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The Dreams in Which I’m Dying

August 29, 2014 | by

The vanity of the zombie apocalypse.

thelastofus

A publicity still from The Last of Us.

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.

19 COMMENTS

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17 Comments

  1. Horrible GIF | August 29, 2014 at 2:52 pm

    A great example of the most profound kind of pretentious, overlong and under-cooked theory by someone who clearly has very little knowledge of the videogame medium to conjure up some luxurious philosophy-lite (wat? no mention of freud?) about a popular entertainment genre. The Paris Review, while great, obviously seems to be stuck in some ivory tower with the windows firmly sealed to oxygen from the outside.

  2. Michael S. | August 29, 2014 at 2:59 pm

    Your article incites my curiosity: on a human/huwomanity or evolutionary scale, what isn’t narcissistic?

  3. Michael S. | August 29, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    Horrible GIF,

    I hear your anger.

    But the impact of your words, to me, is to silence what conversation could be. I’d be interested to hear a genuine refutation of what’s been said, rather than insult.

  4. P.G. | August 29, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    Joel’s mourning is realized and epitomized entirely by the environment in which he has been able to survive. The death of his daughter might just as well be considered the cause of the narrative’s global collapse. The world runs parallel to Joel; Joel runs right into the ground along with it. “We’re shitty people,” he’s told by his partner Tess, before she succumbs to a hail of gunfire (probably a gesture merely of convenient sacrifice). He does not know what he is, and just like Narcissus, he sees himself everywhere, in the semblance he finds in Ellie, in the ruins that must arise as he stares so longingly at the world, but merely the world as he is reflected in it. It’s incredibly human, telling lies that we must agree to. Our reprieve comes at the sacrifice of our salvation. The Last of Us is not some self-satire; it is an illumination. We’re shitty people, and we do our own deaths onto the world, however comforting that might be.

  5. J.S. | August 29, 2014 at 4:44 pm

    Horrible GIF’s comment is what we are all feeling. This pseudo-intellectual masturbation makes the venerable Paris Review look like a suicidal art student’s blog.Pretty gross.

  6. david | August 29, 2014 at 6:51 pm

    Beyond all the pretext there is an ostensible compliment. Given that here we have a video game review, is it not awesome that the video game transcends mere botton pushing and reaches toward ideal? Even if the ideal it eventually reaches is narcissistic, it reaches ideal.

  7. josh | August 29, 2014 at 11:18 pm

    Interesting point about the implied necessity of western civilisation. Also appreciate your discomfort with the ironic ending, but what your analysis is missing is the context of this plot development within the medium of video games. The developer is here actually reacting to criticism of their ‘Uncharted’ titles, which were held to be ‘ludonarratively dissonant’ – you’re a wise-cracking hero with a heart of gold, but in order to play the game to completion you are required to kill literally thousands of digital humans.

    The last of us is a response to criticism that Naughty Dog’s previous game series could not marry mechanics with game narrative.

  8. tucker | August 30, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    Josh’s comment about ludonarrative dissonance is spot on. The (industrial, if you want it that way) games industry may continually invent scenarios wherein it’s permissible to kill tons of people, but the Last of Us works pretty hard to make clear the moral cost of such actions. There’s a balancing act between what is, on the one hand, a commercial choice (shooters do sell, and shooting things is a pretty concrete & rewarding game mechanic) and, on the other hand, the designers’ realization of how problematic this can be in a game where the protagonist is meant to be “the good guy.”

    But of course, in The Last of Us, Joel is not the good guy. The purity of his motivations is open for debate — whether or not he’s protecting Ellie simply because he loves her (I think it’s pretty unambiguously a father-daughter relationship, by the way), or out of some more selfish, narcissistic, even vengeful need to somehow make right his having been unable to protect his daughter — but what is not debatable is that he does terrible things throughout the game, and that he is implied to have done similarly terrible things in the 20 years before the game proper begins. We’re not supposed to love him without reservation or reflection, nor are we meant, necessarily, to adopt his mistrustful worldview for our own.

    The author calls the game’s last shot mean-spirited. I’m not sure why. It’s harsh, yes, because it’s an unhappy, and, I think, complicated ending, but that harshness is justified by the game’s narrative and the worldview it espouses (simplistically, that lots of people are basically evil), whether you agree with that worldview or not. In any case, this idea that we need civilization to stop us becoming monsters is hardly a tic that is present only in game designers. I’m sure there are lots of people who think that human beings are basically jerks, capable of most anything when push comes to shove. This is a literary blog, so how about Cormac McCarthy as an obvious example?

    Just one more thing. I don’t think The Last of Us, as an apocalyptic narrative, is so narcissistic as Mr. Thomsen would have it seem. The game doesn’t inherently valorize our flawed present in the way he says it does. Maybe the buildings in the game would be nicer with a bit of electricity (God forbid), but the designers also paid a lot of attention to the representation of nature in the game. There are squirrels in the trees and so on, which requires conscious effort in a video game. There’s also a section where you play as Ellie, hunting a deer in a forest in winter. It’s brief, but this piece of the game is quiet and pretty and unique. You can follow the deer without shooting it, startling it if you come too close. There’s a moment, too, where a herd of giraffes amble through an overgrown park, grazing. You can stand and watch them for as long as you like. Things like this make clear, in the game, that the world does not need us. It will happily, even beautifully, continue without us.
    In this light, the game’s ending doesn’t have any of the unintended irony that Mr. Thomsen endeavors to point out. The “apocalypse” here isn’t the height of human narcissism, and if Joel is the avatar of narcissism, well, the game demonstrates in dozens of ways that he is just one person, not in any way a stand-in for all humankind.

