I’m not a big fan of video game violence. It’s a tired, overused method of engagement, whether it’s abstract pixels shooting one another or lovingly rendered, 4K HD blood and guts. Games can and should do more, do better.
But extreme violence can be purposeful, too. As much as I dream of a world where violence is never necessary, that isn’t the world we live in. Our world is fraught with oppression, with systemic violence perpetrated by those in power against the marginalized, and it’s sometimes necessary to respond violently. In games, that systemic violence is usually disguised as allegory or exaggerated to an extreme—made “fun” by applying it to socially acceptable enemies, like zombies, monsters, or robots (who themselves are often used as stand-ins for marginalized groups). With violence being our most common method of interaction in games and games leaning heavily on “fun” as the desired result, violence is often cartoonish and over the top rather than careful and thought-provoking.
It’s too early to say whether The Last of Us Part II’s violence will attempt to be anything other than both fun and gratuitous. But there is something interesting about the response to the E3 demo’s violence, sandwiched between Ellie passionately kissing another woman. During livetweets of the press conference, and in subsequent searches through Twitter, I’ve seen words like “heavy handed,” “extreme,” “crass,” “shock and awe,” “tasteless,” and “gruesome,” used. Many of them are true, and in fact are words I myself would use to describe the violence—but the violence in The Last of Us Part II isn’t, as many of these comments implied, unexpected or necessarily misused.
The demo, shown during Sony’s press conference, leans hard into the shock factor—there’s a hanging and disembowelment, among the standard neck-stabs and similar attacks we expect from The Last of Us. The scene of Ellie and Dina kissing cuts to one of Ellie slitting a man’s throat—a human man, not one of the game’s fungus-infected enemies. It’s harrowing and stomach-churning and decidedly un-fun to watch. The stunning visuals—a hallmark of Naughty Dog’s work—exacerbates the awfulness of it all, the sound design making each death more visceral.
But this is video games, isn’t it? We talk about ludonarrative dissonance, the concept of what a game has us do in play (ludo) and what story it’s telling (narrative), and how those are often at odds with one another. The Last of Us is ostensibly a game about humanity and monstrousness, though you kill a great many people and are meant to be read as sympathetic despite this.
Naughty Dog has already been subject to criticism on this front for their Uncharted series, which features the affable Nathan Drake relentlessly slaughtering hundreds of mooks. The studio responded by including a trophy in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End called “Ludonarrative Dissonance,” which the player earns by killing 1,000 enemies. It’s a tongue-in-cheek reference that does nothing to meaningfully engage with Drake’s incredible body count; an acknowledgement that the dissonance exists, but behaving as though it’s not worth further examination.
But it is. As graphics grow more realistic, so too do the deaths we participate in as players. Which is perhaps why the response to The Last of Us Part II’s violence has troubled me; yes, we should discuss it, but why does it only seem to come up when the perpetrator is not a white man?
A similar conversation arose in some corners of the internet in response to the unveiling of Watch Dogs 2 and Mafia III at E3 2016. Both games feature Black men as protagonists, both of whom commit acts of violence. While some responded with enthusiasm, others suddenly seemed to take issue with Mafia III in particular because of the intense violence in the trailer. And make no mistake—it was violent. But that this comes up only when the person committing violence isn’t your standard white male protagonist raises a question—is the violence the problem, or is it who engages in violence?
This is not the entire problem with The Last of Us Part II. Many viewers were taken aback by the drastic tonal shift from the warm, pleasant romantic scene—Ellie and Dina kissing beneath twinkling lights—to one of brutal violence and back again. This juxtaposition of tender humanity alongside human violence is a core part of the series, hardwired into its thematic aims, for better or for worse.
There’s also the question of genre. The Last of Us trends more towards horror than action-adventure, unlike other Naughty Dog titles. Not only do we expect a more gore-filled game when the genre is horror (though gore is not a requirement, the two often go hand in hand given that combat is our main method of interaction in video games), but we also expect to be made tense and uncomfortable. As Kirk McKeand wrote at VG247, the violence in The Last of Us was quite different than violence we see in other games. It’s desperate. It’s distasteful precisely because it’s a struggle; it doesn’t reward us, as many games do. Survival is the reward, not the violence itself.
