I played The Last of Us Remastered about 10 months ago. Since then, I’ve made several unsuccessful attempts to write about what makes The Last of Us a good game or what the game might mean for me. I simply couldn’t find an angle that was interesting to write about. I even considered not writing about it at all, but I couldn’t bring myself to give up. So I tinkered with it for months.
Last week, I had some forced downtime at work, which actually turned out to be kind of pleasant. As I paced around a room, my thoughts drifted back to The Last of Us. That’s when I got an idea: the sort of idea that pulls my thoughts about a subject into focus. Everything snapped into place. I grabbed a scrap of paper and scribbled out a new intro paragraph. This short paragraph was going to save this blog post, and I was proud of it.
When I finally got back to my classroom, I tossed my prized scrap of paper into my satchel bag.
A few days later, my work bag was stolen out of my automobile, and with it… all hope of actually completing this blog post.
Then it occured to me that there was a certain ironic juxtaposition at work here. If I were trying to make sense of a senseless world like the one in The Last of Us, then having my conceptions of ownership and space and safety violated could only give me new perspective on this game.
Let me be clear. The wrong done to me was pretty minor in the scheme of things, and I don’t want to equate my relatively minor suffering with the greater evils that might occur to someone else. No one was hurt, and everything that was taken can be replaced. I’m extremely grateful. But I did experience a wide range emotions around this event: from indifference to anxiety to anger.
One of my more alarming sensations was a strong desire to find the thief and enact physical violence upon him or her. This is a person who willfully disregarded the sanctity of someone else’s space. This is a person who put my rights below their whim. It seemed to me that someone who chooses not play by the rules of society should be removed from society. It’s a scary thought to have flick across your mind.
The following day, I found myself walking along the railroad tracks with an old baseball bat slung across my shoulder. I was looking for my pack among the old mattresses, broken chairs, filthy clothes, and other detritus strewn about this post-apocalyptic wasteland hidden between the high rises of downtown Tempe and the historic Maple-Ash neighborhood. This part of the city looked like a scene from The Last of Us, and I must have looked a bit like Joel treading through the ruins of civilization.
Post-apocalyptic narratives have been a fascination for humans for thousands of years. In the last 50-ish years, we’ve associated the apocalypse with the total collapse of civilization and zombies. However, this term “apocalypse” comes from a Greek word that means “to uncover or to reveal” (hence the biblical Revelation). Even though we don’t use the word in this way, I think the etymology of the term still rings true. The end of the world often reveals something about humanity—often by playing on very real fears. We are justifiably afraid of what would happen if some catastrophic event were to destroy the societal structures that we take for granted. We place ourselves as protagonists into these narratives where we are beset on all sides by dangers. In The Last of Us, the enemy falls into one of two categories. At first, you’re dealing primarily with monsters called “clickers” that were once human. Whatever plagues them has reduced them to mindlessly violent creatures that will attack you on sight. Though as you progress through the game, you spend more time fighting other human beings. They are no better: perhaps an even greater threat. The most frightening revelation of the post-apocalyptic narrative is just how far we are willing to go to protect ourselves.
I caught the briefest glimpse of this in the days after the burglary.
I fear who I am even in the midst of this tiny apocalypse that has momentarily collapsed my faith of order society. Like Joel, having no choice but to do terrible things, I lose something in my struggle to protect what is mine. Being human involves recognizing and respecting the dignity of others. This means that I can’t simply think of the person who stole from me as a shambling monstrosity from a video game. I do damage to myself—my very soul—when I dehumanize the other.
But my responsibility doesn’t begin and end with the protection of my material goods. There is something greater at stake for me.
In The Last of Us, Joel is never more dangerous than when Ellie is threatened. He watches over her during the course of many-months-long journey so that she can arrive safely with the Fireflys. In the beginning he is motivated by the fact that Ellie is immune to the sickness that transforms people into monsters. There is a cure for humanity hidden in this little girl. But when he learns that the Fireflys must dissect her to find this cure, something beautiful and terrifying awakens within him. He kills everyone in the compound in a hailstorm of bullets.
Being burglarized has me thinking about what I am willing to do to protect my daughter. I can think of no greater responsibility than to protect her life. If I let myself imagine what would have happened had this person tried to break into my home (where my little girl was sleeping), I see a man as frenzied as Joel in the final moments of The Last of Us. I would trade my humanity against that of the shambling monstrosity that would threaten my family.
I pray to God that I never have to make that bargain.
The Last of Us is a grisly depiction of a bleak world, but there is something real about it. Its a story that resonates at the frequency of our deepest fears about the darker parts of human nature. Somewhere in the space between imagination and possibility, it reminds us that the thing we need to be saved from might just be inside of us. How very biblical!