounter will try to kill them, and after leaving Boston in a beautiful New England Fall, the land will reveal itself to be progressively harsh, until, chastened, they encounter a version of a reduced promised land in the classic far west.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Boston and the Bay area, conceptualized as a fundamental origin point in America’s sense of itself, accordingly provide a rich set of cultural meanings as the starting point of Joel and Ellie’s traversing of most of the country. However, in the game the Boston which stands for the establishment of freedom is now a polity controlled violently by unelected and faceless authorities, whose response to the spread of the disfiguring virus is to turn the city into a police state. That this is the only location in the game’s present in which any official authority remains underscores the irony of the failure of founding ideals. The perception that the knee-jerk reaction of authority to a socially disruptive event will inevitably be that of the suspension of legal rights and the imposition of violent tyranny has become a standard observation; the fact that this perception is so deeply-rooted in current beliefs about power speaks to a radical loss of belief in the social contract putatively represented in the state’s institutions and practices. The use of Boston is surely not an innocent choice in this scenario, even if not as transparently flagged as in Bethesda’s Fallout 4 (2015), in which the sites of the American Revolution are clearly invoked in a commentary on the failed ideals of what the Revolution signified. Nevertheless, one important city location Joel and Ellie move through in their attempt to escape official control and set out on their quest references city institutions associated with power and official stories. This site is the building in which Joel’s partner Tess is revealed to have been bitten in the doomed attempt to evade the military and leave the city. Just as this is revealed to the others and to the surprised player, official forces arrive, and Joel and Ellie are involved in a desperate escape involving the need to kill members of the military or be killed. Tess dies attempting to hold off the soldiers and buy the others time. The building in which this action unfolds is clearly modeled on the existing Massachusetts State House, the seat of government for Massachusetts and a site on Boston’s most popular tourist destination: the Freedom Trail (whose site thefreedomtrail.org ironically refuses access to the Tor browser). Erected before the end of the eighteenth century, it represents not only official power but the hopes of the American Revolution itself. That it should become the setting for a firefight in which official forces are the enemy thus becomes one more significant statement in the game on the failed ideals of the US-American national project itself.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Figure 1: Building modeled on Massachusetts State House