In interviews after E3, Neil Druckmann has made it quite clear that the use of violence is intentional. In an interview with Kotaku, Druckmann said, “This might be a semantic argument… But we don’t use the word ‘fun’ with The Last Of Us. We say ‘engaging.’ It needs to be engaging. If the stakes are real, if you are invested in the character and their relationship, you’re going to go through and commit these actions that might—and should be—at times making you feel uncomfortable to progress in the story, to see what’s happened to the character and at times to struggle with their motivation versus your moral line.” The goal is clear; we’re meant to be uncomfortable not only watching, but engaging in this violence.
The trailer certainly encapsulates that desire, though there is something to be said about using particularly brutal violence not as a reinforcement of themes or genre, but as a selling point.
But is that what this trailer is doing? That’s hard for me to say. Combat in The Last of Us and in this new trailer looks desperate, like Ellie is truly fighting for her life, not like she’s fulfilling a power fantasy. Playing the first game didn’t make me feel like a powerful figure; because there are horror elements, I felt weak, vulnerable, fragile. I wanted to avoid combat when I could, sneaking through environments and refusing to engage at all if I could get away with it. As Reid McCarter points out at Bullet Points, it’s not fun. It’s a struggle for survival, not an attempt to make the player feel like a badass, and this new trailer attempts to showcase the dichotomy of Ellie’s existence—she’s a human, but how human is she when so much of her life is based on killing?
We don’t know yet what The Last of Us Part II’s themes will be, though we can hazard a guess. That Ellie flashes back to a moment of intense violence as she’s kissing a woman suggests that she, too, is aware of the contrast between her humanity and her violence. That cut, to me, reads not as spectacle, but as introspection—who is Ellie, really, in moments when she is not merely surviving or killing?
This isn’t to say that a motivation absolves The Last of Us Part II from questions about its depiction and gamification of extreme violence, only that there is a possibility its brutality is intentional, that it serves a purpose. Attempts at this kind of message are not unheard of—BioShock, Spec Ops: The Line—but often fail, usually because the player is required to commit brutal acts that the game will later admonish them for. Naughty Dog’s previous unwillingness to engage with their game’s reliance on sensationalized violence doesn’t bode well for The Last of Us Part II’s chances of challenging this, particularly when the designers have stated that, narratively, the game is about the horrific side effects of sustained violence, while also providing paid downloadable content for more brutal executions in multiplayer.
But there’s more to it than that. It’s rare to see queer character in AAA games, and rare still to see intimacy so lovingly portrayed. This isn’t the rigidity of a BioWare sex scene, nor the cartoony hedonism of God of War. According to a recent episode of Waypoint Radio, care and craft were put into this kiss, with state-of-the-art technology allowing for increased points of articulation—hence the softness of the lip movement. And while two women passionately kissing is often the “safer” (representation isn’t a dichotomy, and representations of queer women in mainstream media are often intended for the gratification of presumed straight male audiences, not queer women) choice, there’s certainly a choice made in what’s shown (slow dancing, no makeup) versus what isn’t (heaving breasts, naked bodies). You can have your Dragon Age characters make out robotically while covered in blood and it means nothing; here, the care, the juxtaposition, read as intentional.
Some have taken issue with the decision to depict that kiss alongside violence, and it certainly isn’t for everyone. Nobody should have to contend with The Last of Us Part II’s gore to get the queer representation they want. But at the same time, we don’t all want characters that reflect our identities to be calm, cute, upbeat protagonists. Some of us are angry and loud and conflicted, and want to see those emotions, not always tied to our identities, explored in games. We, too, can be full of righteous rage. But we, unlike the many, many, many, many white male protagonists, cause pearl-clutching when we are.
That video game violence only seems to be a point of concern when it’s not perpetrated by white men (this year’s E3 also included a Resident Evil 2 remake, The Division 2, Battlefield V, and Cyberpunk 2077) is telling. We all should think more critically about the industry’s reliance on punching, stabbing, and shooting things into submission, but we must also ask why we are so keen to pretend it isn’t an issue at all until it’s a Black man with a gun or a lesbian with a machete.
I, personally, don’t care for overly violent games. I didn’t enjoy The Last of Us, and likely won’t play the sequel. I don’t even particularly care about this trailer, eager as I am for more representation. But the reaction to it has given me pause. I don’t think Naughty Dog deserves the benefit of the doubt, nor do I think that violence is always good, nor always bad.
But violence can be purposeful and important. Maybe that’s the case here, maybe it isn’t. I don’t think it’s enough to look at The Last of Us Part II’s trailer and say “good” or “bad.” I think we must ask why. And more importantly, why now, why this, and why question participation in violence only when the person committing that violence is not the person most likely to commit it in real life.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.