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Low Culture 17: The Last Of Us & The Unprecedented Dramatisation Of Violence
Ross McIndoe , August 27th, 2020 07:55

Back in the days when terrifying viral pandemics were still confined to the fiction section, says Ross McIndo, The Last Of Us found a way to tug at our heartstrings while it clawed at our insides. Contains spoilers Screengrabs courtesy of Naughty Dog

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In the pop cultural world, we seem to find ourselves having a lot of the same arguments over and over again. High-brow versus low-brow. Separating the art from the artist. Violence in videogames. The latter has been going on for decades. Recent years have been mercifully free of the more hysterical takes which aimed to link violent videogames directly to real-life atrocities but exactly how violence functions within our most interactive medium, what it taps into and what this means, still remains very much open to discussion.

For a taste of just how cyclical things can be, take the upset that was caused by the brutal teaser trailer for The Last Of Us: Part Two. Julia Alexander at Polygon wrote a smart piece about the problematic nature of the trailer’s context-less depiction of extreme violence (which shows a woman being gruesomely tortured), and the troubling trend of it as a marketing tactic.

What’s particularly interesting is that, when the first game appeared at E3 back in 2012, almost exactly the same concerns were raised. And Naughty Dog’s dystopian tale saw a wizened survivor named Joel trying to lead a young girl named Ellie to safety in a world ravaged by a parasitic fungi that turns people into monsters. It arrived with a bang, announcing itself to the world through a grisly trailer in which Joel dispatched a series of human foes messily. Reports from the convention attest that the crowd went wild at the bloody spectacle, although some critics seemed a little unsettled by the game’s apparent fetishisation of violence.

In both cases, context is key. Both games were introduced to the world through scenes that showed impressively realistic figures hacking, slashing and blasting away at each other while giving away nothing of the greater narrative in which the scene was taking place. While this was no doubt done to keep as much plot under wraps as possible, it also had the effect of dislodging the brutal encounters on show from any greater meaning. They were reduced to a series of impressively well-rendered wet thuds and red splatters.

If there is no context to the violence, then the violence itself must be the point. And a room full of people cheering to the sight of a shotgun blast is a little unsettling. What’s ironic is that, when The Last Of Us finally arrived in full, it revealed a game which is fundamentally designed to interrogate this impulse. Any seasoned gamer will probably have had the following experience at some point – you’re sitting there, whiling away an afternoon by slicing through a horde of digital goons when someone walks into the room and asks you why you enjoy this. Why it’s so fun to pretend to kill a bunch of people.

It can be kind of a stumper. Especially if you’ve been playing violent videogames for most of your conscious life. Mowing down enemies just becomes second nature - a crosshair appears in the middle of your screen and you move it over to the middle of someone’s skull.

In one sense, violence in videogames is fun for the same reason that action movies are. Conflict is the fuel of any engaging drama and a fight scene is conflict boiled down to its most essential, high stakes form. However, given the interactive nature of gaming, it’s easy to see why questions have been asked about the psychological effects of living out mass murder fantasies for your evening’s entertainment.

This question has become more pressing as the graphical capacities of each new console increased, presenting the player with ever more lifelike opponents to dismember. No-one was ever going to get to upset about Crash Bandicoot spin-attacking his enemies out of existence, but when it game to Tommy Vercetti opening fire on the inhabitants of Vice City, there was more of a pause for thought.

Of course, it’s not just about greater processing power. More advanced graphics can and have been used to produce cheerful, cartoonish games, especially over on Nintendo’s consoles. It has also been about gaming’s gradual attempt to ‘mature’ – moving away from tales of plucky plumbers and rampaging apes, and into narratives that are pushing for the sort of ‘realism’ which the new graphics allow.

As newer videogames were able to offer more gratuitous murder scenes, the sensibility behind the violence usually remained pretty cartoonish, even when the setting or visuals were more realistic. From Vice City to Mortal Kombat, the goal was basically an (often literally) visceral type of shock humour. Even as certain games leaned more heavily into the ‘edgy’ side of this, the purpose was still pretty unsophisticated. It was basically ultraviolent slapstick, Marx Brothers stuff with added machine guns, Looney Tunes with more detailed animation.

Which isn’t actually a criticism. Firing rocket launchers across the streets of Rockstar’s games or unleashing the most disgusting Fatality in Mortal Kombat was great fun as an exercise in pure, ludicrous excess. The outright absurdity of it put a clear buffer between it and reality. You didn’t have to be psychopath to enjoy it because the game never let you avoid the fact that it was all just a game.

