Monday, November 18, 2013

The Romantic Dead

I wrote a little bit last week about my experience with TellTale's The Walking Dead and the rise of what I've come to call "film-games." In that post, I also talked about The Last of Us, another of my favorite games of all time. The two games share a surprising amount of similarities (while feeling like entirely different games), but one that particularly catches my attention is that both are works of Neo-Romanticism.
(*Sigh* I guess I'm morally obligated to tell you, I will be "spoiling" these games, to the extent that the enjoyment of art really depends on the revelations of its plot.)

Romanticism, as you may have learned somewhere in high school or college, is an extremely broad term given to art, literature, music, and other forms of expression in the late 18th century in Europe and the US that focused on individual expression, nature, and subjectivity. It is also closely tied with the Gothic, the movement focusing on the supernatural, the dark, and the inexplicable (you know, like zombies). The leading writers of the Romantic period included William Wordsworth, William Blake, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. These guys thought that the best thing for humanity was getting away from civilization and getting into nature, letting its beauty and power (a combination they often called "the sublime") wash over and overwhelm the human heart and mind, which would have a kind of cleansing effect on our souls. A man's greatest possession, in their eyes, were his own memories of such moments, which when "recollected in tranquility," caused the "powerful overflow of emotion" necessary to inspire truly great art. Basically, they focused on feeling over thought, beauty over meaning, and the natural over the civilized.

Perhaps the quickest way to get an understanding of the Romantic movement is to look at some typical art of the period:
Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: The Savage State (1836)
Thomas Jones, The Bard (1774)
Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818
These pictures (provided by Wikipedia), instantly give the sense of awe and wonder the Romantics aimed for. Notice how humans are de-emphasized (if they're even present) either by appearing very small, weak, or in contemplation of the greater nature around them.

But did you notice something? Look back from these paintings to the picture at the top of this post. See any similarities? That top picture is a screenshot from The Last of Us, and the that's only the beginning of the similarities.

Most scholars agree that the original Romantic movement was in large part a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and its mechanizing influence on humanity and the Earth. The Romantics saw value in staying away from the over-regulated and materialistic world of machines and increased production to find the more satisfying and better life among nature. Essentially, the resisted the change from the old "natural" world to the new mechanical world building up around them. In contrast, the "Neo-Romanticism" as portrayed in The Last of Us and The Walking Dead is a reaction against the post-industrial state and a return to the old natural world. For example, contrast how the images above show man's slowly growing influence over nature with the following image, also a screenshot from The Last of Us.

Here, we see the reverse situation, namely, nature's growing influence over the fallen world of humanity. After nearly a century of man's supposed dominance over the natural world, The Last of Us presents a world where man's reign over the earth has failed and nature is quickly reclaiming the land. Notably, it is because of nature itself that man fails in the world of The Last of Us--the apocalyptic pandemic in the game is the fictional mutation of a real-world fungus called cordyceps, which infects ants and spiders and causes erratic, aggressive behavior. In the world of The Last of Us, nature gives the original Romantics what they always wanted by subduing humanity and taking back the Earth.

As a result of this, in both games, those who are closest to nature survive. The Last of Us begins in rural Texas, where the protagonist Joel and his brother Tommy only escape infection because they live outside of "the city." The major conflicts of the game happen in fallen cities (Boston, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City), and the few moments of peace in between come from walks in the woods, a dam in the middle of the Wyoming wilderness, and a section of Salt Lake City that nature has reclaimed. 

The Walking Dead is similar in that the disasters happen in fallen cities, and relief is found in the countryside. In the first and second episodes, the protagonist Lee Everett and his group find refuge on farms. The first episode shows a simple farm family surviving by use of manual labor and home-grown remedies, living close to nature and therefore getting by. In the second episode, the relationship between humanity and nature gets more complicated when the group finds a dairy farm owned by the St. John family, who seem to have successfully guarded themselves and their property from the zombie apocalypse by use of an electric fence, leaving the farm a picturesque reminder of the ordered, rational days before the zombie outbreak. However, this illusion of human control is soon lost as (spoilers) it comes out that the only way they've been able to maintain this lifestyle it by turning to cannibalism, emphasizing how unnatural this throwback to the age of humans is in the natural order. In later episodes, characters suggest to Lee that the only safety can be found "in the country" and indeed, the epilogue to season 1 shows Clementine in temporary safety out in the hills of the Georgia countryside.
The St. Johns' Dairy from Season 1, Episode 2 of TellTale's The Walking Dead

Another idea often associated with Romanticism is the "noble savage," an inherently racist conception of native, non-industrialized "other"s as symbolic of freedom from civilization's influence and/or the harmony of nature and humanity. Some popular characters that fall into this trope include Uncas from The Last of the Mohicans, Jim from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and even Pocahontas in the Disney animated version of her story and the Na'vi from the 2009 film Avatar. In following with the pattern of reversal that make The Last of Us and The Walking Dead a particular kind of neo-Romanticism, both of these games present characters I propose are instead "savage nobles." Whereas the noble savage represented a non-industrialized society finding wisdom through nature, the savage noble is a de-industrialized character forced into finding his or her way by natural means, which often forces them outside of the moral paradigm of their old life.

