115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Modern Plagues and Visual Play: Deconstructing the "Nosotopia" in Naughty Dog's The Last of Us

Jodie Austin Cypert, Menlo College

This paper analyzes the 2013 video game The Last of Us through the lenses of ludology and disease theory in order to argue that video game trends reveal a culturally significant focus on epidemically-oriented dystopias, termed nosotopias. While ludology and video game studies represent oft-neglected branches within critical literary theory, this analysis reaffirms the value of video game hermeneutics as a means of identifying cultural trends in popular digital media while complicating conventional approaches to the "reading" process. 


In June of 2013, video game developer Naughty Dogreleased The Last of Us— a bleakly realistic adventure that caught the gaming community by storm. Fans eagerly deconstructed both diegetic and non-diegetic elements of the game in online forums, from the production's hauntingly original score to the protagonist's uncanny resemblance to a popular film celebrity. While the game's success was likely due in part to its compelling storyline and challenging fight sequences, I would suggest the value in regarding The Last of Us as distinctly representative of an emergent apocalyptic trend in recent video games. Titles such as Left 4 Dead, Resident Evil 7, the Bioshock franchise, and Prototype 4 betray a marked fascination with apocalyptic and/or Anthropocenic scenarios, for example. While dystopian tropes are nothing new in video games per se, these games find common ground in their inclusion of epidemiological crises as significant narrative events, combining the elements of conventional dystopian fantasy with a pandemic twist. Such narratives, I would argue, take their cue from recent scares involving diseases such as Zika and Ebola, fitting the criteria of the "plague script" famously outlined by Susan Sontag. 

The framework for this paper is indebted to the work of Gonzalo Frasca, whose definition of "ludology" provides a starting point for a formal consideration of game studies as a discipline in its own right. Similarly, the work of Ian Bogost, Jesper Juul, Grant Travinor, and Sherry Turkle provides a critical foundation for this inquiry in suggesting additional models for how to engage the literary dimension of video games while acknowledging their textual distinctiveness. Finally, this paper evokes aspects of disease theory by highlighting the scholarly contributions of Sontag, Priscilla Wald, and Bill Albertini, whose investigations of "outbreak narratives" afford useful tools deconstructing continued preoccupations with video game plague scenarios. Ultimately, my hope is to urge recognition of the nostopia as a significant textual genre that finds special resonance in a medium that deserves greater scholarly attention.