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  • “There is no other choice here”New Naturalism in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us
  • Sarah McCreedy (bio)

The twenty-first century has broadly witnessed a resurgence of American literary naturalism in contemporary American literature and culture. This is evident from the fiction of authors including Cormac McCarthy, Daniel Woodrell, and Lionel Shriver, as well as in films and TV series such as Wind River (2017) and True Detective (Season 1, 2014). Much work remains to be done on exploring and accounting for this resurgence as a whole.1 One important cultural area that remains almost completely untouched, however, is video games. In the earlier years of game studies, critics expressed a skepticism regarding the extent to which video games should be read via the analytical tools of other disciplines (see Aarseth). Nevertheless, in recent years, video game scholarship is evolving in an interdisciplinary regard; this is evidenced in American Studies from recent offerings that consider video games through the lens of cultural history, such as John Wills’s Gamer Nation (2019) and Esther Wright’s paratextual study, Rockstar Games and American History (2022). This article also adopts an interdisciplinary approach in its reading of video games in tandem with literary theories. In this sense, the following adheres to the perspective of Dominic Arsenault, who writes that “the task for researchers is to see the possibilities for adapting the notions and theories of narratology to video games without losing sight of their specificity” (369).

Naturalism has always veered towards exaggeration on the page and led to questions about the complicity of the form’s audiences and theories of reception. This is of particular interest to the present study of video games, given the interactive nature of the medium and the relationship between choice and responsibility. Especially from the 2010s onwards, the [End Page 219] intersection between games and naturalism invites closer examination. This article explores the naturalist elements in Naughty Dog’s game for the PlayStation 3 (later re-mastered for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5), The Last of Us (2013). The essay begins by establishing a definition of new naturalism and conducting a brief survey of the new naturalist trend in video games before examining in more detail the relationship in The Last of Us between narrative and gameplay. Given its nuanced philosophical engagement with notions of free will in a neoliberal context, The Last of Us can be understood as a different but no less compelling example of new naturalism alongside those we find in fiction, film, and television.

New Naturalism and Video Games

Contemporary American literature and culture that responds to the neoliberal era reflect familiar themes that initially emerged with literary naturalism in the late nineteenth century, including the agonies—as opposed to the luxuries—of choice, masculinist discourses of rugged individualism versus feminine discourses of disempowerment, and, more broadly, the acknowledgement of forces that work beyond the power of individual will. However, in “new” naturalism, the deterministic worldview of traditional naturalistic texts has been supplanted by a more nuanced conception of free will. The new naturalism imagines a world where free will exists but in the context of excruciatingly limited choices; choices, indeed, that may not even qualify as choices at all. The existence of free will only creates the illusion of freedom, creating a process that I term naturalistic false consciousness. This term is adapted from Marxist thought, which has historically interrogated the discrepancy between appearance and actuality in societal functioning. False consciousness, defined by Friedrich Engels, describes the process through which humans digest ideology, wherein the “real motives impelling him remain unknown to him. . . . [H]e does not investigate further for a remote process independent of thought” (648–49). In other words, thought is not one’s own, but one cannot comprehend this because of the way in which ideology works.

Naturalistic false consciousness can be defined as the false notion of free will as constructed in works of new naturalism. Naturalistic false consciousness replicates the illusion of choice apparent under neoliberal capitalism. Expanding its influence during the 1980s, the neoliberal project emphasizes the privatization of the state. But neoliberalism is more than a free market policy; it is an ideology. Since...