Earlier this week, Sony held a press conference during the Paris Games Week trade show. If you follow games, you’re intimately familiar with what ensued: a lot of blue lights, a handful of enthusiastically delivered sales notes from a charisma-less executive in an ill-fitting suit, and a series of short trailers and much-fussed-over “reveals” showcasing games that will be available in the next year or so. This strange ritual is one of the great traditions in video games, a cause of endless anticipation, speculation, and evaluation, happening on an almost quarterly basis.
But one trailer in particular has netted the majority of that discussion, and it was a single, almost five-minute scene from Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us Part II. It was shockingly violent—“brutal,” if you went by most of the headlines that immediately posted it afterward. In it, a woman is dragged through a burning wasteland to the sound of baleful violins and then strung up alongside a few other corpses. She’s menaced with a blade, before a second woman is dragged forward. A man leans over her and, in four cleanly framed thwacks, shatters the inside of her elbow with a hammer, the camera holding a Miike-like steadiness. Before more can happen, an arrow flies in, piercing one of the assailants’ heads, and a sort of gaunt frenzy ensues, during which two more sharp things enter two more heads. The woman dangling from the rope is eventually let down, veins bulging from her forehead. The video cuts to black as a group of pulsing, biologically deformed enemies hurtles in from the darkness.
This brutality has been a cause of significant hand-wringing among the games press, who say the trailer’s shockingly life-like violence misrepresents the game. The first Last Of Us told a story of a man and a young woman traveling through this desolate, post-apocalyptic America, contextualizing its unending scenes of shattered skulls and leering torture with a more tender story of companionship at any cost. Without that context, the argument goes, the trailer just fetishizes violence needlessly, appending a scene of stomach-churning brutality to the end of a press conference that also contained family-friendly Spider-Man and Star Wars and tennis titles.
This criticism is wrong-footed for a whole host of reasons, not least of which is the fact that it is a single scene from a video game that isn’t out yet, and so surmising what is or isn’t “representative” is literally impossible. Its first trailer showed the first game’s protagonists idly playing guitar in a verdant, overgrown ruin, illustrating that the series’ capacity for tenderness remained intact; the Paris scene depicted a hellish display of cruelty between cult-like survivors, showing that the series’ capacity for bleak encounters at the end of the world also remained intact. If you were a fan of the first game’s startling and literary vision of life in an environmentally ravaged future, well, that’s two boxes checked.
This short-sightedness works backward, too: An almost identical hand-wringing occurred upon the release of the first game’s trailer in 2013, which showed the gruff male lead strangling, burning, executing, and braining people, all with help from his adolescent friend. “Does The Last Of Us fetishize violence?” went a typical headline from The Guardian.
Video games, it will surprise no one reading this to find out, have always been violent. Even this month’s joyful Super Mario Odyssey is a reminder that Mario has been squishing his enemies and punching Bowser for decades. It’s a medium that creates tension through danger, through the interaction of objects most commonly represented as enemies in combat. Other trailers shown at the press conference contained much higher body counts than the pair of people murdered in The Last Of Us clip, but The Last Of Us is a series uniquely obsessed with—and serious about—the reasons and types of violence people perpetrate against each other, taking the violence within games as an almost philosophical mandate to probe via bombed-out cityscapes and punishing wintry wastelands.
It is a fundamentally good thing that Naughty Dog, a company with a Pixar-like investment in the realistic emotional arcs of its characters, would choose to use its vaunted graphical prowess and our increasingly powerful game consoles to illustrate the realistic effects of that violence, the harrowing vision of a human body under duress. If there’s room for cartoonish ragdoll murder in the strings of bloodless shooters being released monthly, there is room for a game that interrogates this violence explicitly and realistically.
Sony has since responded to the outcry against the trailer with a typically blithe PR quote that nevertheless hits the nail on the surprisingly life-like head, saying, “The Last Of Us obviously is a game made by adults to be played by adults.” That is accurate. What’s more telling is the follow-up question, which echoed many of the greater concerns among video game writers: “Certainly other media don’t behave in this way. You wouldn’t go to a Hollywood showcase and then have two minutes of graphic violence tacked on the end of a family presentation.” This is an oddly broad characterization of what would or wouldn’t be in “a Hollywood showcase,” and gets at the real root of the problem here, which is that such a showcase would not exist. There is no such thing as a live-streamed and feverishly anticipated movie-trailer press conference; it is an invention unique to video games. It’s this ritual that’s artificial, artistically corrupting, and deserving of condemnation—the presentation of sometimes dozens of different artworks, with focus-grouped tripe run thoughtlessly alongside more artful and personal creations.
Almost a decade after video games were given their first existential crisis by Roger Ebert, we’re still feverishly, nervously comparing them to film, wondering how they look and how they make us, the people who care about them, look. We’d rather present The Last Of Us Part II with its gentle, poetic scenes, the ones that defy the medium’s reputation for violence. This argument closets something that is innate, and powerful, about the medium, demanding that the grisly hangings and stabbings and hammerings stay in there but only for us to enjoy quietly, when no one is watching. It’s correct to be appalled by the violence in The Last Of Us, as well as the trailers for its sequel. But it’s also correct to be proud of it, and the way this strange, volatile medium still has the capacity to shock us.