by Eugen Pfister
(Translation by Catherine Marshall)
After almost two hours of play we finally arrived at our destination. We have crept through the harbour occupied by a military dictatorship, overcome the walls of the quarantine zone, fought our way through a downtown Boston reclaimed by nature and overrun with hordes of “infected”, and now we are finally standing in front of our objecive: the state capitol, officially called the State House, seat of government for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. From the outside, the building appears like a smaller version of the much more famous Capitol in Washington D.C. Yet the building was completed in 1789 (and thus 25 years before the Capitol in Washington). In 1874 (and again in 1997) the dome of the building was gilded, and thus shines purposely – like a beacon of democracy – over the roofs of the city. In the game, however, the dome of the now vacant and partially dilapidated government building overgrown with weeds gleams only dully in the evening sun. The government of the US state of Massachusetts is no more, nor is the government of the USA. And yet the building still promises hope, at least in the short term. Here we are to meet a group of rebels who believe they can find a cure for a worldwide Cordyceps pandemic. Our disappointment, then, is all the greater when we discover that the rebels we were supposed to meet here have been murdered by the military shortly before our arrival and we are now caught in the middle of an ambush.
Game name: The Last of Us
Developer: Naughty Dog
Creators: Bruce Straley, Neil Druckmann
Year of release: 2013 (2014)
Platform: PS3, PS4
Setting: Zombie apocalypse, dystopia
Genre (ludic): Action
Gameplay: 3rd Person Shooter / Stealth
1 Production Analysis
The Last of Us was released in 2013 exclusively for Sony’s PlayStation 3. In July 2014, a remastered version of the game was also released for the new PlayStation 4. The game was developed by Naughty Dog, a subsidiary acquired by Sony in 2001. The development studio was originally founded in 1984 by Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin – at that time named JAM Software. The studio developed several successful games for the Sega Genesis console and Panasonic’s 3DO in the 1990s, gaining worldwide attention with the platform game Crash Bandicoot for Sony’s new PlayStation in 1996. Over six million copies of the game were sold worldwide,  and it was followed by two sequels. For the PlayStation 2, Naughty Dog developed the equally successful platform game Jak and Daxter (2001), by this time working as part of the Sony Company. The game sold over two million copies in the US and also was followed by two sequels. The studio thus became known for its policy of developing one franchise per platform (Crash Bandicoot for the PSone, Jack and Daxter for the PS2). For the PS3, the company developed Uncharted (2007), an extremely successful action-adventure game with the protagonist Nathan Drake (based on the Indiana Jones character) under the creative direction of Amy Hennig. Sony then revealed the Last of Us in a surprise announcement during the 2011 Spike Video awards . However, development of the game had started as early as 2009 shortly after the release of Uncharted 2 (2009), and was kept under wraps as project ‘T-2’. According to their own account, the idea for the game arose during the collaboration of Neil Druckman and Bruce Straley as designers on the game Uncharted 2. The main inspiration for The Last of Us was apparently the relationship between the game characters Drake and Tenzin. .
In an interview, Druckmann later referred to a game concept he developed at Carnegie Mellon University in 2004, to be pitched to George Romero, a friend of one of his professors. For this, Druckmann combined the game concept from ICO (Team Ico 2001), with a character from Sin City (D: Robert Rodriguez/Frank Miller 2005) and the setting from Night of the Living Dead (George Romero 1968). At Naughty Dog, he reportedly wanted to revisit the idea, with a story about a criminal who protects a young girl, only to be later rescued by her. He also said that additional inspiration came from an episode of Planet Earth about the ‘zombie’ cordyceps fungus that invades the bodies of ants.  After a conversation with consultant Dr. David P. Hughes, an entomologist at Penn State College , this scenario was decided upon, although the term ‘zombie’ is avoided by the developers.
After months of brainstorming sessions with co-director Bruce Straley, the two came up with the idea for The Last of Us in 2010. The game was to be constructed primarily around the relationship between the father-figure Joel and a 14-year-old girl called Ellie. In interviews given by Straley and Druckmann, they cite a whole host of references from popular culture that they say has inspired them. In addition to those already mentioned above, these include the novel City of Thieves (David Benioff 2008) about survivors in Leningrad during World War II, Cormack McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road (2006), and The Coen Brothers’ film No Country for Old Men (2007). They also mention in interviews the focus they wish to have in the game on staging and dramatizing violence: ‘Initially, the goal was to build up to a scene in which Joel found himself incapacitated – tied up and tortured, with a knife at his throat – and it’s up to Ellie to save him by killing another human.’  Although a different ending was eventually chosen, Druckmann’s own account reveals what was for him a central concern of the game: ‘Ultimately, at least for Joel, it became this idea of exploring how far a father is willing to go to save his kid. Each step of the way is a greater sacrifice. At first, he’s willing to put his life on the line. That’s almost the easiest thing for him, where he’s at. But then he’s willing to put his friends on the line. Finally it comes to putting his soul on the line, when he’s willing to damn the rest of humanity.’  In terms of game mechanics, and in the tradition of survival horror, Straley was keen to make scarcity the central element. ‘We wanted to create a lack – a lack of supplies, a lack of everything else. You’re not building yourself into a tank.’  This also resonates with one of the stated aesthetic influences, namely the non-fiction book “The World without Us”, in which the American journalist Alan Weisman posed the hypothetical question in 2007 of what the world would look like if there were suddenly no more people. Even at this point, the tendency of the developers to reflect on real-world scenarios through the game is already evident. This becomes even more apparent in an interview he gave to Laura Parker: “This is the kind of world that forces people into a kill-or-be-killed frame of mind,’ explains Druckmann, and: ‘I wanted the game to show players just how easy it is for humans to descend into this state when society as we know it ceases to exist.  We go on to learn in the interview that Druckmann then turned to historical sources for inspiration and found it in accounts of the Spanish Flu and an American polio epidemic: ‘In studying the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, he learned about paranoia and man’s need to protect himself when faced with the threat of extinction; the polio epidemic of the 1880s showed him how differences in class can color people’s perceptions of blame in the face of a great disaster’. 