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Another location in Joel and Ellie’s escape from Boston also represents official stories in the form of a museum, although this has not been clearly identified with any real museum in the city. Amy Green speculates that it is “most likely a mimetic reimagining of Boston’s Commonwealth Museum” (753), and even if this is a speculation, it fits well the thematic of the failure of official narratives. That both power and the representation of history have been lost specifically in Boston underscores the loss of the ideals of not merely the city or the state, but of the nation itself.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The hinterland of Boston embodied in the town of Lincoln is described by real-world location spotter Adam Clare as “just a generic small town in Massachusetts,” even though there is a town called Lincoln not far from Boston. Clare’s supposition that the town serves as an amalgam of typical towns of this size in Massachusetts seems accurate, but that still begs the question as to why the name of a real place was chosen if there is no attempt to represent even a small selection of real-world locations in the town. At first sight the key might be the name itself. “Lincoln” is an evocative name in American culture and history, through the iconic president Abraham Lincoln, who may be generally brought to mind as, like Boston, another crucial high point of American hopefulness. Whatever the complexities of Lincoln the man or his period in American history, Lincoln is perceived as a sign of progress, optimism, and the possibility of the perfectable society. For a town with his name, in a state once symbolic of such utopian hope, to be one more failed environment may continue the game’s cultural commentary as well as providing opportunities for a visually-changed ‘dungeon’ based on suburban plots and individual houses after the claustrophobically urban Boston. One problem with this explanation is that the Massachusetts town of Lincoln is the only one of that name in the US which is not named after the President but after the city of Lincoln in England. It is, however, quite possible that this was unknown to the game’s makers, and would definitely be unknown to all of the game’s players, save those from Lincoln itself. Those from the town, however, would be aware that Paul Revere was captured by the British in Lincoln, another event which could be figured as the operation of brutal authority over the desires of local people. There is a further problem in the link between the town and the President, in that the game could have simply made a stop in a location in Lincoln, Illinois, the state for which Lincoln was a senator and a city named after him even before he became President. Despite these problems, the location of Lincoln at this point in the game works well, in that both Boston and Lincoln (the Presidential myth) serve as political and social ideals, so that their failure so close together reinforces the disintegration of key hopes in American history and culture.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Moreover, to the failure of the symbolically resonant name of Lincoln can be added the failure of the symbolically resonant small-town America. For many in American culture, inheriting Old Testament strictures against the iniquitous city as exemplified by Babylon, it might be no surprise that the city is a symbol of failure. Cities even equal failure in some conservative anti-urban myths. From quite different angles, also, cities have been equated with the imposition of “control, repression and confinement, detrimental to individual freedom and the welfare of the community,” in Elsa Bouet’s words, glossing Henri Lefebvre (51). In Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greg de Peuter’s Games of Empire, even more bluntly, “[t]he city is a key site of Empire” (153). For some, social perfectability can supposedly only be found in the more human-sized small town, and the descriptor ‘small-town America’ retains its hopeful moral and organizational overtones in contemporary American culture. That this exemplar of a small town has no more been able to resist the breakdown of community and order than the Babylonian city and seat of power is one more in the game’s relentless unpacking of a series of American associations of faith in almost all forms or sizes of social organization. The communal and healthy future which Abraham Lincoln was supposed to point to, which, in terms of the mixed motives associated with the Civil War, never ensued at any stage, have left this example of small-town America as the fiefdom of an embittered individual, Joel’s contact Bill. As a result of the catastrophe, the inhabitants of the small town have not been able to band together any more communally or efficiently than the alienated city inhabitants of Boston. Even the smallest community of a couple has not been able to survive, not so much because Bill’s partner Frank has committed suicide after becoming infected, but as suggested in his suicide note, in which he leaves behind the information that he had actually “hated [Bill’s] guts” and “this shitty town.” Many characters in The Last of Us are difficult to categorize simplistically, and this is one of the strengths of the writing of the game. Bill is crusty and aggressive, but he is also helpful and useful, which cannot be explained simply by the fact that he owes Joel favors. Given the level of breakdown among people, the non-payment of a debt would hardly be surprising.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The Last of Us’s next major stop in Pittsburgh returns to a major US city, and one with a symbolically close connection to another key American myth: that of the Industrial Revolution, tied to Pittsburgh’s central role in the industrial development of the US. Pittsburgh is known in American history in connection with the development of the iron industry in the eighteenth century, followed by the coal and steel industries in the second half of the nineteenth century. As the initial heart of the American Industrial Revolution, the second named revolution in American history, Pittsburgh already bears strong symbolic freight. That Pittsburgh, like Boston, has also become completely dysfunctional in the game can thus be read as an indication of the breakdown of the hopes and values of a society which came to be based upon a myth which to some extent replaced that of the building of a morally-righteous “city upon a hill,” in the phrase associated with early Puritan divine John Winthrop (echoing Jesus’s words as related in Matthew 5.14).

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Moreover, Pittsburgh’s industrial development, happening when it did, resulted in the city’s being centrally implicated in perhaps the most powerful of American mythic histories, that of the westward expansion and colonization of Indian lands. For the iconic historian, not to say mythographer of the west, Frederick Jackson Turner, Pittsburgh was simply “the historic gateway to the West” (161). This is because the military, agricultural, and transport hardware necessary for American territorial and cultural aggression relied upon the iron and then the steel produced in Pittsburgh and distributed from there to points west. Pittsburgh’s location situated it in the early eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century at the frontier between the more settled east and the as yet uncolonized west, so that it was well-placed to supply the advanced products the invading Americans needed to murder and oppress the land’s Indigenous inhabitants, to farm and mine the land, to build railroads and all the structures of the modern world. Pittsburgh has been lost in the game to lawlessness and to the infected, but the game’s visuals also strikingly render the city as being taken over by the plant and animal life whose destruction the Industrial Revolution so decisively heralded. The colonization of the city’s urban structure by plants features more strongly than in Boston or even Lincoln.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Figure 2: Overgrown Pittsburgh and the Fort Duquesne Bridge