This was often true even for the games straining most vigorously after a sort of visual realism. God Of War 3 was one of the Playstation 3’s flagship titles, priding itself on graphics that were unparalleled at the time. Their intricacy was never better displayed than when the game’s ever-furious hero Kratos would tear open one of his enemies, leaving their highly-defined, finely detailed guts to spill out across the floor.

Now, you could questions why a pile of steaming centaur intestines was deemed the best way to show off the game’s graphical capabilities but even here the ‘realism’ of the bodies on show was intentionally at odds with the absurdity of the context – the tale of a man so pissed off that he was going to climb out of hell and punch god in the face. No matter how photorealistic the graphics became, the goal was still clearly not to provide anything like the experience of real-world violence.

Kratos’ victims were still fundamentally crash test dummies who existed solely for the player to enjoy smashing the hell out of, not characters who they were supposed to empathise with in any meaningful way.

God Of War 3 was one of many games that tried to tap the technical potential opened up by that generation of consoles to produce a blockbuster spectacle that could rival Hollywood. A combination of motion-capture technology, high-powered graphics, smarter scripts and better voice acting allowed for videogame characters that walked and talked more like real people – opening up new possibilities for the sort of stories videogames could tell.

Naughty Dog spearheaded this new era, leaving behind the Saturday morning cartoon vibes of Crash and Jak in favour of their Indiana Jones-inspired Uncharted series. Its cleverly choreographed set-pieces and crackling script in particular brought gaming closer to the movies than ever before. However, it also highlighted one of the big problems that the medium faces when it tries to thread a more realistic narrative through the structure of an action-packed videogame.

Nathan Drake is the charming hero of the Uncharted series. A roguish, wisecracking treasure hunter, he’s a loveable goof who gets knocked down a lot but always gets back up, a loyal friend and a brave fighter. He is adventurous and funny and winningly determined. And he is also a complete psychopath.

At least, if you take his actions while the player is in control as canon, then he is. Across the games, Drake murders literally hundreds of people with guns, grenades and often his bare hands, but never seems in the slightest bit perturbed. You could argue, quite reasonably, that he was always acting in self-defence, but even then his readiness with a quip after snapping somebody’s neck still makes for an utterly chilling human being.

The problem is simply that the needs of the game don’t quite jive with the needs of the story. The narrative needs Drake to be a loveable rogue with a heart of gold, forced to fight now and then to protect himself and his own. The game needs him to blast his way through countless rooms full of faceless goons so that the player can enjoy the action.

Thus there are essentially two Drakes – the soulless avatar controlled by the player who functions more as a tool of death and puzzle-solving rather than a person, and the charismatic, deeply human Drake of the cutscenes in between.

This is basically the fundamental problem with telling stories through videogames – giving the player enough freedom to make the game fun without allowing them to screw up the story.

For the most part, games get by simply by ignoring this dissonance and trusting the player to as well. Gamers are pretty well trained at this point to accept that the game itself, when they are in control, is only kind of a part of the game’s narrative. But seeing the story and the game as two separate entities sharing a disk leaves much of the medium’s storytelling potential untapped – essentially, you’re alternating between watching a movie and playing a game, rather than actually playing through a story.

As much as gamers might have gotten used to this compromise, it was clear early on that Naughty Dog were not entirely satisfied with it. At the end of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, the game’s psychotic villain Zoran Lazarevic actually calls Drake out on the number of men he has killed. How can he consider himself a hero when he so casually dispatches with human beings by the bucketload?

Even Lazarevic – a literal war criminal hell-bent on becoming invincible by drinking magic tree sap – finds Nate kind of unsettling.

Now that they had move into a more realistic world, Naughty Dog clearly wanted the player to experience it in a more realistic way. If the game was going to see them gunning down wave after wave of enemies, then maybe the emotional experience of the game could reflect that.

Enter The Last Of Us.

Unlike the Uncharted series, Naughty Dog’s new game didn’t drop the player into the middle of the action in an exotic dessert or a snowy mountain. It began with a quiet, domestic prologue which showed the game’s protagonist at home with his young daughter, right before the world went to hell. From its very first moments, The Last Of Us wanted to make it clear to the player that this was not going to be like Uncharted where Nate would be always find a way to bounce back to his feet unscathed, no matter how precarious his situation appeared. This was a world in which things could be lost, where every act of violence left a permanent scar.