At least in interviews, Druckmann presents himself as the auteur of the game. A rather different company image is presented in the just over 90-minute YouTube documentary on the PlayStation Europe channel. Here, the focus is on the team and its flat organisational structure. Several team members, including interface designer Alexandria Neonakis, comment here on the open working environment in the team where feedback is encouraged. Though the game’s story and the inspiration behind it are often discussed, we should not overlook the development of the game mechanics, especially of a convincing enemy AI and the user interface, as they are central to the game experience and traditionally get less attention in interviews. Besides Ico, the developers looked to Resident Evil 4 (Capcom 2005)  as well as the in-house Uncharted series to model their game mechanics on. The aspect of scarcity was particularly important – player should virtually experience first-hand how much life in the game is determined by scarcity. “We will item starve you at the same time those characters feel starved and worn out”. The award-winning film composer Gustavo Santaolalla was commissioned to compose the soundtrack. After he was presented with the story and characters, he was given free hand.  In the documentary on the game, it is interesting to note how Santaolalla refers to the importance of those who then converted his music into game code, but does not elaborate on the nature of this influence. In addition to the story, art design, actors, film music and AI, the documentary also points to the lighting design, which not only determines the atmosphere in the game, but also frequently assumes a game-mechanical function. Regardless of its obviously clear promotional role, the YouTube documentary gives a more rounded picture of the development process, and even the less traditionally prestigious departments, such as Q&A, get a chance to be heard. This creates the impression of a large and highly diversified development team with professionally organized production processes.
II – Product analysis
The game tells the story of an unlikely pair: the older Joel – a smuggler with a dark criminal past escorts an underage girl Ellie on behalf of a rebel group called Fireflies. They move through areas of the USA that are in part deserted, in part infested with zombie-like creatures called the ‘Infected’, and in part governed by autocratic warlords, from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Colorado, and finally to Utah. In a playable prologue, players first take control of the teenage girl, Sarah, in a prototypical American family home in the suburbs of Houston/Texas in 2013. In the initially peaceful tutorial, which also introduces the relationship between single father Joe – who at this time works as a construction worker and has money problems – and his daughter Sarah, we soon realise something is very wrong. In front of his daughter, Joel shoots a neighbour who has gone on the rampage. Joel flees with his daughter and his brother in a pickup truck; traffic is backed up on the highway, farms are burned down, and there are sirens, blue lights and explosions.
We are witnessing the virtual collapse of the US infrastructure. The prologue culminates in a tragic encounter with a US soldier. He forces Joel and Sarah to stop and asks for orders by radio. The orders are immediate, and after a moment’s hesitation, the soldier shoots the father and daughter. Joel only just survives and is saved by his brother. His daughter, who up until this time has been controlled by the player, dies. This scene is followed by the opening titles, -‘the governor has called a state of emergency’– in the style of a film, using black and white animation and melancholy music. Off-screen fictitious news reports from radio and television tell of the collapse not only of the USA, but of the whole world – ‘World Health Organization showed that the latest vaccination tests failed’: the parasitical Cordyceps fungus  has leaped from insects to humans, altering the behaviour of the ‘infected’ and turning them into mindless predators. The fungus also changes its human host physically in several stages until in the end they serve only as a substrate for the fungal colony.
After the prologue, the game jumps twenty years into the future with the story of a now visibly aged and hardened Joel in Boston which is controlled by the military. Together with his partner Tess, he earns a living as a smuggler. The initial plotline involves retrieving unpaid guns from another criminal. After the player evades or kills several dozen criminals, Tess and Joel capture the black-market trader Robert. Tess tortures and eventually kills Robert after he confesses that he no longer has the guns. At this point, Marlene – the leader of ‘The Fireflies’ – appears seemingly out of nowhere. The Fireflies are a group of armed resistance fighters opposed to the military regime. Marlene promises the weapons to Joel and Tess in return for a favour. The two smugglers are to escort a young girl – Ellie – out of the military quarantine zone, but Marlene won’t reveal why. On the run from the military, Joel and Tess discover that Ellie is infected, but is apparently immune. At the agreed meeting point with the Fireflies, the military is already waiting – see introduction. Tess – who was infected in an earlier fight – sacrifices herself so that Joel can take Ellie to the Fireflies in safety and they can develop a vaccination with Ellie’s help. Joel, initially reluctant to take Ellie, decides to find his brother Tommy to help make contact with the Fireflies. Their journey first takes the mismatched pair to the fictional small town of Lincoln, where the reclusive ‘survivalist’ Bill lives. By setting a number of booby traps, Bill made the town a safe haven for him and his partner, who meanwhile has abandoned him. To settle an old debt with Joe, Bill reluctantly helps to put together a car for him and Ellie.