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 One of Joel and Ellie’s first sights is one of the city’s iconic bridges, the Fort Duquesne Bridge, and when they flee the city they cross the similar Fort Pitt Bridge (both bridges are very close), Pittsburgh’s bridges serving as powerful symbols of the city’s conquering of nature through technology. The passage at one point through a control node in the city’s underground water supply system can even conceivably be read as a passage through another iconic space in the establishment of the modern city through the wonders of technology, a space through which human beings established control over dirt and waste, enabling large numbers of people to live together without disease, but which in the game houses diseased bodies that can appear without warning. Further, the game recognizably shows the city’s two tallest buildings, the US Steel Tower and the Mellon Center, monuments to the industrialization and the urbanization it encouraged, now wrecks.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0   Both Boston and Pittsburgh are easily deputized into a reading of the game as incorporating social commentary on the legacy of America’s dreams of progress, however loosely anchored. Where such ingenuity could go with the narrative’s passage through the invented University of Eastern Colorado, however, is less apparent. Only a sighting of a map of the campus provides the information that the university is in Boulder, Colorado, which is where the principal campus of the real University of Colorado is located (although in what may be an in joke on the part of the game’s makers, the zip code on the map is that of Santa Monica, 90405). Given that Colorado was admitted into the Union in 1876, exactly one hundred years after the success of the American Revolution, the triumphalism associated with westward expansion may thus be symbolically represented by the state. Indeed, Colorado was the only new state to be admitted in 1876, with the University of Colorado also being founded in Boulder in the same iconic year. The renaming of the University in the game remains a puzzle, although one cannot discount nervousness over being sued whenever a named, existent entity is used in media representations, not to mention the ire of sharp-eyed fans and observers of popular culture who are all too ready to denounce failures of accuracy when real places are depicted. After all, the game is replete with named businesses and locations which do not reproduce the names of existing companies or entities. That this is not accidental might be gleaned from the in-game existence of the Rivers Café in Pittsburgh. A consultation of yellowpages.com reveals that, unsurprisingly, given Pittsburgh’s location at the confluence of three major rivers, there are no less than six cafes in Pittsburgh with the name River Café, so that the presence in the game of a café with a slightly variant name indicates the extreme care with which Naughty Dog distributed named locations throughout the game: the names are true to the geo-historical realities of the city or town, but not identifiable as particular existing businesses or organizations (with the apparent exception of the Broadway Army Navy Surplus; cf. Taylor). There is a Rivers Casino, but this can hardly be confused with a humble café. Pittsburgh, more than Boston, has been the occasion for a good fan summary and analysis of the relation of the city in the game to the materially existing city (cf. Taylor; also skrutop).

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Colorado serves well, then, as a representative of the westward colonialism of the US facilitated by the Industrial Revolution signified by Pittsburgh, and a university serves well as a representative of the failed promise of science and knowledge associated with that era. Among the failed knowledge implicit in the game is the crucially failed promise of the Enlightenment domination of Nature, so spectacularly apparent in The Last of Us, but also the failed promise of rational social organization associated with the very foundational period of the independent nation. What is not referenced, however, is what might be considered a “determinate absence” in Pierre Macherey’s classic term (80), something that we might legitimately expect to be present in a text but which is not. That is, the place of Native peoples in the space and time of a game for which history and its myths of progress are so central. Boston, Pittsburgh and Colorado were all significant waystations in the nation’s oppression and suppression of the land’s original inhabitants. The moral scaffolding which supported this colonial and ruthless enterprise justification for the occupation of a different culture’s territory could be sourced from anywhere within Western ‘knowledge,’ from scripture to philosophy to history to biology. By the time of the late-nineteenth-century massive push into western lands, the arguments had added Enlightenment rationalizations of ‘progress,’ muddied slightly by Romantic notions of noble savages and discomfort over the early-nineteenth-century Trail of Tears, but never enough to deflect the relentless movement of European peoples into American Indian homelands. In Native American memory Colorado features as the location of the infamous Sand Creek Massacre, one of the most heinous and savage acts of European hypocrisy in the nation’s history. Both the state of Colorado and the University of Eastern Colorado as failed representatives of Western power and knowledge erected on top of Native American territories could serve well in a critique of this aspect of American history. However, American Indians are not alluded to in the game, and the reason it might be figured as a determinate absence relates to the game’s focus on finding a place where mostly white people can be safe and holding on to it, in a modern-day version of a redoubt erected in Native territory.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Figure 3: University of Eastern Colorado, Boulder

