The Last of Us Part II trailer released during PGW 2017 started a controversy about its crude violence.
During this trailer, we saw characters being hanged, smashed in the head with a hammer, beaten almost to death with broken bones visuals and sound effects; all shot with an hand-held camera style and impressive graphics giving so much realism to the scene. There was no warning before this trailer appeared on Sony’s conference (streamed all around the world). It shocked.
But it didn’t only shocked non-player viewers. Gamers, especially used to violence in their favorite games, felt uncomfortable in front of this sequence.
Why did this happened? Why especially with The Last of Us franchise? And what does it say about us and our tolerance to violence?
PLEASE, GIVE ME SOMETHING NEW
The Last of Us (released in 2013) lets us embody a character named Joel. He’s 40, has lost his only daughter when she was 12 and now lives in a world where pretty much the entire planet population has turned into zombies (they’re not technically zombies says Naughty Dog’s studio lead biologist). He’ll try during the game to bring Ellie, an orphan girl who’s also 12, to a group of fanatics who needs her blood to save the world, as she’s the only one who carries the cure to the pandemic in her veins.
***SPOILER🙈*** In the end Joel saves Ellie by killing the fanatics. Because they had no other choice than to kill her to extract the blood. So I guess, no cure to the pandemic.
HERE’S A MOJITO, SIR
Don’t judge Joel too fast. He’s a nice guy, but he has to make choices, like any other survivor surrounded by zombies.
When you play as Joel, you use violence to protect Ellie. You especially love to distract infecteds and other survivors by throwing bricks and bottles of beer, fire your rare bullets to zombies heads, and sometimes enjoy a swing with a wood plank and a human skull. On her side Ellie is strong for a 12 years old girl : she has already stabbed people, but she finds all this violence crude and hard to stare at. Holding a gun attracts her, but you, Joel, prohibit it. After all, she’s still a growing kid.
You travel a lot : moving from place to place to avoid being detected and to increase your chances of finding ressources. Some shelters are nicer than others, like this old flat made of red bricks and colorful leaves scattered all over its floor. Nature grows inside the building thanks to small sunbeams coming through broken windows : the air is filtered with beautiful white curtains someone may have decided to put here back when he was alive. Even the furniture is still fine : it’s not made from some cheap Ikea wood and will eventually be used as a cover if a gunfight starts. You have no time to think about it, but Ellie finds all this mess kind of poetic. Even those dirty mattresses let in the living room could offer sweet dreams she says. You might sleep on them to find some rest before hitting the road.
Sadly the road is full of infecteds.
They can sometimes hear you from far, especially if they have muted into clickers : sound is their only way to orientate, so they’ll run towards you once they hear a single noise, offering you(the player), a nice action/survival/shoot sequence where bullets needs to be meticulously aligned between the aggressors’ eyes (or what remains of it) to kill them. Then you’ll hear screams giving you goose bumps, see dead bodies convulsing on the ground, and more will come and continue to attack you.
You need to survive.
Fight, journey and survival.
All you already love, all you already want.
If The Last of Us brought together everything we loved from the Playstation3/Xbox360 era, it did not change our way to play mainstream video games.
We still run, shoot people, run, shoot people, run...WAIT! watch cinematics where we stop playing=being our character...then run, shoot people, run, shoot people...you get it.
So why did The Last of Us Part II trailer shocked so much? It’s set in the same reality, with the same main characters (cf. the game’s first trailer), with violent acts shown on screen that seem to be relevant to the story, or at least, to the character’s attempt to survive in a world of chaos. We’ve already seen this kind of behavior in the first game, we’re used to it. So why did it shock?
I believe this is due to the gamer’s new maturity.
We often hear that gamers play violent video games where it’s nothing but killing or shooting.
Glancing at Steam’s most popular games of 2017 easily demonstrates it : words like « warrior », « assassin » or « blade » are recurrent in video games titles. There are also other games that focus on avoiding violence, but they are less popular and attractive to the eyes of a majority of players than the other ones.