In the destroyed and seemingly deserted Pittsburgh, Joel and Ellie are ambushed by so-called ‘Hunters’ who rob and murder travellers. Their car is destroyed and they have to flee from, among others, a partially armoured Humvee. While on the run, Joel and Ellie join forces with the African-American brother couple Henry and Sam. Together, they manage to defeat the Hunter in a shootout in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, but the younger brother Sam is bitten and attacks Ellie after the onset of the infection. Henry just manages to stop Joel shooting Sam – and shoots himself his infected little brother before turning the gun on himself.
The game then picks up again in the autumn of the same year, where Joel and Ellie meet Tommy and his wife, who lead a small community of survivors. Over the years, the town has become a thriving community and they are currently repairing an old hydroelectric plant, yet their gated community continues to come under attack from bandits. At first, Joel wants his brother to take Ellie to the Fireflies. When Ellie runs away, he realises after finding her and rescuing her from bandits, that he has paternal feelings towards her and wants to take responsibility. He decides to take her to the Fireflies lab himself on a horse that Tommy gives them. They discover, though, that the lab at the fictitious East Colorado University has long since been abandoned, and they barely get out alive, Joel is seriously injured, after an encounter with robbers.
Ellie brings Joel to a tourist lodge where she treats his severe stomach injury. By now it is winter. On a hunting trip she meets two men and wants to exchange the deer she shot for medicine. She survives an attack by infected people together with one of the men – David – who at first seems friendly. However, she learns from David that he is the leader of a group of survivors who had attacked her earlier. They turn out to be a group of cannibals – they capture Ellie several days later, after having delivered the medicine as promised. David wants to convince Ellie to become part of the community. In a protracted fight, however, Ellie is able to overpower David and is finally rescued from a burning bar by Joel, who has recovered from his injuries. They follow a lead they got in Colorado and travel to St. Mary Hospital in Salt Lake City. After battles with ‘Infected’ in a road tunnel, they fall into a raging underground river. Shortly after, the two finally encounter the Fireflies, but they knock Joel unconscious after he refuses to put his hands up out of concern for Ellie, who moments earlier nearly drowned. In a cut scene, Joel learns from Marlene that Ellie is about to undergo surgery and that there is no way she can survive it. Rather than leave, Joel fights his way through hordes of Fireflies and rescues Ellie after he – or the player – kills the surgeon. On the run, Joel shoots an unarmed Marlene in a cut-scene out of fear being pursued by the Fireflies. In the epilogue – arriving back at Tommy’s community – Joel swears to Ellie that the Fireflies sent them away because they had already found other immune people. So the game ends with Joel lying to his adopted daughter Ellie.
In the DLC ‘Left Behind’ – which functions as a stand-alone game – players take on the role of Ellie. The game flashes between two time periods. In one, Ellie treats the severely injured Joel and needs to find medical supplies located in an abandoned mall; in the other, it tells the story of the burgeoning relationship between Ellie and Riley, a member of the Fireflies, which is set in the past. Eventually they both get bitten by infected people, we know from the main game that only Ellie could have survived.
The audio-visual setting
Although the detailed retelling of the story through flashbacks is testimony to a very narrative-laden game, the developers, and in particular the marketing department, devote almost as much attention to the game’s visual aesthetics. The post-apocalyptic landscapes are masterfully staged, and clearly lean on the visual language of painting. The game goes out of its way to highlight these topographies, sometimes through cinematic-style cut scenes, such as when the characters are entering Pittsburgh, or when close-ups of Joel and Ellie are followed by a long shot of the ruined cityscape. The game-mechanics is sometimes used to force the player to pay attention to these vistas: So that the players don’t miss out on some of these scenes, a hint pops up to instruct the player to press a button to see something special, for example, the destroyed Capitol in Boston in the background, and so on. Here a landscape of ruins is aesthetically presented in the tradition of Romanticism whereby nature reclaims the man-made environment. The Capitol, for example, is overgrown with weeds, trees erupt through buildings, rivers forge new courses above and below ground in the cities. These cleverly staged landscapes, which are more than just a backdrop for the action, are accentuated by intelligent lighting. Players wander through aestheticized ruined landscapes lit often by the golden light of the setting sun, which emphasises the lush green of the vegetation. Overall, natural colours across the green spectrum dominate the game, as well as earth tones (apart from the dominance of white during the winter chapter). The main point is the alienation of the familiar. I have written about this elsewhere:
“Archetypal architectural symbols of the American civilisation, the high-rises of Boston, the campus of East Colorado University, a hospital complex in Salt Lake City etc. provide a visually stunning and powerful backdrop to the action. These scenes constitute the slowly decaying corpus of American civilisation. Deserted university dormitories, flooded underpasses, underground train tunnels and crumbling offices are now dangerous remnants of the once-familiar, threatening to completely collapse at any moment. Suburban family homes, stereotypical symbols of American domesticity, have been overrun by the ‘Infected’ and now are no longer a place of middle-class refuge. Skyscrapers in the financial district collapsed onto each other, a luxury hotel in Pittsburgh is half-submerged under water, the wood panelling equally as mildewed as the permanently damp bed linen. Creepers grow everywhere, escaped giraffes from the zoo roam the city undisturbed. Nature is reclaiming the city bit by bit” .