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Although an exact location is not specified in the game for the next area, the Lakeside resort sequence, also the town of Silver Lake, it is named on an information board as being in Colorado. There is a Silver Lake (not a town) in Colorado, but as it is in the southwest of the state, it is too far from even a fictional University of Eastern Colorado to serve as the original in this case. For most of this ‘dungeon’ we switch from playing as Joel to play as Ellie, which, in terms of my theme, intensifies the meanings of location even more. The sequence begins with a cutscene showing a rabbit hopping out of its burrow only to be killed by Ellie’s arrow. Next she hunts a deer, and kills that too. The west is a location generally perceived as still containing large tracts of country which are wilder and supposedly more natural than most other locations in the country. Accordingly, it is a place potentially more available for Americans (more typically, white male Americans) to assert their fit with national ideals by making use of its resources freely. Animals are there to be hunted, the landscape to be roamed across on identity-affirming trails (and Native American scripts to be ignored except as colorful background). While at first it seems as if Ellie is simply owning the landscape via the birthright of all white Americans, ironically she soon becomes hunted prey herself. At the same time, the band of uninfected gathered around a new character, David, reveal themselves to be the most horrifying group encountered in the game thus far, in that they survive by eating people, and there is a suspicion that David keeps fourteen-year-old Ellie alive after she is captured because he wants to have sex with her. If the less urban and more natural environment of the west is figured symbolically in American culture as a location where human beings can live more physically and morally healthy lives, the abject failure of David’s group to embody this is yet another of the game’s surreptitious comments on yet another of the nation’s failed cultural itineraries. In this, it takes its place in a pre-existing oppositional discourse exploding the Transcendentalist-inflected myth of living in ‘Nature’ as equaling moral superiority, most notoriously articulated in James Dickey’s Deliverance (1970) and John Boorman’s 1972 film of the same name.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 The fact that the game reaches its most westward point in the ideologically complex site of Salt Lake City is only momentarily less easily co-opted into an analysis of the game in terms of the cultural significance of its geography. Salt Lake City, and the state of Utah in general, can in fact be closely twinned with Boston as sites of utopian mythologies and histories which have both collapsed in the game. Mormonism, the religion but also social system associated with Salt Lake City, is a mythology and a lived experience uniquely developed within the US, an ultra-American cultural script, even if athwart most official practices and beliefs. The embattled nature of Mormonism can also be seen to clearly parallel the embattled position of the American patriots before the Revolution to establish local control, while the rhetoric and customs developed by the Church of Latter Day Saints in the effort to establish their version of a just society under God also echo some of the early exertions of the pilgrims in the Bay area. Before the Mormons established themselves in Utah they had been subject further east in the US to vicious persecution, violence, and even massacres, as highlighted by Patricia Limerick in her classic work of cultural analysis The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. In a tidy parallelism, Boston and Salt Lake City can thus be bookended as sites where persecuted minorities attempted to establish religiously-regulated polities which diverged from existing societies, perceived as a falling off from authentic Christian values and behaviors. These new societies offered what Limerick sums up in the case of the Mormons as “certainty and community” (281). What we see in The Last of Us, however, is an America in which, under pressure from an extreme event, it is precisely certainty and community which are unable to be maintained.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 The game ends with Joel and Ellie back at the remote redoubt of Joel’s brother Tommy in Jackson County, Wyoming, which they had visited en route to Colorado. While there is no Jackson County in Wyoming, there is a town called Jackson in the west of the state. The town has not been named after Native American nemesis Andrew Jackson, associated with the removal of southeast Indian nations from their lands, but derives its name from a well-known traveler and trader of the early years of Europeans’ initial encounters with the area (cf. Jackson). Such a figure serves as a representative of the hardy, self-reliant, land-claiming white pioneer associated with the west. In this light, Wyoming is one of the Pacific Northwest states associated with the so-called prepper movement of right-wing anti-authority groups (‘prepper’ from ‘prepared’). Prepper ideologies hold that people need to prepare for social breakdown by learning survival and bushcraft skills, how to live without modern technologies and so on. While these may undoubtedly be useful skills, the movement draws its energies from a cocktail of cultural sources with deep roots in rejection of official authority, and one of these sources is Mormonism. Wyoming borders onto Utah, and the Mormon presence is strongly represented in a prepper movement which is also overwhelmingly white (only one African American is glimpsed the first time Joel and Ellie visit the redoubt). That the game deposits Joel and Ellie in this environment, represented as the only safe space in almost a crossing of the entire nation, appears to deny any suggestion of future communities as both mixed and mobilized by common projects which have evacuated divisive identities as a conflictive component of the daily staging ground of identity. This failure of a federative project is seen when passing through Pittsburgh if a particular Firefly note is found, in which we may read: “I don’t agree with them wanting to take the fight to other cities (…) and I DEFINITELY won’t take orders from some Firefly leader all the way on the other side of the country. This is our city. Our people. I don’t see why we can’t rule ourselves” (emphasis in original). Having the Firefly group which is operating on Ellie, in a procedure which will kill her, led by a black woman—indeed, Marlene is an obviously “mixed race” woman—constituted near the end of the game as the main enemy, and executed by Joel, may be seen as tantamount to an aggressive continuation of white control in the future. This is underlined by portraying a wilderness space in the west empty of all reference to Native Americans. TreaAndrea Russworm, in a very good article on the racial politics of the game, describes the elimination of Marlene as demonstrating “that the interpersonal project of building attachment and empathy between white characters must be protected and prioritized at all costs” (113). It is a project that cannot envisage the possibility of cooperation beyond the immediate group, and in which even positively represented outsiders fall by the wayside, such as African Americans Henry and Sam, encountered outside Pittsburgh and traveled with for a short time.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 In this framework, the prologue in Austin, Texas becomes an intriguing part of the puzzle. Although in one iteration Texas and Mexican Americans, and indeed Mexicans as well, constitute one cultural-historical identity of the state, in another, Texas serves as a metaphorically aggressively white state in terms of narratives of entitlement and power. The state’s very size becomes an emblem of this white power. Austin, however, site of the University of Texas, has come to be perceived as an enclave within the state which resists conservative hegemonic views and practices, despite being the state’s capital. We do not see Joel’s former life as participating in this cultural resistance, and the supposed realia we see and which might provide clues as to his socio-political leanings are not helpful. For example, the house’s newspaper which Joel’s daughter Sarah consults, the Texas Herald, does not exist. The game’s narrative could hypothetically be read as beginning by destroying the presence of such anti-conservative enclaves as Austin in the American space, leaving only the type of enclave represented at the game’s end in Wyoming, one in which self-governing survivalists have triumphed, government has been destroyed, and the land belongs to those mostly white people strong enough to hold onto it. No significant gaming choices exist for this not to be the end reached by all players.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Such a reading naturally does not constitute the “meaning” of the game, and concluding on this note would be a surprise to most players, if not an outrage. The game’s final moments, with Joel and Ellie heading towards Tommy’s community, are a peaceful, even elegiac coda to a violent quest across the nation. The game appears to most players to be exploring the psychology of traumatized individuals rather than unpacking American myths of community and progress. James Berger sums up this common pattern at the end of “many science fiction post-apocalypses” as “what survives is some version of humanity in the midst of the inhuman” (10). The Last of Us seems more about knitting together than detaching the nation from its illusions of large-scale cooperation and nation-building across a continent. The mythic legacies of the different locations traversed are not mentioned by the characters, and experience is never ethnicized; that is, characters do not refer to their own or others’ apparent ethnic identities during the game. Arriving in Utah does not stimulate Joel or Ellie to mention Mormonism, an association which is almost universal in America. Gareth Schott considers this to be a general condition of video games dealing with the aftermath of an apocalyptic event: players “encounter despoiled ravaged worlds that have left individuals morally contaminated. When players inhabit an original game character they too embody the amnesiac. Typically there is no history to be recalled or drawn upon as they deal with the ambiguity of the present and the future” (191).