So how did violence become so common within video games?
I think this it’s because we like it : wether you‘re a gamer or not, it’s easy to understand that video games are most of the time about solving a challenge.
Because human nature is made in a way that we love to be satisfied, succeed in something like solving a puzzle, winning a race or a fight will always give us a good feeling. We love to achieve things : it makes us stronger, more confident, and most of all ready for a new challenge. Wether you want to call it satisfaction, excitement, discovery or anything else, achieving in something will always grant us with a feeling of fulfillment. We won over something that prevented us to move forward. We destroyed the constraint. So stimulating this kind of progression has been logically overused within the video game medium : violence seems like a good vector to create an environement where the player will have this need to win. As he’s threatened by an enemy, he has no choice but to face the challenge. For a game designer, adding a combat gameplay in a game makes often sense as it’s a quick and effective way to give challenge to the player. It’s not easy, but it has immediate feedback on the player.
And as we players experienced this great feel of satisfaction, we just want to repeat the same pattern within our favorite games. Winning a battle against a giant enemy who carries a sword ten times bigger than ours suddenly makes sense. Or solving a puzzle in Monument Valley feels incredibly good. It’s not so much about robbing a bank and escaping the police with a stolen car at 300 mp/h through the city; it’s more about the sensation of control we have on top of all that constraint that prevented us to do so : this is why shooting a cop in Grand Theft Auto or beating a gang member in The Last of Us is so satisfying. We destroy the constraint, we move forward.
I call this behavior « violence ».
And then, we’re satisfied.
Satisfaction is great, but what if we experience it too often?
The video game medium has existed for about 60 years now, but its industry is younger. If we let appart early prototypes, we can consider that the industry started when customers (mainly families at start) felt ready to pay, with the extra money left after paying bills, for an entertainment system that they considered worth their money. It had to be more than just a funny device that « bips » : it had to be fun so that the kids would be sucked in, and the parents have some peaceful time.
As more and more gaming devices were sold, video games became more and more complex. Some famous characters started their journey and some brands or studios became famous. It was a young, growing industry where passioned developers, also young themselves, wanted to share their idea of fun through new gameplay mechanics, better graphics or new stories that only this medium could help them realize. Young creators were speaking to young players. A new industry that was defined by this true connection between people that were the same age : a new generation was born.
And like any new generation, this one was limitless.
Of course it had its own music, movies, artists, codes, problems...and also its own way of expressing it. One to exist was to break free from the past generation codes : parents were old fashioned and only new stuff coming out was cool. Stop reading books or listening to music at home : bring your walkman with you and play video games! They’re cool and have amazing graphics! Be the super-hero you always dreamed to be, and slice with your sword tons of monsters or shoot with your BFG tons of other monsters!
You’ll be cool as sh🙊t. And this way, you’ll feel like a true renegade to your parents. You’ll show them all this rage you have inside you. All you have to say.
To me, this « rage » (or « violence ») is how video game creators expressed their desire to exist. This was, and is still a major link between creators and players. As we, human beings, always have something to fight for. A fight that is by definition violent. And this is were video games might have overused this vector.
For decades now, the video game industry has promoted violence like no other.
Our games are often filled with blood, blades, war, death, punches, guns, etc. Guns of Duty franchise is a huge success. Assassination Creed is a huge success. Grand Psychopath with an Auto is the biggest success ever. Violence is everywhere.
If I’m having fun with those franchises’ names, its because I feel like it’s sometimes hard and challenging to press the « pause » button and take a moment to think about what we’re doing. Playing Call of Duty will never teach use how to use a gun, or The Last of Us will never make us paranoiacs. This kind of thoughts is bullshit. But maybe it sets our minds into certain moods : excitation, confidence, power, or fear, disgust, nausea...and I feel like there has been too much of it.
I personally experienced a « reject » of blood representation a few years ago. Let me explain myself.