One of the striking aspects of The Last of Us is that the game’s mechanics and architecture are coordinated. Fast-paced action sequences are often followed by quiet moments where the player can reflect on their surroundings. The most impressive example of this is when Joel and Ellie encounter a herd of giraffes that have escaped the zoo in an abandoned bus terminal. At first, the player can stroke one of the giraffes at the touch of a button, and finally the next scene reveals the whole herd in a wide-angle shot.
Almost as much attention is given to the deterioration of the human body as the architectural ruins – both of which can be read as a metaphor for the dissolution of society (see myths). The types of enemies in the game represent different destructive stages of the virus. The zombie-like ‘Infected’ become the more dangerous ‘stalkers’ and subsequently turn into ‘clickers’ and then ‘bloaters’ over months and years. In the process they progressively lose their humanity, larger areas of their body are covered by the fungus until finally they become an immobile substrate for the fungal colony after their death. A pervading feeling of nostalgia is supported by the subdued and often melancholic soundtrack, accentuated through the use of stringed instruments. It is orchestral, but restrained, adapting to the game’s story. The main soundtrack theme features a plucked string, which underlines the rustic character of the music. In addition, individual pieces, such as ‘I know what you are’ – which following the tradition of horror soundtracks, appear atonal and tense.
In comparison to the game’s aesthetics and narrative, the game mechanics take a bit of a back seat. As well as the single-player campaign, the game also includes multi-player arenas. I have not included these in the following for the sake of comparability with other single-player games. In contrast to action-heavy zombie games such as Left4Dead (Valve 2008) but also Dead Rising (Capcom 2006), the fights with the Infected do not dominate the game. Instead, they are used comparatively sparingly and interspersed with calmer passages. Conflicts with the Infected can be dealt with in two ways – either by sneaking past/evading or fighting, depending on which is more appropriate in the situation. The focus is not on wiping out waves of the undead in drawn-out flights, not least because the enemy’s behaviour is unpredictable. More so than the Infected, it is the human opponents that pose the greater threat and who are foregrounded in the game – criminals, soldiers, cannibals and Fireflies. Whereas there are some chapters in which no ‘Infected’ appear (Wyoming), in every chapter there is always a fight with a human opponent. These too can be evaded by stealth, but violence appears to be the only solution to conflict. While friendly NPCs are rare – in addition to Tess we have Bill, Thomas and Harry also fighting at Joel’s side for a short time –human opponents are everywhere in the game and en masse. They show no mercy and fight to the death. Their behaviour also serves as motivation for the constant fight against them. In comparison to the Uncharted series, there are very few puzzle sequences, players can solve, for example, a few small puzzles in in the tunnels of Salt Lake City. In this case, players have to locate different entryways, by moving ladders and crates. In the scheme of things, however, these puzzles are used sparingly.
The ‘scarcity economy’ is of central importance in the game. In the tradition of survival horror games, weapons and ammunition are hard to come by. These can be supplemented by crafting makeshift weapons (Molotov cocktails, nail bombs, ‘shivs’ and improvised knives.)
In general, the game is linear and offers the player no opportunity to deviate from the action prescribed. Players can explore areas only to a limited extent within the scope and chronology of the game. This is especially apparent in the last interactive scene. If you, as Joel, manage to reach Ellie in the operating theatre, the game does not continue until you shoot the surgeon – if you wait too long, you will be shot by fireflies in a scripted scene. It also doesn’t matter if you only shoot his foot, for example, the surgeon dies automatically as soon as he is hit anywhere and only then does the game continue.
What is interesting about the DLC is that it focuses more consistently on the characters. Combat plays a subordinate role here – apart from the grand showdown in the mall. Instead the focus is more on discovery, smaller puzzles, and, above all, portraying the same-sex relationship between Ellie and Riley. In this respect, the critique of violence, as intended by the developers, is much more effective in the DLC.
III – Reception analysis
The Last of Us was greatly anticipated in the gaming press in the run-up to its release. At its launch, the rave reviews were near on unanimous, and it achieved an aggregate score of 95 per cent on the meta-database MetaCritic. The reviews of the major game portals outdid each other in praise. Colin Moriarty, for example, begins his review for IGN as follows: “The Last of Us is an almost perfect analog to The Road, a literary masterpiece by Cormac McCarthy. Both depict a hopeless, post-apocalyptic situation through which two characters – an adult and a child – navigate while surrounded by nothing but absolute despair. Like The Road, The Last of Us is constantly dangerous and unpredictable, and like The Road, the focus is not on what happened to bring society to a point of rapid disintegration.” The characters in the game were singled out for praise (‘As compelling as Joel is, he’s not the only character of note in The Last of Us. To call him the main character is only partially true, because it’s his companion, a young girl named Ellie, who really steals the show.’) as well as stunning settings (“The Last of Us is undoubtedly pretty to look at, but that beauty is often overshadowed by the looming danger”) and also the gameplay mechanics (‘Secretly killing entire rooms full of enemies is incredibly satisfying.’).  Oli Welsh’s review for the English-language Eurogamer is written in a similarly panegyric vein: ‘In an age of shallow gameplay and broken narrative logic, The Last of Us is a demonstration of how it should be done.’ Once again, it praises every aspect of the game. ‘This melancholy twist is just one of several things that elevate The Last of Us far above its clichéd base. The others are the superb engineering and art and sound design, the fine direction and performances, the touching relationship of the two leads, and the tough, exciting action gameplay.’ Negative criticism is rare. Tom McShea, for example, finds fault with what he sees as certain weaknesses in the enemy AI, and especially with the lack of sympathetic characters apart from Joel and Ellie, as well as the ‘mundane visuals of a post-apocalyptic world’.
