The Dreams in Which I’m Dying
August 29, 2014 | by Michael Thomsen
The vanity of the zombie apocalypse.
There are few things as narcissistic as an apocalypse fantasy. The apocalypse doesn’t mean the end of the world, just the end of humankind, and considering such a fate can lead us into a sentimental peace with the present day. Suddenly, in spite of all its flaws—flaws that might be harder to accept in less dire circumstances—the world seems worth keeping intact. In recent years, zombies have been a catalyst of fictional doom in every conceivable manner, from popular horror and comedy to moral parable and literary send-up. They offer us freedom from death in exchange for our subjective consciousness and social identity. But we’d sooner have death, if it means our egos can be spared for a bit.
The Last of Us, a PlayStation game whose latest version was released last month, is a story about a zombie apocalypse, but it wasn’t supposed to be. Its creative director, Neil Druckmann, said in a 2011 interview that he wanted the game to be more of a love story, one between a middle-aged man and a fourteen-year-old girl. So maybe it’s more accurate to describe The Last of Us as a story about a kind of taboo love that requires a zombie apocalypse to normalize—and, by extension, a story that, through love, gives the fungal zombification of humanity a silver lining. Our species may be on the verge of extinction, but if we’re able to fall in love and learn a little about ourselves along the way, it can’t be all bad. Love is where all educated people go to bury their narcissism.
The idea for the game dates back to a 2006 BBC documentary—part of the Planet Earth series—that showed the effects of the Cordyceps fungus on ants. The parasitic growth infests the ant host and begins to replace its tissue with fungal material until the entire body has been eaten away. The fungus can influence the ant’s movement, causing its jaws to open and close sporadically and driving it to cling to tree leaves in warm spaces ideal for continuing growth. Druckmann immediately recognized the ramifications that such a relationship might have in a story about human extinction. Soon the creative spores for the game were drifting through his brain.
In The Last of Us, this fungus afflicts people. The game’s protagonists, Joel and Ellie, bond with one another during the awkward limbo phase of the apocalypse, when most of the damage has been done but not quite everyone has been snuffed out. They fall in love between killing fungal zombies with crowbars and shooting scattered human outlaws. Joel is a single dad from a Texas suburb—a short prologue lets us play as his daughter, Sarah, home alone experiencing the first wave of police sirens, terrified news reports, and power outages as the zombies appear in town. A soldier shoots both Joel and Sarah, thinking they’re infected; as Sarah whimpers her last few breaths in Joel’s arms, he quietly begs her to stay alive. “Please don’t do this to me,” he says, as if being shot was a thing kids did to their parents.
Twenty years later—when most of America has been wiped out by the fungal scourge, with ivy eating away building walls and abandoned quarantine zones left to be picked over by armed looters—Joel has migrated to Boston, and we meet Ellie, a fourteen-year-old girl whom a militant group called the Fireflies believes can save the world. Ellie was bitten by a zombie, but she appears to be immune, and so they want to get her to a lab to try and engineer a vaccine from her magical body. Joel agrees to escort her to the other side of Boston, which, in the fashion of complication-driven road stories, ends up stringing them along to Pittsburgh, and then to Colorado, and finally to Utah.
Ellie’s not quite a replacement daughter for Joel, nor is she a friend, and the game seems oblivious to any sort of sexual tension between the two. And though the plot distinguishes her as a figure of mystic privilege, the lone immune human in a country of three hundred million plagued, she’s not given any messianic pomp. It makes more sense to think of Ellie and Joel not as characters but as symbiotic symbols that need each other to reach maximum cathartic signification. All videogame characters carry the weight of what players want to be true of the world, and so Joel and Ellie must serve the dual purpose of revealing how horrible the apocalypse is—forcing them to kill in increasingly gruesome ways—while making the case that humans deserve, if not a reprieve, then at least some sentimental gratitude for the warmth and intimacy they brought to the world.
The Last of Us depicts the zombie end-times in a way that endorses a basic fear of other people. Zombies have always functioned as emotional shorthand for a condition in which it’s morally allowable to attack everything, to see every encountered life as a possible threat, while resenting or mistrusting the last few survivors. The game’s humans are hostile to both the zombies and one another, fighting petty skirmishes over remnant sacks of sugar and rubbing alcohol while leaving mazes of armaments and munitions in their wake—cold, cubist structures that feel inhospitable and alienating as soon as they’re deprived of electricity. There’s little joy, cooperation, or generosity between anyone here. “You survived because of me,” Joel tells his brother, Tommy, when they’re finally reunited years after having parted ways. “It wasn’t worth it,” Tommy says. We have a habit of imagining others this way, romanticizing our own struggles while villainizing everyone else’s—seeing, in a documentary about ants, a way to make this intimate discomfort with other life seem justified.
The underlying expectation here—that without Western civilization humans would become monsters—is a psychic tic of game designers, who tend to be overeducated upper-middle-class men whose primary lens for understanding the world comes from commercial entertainment. If your worldview is built around a series of compromises you’ve made to secure a comfortable salary building eidolons of human narcissism into restricted-admission dream-states, paranoia and projected self-loathing are in order. And when these labors make you servant to an economy of Moore’s Law and inescapable obsolescence, the competition for scarce resources (conveniently abstracted in the game with overlaid icons, as if Google Glass were the only thing to survive the collapse of human civilization) must seem like an especially poetic prism.
The game’s greatest irony is its conclusion, which finally seems to admit that if narcissism must be the banner of our species, then it might be best to let us all die out. It turns out that to save humankind, Joel will have to watch as Ellie dies; for some reason the Fireflies need to kill her to research her brain and create their vaccine. And while Ellie appears ready to make that sacrifice, it sends Joel into a narcissistic tunnel: he ends up rescuing her unconscious body from the operating table at the last minute and then kills the woman who’d entrusted him with the mission at the beginning of the game. When Ellie regains consciousness, he tells her the Fireflies had been wrong about the immunity, and had studied several other immune cases from around the country before she arrived, concluding that there was nothing to be learned from them. The game ends with a mean-spirited close-up of her face as she questions Joel about the story, having a hard time accepting it could be true. We stare at her for a few seconds as she vacillates, and then she decides to accept the lie. “Okay,” she says.
It’s not by accident that the game immediately jumps forward twenty years after the death of Joel’s daughter in its first section, depriving players of the chance to experience Joel’s mourning, very probably because Joel didn’t mourn and because the people making the game probably could not have imagined a believable way to dramatize that mourning. It’s not by accident that industrial videogames—produced by hundreds of people for millions of dollars—cannot be about mourning, sorrow, or inaction. Shooters sell, and so the industry depends on its ability to produce fresh bodies to kill. It’s continually reinventing variations on the same basic moral context that makes it permissible to kill them. As a metaphor, The Last of Us is a suicide note for the human species, but as an object of paid-for culture, duplicated and distributed en masse, it’s a reminder of our sentimental preference for postmortem artifacts to living specimens. It’s easier to understand the idea of death than the reality of life, and so we make an industry of waiting, imagining our end lumbering toward our vain and cubicled bodies, inventing the selfish moral blank spots we suspect ourselves of being.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York and the author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating and Other Issues for Men. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Bookforum, The New Inquiry, and Guernica.