Stomach-churning levels of violence in video games have probably peaked. It would be a surprise to encounter a more horrific act of carnage than 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 of interest 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 game 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 also frustrated and angry, mostly due to how people see her. But throughout the game their relationship grows in a very natural and convincing way. They act like human beings. People who you might know. 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 convincing performances of Troy Baker (Joel) and Ashley Johnson (Ellie) 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. Throughout the game, Joel needs to save Ellie and vice-versa. At one point, 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 at full speed towards Ellie’s attacker. With gritted teeth, he kicks the man in the face. He then picks up the limp body and smashes the attacker’s face repeatedly into the concrete. He helps Ellie up. They recover and move on. The desperate murder only intensifies from here on and together, they wade through carnage. The rage grows and grows. 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 do it 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. It 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. Joel and Ellie are the main characters in The Last Of Us but it’s obvious everyone in this world has engaged in some level of violence to keep on breathing and keep moving forward. Everyone needs to be a ferocious killer to survive.
I have written in the past 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 very human level. I felt their tension and their anger. Every time they muttered a “motherfucker” under their breath, I was right there beside 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 or tone, at least.
In July, a ‘remastered’ version of The Last Of Us was released for the PlayStation 4. With better visuals, director commentary, in-game photo mode and downloadable content included, it sounds like the definitive package. I’m hesitant to go out and buy it. It may have been updated and improved but experiencing that game for the second time is something I’m not sure about. The art is beautiful, the story compelling and the gameplay completely rewarding. However, the split-second desperation won’t be there. Not with the same impact. Joel and Ellie’s journey wouldn’t seem right without the full bone-crunching concussion of what I consider to be the third main character: the violence. It is merciless, messy and perfect. It feeds into everything the characters do and every emotion the player feels. Diving headlong into it a second time wouldn’t be the same.
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 changed me and I can only assume it is for the better. I hope video games can be changed too.