Interestingly, the extreme graphic depiction of violence – for example, when Joel cracks the skull of a vanquished opponent on a ledge in a fistfight – was also seen as ‘heavy, consequential and necessary’ in reviews . Welsh’s review also mentions something similar. In the detailed Wikipedia article on the game, one can read that the violence was judged in all English-language reviews to be ‘necessary’ and ‘justified’ and never ‘desensitising’. In the German-language review in Gamepro, too, the brutality in the game is mentioned several times, but never criticised. It is also interesting that in an article in GamePro from 2013, Druckmann addresses these issues and in doing so practically provides the terminology that crops up again in later reviews: ‘The violence you see in the world [of The Last of Us] is not superfluous and exaggerated, just to seem as brutal as possible.’ .
The launch of the sequel The Last of Us – Part II (Naughty Dog 2020), led to a public discussion about the political message of the game and the political agenda of the developers. In response to the now deleted tweet ‘TLoU is my favourite game of all time. Please try to keep your personal politics out of part 2. Thank you very much’ Druckmann responded as follows: ‘No, you can’t do that. Authors work with their view of the world. For example, the ending of TLoU is very much inspired by my “personal politics”.’ At the time of the first game’s release, however, political statements were not yet so openly discussed. On the contrary, in an article in the British Telegraph, journalist Any Robertson felt obliged to argue that the game as such could not serve an ideology: ‘This may sound a little militaristic to some, but the inescapable gritty realism of the world means that any ethics are rooted in the practicalities of existence (read: surviving another day). While a book or a film can adapt its politics and setting to a particular ideology, this is more difficult here. The nature of the video game world forces a realistic honesty about what must be done to survive.’
IV – Ideological myths in The Last of Us
Myth 1: The Zombie Apocalypse and Democratic Collapse
They are not called zombies, but the ‘Infected’, but the name change is purely cosmetic. Perhaps the term ‘zombie’ would have seemed comically out of place in the serious dystopia of The Last of Us. Instead, the developers took a different course, to set themselves apart from games like Left4Dead and Dead Rising, but also Dead Island (Techland 2011). Nevertheless, the game serves the popular myth of the zombie apocalypse: in the face of a threat that is both external (Cordyceps fungus) and internal (the infected used to be neighbours, friends, relatives…) the entire modern state collapses. We know the narrative from countless books, film, series and digital games, and so the story works and seems credible. We are exposed to small excerpts – microcosms of the apocalypse –, and yet we never get to question the bigger picture.  In this respect, there is no need for cumbersome explanations on how it is possible that a complex and highly developed society such as the US (but implicitly a global one) should collapse in the face of an atavistic threat. Everywhere we see the ruined remains of the old political order: burnt-out tanks, upturned fire engines, collapsed government buildings, which serve as regular reminders of the fact that the state and democratic rule has failed to protect the demos.
That a former construction worker – Joel – is able to hold his own against the undead with conventional weapons, begs the question why trained security forces were not able to do so. The often cited ‘willing suspension of disbelief’  doesn’t necessarily work here as an explanatory model, as the game makes efforts to make this plausible. On the one hand, in the intro the ‘bureaucrats’ are clearly blamed for this failure, which taps into a current dominant topos: the players learns through radio and televisions reports that the US governors quickly declared a ‘state of emergency’. In the report that follows, we learn that the World Health Organisation failed to come up with a vaccine. Then we hear the off-screen words of a fictional politician (?) ‘with the bureaucrats out of power, we can take the necessary steps to…’
One American city after another is placed under martial law. The military soon throws democratic rights overboard and establishes autocratic regimes in several cities. The inhabitants in these cities are made to perform forced labour, as we can read on a ‘Drafting Notice’ in the game: ‘Willful failure to appear at the place and hour of the day named in this order subjects the violator to ration restriction and possible loss of zone residency.’
The military’s brutal regime – inhabitants are made to sometimes kneel on the floor to be tested, and if infected or attempt to escape are shot on the spot – leads to unrest, for example in Pittsburgh, where the ‘Hunter’ tribes rule after overthrowing the military. Players learn about other aspects of the backstory only through reading the collectable documents. But these confirm what has already been said, painting a bleak picture of existing democratic authorities. We encounter the fictional ‘Federal Disaster Response Agency’, for example, on countless billboards and posters. The player can discover documents, such as the ‘Applicants checklist’, for instance, a directive for the security forces which reads: ‘Scan all applicants. Any positive reading should result in immediate quarantine of the individual by ushering them to the sick line. Use all necessary force.’ and ‘NOTE: When separating families, it is important to keep everyone as calm as possible. Any applicants causing trouble should be escorted to administration.’  Clearly, a ruthless federal authority is being enacted. This becomes even more apparent in a leaflet warning of imminent evacuation, which states that Boston residents have 48 hours to evacuate before whole areas of the city are to be cleansed of infected people by means of ‘saturation bombing’. At the same time, however, those affected are told that they will not find protection in the quarantine zone because it will no longer accept new civilians.
