Stomach-churning levels of violence in video games have probably peaked. It would be a surprise to encounter a more horrific act of carnage that what is already contained in Raven Software's Soldier Of Fortune series or Rockstar's Manhunt. If you can tolerate those displays of brutality, then I wager not much is going to bother you in the future.
Under the surface of slit throats and caved-in skulls however, there's not much going on in most cases. That isn't to say the violence in games is mindless (I don't work for FOX News), but it took one game to make me realise that all violence that I have previously experienced, seen or taken part in is largely forgettable.
Sure, I still have memories of executing the perfect murder in Hitman or gunning down wave after wave of faceless terrorists in a Call Of Duty but I was taken aback at how all of it now fades into the background. A whole life of virtual killing left in the dust by one game.
Naughty Dog's The Last Of Us.
Two decades after an worldwide outbreak of a fungus-based virus that turns people into homicidal monsters, The Last Of Us tells the story of Joel and Ellie. A middle-aged man and a teenage girl. Through various circumstances they end up travelling together across the USA in search of...well, I won't go into any more details. It's best for you to discover these things for yourself.
The country is soaked in death. The military is everywhere trying to keep the peace through strict and violent law inside quarantine zones. For the survivors that aren't infected, day to day existence is pure survival. In addition to the virus stricken Stalkers, Clickers, and Bloaters, humans play a large part in your obstacle to where you need to go.
Bandits, survivalists and others are all out for themselves. In abandoned towns and suburbs, they will kill to protect what's theirs. Nobody can be trusted. They fight with whatever weapons are at hand. Revolvers, shotguns, molotov cocktails and machetes all pose a threat at every corner.
However, no weapon is strong enough to defeat what Joel and Ellie possess. Loss. They are both driven by it. They have both suffered before meeting each other and are connected by it. It took the entire span of the game for this to become totally apparent but when it does, every horrific act they have delivered upon people is not only understandable but absolutely vital.
Joel is a broken man barely holding a explosive rage within himself. Ellie is frustrated and angry, mostly due to others around her. But throughout the game their relationship grows in a very natural and convincing way. All their emotions bubble to the surface with every word spoken between them and every moment they have to defend themselves.
It's a result of Naughty Dog's brilliant writing and the actors convincing performances to make everything work. Joel and Ellie are unsure of each other when they meet but as the story progresses they need each other to survive. Not only in battle but in life. They belong together.
This is how the violence is validated. They both dish out some of the most brutal acts of horror on people but at no point is it gratuitous. Every kill seems crucial. The majority of it is survival but on occasion, it is pure rage. At several points, Joel needs to save Ellie and vice-versa. A bandit is choking Ellie as Joel is fighting off another. When he deals with his enemy, he looks over to see his companion near death. As a player, you can almost feel him bristle with anger.
How dare you harm us. After what she and I have been through, I will destroy you.
Now free from the other bandit, Joel runs towards Ellie's attacker. With gritted teeth, he kicks the man in the face, picks up his limp body and smashes his face into concrete. He helps Ellie up. They recover and move on. And the rage grows and grows.
At other points, Ellie stabs men twice her size with such ferocity you'd be forgiven for thinking she had succumbed to madness. When Joel discovers an axe, he hacks away at his attacker's throat like he's chopping wood. They constantly end the lives of men because if they don't and make it count, then they are both dead. Both torn away from each other.
All of it justified. Every gunshot, stabbing, burning, explosion and brick to the face. It has to happen, needs to occur. All of it reflected in the conversations they have. No matter the subject, it's clear they have been affected by what they have been forced to do when they speak to each other.
I wrote recently about the lack of meaning in violent games. I never expected to be sitting here with a solution. I asked a question and Naughty Dog answered. They delivered violence that means something. Not only to Joel and Ellie but to the player. I was taken on this journey with them on an emotional and brutal level.
I felt their tension and their rage. Every time they muttered a "motherfucker" under their breath, I was right along with them. With every kill, a true understanding of what survival horror could be began to take shape. It is necessary to the experience and will most likely never be matched. Not in a similar way at least.
When the game ended, I realised I will now look at violence in games through a different lens. What Naughty Dog achieved in this game has, for lack of a better term, changed me. I can only assume for the better.