First, I want to say that I enjoy mainstream video games. I’m a huge player of Assassin’s Creed and Grand Theft Auto. I’m for exemple having breaks right now from writing this article, playing Doom on the switch on my flight back home. And I love it (play Doom if you haven’t already, seriously). So I guess I’m not uncomfortable with violence. I also love independant games, but I must confess that I should spend more time playing them.
The point is that I’m not afraid of blood or gore representation in video games or in movies. I even find it sometimes kind of aesthetic (I’m a huge fan of N.W.Refn and his use of gore/red). But I remember back when Assassin’s Creed Unity came out turning off the display of blood within the game settings. I don’t know why, but I started to feel weird when Arno (the game’s main characters) was slicing guards throats or stabbing them with is katana, while fountains of blood where pouring out. Meanwhile, I also stopped watching The Walking Dead show because I was having nightmares and some depressive feelings. I felt like everything was meaningless and about to end around me, exactly like in the show.
Even if I now enjoy Assassin’s Creed Origins with blood being display or The Last of Us Remastered and its gore, it appeared to me like all this violence in my favorite games was too much. Like I had an hangover after drinking too much of it. Like if I suddenly realized that I was growing up and that I had my time of blood and gore in my beloved games. Like if I was mature enough to experience something else than the red color into the gameplay.
Like if I wanted to see something else, to express something else.
SWEET CHILD O MINE
As I wrote before, the video game industry was young, and I believe both its creators and customers were connected mainly because of theirs youngness.
And now, everyone has grown up. Players entered or left college, started their first job, rented or owned their first apartment or even had children. And so the creators.
Have you noticed how many children characters have been represented in video games for the past 6-5 years?
Red Dead Redemption. Heavy Rain. Telltale’s The Walking Dead. The Last of Us; only speaking for the past console generation.
Now Fallout 4, Assassin’s Creed Origins, Horizon Zero Dawn, Inside, Detroit: Become Human, and even the next God of War (!) deal or will deal with children characters.
I surely forgot a lot of other games, but to me, it looks like both creators and players have grown up and they want to share something else than violence, something that reflects their day to day lives. As if time was running out and they wanted to focus on their legacy. The next God of War will be about teaching a(your?) kid your technics, whereas The Last of Us was all about the contrast between a devastated world and an innocent child trying to learn how to live more than just survive.
You could tell me that there were some not so-young-creators (no offense) back when the industry started, and it’s true. But to me, the gap between the creators and the players has now been filled, giving the video game medium a new maturity we never experienced before.
Things appear to be more grey than before. Did we understand that violence is not the only way to express ourselves? That teaching is also a good way to say what we want to say, to pass on our knowledge or to win our fight? And also to play in new ways?
THE LAST OF US PART II TRAILER
I think this trailer shocked because viewers are getting rid of forgiving video games for their violence. Like it’s no longer relevant for a game to be violent and justify « fun » with that. Naughty Dog might have decided to show this particular part of their new game because they knew it was going to create a buzz. And it did, exactly how they expected. We know that The Last of Us universe is a violent one, but we also know that it is about children trying to grow in a world were it’s hard to find landmarks, where they struggle to learn how life works. I’m sure The Last of Us Part II will be a great game, and it’s useless to judge a game on a trailer for it’s not representative of the game final content. The team just had to make a choice.
I truly believe Naughty Dog is using extreme violence to raise the contrast between the non-humanity of their world and the humanity of their characters so we can clearly understand their point. Because violence is also a good mean to bring out the light in a human being as it creates contrast between two opposite elements. I believe they want us to hold the controller and live the stories they created, and the understand that peace is a key to be a better person at the end of the day. That we’ll feel more alive by living the unlivable. That we saw too much violence, and it’s now time to be peaceful.
So who’s to be blamed?
The executioner, or the one watching?
Thanks to Vincent, Cloé, Benjamin and Maurin for helping me writing this article.
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