Finally, in the ECU campus, players can find a newspaper clipping in which Attorney General Arthur Monroe – to my knowledge, the only mention of a politician by name – states that the military can no longer search for survivors. Irrespective of whether the player has discovered all the clues or not, the message remains the same: The state (specifically, the USA) has abandoned responsibility for its citizens. Through scenes in the historical museum of Boston, the game deliberately alludes to the ‘past’ democracy, thereby rendering the collapse of the USA even more painful – The last of US.
Overwhelmed by the threat, the government acts too slowly at first and then – after the collapse of the infrastructure – autocratically. As a result, the world outside the military regime falls into an archaic ‘state of nature’ where the law of the strongest prevails because the remnants of democratic governments could not or would not honour the social contract. Here we encounter a myth we already are familiar with through the accusations of right-wing politicians and right-wing media, who in the face of perceived threats such as the ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015/2016 and also the Covid-19 pandemic are quick to assume a failure of governance and in the same breath call for draconian measures.
Myth 2: Homo Homini Lupus
The state, the system, the democracy must fail in the game’s narrative because the developers were interested in portraying human relationships under a state of emergency: ‘At its core, The Last of Us is a game about the human condition that pushes the player to test the limits of human endurance.’  My understanding is that the concept of the ‘human condition’ was introduced by Montaigne to distinguish it from that of ‘human nature’. Presumably, however, Straley’s statement was less about philosophical concerns and more about the desire to portray human beings in their ‘natural state’. A ‘what would happen if’ scenario in a world stripped of civilisation reduced to its natural state. In reality, though, the game is not so much about the question of the player’s agency, which is limited. After all, players do not act independently or make decisions. Like Joel, they react to the actions of others. The game does set out to show human interaction in a state of nature, and here the game paints a bleak picture. Morality is the first thing to fall by the wayside. To survive, humans will resort to (almost) anything: robbery, murder (Hunter) and even cannibalism (David and his tribe) prevail as community models.
Joel has also internalised this lesson in no uncertain terms somewhere between the prologue and the start of the game. He makes a living from smuggling weapons and, according to his own words, may have also robbed and murdered. Everyone seems concerned only with their own survival. The military, it seems, is only interested in maintaining power and even the Fireflies, who are fighting against the military regime, do not stand for humanism and morality despite their research into a vaccine. They too are willing to sacrifice people without their consent in the service of the cause. Accordingly, the ‘human condition’, or more precisely human nature as portrayed in the game, amounts to a brutal instinct of self-preservation in these circumstances.
Of all the characters in the game, Ellie, in particular, shows compassion and a respect for human rights. She refuses to be loyal to David because of ethical concerns, even though this would save her life. Apart from Tommy, she is the only character to question Joel’s brutality. However, in the scenes where the player controls her, she is similarly violent. She too has no other possibilities in the game or through the game mechanics to interact with people in any other way.
Myth 3: Community vs. Society
In the game’ s storyline, all of the more complex forms of human cooperation, i.e. all forms of society, have failed: the WHO, the USA, states, city governments. Beyond a brutal armed dictatorship (the military as well as the Fireflies), we encounter only smaller communities in the wilderness. Most of these are atavistic marauding bandits and tribes of hunters and cannibals. Only the family (father-daughter, brothers) seems to function as a cohesive unit. The only slightly larger community in the game who are not explicitly immoral is the community in Jackson County that Joel’s brother Thomas belongs to.
It is significant that here too, in the community of Jackson Country, that familial ties (the relationship with leader Mary, Mary’s pregnancy) are immediately drawn upon as a legitimisation of ‘good’ governance. The ‘Family’ is always mentioned in relation to Thomas’ community. It is interesting though, that this self-sustaining community, which appears almost utopian in the game’s brutal dystopia, is not described in more detail. We do not know if attempts have been made to contact others, for example, or whether it is governed through grass-roots democracy or aristocracy (we know that Maria seems to have inherited the rule of the community from her father). All in all, the small and wholesome friendly-family community is held up as a very positive example in contrast to the inhuman and incompetent society that prevails. The most obvious example of this is the negative portrayal of the Fireflies, who at the beginning of the game still seem to promise hope, but eventually turn out to be just as ruthless as the military, and not only in Joel’s eyes: Why is Joel knocked unconscious when he arrives? Why is he immediately forced at gunpoint to leave the hospital without being able to say goodbye to Ellie? Why does the Firefly soldier who escorts him declare ‘just give me a reason [to shoot you]’? In the end, only the family is left.
