Yesterday Sony released a new trailer for The Last of Us Part II at an event during Paris Game Week. Our longest glimpse yet at the sequel introduces a handful of new characters, and then immediately brutalizes almost all of them in graphic, grisly fashion. At one point a woman is held down by two men who break one of her arms with repeated blows from a hammer. It’s as hard to watch as it sounds, so you’ve been warned before you click that play button below.
It’s difficult to separate videogames from violence. It’s been a core part of the medium since its earliest days, from punching and shooting to eating ghosts and stomping on turtles. Beyond videogames, many sports are explicitly built around violence, and most of the ones that aren’t still borrow concepts or terminology from warfare. Even board games and traditional card games are often rooted in war. We as a species inevitably boil any competition, no matter how friendly, down to its most primal and violent essence.
The violence in videogames has never felt this real before, though. The uncanny valley will probably never be fully traversed, but with HD graphics and 4K TVs games like The Last of Us Part II look startlingly lifelike. This isn’t the cartoonish blood splatters of Mortal Kombat, the blocky abstractions of basically every 1980s videogame, or the polygonal homunculi of the first two PlayStations. Yara, the woman in that trailer, is one of the most realistic looking characters we’ve ever seen in a videogame, and on her computer-generated face we see all the fear and pain we’d expect from a real person who’s been forced to the ground and bludgeoned ‘til their bones break. And that’s merely the most unpleasant moment in a trailer full of them. The entire scene is depicted as seriously and severely as possible, in the stultifying apocalypse porn style of The Walking Dead, and when combined with today’s graphical fidelity it becomes unusually disturbing. There aren’t many videogame moments that are harder to watch, and what makes it even more egregious is that this is basically a commercial for the game. Naughty Dog and Sony think this brutal, uncomfortable violence is a primary selling point.
It’s more than just this one ad for this one game, though. Wolfenstein II came out last week and, like its predecessor, has several scenes of grotesque, almost obscene violence. That game is essentially a playable cartoon, but one where, instead of plummeting off screen and emerging from explosions covered in soot, we see Wile E. Coyote’s mangled, disembodied corpse with its entrails unspooling onto the screen. It’s Itchy and Scratchy, then, if, instead of a cartoon cat and mouse, it used cutting edge technology to create animals that look as much like the real thing as possible, and then graphically disemboweled them.
As games rush to look more like real life, the violence inherent to the medium becomes harder to stomach. Naughty Dog, the studio behind The Last of Us, is considered one of the most significant creative forces working in big budget games today, a narrative-focused group of designers that has deeply explored the relationship between movies and games; how many players who would normally be interested in a new Naughty Dog game might be driven away from The Last of Us Part II because of its extreme, lifelike violence? Gareth Damian Martin, the editor of the gaming and architecture zine Heterotopias, and who is neither me nor related to me, discussed this on Twitter yesterday, and it’s a sentiment I’ve felt for at least a decade now, since games first entered the HD era. The goofy grotesqueries of previously problematic games like Mortal Kombat now feel quaint and innocent compared to the vibrant horror regularly perpetrated upon my television screen. Graphics can now recreate the real world not just more faithfully than before, but so faithfully that the violence can feel too real. The abstraction that the technology of the past forced upon designers has largely been eliminated, giving them the opportunity to explore gore and violence as vividly as filmmakers.
Naughty Dog obviously finds it important to portray the horrible state of this fictional apocalypse as starkly and plainly as possible. That’s their right, as creators. And with the popularity of extremely grim and violent TV shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, perhaps the tiresome violence in this The Last of Us Part II trailer won’t dissuade too many from playing the game. What does the trailer gain from showing us every second of Yara’s attack, though? Or by lingering on the hammer stuck in her attacker’s head, blood oozing out of the side? Would this presumably pivotal moment in Yara’s story have been less powerful for the player if the camera focused elsewhere when the hammer caved in her arm? Would we have felt less compassion for Yara if we hadn’t seen the terror and pain on her face as that hammer came down again and again? Sometimes just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Some will find this trailer to be a brave, unflinching depiction of violence that underscores how cruel this world is; others find it an unnecessarily cruel, even cynical exploitation of a woman’s fear of violence from men. Its impact, whether negative or positive in your eyes, is greater than it would be in the past due to today’s technology. Watching it makes me miss the days when designers had to be a little more abstract or artful with their violence.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections and writes regularly about theme parks. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.