The protagonists of both of these games are savage nobles. Lee Everett is a history professor whose first act of "savagery" happened just before the actual outbreak when he found his wife with another man and killed him in his anger. After the outbreak, Lee only survives as he descends more into a natural "survival of the fittest" mindset, and the entire game hinges on presenting the player with choices that do not imply exactly a right or a wrong, but almost always present a choice between the morals of a civilized world and the realities of this new natural world. Joel from The Last of Us represents many American ideals before the outbreak, working hard in construction and apparently planning to to start his own company before the fungus jumped to humans and his daughter was killed by a soldier in an attempt to contain the outbreak. From that point, the official description from Naughty Dog (the developers of The Last of Us) tells us that Joel takes "numerous de-humanizing jobs over the years to survive in this new post-pandemic world" and that by the time when the main story of the game takes place, he has "few moral lines left to cross." Both characters are forced into a nomadic hunter-gatherer mindset to survive, having to pick supplies up from broken homes and vehicles to get by in their post-apocalyptic worlds.

I have used the versions of the word "apocalypse" several times already in this post, as does culture in general when referring to fiction such as The Walking Dead and The Last of Us. In the case of these two games, however, they are not just apocalyptic in subject matter, but in literary form as well. In her doctoral dissertation Henry Treece and the New Apocalypse: a Study of English Neo-Romanticism, Jo Ann Bagerly looks at a group of artists and writers actually called the Apocalyptics, a group defined as "any poet adhering concurrently to a deep belief in the decadence of the world, a prophetic confidence in its renovation, and the conviction that his age is the transitional period between the two" (p. 3). Perhaps it is more poignant in The Last of Us, but both of these games carry an inherent environmentalist argument, which is their version of "a deep belief in the decadence of the world." Both games also contain arguments for the necessity of understanding and acceptance for different groups, and warn against over-powerful central governments. However, both offer a glimmer of hope through the power of loving interpersonal relationships, as symbolized by both of the protagonists' relationships to the girls whom they meet and grow close to in their respective stories, Ellie and Clementine (who both become the true protagonists of these stories by their end). 

Quoting J.F. Hendry's work "Writers and the Apocalypse," Bagerly also unintentionally gives an excellent summary of the ultimate point of both of these games: "the war is not against the object, since it is hopeless ever to try to free man from matter, but to attain optimum living fusion between man and total environment" (p. 51). Again quoting Hendry, she also unwittingly sums up the goals of the writers of both of these games: "Poets should be concerned with the personal reactions of man to man, where those reactions are honest and individual, not falsified by group propaganda...and those who have eyes to see and ears to hear shall learn from his Apocalyptic utterance his problem and their own problem, his solution and their own solution" (p. 53) Compare this to Neil Druckmann's (head writer and creative director for The Last of Us) own statement on his goals for the game: "At its core, the thing we kept coming to was that relationship, that bond between these two these two characters go on this journey, every place they stop, we kind of explore a different faction and how they deal with the lack of supplies, or the threat of the infection, or the threat of other humans." Everything from Hendry's quotes is there: personal relationships, fusion between man and environment, different problems and different solutions.

The Last of Us and The Walking Dead are great games. They're fun, they're exciting, and they take the player on amazing journeys. But what I hope I've proved here is that they're not just that. These games are directly speaking to literary and artistic tradition--and adding their own voices to those traditions. These two are certainly not the only games out there to do this, and they most definitely will not be the last. Games as intelligent as these are really just beginning, and it is my view that some of the greatest cultural contributions of this century are yet to come from this medium.


  1. Is this something that you're working on for your book proposal, or is it something separate? This seems like it's pretty well researched, and it makes a lot of good points. Regarding the second of Bagerly's quotes, it seems, both from the language and the content, that she is looking more at the relationship between God and man, yet The Last of Us and other "neo-Romantic games" bear little reference to God or to any form of deity so far as I've seen. Nature in Romanticism is the dwelling place of Deity, whereas in neo-Romantic games, it seems like nature is valued more so because it is *not* civilization--not because it offers any kind of communion with Deity or the Sublime.

    1. The Last of Us actually does mention God, but only briefly, but there are actually a ton of religious references if you look for them. Sarah's wearing a cross in the beginning, for instance, and Joel prays as she's dying. Tess says "let there be light" at one point, and there's a sign in David's restaurant that says "HE will provide" or something like that.

  2. A great article--I really enjoyed it!

    I'm particularly interested the "savage noble" idea. I never thought of looking at characters that reversed the "noble savage" trope as being, well, exactly what you described them as. Very cool--I'm gonna keep my eyes open for more savage nobles in fiction in the future.

    1. Thanks! Yeah, the savage noble is an idea I kind of stumbled upon while I was writing this, but it's definitely a trope you can find elsewhere, especially in videogames.

  3. This is great stuff. Something I thought would be interesting to note- there's a lot of criticism surrounding zombies in our modern world and how they typify economic downturns. Saw a talk recently about how, in an economic recession, zombie fiction explodes in popularity and precedence.

    The Last Of Us and The Walking Dead could perhaps also be seen as Neo-Romantic works that act as reactions to the mechanisation and failure of the economy specifically? Where individuals become worthless beings, economically and physically, in the "Gothic" supernatural sense of the zombie? Indeed, I think a big thematic point of TLoU was that the only economy in its world was one of survival- "survival" is what makes you worthwhile, not money.

    1. Thanks! And yeah, you definitely make a same point. I think one reason we're turning back to nature as a source of higher wisdom is that we now doubt man-made systems and yearn for the balance that we see in nature. Zombies definitely come up in difficult times and have always carried with them a kind of social commentary of mankind's failings and crazed drive for survival.