by Lucas Fink
I put down the controller and watch, hypnotized and shaking with anxiety, as the early-20s woman I’ve been playing as for the past 5 or so hours struggles to keep her toes on the bucket beneath her while the noose tightens around her neck. This is Abby. Her face, veins bursting forth from her forehead, is dimly illuminated by the warm glow of a burning car nearby. Another woman emerges from the dense redwood forest just beyond the car, lifts Abby’s shirt to reveal her stomach, and holds a knife up to it: “They are nested with sin”. These are the Seraphites. Before she can disembowel Abby, two men drag a young Seraphite girl into the clearing, whom, at the behest of the woman, shatter the girl’s arm with a hammer. An arrow then flies out from the foliage, followed by another, killing the two men. While the panicked woman shoots blindly into the forest, Abby sees an opportunity and wraps her legs around the woman’s neck. The girl with the shattered arm picks up the hammer and digs its sharp end into the woman’s eye. Abby removes her legs but now hangs freely, suffocating. A Seraphite boy with a bow-and-arrow runs out from the forest, whom the girl orders to cut Abby down. Abby collapses to the pavement, stands up slowly, rips the hammer out of the dead woman’s eye, and turns toward the treeline, from which demonic shrieks echo. “The infected are coming”, whispers the girl. “Stay behind me”, Abby orders. The camera, never having been interrupted by a single edit during this cutscene, centers itself behind Abby, and now, with no transition between the cutscene and gameplay, I’m playing as Abby, about to fuck up some mushroom zombies with a hammer.
This is The Last of Us Part II, a video game written by Halley Gross and Neil Druckmann, directed by Druckmann, developed by Naughty Dog, and sequel to what is widely regarded as the best narratively-driven video game of all time, The Last of Us. The game follows a 19-year-old woman named Ellie on her brutal, increasingly hellish quest for revenge amidst a post-pandemic United States. Abby is also in the game(saying more would be a mega-spoiler).
The game is really good. So good that I felt compelled to write an excruciatingly detailed summary of one of the game’s most riveting, and grisly, set-pieces. This grisliness, this shocking and often upsetting violence, has stoked significant controversy. In the first TLoU, protagonist Joel’s path of carnage never really feels unjustified up until the climax(the best final act of any piece of media ever), as both his life and that of a 14-year-old Ellie, who’s immune to the virus and potentially the key to unlocking a vaccine, are at stake. Furthermore, the game goes to great lengths to make the combat gameplay feel incredibly uncomfortable and gruesome; when you shoot an enemy with a shotgun and hear their bubbling, sputtering gasps as they hit the floor, you wince and shift your weight on the couch anxiously; you don’t scream “hell yeah epic gamer moment!!!”. In the second game, though, each murder Ellie mercilessly enacts is entirely avoidable, and Naughty Dog ratches up the violence’s gritty, disturbing realism to such an extent that I at multiple points ended up putting the controller down and refusing to play while I paced around my living room to re-center myself. When you kill someone, their friends and loved ones will cry their name in anguish. When you stealth-kill a dog with your bow-and-arrow so it doesn’t sniff you out and reveal your location, you’ll hear an absolutely GUT-PUNCHING whimper and its owner will turn around and cry “LUCY!”. I could go on.
I’ve heard criticisms that (A)the game is nothing other than a miserable, guilt-ridden slog through the darkness of humanity’s heart, that (B)the game just “wags its finger” at the player the entire time making you feel guilty, and that (C)its theme amounts merely to “revenge/violence bad”. I’ve also heard criticisms made by reactionary, misogynist assholes who think “Abby’s biceps are unrealistically big” and “queer folk shouldn’t be in this game because games should be apolitical ”; these should be immediately thrown out the fucking window. I’ll engage with the former set of grievances because, while I disagree, they are actually substantive and interesting and warrant a meaningful response.
Firstly, the game is not a miserable slog. The horrific, absolutely gutting moments of tragedy and violence are far from the only content the game presents; countless funny, beautiful, and serene respites populate the narrative. Gross and Druckmann don’t brandish carelessly the emotional weapon of tragedy and violence; they use it sensitively and selectively.
Secondly, “the game” is an abstract, inanimate noun; a text can’t “wag its finger at the player”. If anything, the game is wagging its its finger at its central characters; they are the perpetrators of these atrocities, not the player. The player is just along for the ride. I can understand, though, why it is so difficult to distance yourself from or to assess unbiased by empathy a character when you control most of her physical actions. The game, though, only allows you to control how the violence happens, not what happens or who gets killed. Often, the game even denies the player control over the how and just presents a small on-screen prompt: “press square to strike”. Naughty Dog didn’t set out to make a role-playing game and as such afford the player absolutely no influence over the game’s events; that’s the point. They’re telling a linear story here via an interactive medium.
Thirdly, to argue the writing is lazy because “revenge bad” is the only thing the game has to say is wildly reductive and short-sided. Even if that singular message was the only thing the game communicates, who cares? Classic works of literature and film often boil down to absurdly simple central conceits, not to mention that there’s a vast reservoir of widely-loved texts for which “revenge bad” is really the only theme(Moby Dick, to mention one). TLoU 2 is about identity, perspective, nature and humanity’s existence within and/or apart from it, understanding the Other, cycles of violence, and, yes, revenge. I could’ve just written on all those themes, which probably would’ve produced a more original and insightful essay, but a rant in defense of the game is probably more fun to read and I’m at 1,000 words.
I'll totally lend you my PS4 so you can play this game.