When I watched Joel, the player character in Naughty Dog’s the Last of Us, beat a man to death on the corner of a desk, I was horrified. It only got worse as each survival motivated death became grislier than the last. My stomach fell and I’m sure I became pale when I watched Joel kill a man that was asking to be spared (despite attempting to murder Joel just seconds before). I stared, frozen, at the Last of Us logo for a few minutes before I could collect my thoughts and move on.
I watched that one while alone at home. Compare that to the uproar of cheers and applause that the trailer received at Sony’s E3 press conference. I’m not positive what frightened me more, the thought of such a raw and unglamorously violent game existing or the enthusiasm behind it. Thinking about the game made me pretty excited about the prospects of gameplay that were hinted at in the trailer. I always a enjoy a game that raises the tension of having more enemies than ammo, or at least just enough ammo. Also, if I was in a group setting like that, and I saw gameplay that exciting, I probably would have cheered.
And although I would not have the time to develop these thoughts, here’s why I would’ve cheered: The Last of Us is one of the few games that has the potential to treat violence with the gravity it should have.
I probably would have written The Last of Us off as a murder simulator if it wasn’t for the girl, Ellie. In fact, I was quickly losing interest in the trailer until Joel throws a molotov cocktail at a man engulfing him in flames, and she makes her disgust known. “Keep it together,” Joel retorts under his breath. This really opened me up to what Naughty Dog was trying to do. They wanted to make a game that reminded you, that sometimes violence happens for the best.
I am not a condoner of any unprovoked violence, I certainly believe a peaceful way to resolve a problem is always the best, but I do believe that sometimes peace isn’t the only option for the best outcome, and violence can be necessary for defense. I believe that, with hindsight, the European front of World War II was justified, and I believe the American Revolution had a profoundly positive impact on not just America, but the world’s political landscape. However, an objectively righteous cause for violence does not make it any easier to handle.
On the (hopefully) opposite end of the violence spectrum from Last of Us is where Mortal Kombat and Manhunt congregate. In these games the plot and the aesthetic not only justify but boldly encourage colosseum-like bloodlust. Mortal Kombat’s signature Fatality moves have no effect on gameplay, they only after the game is already over, it is simply there for morbid fascination. The Last of Us might appeal to the same moroes sensibilities, but so does Saving Private Ryan.
The Last of Us will hopefully be a large point in bringing balance to games’ presence on that spectrum. It feels so unbalanced in favor of the tantalizing parts of violence. The Last of Us has so much potential to bring a seriousness and impact. A lot of this will come from Ellie’s reactions. Also, if I had a teenage girl tailing me, I might be more keen to avoid violence altogether, but also more prone to it for protection’s sake. How Ellie effects my tendencies toward violence in gameplay rest entirely in how she is characterized and how well Naughty Dog accomplishes their characterization goals. Given their track record, hopes are high.
One such situation was described Chris Plante in Polygon’s E3 day of coverage videos. Joel kills a man in a room absent of Ellie’s presence,blood begins to pool around the corpse, when Ellie enters the room, she just shakes her head in disgust. It is a novel idea that works, but it’s incredible that it’s taken so long to have characters be disgusted by disgusting actions.
Ben Kuchera in his review of Spec Ops: The Line, which was wonderfully insightful, talks about the gravity that game had in its plot about violent things. He says it best, “This is war as a destroyer, not a crucible; when you put men in monstrous situations, monsters emerge.”