Myth 4: The romanticism of ruins: Nature vs. culture
The analysis of the production revealed that the developers had an affinity for a representation of the world without humans, a kind of re-naturalised world. This is clear in the game’s aesthetic focus on the ruins of human civilisation and how nature has reclaimed the cities. Here, an old cultural tradition of ruin romanticism is revisited as it manifested itself, for example, in the Romanticism of the 19th century. The allure of tranquil depictions of the remains of past civilisations. In England these tended to be ancient ruins, and in Germany medieval ruins. That the ruin aesthetic is intentional is evident in a marketing campaign to promote the game by the Biborg agency that imagines several well-know European cities as ruins in the world of the game.  A web app allowed the user to swipe to superimpose a post-apocalyptic representation on current images: Berlin’s central station, Paris’s Notre Dame, London’s Buckingham Palace, etc., partly dilapidated and overgrown with plants.
As with 19th century Romanticism, such mesmerisingly beautiful images carry political messages. They carry warnings of the collapse of everything we think we can depend on.  They act as a wake-up call akin to apocalypticism in religious belief, and contain a stark message: those who do not want this to happen must act now. But at this point the game stops short of making demands on its players. After all, in terms of communication design, it is about achieving an effect, and not morality. Because if you want to prevent this dystopian future, what can you do better? After all, in the world of Last of Us, the fault for the collapse cannot be traced back to any individual. Human culture itself is likely to have been the culprit.
Clearly in the juxtaposition of nature and culture, the game makes value judgements. The green of nature promises peace, whereas the (destroyed) remnants of man-made infrastructure stands for violence. As Gerald Farca and Charlotte Ledevèze have written:
“In a cathartic experience, the journey to nature in The Last of Us not
only turns into a second chance for Joel, but also into one for the entirety of humankind. In order to trigger such an aesthetic response in the player (that is, to offer its preconditions), The Last of Us has cleverly outlined the player’s coming to awareness through an ecological rhetoric. This persuasive intent is inscribed into the implied player and is primarily expressed in the juxtaposition of dangerous city spaces and calming nature spaces.” [38 ]
Myth 5: Gender-race-class
While The Last of Us transports latent neoliberal to libertarian ideologies in the above-mentioned themes, it also communicates surprisingly liberal to progressive statements, especially in regard to the triad ’gender race class’, for example, in the way it approaches the presentation of traditional gender roles. Ellie, Tess and Marlene are three strong female characters. Ellie, in particular, represents a deliberate antithesis to the usual damsel in distress trope. When we meet Ellie at the beginning she appears defenceless, and as a minor comes under Joel’s protection. During the time spent together with Joel, however, she increasingly gains agency, even to the extent that she becomes Joel’s protector and provider after he suffers a serious injury. We see this role taken up once again in the DLC Left Behind. In the smuggling partnership with Joel, Jess is the driving force, and Marlene is, after all the leader of the resistance. What is also interesting about the character of Marlene is that although she slips into a classic caring mother role towards Ellie, she deliberately discards this when it becomes necessary for her to achieve her goals – the discovery of a vaccine. The DLC Left Behind is also progressive in its depiction of the same-sex relationship between Ellie and Riley as this is truly an exception in AAA games. We can assume that the above were conscious decisions, as previous conventions are clearly broken here.
The same applies to ethnic representation in the game. The central characters are African-American: Marlene, the brothers Henry and Sam as well as Riley Abel (from the DLC Left Behind). In addition, prevalent genre stereotypes – such as the TV trope ‘Black Dude dies first’ – are dispensed with here, though to give the full picture it must be said that none of the black characters survive the game. Marlene is characterised here as a level-headed and measured leader. Only Telltale’s Walking Dead has more ethnically diverse characters, with its protagonists being of African-American and Asian-American ethnicity.
Also, in terms of portraying social backgrounds, the game seemed to have explored new ground. Instead of showing young white men from affluent backgrounds who never have to worry about money, like most horror games, Joel is introduced in the opener as a single father with a crushing mountain of debt and with his job as a contractor is one of a few blue collar heroes in the world of digital games. Nevertheless, he owns a two-storey house in the suburbs of Houston and a new pickup truck. It is only after the collapse of society that he is really portrayed as belonging to the lowest social strata. Yet he shows no class consciousness in the sense that he feels a sense of solidarity; on the contrary, he seems anxious to climb the social ladder as quickly as possible by any means necessary.
The Last of Us lends itself well to an analysis of historical myths as we can refer to the authors’ own accounts of their vision for the game. According to interviews at least, the aim was to show people in a natural state, to imagine how adverse circumstances would affect human relationships and to conceive of a world without people. Apparently, there was never the intent to expose the US government’s incompetence in crisis situations. In an interview, Bill Straley refers to Hurricane Katrina, whose catastrophic effects on the population in the series Treme (David Simon/Eric Overmeyer 2010-2013), for example, are blamed on outright political failure , but Straley himself never mentions the government’s responsibility here. It is likely that the developers wanted to explore the limits of democratic society when thrown into an existential social crisis. One could point out, within the scope of a thorough source critique, that Druckmann was born in Israel and thus grew up in a political environment which was under constant external threat. In my opinion, however, one should not overestimate the author’s intention, who alongside Bruce Straley – who as co-creator was overlooked in many interviews – was only one member of a large team. Other influences on the content and game mechanics were at play, from development areas as diverse as AI design, marketing and sales. Attempts to retrospectively reconstruct an author’s intention (intentio auctoris), even on the basis of interviews, only work to a limited extent. We can, however, work out dominant discourses in the sense of a work intention (intentio operis), precisely on the basis that such AAA games have multiple influences that are difficult to separate from one another, and on the basis of the design rhetoric inherent in the game, thus understanding the game as a product of a historical society and culture. This can be seen in the deliberate design decisions: the depiction of a same-sex love affair between Riley and Ellie, as we can gather from interviews, was a deliberate decision and statement, but the depiction of democratic collapse, as far as we know, was not. Nevertheless, this serves an increasingly dominant discursive political statement: the belief in an increasing political failure of democratic governments, which we encounter in the sense of a myth not only in The Last of Us, not only in zombie games, not only in popular culture but increasingly in news coverage of current affairs. 
