Is it just me, or does The Last of Us 2 look, well, not all that great?
Look, I played the first game and even recorded an episode of the podcast on it. The dynamic between Joel and Ellie was evocative and pulled at every heartstring within my body. Despite the game’s penchant for cusswords and morbid deaths at the hands of Clickers, it’s got some great themes in there. And when I heard there was a sequel coming? I bought a ticket for the hype train. But now, I’m ready to get off at the next stop.
As we began getting our first glimpses of the game, I was intrigued at who the game would follow and where we would find Joel and Ellie. The Last of Us 2 is definitely darker and more violent. Which, is part of the problem. I normally don’t have an issue with violence in a game, when done a certain way. But the recent demo shown at Sony’s E3 2018 Showcase, and previous teaser trailers, showed us just how violent the game would be. From a scene where a man is tied up, gutted, and his intestines dangle from the open wound in his stomach to Ellie brutally slamming a hammer into a man’s neck, I found myself sickened. To the point where I had to frequently look away due to a sudden sensation to hurl.
Naughty Dog received complaints about this in prior conferences. And though they received that feedback, they’re clearly not listening. They seem determined to push the envelope and make this possibly one of the most violent games ever made. And it has me wondering: are we desensitized to violence, as a culture?
I’ve been binging out on Stardew Valley for the past month. A game where you manage your own farm, go spelunking in mines, fish, and attend community events. The most morbid thing that happens in Stardew Valley is going dumpster diving in people’s trash bins. Now that I’m looking at the landscape of gaming, I’m surprised at the level of violence in most M-rated games.
Don’t get me wrong: I think violence can serve a purpose in video games and is not inherently wrong. But it’s how developers are putting it in their games that’s questionable. In Kevin Schut’s book, Of Games and God, he makes a distinction between games that have violence to push the narrative forward, or showcase a particular theme, and other games that have what he calls “exploitative violence”. Exploitative violence is just there for shock value; to see how far they can go and revel in the reactions it gives people. Mortal Kombat has mastered this type of violence and even capitalizes on it with their trademark Fatalities. Call of Duty, in recent years, has even treaded this ground from a dirty bomb killing a child in Modern Warfare 2 and operatives brutally cutting off a woman’s hand to gain access to files in Black Ops 3.
Neil Druckmann, the director for The Last of Us 2, recently spoke to Kotaku regarding the violence stating,
“We’re making a game about the cycle of violence and we’re making a statement about violent actions and the impact they have on the character that’s committing them and on the people close to them,” he said. “And our whole approach is to say, ‘We want to treat this as realistically as possible.’ When you stab someone—if you watch reference videos, which we have, it’s gross and it’s messy and it’s not sanitized like you see in most movies and games. And we wanted to get the player to feel that.”
But that doesn’t exactly sound like something I want to fill my time with. When I play a game, I don’t want to constantly gag and look away. When speaking on fun in games, Druckmann also stated,
“This might be a semantic argument,” he replied, “But we don’t use the word ‘fun’ with The Last Of Us. We say ‘engaging.’ It needs to be engaging. If the stakes are real, if you are invested in the character and their relationship, you’re going to go through and commit these actions that might—and should be—at times making you feel uncomfortable to progress in the story, to see what’s happened to the character and at times to struggle with their motivation versus your moral line.”
Now, I enjoy an engaging story in my video games. It’s why I adore titles such as Journey, Detroit: Become Human, Persona 4 Golden, just to name a few. But there’s something unsettling about getting me to feel the gross, messy nature of a violent kill in a video game. This isn’t something we should have to feel, let alone want to. As Druckmann said, they’re doing it to enhance the narrative in this engaging story but at what point does the violence stop enhancing the narrative and begin exploiting it? What makes the violence in The Last of Us 2 any different than games like Hitman, Grand Theft Auto, DOOM, Mortal Kombat, etc.?
I’m having trouble finding the answer.
As I consider what I entertain myself with these days in my free time, I’m often wondering how am I redeeming the time (Ephesians 5:6) that God has given me? And in redeeming that time, how am I glorifying God? I’m all for asking hard questions dealing with morality, but do we necessarily need to witness an atrocious action to have that discussion? Surely not.
But I will admit that, in a way, I admire Druckmann’s sobering pronouncement that these kinds of actions are not sanitized as movies and other games reveal. They are putting on full display the morbid, grotesque nature of such violence. Violence that, by all accounts, should disgust and shock us. It’s a blistering reminder of our humanity and how, at our core, we know that what’s occurring in front of us is wrong. It goes completely against the level of value and respect that comes from being made in the image of God. We don’t need to look far in the Bible to see where violence gets us (look no further than what Cain did to Abel). But again, do we necessarily need to be witness to that level of violence to have a conversation? Let alone witness it for an 8-10 hour experience.
What does our entertainment say about us? Furthermore, what is it about this kind of exploitative violence that excites us? And have our consciences been seared (as briefly mentioned in 1 Timothy 4:2) to the point that we’re desensitized to this level of violence in video games, or entertainment as a whole. And I haven’t even touched on the kiss that was shared between Ellie and the other woman in the demo.
All in all, after that demo, I lost all hype for The Last of Us 2. I personally cannot purchase a game with that kind of content. Nor can I justify it from a Biblical standpoint, no matter how many times I try to make Romans 14 fit.
But what about you, Deer Readers? Have you seen the gameplay? Are you disgusted or intrigued? Comment below, let me know.