    On a whole, I think The Last of Us is much more self-aware and intelligent than Mr. Thomsen wants to give it credit for. He appears to like video games, but he’s the one being a little mean-spirited here, not the game. It may be somehow comforting to think so, but the game designers are probably not unreflective idiots, for all that they are working on “industrial” entertainment. They may even have read a book or two.

  9. tucker | August 30, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    yes, that was longer than it needed to be.

  10. sebastian | August 30, 2014 at 3:21 pm

    First of all, thanks for acknowledging the importance of this video game, which many players consider one of the most important AAA-titles of last year.

    My biggest problem with the review is the misconception of the love story. The citation of Druckmann is in my opinion not correct. Druckmann could only have meant the love between a father and his daughter. There is a video from last year’s Game Developers Conference where he talks about how the game came to be and why he chose a female protagonist (unfortunately the video can only be watched by a subscription).
    The first 15 minutes of the game where the player is first in the role of Joel’s daughter, then Joel himself, culminates in a highly emotional scene, the loss of one’s own kid. The grievance After a time lapse of 20 years we see a different man, one who in the prospect of living under surveillance, a scarcity of resources and the immobaility due to a city wide enclosure has adjusted to this alternative way of life.

    “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”
    This really makes me cringe. For nearly the first half of the game Joel sees Ellie as an annoying attachment, a teenage girl that needs to be looked after constantly. Joel also sees this as a temporary relationship, one that is over as soon as the group Fireflies is found. It takes time for him to get used to her, he is more of a guardian and only later he starts to treat her on a more equal level. There is no “sexual tension” between them for the only reason that neither of them considers the other as a possible partner. They just depend on each other and only late in the game they care so much for another that they are willing to sacrifice themselves.
    “There’s little joy, cooperation, or generosity between anyone here.”
    There are a lot of small moments in the game where the focus shifts to the

    Regarding the immediate jump 20 years forward and the omission of Joel’s mourning, one could ask if the author has experienced the game up to this point. The immediate jump forward is a similar artistic element as in films and makes clear that the previous scene is more a flashback, a story-wise prerequisite to make sense out of Joel’s relation to Ellie, both in the beginnng when they meet each other and later in the game when they spent nearly a year together. Connecting this with my previous point after a time of 20 years we learn that Joel is caring for someone again, which he tried to avoid at all cost. But once he sees Ellie as a kind of daughter she becomes the only one he cares about, even in the face of the most important decision, rescuing mankind by sacrificing her, he seals the decision by taking her with him and lying to her. The whole game culminates in the final scenes, deciding against common sense for the only reason to not be alone, being selfish, to care for someone so much that he even lies to her. Neil Druckmann is very clear on this point that Ellie is the one emancipating from all the experiences and especially from Joel in the last scene. One thing is clear at the end Joel needs the presence of Ellie for his own personal survival but she does not really need him anymore.

    I agree with tucker’s comment and would also have loved a few literary references, such as “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy that Neil Druckmann mentioned as one of the intellectual sources for his work. There are a couple of moments in the game that are special, which felt quiet, wonderful, intimate, sensitive. The game itself has a lot of thoughtful references to most of the zombie apocalyptic scenarios from pop culture without just reiterating what others do but presenting it in a fresh and coherent manner. In an industry with such big budgets (similar to movies in this respect) and in the genre of 3rd person shooters this game is the rare exception in telling a moving story with detailed characters. This is in stark contrast to typical power fantasy roles such as marines, solders, super heroes, which often times are simply remakes and reiterations of previous ideas, just because they work.

  11. MilesVor | August 30, 2014 at 6:45 pm

    I don’t get why people have been trying to attribute so much depth to this game, both story- and gameplay-wise. The exploration of the influence of the creative director’s socio-economical and cultural background on the story is interesting, but in every single way, this story seems pretty formulaic and simple to me (and many others).

    If there’s any irony to be found surrounding this game it’s that, if it was truly intended as a reaction of Druckman to the criticisms concerning the Uncharted series, he kind of proved that he still can’t marry gameplay and story.

    The Last of Us is, if anything, a story of the creative bankruptcy that infests the AAA industry. A well-told story, true, but a story of compromises. It is a well-presented hollywood blockbuster meant to cater to as large an audience as possible, and nothing that hasn’t seen before in popular, consumer culture.

  12. Maarten | August 30, 2014 at 6:47 pm

    This article goes off the rails in the second paragraph. Having read the interview that is being linked too, creator Neil Druckmann explicity says that he wanted to make a story about a father-daughter relationship. He never mentions anything about a love story in that article, and nothing in the game suggests otherwise. I’m just pointing out the facts here.

    Seeing as the rest of this opinion piece is build for a large part upon this supposed taboo love story, I feel that not getting the facts straight is pretty disqualifying.

  13. Son L H | August 31, 2014 at 3:22 am

    The game present things in such a minimalistic ways that people take away different things from the game experience. That makes it personal. Michael Thomsen is the first one I’ve seen who perceived “sexual tension” between the characters. That probably says something about him as a person.

  14. Son L H | August 31, 2014 at 9:06 pm

    “…“Please don’t do this to me,” he says, as if being shot was a thing kids did to their parents.” He says, as if every parent would have to be perfectly logical in everything they say in their moment of greatest grief.

  15. Niels | September 1, 2014 at 5:39 am

    It seems like the word ‘narcissistic’ is being used in five different meanings here. Without a clearer definition of what seems to be the key word, this piece lacks direction and is hence not very convincing.

  16. Mack Hall, HSG | September 2, 2014 at 3:40 pm

    Don’t say “ivory tower,” Horrible GIF; that sullen, resentful cliche’ is a century out of date.

  17. mary kate | September 9, 2014 at 12:49 am

    ayyyyyyyy

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