The word “zombie” derives from “zombi,” a West African term from the Vodou (voodoo) tribes that refers to a corpse reanimated by no will of its own, moving without a mind or purpose. In recent times, this definition has largely stayed the same; early references in Western culture include the 1929 novel Magic Island and 1932 film White Zombie. While these and other scattered references introduced the concept to audiences, it wasn’t until relatively recently that “zombies” became a cultural sensation: driven by the George Romero and company, zombies became, rather ironically, much more than mindless scare tactics and are now a subgenre in and of their own.
Zombies as a pop culture sensation have taken many turns throughout their rapid progression into the mainstream. Romero used them as a means of social commentary, most notably Dawn of the Dead‘s drones returning to a mall and wandering aimlessly; from there, the concept took off, and legions of enthusiastic young directors attempted to morph the ideas into their own until every other popcorn movie, dollar store paperback novel, and arcade shoot-em-up involved mowing down the undead. Reasons for their insurrection vary from medium to medium; sometimes, it’s simply magic, either undescribed or mentioned in passing as a “biological weapon gone wrong.” Most commonly, a new and previously unheard of disease spreads through mankind at a torrid pace and leaves the world in ruins, with our heroes among the few that survive. The narrative is essentially the same, with little room for variation in most cases.
Naughty Dog’s latest opus, The Last of Us, largely follows that certain deus ex machina – without giving anything away, the “zombies” this time are a result of a mind-consuming fungus, spread either through airborne spores or – surprise, surpise – a bite from an infected person. In Naughty Dog’s world, the infected go through different stages, starting at simple maddened humans before progressing to admittedly unsettling creatures known only as a “clickers-” the fungus has caused the victim’s face to erupt, eliminating a sense of sight and moving in a disturbed, twitching motion that follows sound rather than sight (a clever narrative putting an emphasis on sneaky gameplay). The goal, of course, is the same – they want to bite you, or eat you, or just beat you to a pulp because you exist. While they aren’t technically corpses brought to life, these creations fit the mold – they are humans without their humanity, replaced by horrifying primal instinct.
That being said, the zombies in this case serve as a mere background to the game’s brilliantly realized world. Civilization as we know it has crumbled, replaced by a sort of Wild West that just so happens to have a bunch of nasty things in it that you would really prefer to avoid. Enough survivors remain to have a genuine society, living off of “ration cards” and staying within the confines of the city, which is protected by a militaristic government. There’s even (what appears to be) a terrorist/resistance group arisen from the ashes of a devastated world known as the “fireflies.” The explanations are quick, simple, and believable – all you need to know is essentially laid out in the opening credits after the opening segment. (On a quick sidenote, the opening twenty minutes may be the most intense scene you’ll play this year.)
The Last of Us is being described by many pundits and gaming aficionados as definitive of art in the video game medium; and, for the first time, I can genuinely agree. While titles like Shadow of the Colossus and the Bioshock series had their moments, The Last of Us is an absolute experience in hopeless humanity. It is a post-apocalyptic vision on par with The Road, Children of Men, Riddley Walker and the like – with the kicker being it is interactive, a story the player is meant to live and become absorbed in on a whole different level. Your character can find items and use them just as in any other game; however, the very simplicity and basic nature of these items are harrowing. Scissors, tape, a brick and a ladder are everyday, common items that are absolutely crucial to survival. Decayed bodies and abandoned cars litter the roads and buildings, which themselves are forgotten and overgrown with vegetation. Most notable is that the game doesn’t even call special attention to exceptionally disturbing events or make a concerted effort to guide the player; there’s no big orange arrow at the top of the screen and it’s relatively easy to get disoriented. More than once, I’ve wandered into a house only to find a body hanging, rotted and long forgotten. Sometimes, there’s a note, sometimes there’s not. Either way, it’s just an accepted event, and you move on.
The game creates a real atmosphere of hopelessness and despair and yet gives the message that we must continue on regardless; while I’ve yet to finish the game (truth be told, I probably have a ways to go), at this point I often find myself more unnerved by other humans than the clickers and infected swarms. A dying world seems to bring out the worst in people, as gangs litter the inner cities and murder any bypasser – and yet, as protagonist Joel calmly states, “I’ve been on both sides.” The game truly captures why the zombie phenomenon has gripped us so, and does it in resplendent fashion; we as Americans feel a certain level of invincibility, and the idea of the zombie is that humanity’s massive scope becomes its undoing. Essentially, that we as a society can be toppled by ourselves – and it is a bleak prospect indeed. The zombie story has been recycled a thousand times – but by making it an interactive and incredibly engaging experience, Naughty Dog has not only created what might be one of the greatest games of all time, but a genuine piece of art.
Now, I’m gonna go finish it.