Today, The Last of Us launches around the world. Naughty Dog’s highly anticipated title has received excellent reviews from critics before gamers have even glimpsed Joel and Ellie’s world of ruin. At Progress Bar, we’re interested in the soundtrack of the post-apocalypse and we have even come up with a playlist to help discuss some of the tropes, the mood and expectations we have going into this video game.
Sound Designs for Desolation
Naughty Dog’s TV spots* have opted for an eerie guitar to underpin the devastation and violence happening off-screen — it is further underscored by Ellie’s young voice asking Joel (and by extension the player), ‘Could you be the Last of Us?’.*
In contrast, the 2013 E3 Launch Trailer* opts for less contemplation and amps up the tension with an industrial track that melds gun slides, scrapped knives and chains into a relentless and suffocating cacophony of dread.
It’s clear that Naughty Dog aren’t going to let their detailed character models and settings do all the heavy lifting. Music is playing a big part in influencing your psychological reaction to this post-apocalyptic world. So, let’s dive into some classics to help you set the mood while you’re playing this video game!
The iPod of Fear, Loathing and Betrayal
#1 Al Green – How can you mend a broken heart?
An unexpected track that popped up in the first act of the Hughes Brother’s The Book of Eli. In the film, Denzel Washington’s character takes a brief respite from the world and pops in a pair of Monster Beat headphones, connected to an iPod that has seen better days. It is one of the few times that Denzel’s character gets any time to develop aside from being a violent force of nature.
Blatant product placement aside, the scene says a lot about our obsessions as consumers. We put a lot of time and attention into gadgetry that has little value in a post-apocalyptic landscape. On the flip side, it may be the only plausible thing you can play any music on (provided Tom Waits can sell you a charge — so I guess mophie juice packs are a ‘buy’ then). Imagine a world where we no longer get to hear Al Green? Not one worth living in.
#2 Owl Eyes – Nightswim
Owl Eyes. Her layered voice and the sparse electronica on her debut ‘Nightswim’ have an almost ghost-like effect — here songs sound like they are narrated by an ethereal spectre recalling all her past regrets and fears. It sounds like the muted music you might hear if you were to go slowly insane from all your disgraceful acts of violence and betrayal.
Nightswim is a new release and is on heavy rotation on triple j. When I first heard it, I couldn’t help but think back to the excellent soundtrack that underwrote much of Ryan Gosling’s Drive. Here we have themes of love and longing wrapped up in a synth driven pop tune. It speaks to the desolation of the apocalypse: when there is no more left in the world, all you have is your regrets for those moments you weren’t courageous enough. Always repeating. Over and over. Always in your moments of respite, tormenting you.
Bonus track — Kavinsky – Nightcall. When you get tired of Miami Hotline’s music, put this on repeat.
#3 Pixies – Where is my mind?
An undeniable punk rock classic. Most prominently used in David Fincher’s ending montage to the nihilistic Fight Club. (And you thought Bioshock Infinite had a twist ending? That’s so cute.)
In an interview with Neil degrasse Tyson for Star Talk Radio, author Max Brooks (World War Z) explained that slower zombies were scarier because they were far more psychologically damaging than the more modern ’28 Days Later’ sprinter. As he put it, you outrun them for a time, then you are forced to rest and you become complacent because you think of these creatures as being manageable. Underestimating the zombie horde, it will become your undoing. This Pixies track speaks very plainly and simply (part of its charm and beauty) to that feeling of helplessness and the delirium that comes with the pressure and stress of negotiating a post-apocalypse.
#4 Aerosmith – I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing
No I am not Rick Rolling you.
You might be surprised to know that Michael Bay once made excellent action films. Bad Boys (not Bad Boys 2), The Rock and even Armageddon. You have to understand that the 90’s was characterised by an anxiety for the coming ‘new millennium’ and catastrophe blockbusters were all the rage. When you’re ten-years-old seeing films where Earth gets invaded, then wiped out by an asteroid was nothin’. However, Armageddon is one of those movies were they managed to SUCEED in avoiding a catastrophic event.
I included this mostly for the video clip because a crying Liv Tyler (a constant cast member in her dad’s film clips, she even appeared in one with an undiscovered Alicia Silverstone) touching a video monitor as her father faded into static was pretty moving at the time. Nowadays, on reflection, this song represents all of the 90s and its excesses — from the movie clips edited into an official movie song to an ageing rock band getting all schmaltzy. It’s almost begging for the The Verve to come in and ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ this track up!
Sentimentality and relationships are core to the post apocalyptic setting.It’s almost never solely about the environmental threats, it’s about the characters and how they choose to deal with a pretty grim situation. Last of Us is not above this, Ellie is clearly there to help Joel see things differently — we’ll soon discover how that all plays out.
#5 Johnny Cash – The Man Comes Around
It’s critical that you watch the opening of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) remake on YouTube first.
Using Johnny Cash’s music, both upbeat and wistful, belies the out-of-control violence on screen. Zack’s remake was part of a revival in the zombie horror genre and is in many ways a distinctly American response to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. Zack just went and remade Romero’s vaunted classic for audiences (as opposed to something new like Boyle’s film) — updated for the modern audience with special effects that made the gore more revolting and computer generated effects to make the zombie horde look endless. You can speculate about the kind of film Zack might have made if he had been the same man with Watchmen and Man of Steel under his belt. But early on in his career he chose fertile material (Godfather material really, Romero set the rules for zombies) in which to impart his visual flair and technical precision for filmmaking. As for a piece of music on its own — it lacks impact without the edited opening. There isn’t much post-apocalyptic context which you can hold on to as listener. Well, only if you’re discounting the references to the Book of Revelations.
So… here is a better Johnny Cash song, his cover of Nine Inch Nails – Hurt. Here is a really good example of exceptional material helping to inform an even stronger visual rendering in the form of Mark Romanek’s famous film clip. Everything about it is pitch perfect. Johnny’s gravelly voice; the way it subtly shifts tempo towards the end; the editing of the film clip; all the beautiful shots, particularly those of June Carter Cash. Here we have a man in his twilight years contemplating his life and his deeds. As I’ve mentioned before, when we must become more vicious and violent in response to our world, when we begin to lose a sense of ourselves before the apocalypse, we can’t help but contemplate the loss and either embrace or fear what we will become.
Hopefully, I’ve helped you to think about other songs that might invoke the mood and desolation of a post-apocalyptic world or which simply help you to meditate on the human condition. Let us know what you think!
*You will need to log into YouTube to view this age restricted material.