Recomended Citation : Eugen Pfister, „ On Infected and the Collapse of Society (Case Study: The Last of Us)“ in: Horror-Game-Politics, <http://hgp.hypotheses.org/1545> 27.08.2021
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 Diese real existierenden Schlauchpilze leben als Parasiten auf Gliederfüßlern. Insebsondere der Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, der auf Ameisen wächst und deren Verhalten so manipuliert, dass diese keine Kontrolle mehr über ihren eigenen Körper haben war hier Vorbild, da er aufgrund seiner Außergewöhnlichkeit um die Jahrtausendwende auch in einer breiteren Öffentlichkeit wahrgenommen wurde. Er dürfte auch Inspiration für M.R- Careys Zombie-Film The Girl with All the Gifts (2014) gewesen sein.
 Eugen Pfister, „Jacques Lacan, Caspar David Friedrich und die Zombie-Apokalypse: Eine erste Annäherung an Mythen in “The Last of Us”“. In Spiel-Kultur-Wissenschaften, <spielkult.hypotheses.org/19, Eintrag> 06.07.2015.
 Colin Moriarty, The Last of Us review, IGN, 12.06.2020, retrieved from: https://www.ign.com/articles/2013/06/05/the-last-of-us-review
 Oli Welsh, The Last of Us review, eurogamer, 28.07.2014, retrieved from: https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2014-07-28-the-last-of-us-review
 Tom McShea, The last of Us Review, 15.10.2014, gamespot, retrieved from: https://www.gamespot.com/reviews/the-last-of-us-review/1900-6409197/
 Kirk Hamilton, The Lats of Us review, Kotaku, 29.07.2014, retrieved from: https://kotaku.com/the-last-of-us-the-kotaku-review-511292998
 “The Last of Us”, in: Wikipedia (englisch), retrieved from URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_of_Us
 Andy Robertson, The Last of US. Interview with Neil Druckmann and Ashley Johnson, The Telegraph, 31.05.2013, retrieved from: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/video-games/10091838/The-Last-of-Us-interview-with-Neil-Druckmann-and-Ashley-Johnson.html
 Eugen Pfister, ‘MmmRRRrr UrrRrRRrr!!’: Translating political anxieties into zombie language in digital games in: Federico Italiano (ed.), The Dark Side of Translation, (Routledge: London 2020), 161-175.
 Umberto Eco, Der Wald der Fiktionen, (München: DTV 2004), 103.
 Eugen Pfister, Zombies Ate Democracy: The myth of a systemic political failure in video games in: „The Playful Undead and Video Games Critical Analyses of Zombies and Gameplay,“ hg. von Stephen J. Webley und Peter Zackariasson, 216-231.
 Shane Willoughby, “TGL Interview: Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann talks The Last of Us”. In: The Gaming Liberty, 16.08.2012. Retrieved from https://www.webcitation.org/6TXJkHtX1?url=http://www.thegamingliberty.com/2012/08/tgl-interview-naughty-dogs-neil-druckmann-talks-the-last-of-us/
 Harmut Böhme ‘Die Ästhetik der Ruinen’, in Der Schein des Schönen edited by D. Kamper and C. Wolf. Göttingen: Steidl 1989, 287–304 und Theodore Ziolkowski, ‘Ruminations on Ruins: Classical versus Romantic’, German Quaterly 89/3 (2011), 265–281.
 See also
 Gerald Farca and Charlotte Ladevéze, The Journe to Nature: The Last of Us as Critical Dystopia, in: Proceedings of 1st International Joint Conference of DIGRA and FDG, 5f, retrieved from: http://www.digra.org/digital-library/publications/the-journey-to-nature-the-last-of-us-as-critical-dystopia/
 Jason Killignswoth, „Interview: Neil Druckmann & Bruce Straley on The Last of US”, in Jason-killingsworth.com, 06.01.2020, retrieved from: https://www.jason-killingsworth.com/articles/2020/1/6/the-last-of-us-in-depth-developer-post-mortem
 Also see Eugen Pfister, ‘MmmRRRrr UrrRrRRrr!!’: Translating political anxieties into zombie language in digital games in: Federico Italiano (ed.), The Dark Side of Translation, (Routledge: London 2020), 161-175 und Eugen Pfister, Zombies Ate Democracy: The myth of a systemic political failure in video games in: „The Playful Undead and Video Games Critical Analyses of Zombies and Gameplay,“ hg. von Stephen J. Webley und Peter Zackariasson, 216-231