DESIGN: 'The Last of Us' and the post-apocalypse by Darran Anderson

Applying his own expertise and insight, Darran Anderson, author of 'Imaginary Cities' (Influx Press/University of Chicago Press), celebrates the post-apocalyptic world of the survival horror game 'The Last of Us', developed by Naughty Dog for Playstation 3, and released in 2013.

It is one of the paradoxes of living in a relatively affluent society that we dream so much of our destruction. Our films are continually filled with mass computer-generated obliteration. Even our poetry frequently dwells on the abyss. There are, however, many functions for this self-destructive impulse. One is simply indulgence – to view the world coming to an end bolsters our feelings of comfort. Another is a kind of existential pondering, the 'To be or not to be?' questioning of Hamlet blown up onto the scale of an entire society.

We know from history that other civilisations have risen, believed themselves to be invincible, and have fallen. Some within living memory. The defining characteristic however is not annihilation but rather that we assume that we would be among the survivors. At the heart of the post-apocalypse is a delusional and dangerous feeling that we might somehow be freer, out where 'life is nasty, brutish, and short', as Hobbes warns it in Leviathan.

Blue Sky Concept, The Last of Us™ © 2013, 2014 Sony Interactive Entertainment LLC. The Last of Us is a trademark of Sony Interactive Entertainment LLC. Created and developed by Naughty Dog LLC.

The Last of Us stands out from the now-saturated zombie genre in a number of revealing ways. The first is the novel nature of the threat humanity faces, and to which it has largely succumbed. The game takes its cues from cinematic as well as videogame traditions. The Last of Us added its own crucial feature reminiscent of the body-horror of the films of David Cronenberg and John Carpenter's The Thing (1982). The infection is fungal and spread by spores. It results in the features of human beings being taken over, blooming in grotesque living tableaux. Their identities are destroyed. The eyes as 'windows to the soul' are lost. An individual, once loved, is transformed into something monstrous.

The horror element of The Last of Us is all the more disturbing because it is based on processes in the natural world. The infected hosts go through different stages, as Clickers, Stalkers and Runners. Losing their sight, they rely on echolocation, sonaresque sounds seen in, for example, bats. By the time the victims reach the spore-filled Bloater stage, they are reminiscent of unburied, decaying corpses.

The infection that blazes through the world of The Last of Us is based on the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus, which targets carpenter ants and then leaps into the human domain. One of the great strengths of developer Naughty Dog's approach to The Last of Us, led by directors Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann, is that they allow the players room to imagine, to fill in the blanks themselves. The description of how the out-break escalated is delivered in incomplete news fragments. Martial law is declared. Quarantine areas are established. Riots break out. Winter rations are introduced. A resistance militia group, the Fireflies, emerges. Their activities are answered brutally with executions of alleged members. The details convince because we have seen events like this happen before, and will no doubt see them again.

Twenty years pass. The environment we, and the characters, find ourselves in is transformed. Again, in a testament to Naughty Dog's thorough research, it is a post-apocalypse world as would very likely unfold. What existed before is still recognisably there but it is rustic and dusty, falling apart and nailed together again. Everything is a jaded remnant of what it once was.

Exhibition display of concept materials for The Last of Us™ © 2013, 2014 Sony Interactive Entertainment LLC. The Last of Us is a trademark of Sony Interactive Entertainment LLC. Created and developed by Naughty Dog LLC. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In post-apocalyptic fiction, cities are both a blessing and a curse. Characters are drawn in as much as they are repelled. Urban environments have vast collections of resources and habitations. They are filled with food sources, in the wreckage of supermarkets, and with potential weapons. Yet in containing populations of now lawless or law-obsessed people, they are filled with danger too, and not just in the form of the living dead. These perils are written into the city-scape of The Last of Us. One line of graffiti declaring, 'U loot, I shoot' is particularly chilling, given the incidences of survivors being shot in the aftermath of, for example, Hurricane Katrina.

The spatial environment in The Last of Us is remarkably believable because the developers incorporated the passing of time. Without continual maintenance, modern cities decay, much more quickly than many realise. The future of The Last of Us feels lived in and worn out. It also feels accurate. So successfully rendered is the environment that the associated images it conjures, playing the game now, are real ones, before and since the game's release; the creaking irradiated ferris wheel with Chernobyl in the background, supermarkets filled with cobwebs in Fukushima, abandoned sections of Detroit. We call it 'ruin porn', if we have the luxury to leave, but this is the real world for the characters in The Last of Us.