Fast-forward to the crumbling dystopia in which the game takes place, and Joel is now the hardened, gravel-voiced anti-hero of so many videogames. He’s mean with his fists, quick to pull a gun and doesn’t take shit from anybody. And he is utterly miserable. This is the tone that sets The Last Of Us apart from so many other post-apocalyptic tales. Its world is not a playground for the badass hero to rise up in. It’s a bleak, dilapidated place in which any sense of trust or decency has been hunted out of existence. Those who survive aren’t the coolest, just the coldest. That point is painfully driven home the first time Joel is drawn into combat. Zombies (or ‘the infected’ as they’re known here) have always been the ideal fodder for guilt-free kill sprees in games and movies because they are human bodies emptied out of all sense of self. They provide all the gory exhilaration of hardcore violence but without the sense of a ‘person’ having actually been harmed.

The Last Of Us doesn’t let the player off so easily, though. Taking on the infected isn’t set up as an exciting chance to perfect your baseball swing or try out some new guns, it’s a desperate battle for survival against a shrieking, malevolent mass of flesh which exists only to destroy. The combat has a clumsy quality to it that is a far cry from your typical Action Hero antics. Joel’s aim is unsteady and each gunshot kicks like a mule and rings out piercingly through the room. The melee combat is even more unwieldy, complimented by finely-tuned sound design which makes sure that each blow lands with the stomach churning squelch of metal on meat.

This is a world in which each combat encounters is frantic and frightening. Where survival means clawing your way over the corpses of the less fortunate. Every day, over and over again. All of which hits home even more deeply when the enemies are not the infected but other humans – looters, bandits and cultists who roam the ruins of the world ready to lay claim to anyone and anything they encounter.

Given how ungainly the combat is in The Last Of Us, players will often opt to use stealth rather than dive in head-on. Sometimes groups of infected can be slipped by altogether, although doing so is always a knuckle-whitening experience. Other times, sneaking up on an opponent can give Joel the chance to attack first, grabbing an unwitting human foe from behind and dragging them down into a stranglehold.

When this happens, what follows is about the most disgusting experience The Last Of Us has to offer. None of the blood-drenched scenes strewn across the game compare to the sight of Joel forcing his arm around an enemy’s neck. The panicked sound of their hands flapping helplessly against him as they battle desperately to free themselves. His own heavy breathing as he strains to remain clenched around them. The judder of the controller as they struggle and struggle and struggle. The silence when they finally stop.

In that moment, the player is made to feel the full weight of snuffing out a human life as every fibre of its being grasps helplessly back towards the light. It is probably one of the least fun things ever programmed into the videogame, and easily one of the most affecting.

So is The Last Of Us simply an anti-violent game then, designed to highlight the horrors of real violence and force players to reflect on their sins?

Not exactly, in part because doing so would be more than a little hypocritical – it is, after all, still an action game in which the goal is often to kill. You can’t plot out a series of rewards for performing certain actions and then scold the player for performing them.

Other games have run into this problem in the past too. War games from Soldier Of Fortune and Six Days In Fallujah to Call Of Duty have often justified their explicit content as a means of dramatizing the ‘horrors of war’ – forcing the player to reckon with the harrowing experiences of actual warfare. However, these claims tended to ring a little hollow because ultimately the developers were still selling shoot-em-ups. Added injury detail or prolonged torture scenes didn’t alter the basic supers-soldier power fantasy which the games were designed to provide.

Some games answered this dilemma by giving players a greater say in how ethically they played. The Last Of Us arrived around the time in which karma meters of various kinds were becoming highly popular – games like Fable, InFamous, Deus Ex and Dishonoured let the player decide how ruthless or merciful they wished to be. Often, these systems were too binary to allow for any real soul-searching but they allowed the games to overcome the problem previously discussed to some degree by ensuring that the player’s in-game actions were reflected in the story.

Violent choices would now see the world react to the protagonist as a violent person. No longer could they mow down a mass of fleeing enemies and then wave it off with a smile and a joke. The player’s decisions now carried dramatic weight to them, at least up to a point.

The Last Of Us took this emerging formula and inverted it completely. While Joel can sometimes choose to sneak past his enemies, he often can’t. Often he has no choice but to kill everyone in the room, infected or otherwise, if he wants to survive. Often the player has no choice but to struggle on the floor as their writhing victim slowly suffocates on top them, because otherwise they will lose the tactical advantage which they need to stay alive.

The very fact that there is no choice, no other way of doing things, no escape from the grisly reality of this world, adds so much weight to each encounter. While other games were moving increasingly towards open-world, sandbox-ish set-ups, The Last Of Us moved like an old school, on-rails shooter – with the player borne helplessly forward from one bloodstained room to the next.

The player is consequently drawn into the same headspace as the protagonist – Joel lives in a world in which he has no choice but to kill if he wants to survive, and so the player is faced with the same situation.

