The image of an empty room, deadened with dust, stained with age, marked by the shadowy presence of immovable furniture beneath a flat and failing light. Outside, the first green shoots of a new spring pick at the windows, softening the border between interior and exterior.
Soon, through the slow strength of those woody tendrils, that border will collapse, the room torn open to the sun to become just another unremarkable rise in the landscape. That is the lasting image the environments of The Last of Us leave us with, crystallized in the game’s title screen, which sees a single snaking vine curling through a mossy, flaking window frame, curtains softly swaying in the breeze.
Taking a near-future America as its setting, developer Naughty Dog’s 2013 post-apocalyptic drama leads the player in a westward path from Boston, through facsimiles of Lincoln and Pittsburgh, then across Colorado and Wyoming to Salt Lake City. The Last of Us, unlike the vague place-setting of many post-apocalyptic games, chooses to mirror these places, placing landmarks on the skyline, even remaking portions of real streets to a high degree of accuracy. But its recreation of these urban and rural spaces are little more than hollow shells, emptied of life by a parasitic fungus that preys on human flesh. In the absence of humanity, the spaces of The Last of Us have become overgrown, and like the game’s title screen, are crowded with plants and trees, breaking through tarmac and extending shoots across concrete walls. The result is a certain romantic softness to the game’s apocalyptic imagery of vast human loss.
Though its cities are dotted with burnt-out cars, sun-bleached corpses, and the ephemera of a dead way of life, they are also fecund with natural forms. Flooded roads have been recast as algae-choked swamps, gurgling with amphibians, while whole city blocks have been overtaken with vines and trees, dappling golden sunlight across the rusted remains of humanity’s apparent technological peak. Naughty Dog’s artists seem to seek beauty in this conflict, treating each architectural diorama to the richness of nature with a tireless eye for detail and poetry. Floral motifs in stonework are twinned with real plant life, murals of city skylines are overtaken by moss, and even the rotting of a carpet or the patterns of mould on a plaster wall are treated with the utmost care and an ever-precise eye for composition. In short, the spaces of The Last of Us are not simply a realist vision of how cities might look after a decade or two without people, but a fantasy of death, an aesthetic monument to our desire for erasure by the entropy of nature.
I say a fantasy because the idea of humanity’s erasure by the beautiful, unconstrained, morally exempt forces of nature is no longer something which is available to us. Last year, the Working Group on the Anthropocene presented the International Geological Congress with the evidence for declaring the designation of a new geological epoch, the first since the Holocene began with the end of the Palaeolithic Ice Age 11,700 years ago. Termed the Anthropocene, this epoch is to be defined by the effect of human societies on the environment, biodiversity, and geological record of Earth.
The delineating of the Anthropocene is part of a change in how we see our world, eschewing ideas of a planet built by slow and logical processes of buildup and erosion, and instead proposing a timeline made of chaotic and catastrophic shifts amplified by feedback mechanisms. In this long view, the naming of Anthropocene simply adds humanity, as a diverse and impossibly complex force, to this catalogue of shifts. But how does this change the green and growing apocalypse of The Last of Us when we return to it with this in mind?
You can read the rest of this article in issue 003 of games and architecture zine Heterotopias. Launching today, the issue deals with how game spaces represent and reflect back on reality, with features on the architecture of GTA V, Killer 7's perverse reality, and what Mirror's Edge Catalyst can tell us about urban inequality.