The Desolate Campuses of a Pandemic World

I have been playing The Last of Us recently, enjoying my newfound freedom from academia by finally indulging in some longer story-based video games. There are problems I'm having with it which I think I'll end up getting into in a longer post in the future, but there's also a lot I'm loving about it. Chief among those points of adoration is the world that the game builds. For those who don't know, The Last of Us takes place twenty years after a huge pandemic event rocks the world and turns many people into what are effectively zombies, leaving only a few survivors to band together and roam the now empty world. Having finished the game just a few days ago, there was one sequence that really stood out to me in a game that has a fair few great sequences. Without delving into too many plot specifics, our lead characters Joel and Ellie arrive at the University of Eastern Colorado on horseback, expecting to find survivors but finding a completely abandoned landscape. It stopped me in my tracks and I wanted to talk about why I found it so poignant, both on a textual level and regarding wider experiences outside the game.

It is worth saying upfront that while I'm going to include some images from this section and describe it, it's hard to talk about how immaculate this part of the game is. So, I'm going to push you towards this little gameplay video which shows the section I'm talking about, in case you haven't played it. Hopefully by watching it, you get a sense of the almost mythic sensation of this area. It is incredible. Being an eight year old game, The Last of Us doesn't always hold up visually, but when it sticks to bigger elements like lighting or colouring of the landscape... God, it knocks my socks off, with this sequence being the chief example of that. All of the trees have an autumnal glow, with an auburn colour that represents that last breath of beauty before the trees die. They're surrounded by these monolithic old buildings, some old, some new. This element of the design I love, because it speaks perfectly to the patchwork design of real universities, in which old two storey buildings are nestled among modern glass behemoths. You arrive here with the sun setting, just barely catching the golden hour, soundtracked by the hooves of your horse and nothing else in the diegesis. Though there is some trouble you have to face on the campus, the quiet moments of liminal time are gorgeous.
The notes from students are elements that add a profound narrative to an already stunning setting.
As part of your journey to the medical centre on campus, you have to go through the abandoned dorm rooms. Now, I implied earlier that some of the visual elements of TLOU don't hold up, of which the piles of abandoned belongings in the dorms are one, with their textures looking dated. However, I feel that this actually adds to the ambience of these rooms, in that there is not much distinguishing the piles of trash as everyone eventually met one of two of the same fates. The crown jewel of these rooms though isn't the visual element, but the notes that you discover throughout. The entire game has notes scattered around, many of which are incredibly sad goodbyes to loved ones, but the ones in the University had a particularly profound impact on me. They're things like newspaper clippings reporting on the outbreak with annotations of panic, diaries that chart a growing sense of fear, notes that convey a deserved anger at the student population being abandoned by leadership inside and outside of the university. They are elements that add a profound narrative to an already stunning setting. Though the pandemic of TLOU is wildly different than the one we have lived through for the past fifteen months, these small details about how students responded to the outbreak feels identical.

That is the core of why I'm writing about such a specific element of a game that is eight years old, it resonates with me so much. Before the pandemic, when I was studying in Florida, I would often go for impromptu walks around the campus. Sometimes it was during the day, sometimes it would be late at night as I returned from the cinema, but it was often at times that were incredibly still. I loved it. The quietest I ever saw it was one of the last nights before I left, as most of the population of campus had evacuated due to the COVID-19 outbreak. I walked the roads that wound through campus alone, not seeing a single person. Though the wider situation I was in was terrifying, the immediate moment of walking through a totally quiet campus was fantastic. I felt like I was in the ultimate liminal space. Playing TLOU and visiting the University of Eastern Colorado, I was transported right back to those quiet nights in Florida, especially as the colour scheme of the signs of both universities were spookily similar. Since I've moved back to Exeter, I still often find myself drawn towards the space of the campus and I treasure the moments I get to spend when it's just me and the landscape. People still live on these campuses of course, but it is fewer people who are doing less socialising. Where these solitary walks once felt like a very specific experience, they have now become something that I'm sure you can experience on most university campuses on most days.
We are students in a world where the student experience doesn't exist any more.
I think why I'm so moved by the representation of an abandoned campus is that it makes literal a metaphor that I've been working through during the pandemic. In TLOU, a university campus is very literally a relic of a former world. There is no space for a university in a world whose chief demand is survival. Ellie, a character born after the outbreak, voices this exact point through her confusion; it is so alien to her that people, adults even, would just go to a place to learn, to hang out, to discover something about themselves. It's a heightened version of what it feels like to be a student now. We are so lucky that we don't have to fear for our own survival, that much I want to make clear. It is a privilege that mundanity, mindless misery and mental breakdowns are our greatest worry. But we are students in a world where the student experience doesn't exist any more. We cannot go out drinking, meet new people, have a regrettable kebab at 2am. Our accommodation has not been overrun by toxic spores, but we have still found ourselves without a place in the world.

If you would allow me to, I'd like to end this post on another slightly melodramatic comparison, to the novel All Quiet on the Western Front. As a novel, it speaks in a surprisingly universal way to a sense of youth being annihilated by events outside our control, though about World War 1 instead of a pandemic. The bit that most appropriately captures this goes as such: "Things are particularly confused for us twenty-year olds [...]. The older men still have firm ties to their earlier lives - they have property, wives, children, jobs and interests and these bonds are all so strong that the war can't break them. But for us twenty-year olds there are only our parents, and for some of us a girlfriend. [...] Apart from that, we didn't really have much else; the occasional passion for something, a few hobbies, school; our lives didn't go much further than that as yet. And now nothing is left of it all. [...] We hadn't had a chance to put down any roots. The war swept us away. For the others, for the older men, the war is an interruption, and they can think beyond the end of it. But we were caught up by the war, and we can't see how things will turn out. All we know for the moment is that in some strange and melancholy way we have become hardened, although we don't often feel sad about it anymore." It is how I feel exactly about this period of my life. As I started putting this quote in I felt that perhaps the last part about becoming hardened didn't apply but no, I actually feel as if I have been worn down to a feeling of total depletion by the last fifteen months. I struggle to see how I or any of the other people my age are going to be able to carry on as if nothing happened to us. As if we didn't just have a formative part of our life annihilated. As if our world didn't end.
There is a hope I find in these campuses, these homes of knowledge, however much damage they may have taken.
Though I'm of course saddened and angry about the way the UK government has handled our pandemic, this isn't meant to be a post of sadness or anger. There was a wistfully melancholic feeling when TLOU brought me to the gates of the University of Eastern Colorado, but it was also a feeling of appreciation. Through forces, be they biological or bureaucratic, universities are under constant attack. That thought does sadden me. But there is a hope I find in these campuses, these homes of knowledge, however much damage they may have taken. There is a promise for betterment on a campus and even when the university itself has crumbled to a literal or metaphorical shell of its former self, there is still a feeling of something great having once been here. The promise is that the "something great" could even be yourself. I think I've lived for that promise. In fact, I think a lot of us have.


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