But again, the game would not succeed if this was all it did. Having the player scrape their way through a series of bleak scrambles in which the only prize was progression to the next horror show would quickly have worn thin. Which is where Ellie comes in.

Joel is hired to smuggle Ellie, a teenage girl who has lived most of her life in this zombie-ravaged world, across the country. Ellie has somehow developed an immunity to the infection and it is thought that she may hold the key to producing a vaccine. A bright, carefully optimistic counterpoint to Joel’s hollowed-out survivalism, she offers a glimmer of hope in their dark world. As the game proceeds, cutscenes and in-game conversations help to build the relationship between the pair. We slowly get a sense of who they were before the world fell apart, a picture of all the things that made them human. Who they loved, what they did, how they lived. Mostly, we get a sense of everything they have lost - the loved ones in their past, their hopes for the future.

Although she is far from helpless – Ellie is smart, agile and quick with a switchblade – her slight frame puts her at a distinct disadvantage in their dog-eat-dog environment. As does the fact that she is not yet as desensitised to violence as Joel is – her screamed protests when commits an act of particular brutality offer the player another jarring reminder of how awful hitting that trigger button really is.

Shortly after they set out together, Joel and Ellie are ambushed by a gang of bandits. Taken by surprise, they are quickly separated. As the player resumes control, a crowd of enemies between them and the person they have sworn to protect, suddenly all restraint is dropped. The arduous, weighty combat of earlier on is gone, replaced by rapid-fire destruction. You no longer hesitate, cutting down the bandits as quickly as possible, doing whatever is necessary to get them out of the way, to drag them away from her. Shoot them, stab them, set them on fire. The blood, the screams, the panic – none of it matters.

All the gameplay mechanics, the visuals and the sound effects are exactly the same, but the dramatic context has shifted to starkly that the combat now carries a completely different emotional payload. Now that it is about protecting someone you have grown to care about, the human cost of your failure massively outweighs the griminess of the task. It impels you forward, it makes it all second-nature.

Having spent the earlier sections forcing the player to reckon with the full crushing weight of each gunshot, the game now gives them off the leash completely. Killing now was as easy as it was in any other game, the enemies as happily dispatchable as if little points totals were popping up above their heads each time one of them got capped.

But the vital difference is that here it isn’t easy because the game is pushing the player not to invest in the reality of its story. It is easy now because the player has invested so heavily in the humanity of Ellie as a character.

With The Last Of Us, Naughty Dog created a game in which there was a real, felt cost to each act of violence and then asked the player what they were willing to pay it for. The emotional disconnect between the player’s in-game actions and the overriding narrative was gone.

And it all builds to a massive final payoff. In the end, Joel successfully transports Ellie to the facility at which the vaccine can be developed. It is only after handing her over to the group behind it that he discovers the catch – Ellie will not survive the process, her life must be exchanged if mankind is to be saved. Essentially, it is the biggest, most extreme trolley problem (thank you, Chidi) ever conceived. At this point, the pandemic is a gargantuan trolley on track to wipe out the whole of humanity.

But now there is a lever which they can pull which will divert it onto a separate track where only one person lies. The rub of course is that the one person in question is not a faceless unknown like the rest – it’s Ellie. The sweet, funny, compassionate person who we have spent hours getting to know. A ‘someone’ we can relate to as a person rather than a statistic. Every rational calculation tells us to pull the lever. Even other characters who know and care for Ellie try to convince Joel that this is how things have to go. But he won’t listen and, having walked every step of their horrid journey with him, we can understand why – to choose to kill someone we care for feels so much more despicable than to let an unknown group die, even if it’s morally right.

And so the game ends with a rampage. Joel tears through the compound as the player brings all the combat skills they have earned over the course of the game down on this last group of hopefuls. The track is set and the player is, once again, locked in to a singular direction – they have no choice but to take part in this apocalyptic assault. They have no choice but not to rescue Ellie and damn humanity.

Of course, we would never want every game to be like this. It’s fine for some actioners to be straight-up empowerment fantasies in which we get to enjoy wreaking havoc across a virtual landscape. The Last Of Us is a pretty crushing experience on the whole, and sometimes we just don’t need to be crushed anymore while we’re gaming. The real world offers plenty in that direction. Being Nathan Drake is a whole lot more fun than being Joel, just so long as you don’t think about it any more than you’re supposed to.

But The Last Of Us broke new ground in terms of the emotional terrain that a violent videogame could cover. It took it away from the cartoonish gore-fests or edgy attempts at ‘mature’ content of the past and told a story in which the stakes of violence felt aching real.

As part of a conversation that seems to have been going round and round for decades, it felt like the first real step forward in quite some time.