The apocalypse has always been popular from a safe distance. A thundering, earth-shattering, sky-splitting artist such as John Martin (1789–1854) could fill galleries with thousands of people, all keen to witness the biblical destruction of the world. The Last of Us belongs though to a slightly different lineage; that of artists like Joseph Gandy (1771–1843), who took contemporary buildings, such as John Soane's Bank of England, and showed them destroyed in some distant afterlife. The paintings weren't just a comment on our hubris, but rather a reminder that one day, eventually and for whatever reason, this will happen.

Joseph Michael Gandy, 'An imagined view of the Bank of England in ruins', 1830. Photo: © Sir John Soane's Museum, London

The impact of the more destructive moments in The Last of Us is made more powerful because it is otherwise so delicate, nuanced, meditative and well-observed. Rain falls on a night window. The seasons change. There are exquisite sunsets, even across the wreckage. There is a lushness to the ruins. Alongside its playability, these emphasise the greatest strength of The Last of Us – empathy. If Naughty Dog had merely produced a flesh-crawling horror game that resonated with our deepest fears, then The Last of Us would be notable but undeserving of the acclaim it has earned. It resonates because we grow to care deeply about the characters, and our compassion has been subtly, skilfully, artfully, built up over time by the narrative.

There are signs from the beginning. Wind gently lifting a curtain through a broken window. A birthday card. A phone. A discarded newspaper. What the characters wear that reveals something of their personalities. Touches that seem superfluous but are intrinsically character-building because so much of the best of us is superfluous. Particularly moving are the continual references to childhood and lost innocence – classrooms, school buses, Wendy Houses, a toy store, a comic book.

Exhibition display of concept materials for The Last of Us™ © 2013, 2014 Sony Interactive Entertainment LLC. The Last of Us is a trademark of Sony Interactive Entertainment LLC. Created and developed by Naughty Dog LLC. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The quality of the writing, acting and the characterization of The Last of Us ranks with any television series of this decade's much-touted golden age. Twenty years after a global catastrophe and the world is ruled according to the survival of the fittest, seemingly without the artifice of polite society and morality. The lead characters are tough but broken, wracked by grief and buried post-traumatic stress: "We just keep our histories to ourselves". Joel is damaged, solitary and reluctant but begrudgingly and slowly rises to the challenge throughout his journey. Crucially, another strand of the story exists in the form of the feisty, funny, endearing Ellie, who has grown up knowing nothing else but a horrific world and yet is a beacon of hope. Joel may guard Ellie through her 'coming of age' development but she saves him as much as he does her.

While the action and horror sequences understandably dominate the gameplay, it is the moments of unlikely companionship that remain long in the memory. The most startling scenes are not necessarily the obscene zombies or even the harrowing deaths but the sideways moments, moments of stillness and beauty, like the giraffe petting scene which is inessential to the game and the plot and yet is mesmerizingly poetically essential. "It's so fucking cool", as Ellie observes.

The Last of Us is a game about killing zombies in a broken world. It is also a game about companionship and embracing life in the face of disaster. The naturalness of the characters' conversations makes the sudden twists and emotive pressure drops gut-wrenching. The emotional investment makes the stealth scenes more tense. All the major characters are complicated and engaging. They arrive and leave, sometimes devastatingly. In other words, it's life-like.

It could be said that there's a battle for the soul of humanity in a game like The Last of Us. What is left of us when all the trappings and protections of our lives fall away? Will we be scared or cruel or something else? It asks, what is one life actually worth? "We're shitty people", Tess points out, "it's been that way for a long time". Her actions, and the message of this game suggest that this is not necessarily the case.

This is an abridged version of the essay 'To the Edge of the Universe: The Last of Us and the Post-Apocalypse' by Darran Anderson in the V&A book Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt, which accompanies the exhibition.

Darran Anderson is the author of Imaginary Cities (Influx Press/University of Chicago Press) and the forthcoming Tidewrack (Chatto & Windus/FSG). He is a contributing editor of the London culture site White Noise and a former columnist with Kill Screen. He has written on urbanism for The Atlantic, The Guardian, Wired, Prospect, and has given talks at LSE, the Venice Biennale and Torino-Stratosferica.

Header image:

Character sketch, The Last of Us ™ © 2013, 2014, Sony Interactive Entertainment LLC. The Last of Us is a trademark of Sony Interactive Entertainment LLC. Created and developed by Naughty Dog LLC.