The Last of Us, as it was originally pitched to me back in 2012, sounded derivate: yet another post-apocalyptic romp through infected cities, where the “the real threat is each other.” I soon learned, unlike other games of the genre, The Last of Us stood apart through its emphasis on genuine human emotion, rather than stinted plot points and boiler plate brutality. During this past E3, the gameplay for The Last of Us Part II was revealed, showing off improvements to nearly all of the original’s distinct features. As cool as those features may be, what I found most interesting was how this sequel portrayed its violence. In fact, there is already conversation on this topic, dotted with both praise and criticism. In my opinion, I wish more games handled their violence like The Last of Us Part II. The small details Naughty Dog has added, such as enemies referencing each other by name, show an emotional evolution to the series’ violence, which I find encouraging for the future of the medium. I believe The Last of Us Part II may be a launch pad for a more realistic and nuanced depiction of violence in games.
Part II sounds like the subtitle of a long-lost Sergio Leone film, but this game draws its aesthetics more from Cormac McCarthy’s fables through gothic plains and cannibal infested manors than revenge westerns. Like McCarthy’s novels, this game doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to its violence. It runs those punches through LiveLeak, making some of the most surprisingly realistic impacts and sickening wounds that you’ve ever seen in a video game. I would call Naughty Dog’s commitment to the fidelity of violence “art!,” but that feels tasteless, like tossing “best of” awards at a film about a cage match between two lions. Certainly, that match must be humbling and beautiful (in a savage kind of way), but let us not bemuse the truth. Naughty Dog should – however – be commended for not making Part II’s violence “fun,” especially in the face of many calling for the censure of ultra-realistic violence in games.
Generally, the subject of violence in games portends the same misinformed comments on how violent games are ruining the youth – or worse yet, society at large! It is no secret that games become easy scapegoats in the speeches of every feckless politician. Without giving ground to their accusations, I will contend that the way games have depicted violence has had a pernicious effect on how our society views it. Specifically, I think most violent entertainment contributes to a dangerous cultural perspective that disconnects us from the reality of violence.
The current discussion about Part II’s violence splits into two camps. One, finds the violence to be satisfying, the brutality justified in context with the world, and this content as a sign of games “maturing.” The other is appalled by its “overzealous” realism, and – given the history of video games – believe the cruelty is designed to be satisfying and perfunctory.
I understand their points, but I disagree with both sides for a few reasons. One point of contention is how they both pin all the blame/praise on Naughty Dog for making the combat feel “satisfying,” or “routine.” I disagree with this because it is not fair, or possible, for Naughty Dog to hold full accountability on the issue. You need to look at the tech behind games to fully understand why violence in games has evolved the way it has.
Games have an inextricable relationship with technology. Each year, they mature and provide more detailed animations, effects, materials, textures, and lighting. This sense of upwards progression is tied to gamers’ expectations, so they also anticipate more mature content. But what does that mean? More moments like Ellie blowing the arm off a woman hunting her? Gore shooting in all directions, realistically splattering across the ceiling and dripping from nearby display cases? Many cheered for this moment, and I admit that I was amazed by its fidelity.
But let’s not ignore the fact that there already is a fascination with violence in our culture. It doesn’t require titillation from photo-realistic graphics and details to engage us in violent material, from Hotline Miami to Super Smash Bros. We consume violent games with the same vigor the ancient world did watching lions tear contestants apart in the Colosseum. So, is it better we embrace our disorder, and return to feeding the lions? Or do we keep down-B’ing Kirby? Well, definitely not the latter.
In all seriousness, games like The Last of Us Part II show that our industry may be ready to take more nuanced looks at its violent content. Typically, games portray their violence in one of two ways. The first is ultra-violence, like Doom, which is categorized by overly-visceral melee and explosions of blood and guts. The other is mild violence, like Kirby, where impacts are accompanied with glittery fireworks, death poofs and pops in a flurry of confetti, and an injury is cauterized by a warm, fluffy cake. Kirby and Doom, as well as many other games today, have health bars or health regeneration, rendering violence not as an emotional and fatal act, but a measurable unit towards eventual respawn.
However, ultimately there are two things these kinds of games have in common: they defang real violence and confound our empathy. Entertainment typically engages audiences with content that refracts the true images of violence through glamor and drama to make it more civilized and palatable. It makes us less likely to properly acknowledge the true brutality of violence, not necessarily when we see it, but when we hear about it or watch it on TV. The violence we imagine is not raw and heartbreaking, but tendentious, reprogrammed by the “violence” we see in our entertainment.
It is the game industry’s fault for handling violence as it has for the last three decades. It has pigeonholed itself to the point where nearly every game requires violence in some form. Historically, most games intended this violence to be fun, which is a unique issue since engaging audiences through gameplay is intrinsic to the medium. Beyond producing more non-violent games, the industry could “mature” by designing violent gameplay that is engaging without necessarily being “fun.” In fact, many games have already tried doing this.
Papo y Yo (2012), developed by Brazilian developer Vander Caballero, utilized a violent monster in the game to tell a story about a young boy dealing with his abusive, alcoholic father. That Dragon, Cancer (2016) developed by Ryan and Amy Green, chronicles a family’s journey of acknowledging and dealing with their young boy’s terminal cancer. Though it is not explicitly violent, the player lives vicariously through the family, experiencing the aggressive nature of the cancer and the heart-wrenching pain it caused.
In a panel during E3, The Last of Us Part II Directors Anthony Newman, Kurt Margenau, and Neil Druckmann spoke about how they wanted enemies to feel human, and the violence you commit against them to feel repulsive. I feel hopeful that Part II will be able to live up to the above two games in re-defining the way games and gamers acknowledge violence. Their goal of portraying violence as it manifests in reality is admirable because it doesn’t dress it up for audiences. If more popular titles developed its violence with this goal in mind, then new perspectives can be brought to more gamers, leading to positive net effect on the empathy of players worldwide.
Other media, like film, has embraced a more real, humanistic perspective on violence for some time, leading to not exactly “fun” but engaging works, such as Restrepo (2010) or 12 Years a Slave (2013). These works have helped shape conversations on social problems, and generate new empathy when there wasn’t enough. The Last of Us Part II shows that even AAA games can succeed in shuttling this new perspective on violence into games. So, be it big or small, all types of games should consider altering their perspectives on this. The industry must respect the intelligence of gamers and understand that not every game someone plays needs to be fun, in order to keep them engaged. Hopefully more games will take the lead, and create experiences that defy the conventions of this medium. If done right, the interactivity of games enables previously unworkable avenues for generating empathy, and with the influx of games rewriting the book on violent content, I am confident that The Last of Us Part II will not the last game of its kind.
E3 Coliseum: The Last of Us Part II Panel