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 As this article has argued, however, choices are never innocent even if they are unconscious, and despite the relatively recent founding of the USA, the massive repetition of (mostly white) American explorations of its history over time in all representative modes ensures that no place and no space in the country is without rich accumulations of symbolic resonance. The game may not direct us overtly to recall historical events or geo-social contexts, but players do not come to games unprovided with references. This definitely includes non-American players, given the global circulation and familiarity of the stories, images and myths of America. Whether a place is named, like Boston, or generic, like Silver Lake, American locations are replete with accompanying meanings. This means that while, in Bernard Perron’s summation, “[t]he allegory of space in the videoludic realm is constructed around a relentless oscillation between danger and safety” (338), space as in-game maze or puzzle is not the only way in which it is experienced. Players are clearly able to operate within more than one discursive plane at the same time, regardless of Espen Aarseth’s provocative strictures about not noticing Lara while playing as her (strictures well unpacked by Esther MacCallum-Stewart). The insistence with which the locations in The Last of Us reinforce a dystopian view of the breakdown not simply of social order but of several central mythic scripts in American cultural history can accordingly be construed as making it much more than a game of evading danger and reaching safety, or the story of two individuals surviving catastrophic national collapse. The absence of references to the rest of the world, even Canada, in the game intensifies the focus on the narrative and the gameplay as heralding not merely the last of us, but the last of the US as a historico-cultural project.


24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Works Cited

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Aarseth, Espen. “Genre Trouble, Narrativism and the Art of Simulation.” First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, MIT P, 2004, pp. 45-55.

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