When The Last of Us was released in 2013 it dropped players into a brutal and violent post apocalyptic world in which people needed to do whatever it took to survive, even if it meant doing things that they would have found appalling in a pre-outbreak society. It was dark, it was grim, and it was one of the best games I’d ever played. Seven years later, developer Naughty Dog is returning to that world and if the trailers and early impressions are any indication, they are upping the ante by taking the violence to an all new level.
Early looks at the game have shown some intense fight scenes culminating with absolutely vicious deaths. The level of violence has been undoubtedly unnerving and for some it has proven too difficult to watch, which begs the question, can excessive violence in a video game go too far? Has Naughty Dog gone beyond what is acceptable in gaming? Or is everything fair game in a virtual world? Well, I think it’s more complicated that just yes or no.
I’ll be the first to admit that ever since I became a parent, I’ve found gruesome violence in video games less appealing. That’s not to say that I won’t play violent games, I love a good first person shooter as much as the next person, but games that revel in their bloody carnage (like Mortal Kombat or Maneater) just don’t appeal to me as much as they once might have. I don’t know if there’s any direct correlation between that and becoming a dad, but the timing lines up.
The thing about those games that I mentioned though, is that they offer players an over the top and cartoonish view of violence, whereas The Last of Us gives us a real and unsettling depiction of violence. Watching Sub Zero punch the head off of Scorpion is more humorous that it is disturbing. Even in a game like Assassin’s Creed I can sneak around the rooftops and kill my foes all day without feeling any remorse, but the killing in The Last of Us Pt. II feels so much more… personal
In an extended look at the game recently, we saw a scene depicting Ellie slitting a woman’s throat and watching as she gasps for breath, eventually drowning in her own blood. It’s absolutely terrible to watch, and it’s even worse knowing that we’ll be in control of doing that. So do depictions of violence this graphic cross the line?
Different people react differently to scenes of graphic violence, whether it’s in gaming or other media, and if experiencing something that unsettling is too much for you, then you should probably not play The Last of Us Pt II. And that’s okay! Your reasoning is completely valid and you don’t need to explain yourself to anybody. Nobody can tell you that you’re right or wrong for where you draw the line when measuring what is “too much”.
For me personally, I think there’s something to be said for art that makes you feel uncomfortable or uneasy. That can be a powerful tool when trying to convey certain emotions to the player. I think back to 2016’s That Dragon, Cancer as a perfect example. Playing an autobiographical game about experiencing the death of your child is in absolutely no way fun, but by making players go through those emotions made for a profoundly moving time. I still think about that game years later. Games can be so much more than “a fun time”.
In my opinion it all comes down to intent and execution. If done well and handled with care, video games like this can be unforgettable experiences that will stick with you for a long time, perhaps even making you question things about your own life. Games absolutely have the power to do that. Jeff Cannata said it perfectly when describing his time with the game. “The Last of Us Part 2 put me through hell. I did not enjoy it. I wasn’t supposed to. I was affected by it. Like no game before.”
Will The Last of Us Pt II be able to pull it off in a way that comes across as moving and thoughtful, or will they push things too far? Will the extreme violence be in service to telling an incredible story? Only time will tell, and the only way to truly know is to experience it for ourselves. I will say that based off of their track record, I trust in the writers and producers to deliver something special. Until I have reason to believe otherwise, I’m willing to give Naughty Dog the benefit of the doubt.