I found the recent The Last of Us Part 2 trailer unsettling, and not in a good way. As I explained in a feature earlier this week, while I loved The Last of Us and found that its brutal violence served its desperate, ruthless world well, closing a press conference with a trailer featuring a kid’s arm being turned into mulch felt like a misguided attempt to illicit shock out of viewers. While I understand that TLOU‘s world is unforgiving, concluding a press conference with a claw hammer destroying a young girl’s elbow felt like a cheap attempt at raising a few eyebrows. It didn’t feel like an effort to sell me on the game’s atmosphere, or to outline the sequel’s darker tone — it felt like a crass attempt to shock, and it ran in parallel of what made the first game stand out from its peers.
I understand the counter-argument here that The Last of Us is known for its brutal world, and that Naughty Dog placing that brutality at the forefront of its new trailer is therefore well within the bounds of reason. I get that, even though I don’t necessarily agree with it. However, one point that I absolutely cannot comprehend is this assertion that those criticizing the trailer are somehow against video games exploring darker themes altogether, and that the gratuitous violence in and of itself is emblematic of maturity in a video game.
The Last of Us Part 2‘s trailer isn’t evidence of the game’s depth nor its maturity. Taken out of the context of its story, the scene is little more than a voyeuristic camera pointed at viscera; it’s a Live Leak video of someone getting hit by a train, or a blurry Rotten.com photo passed around a college a decade ago. No one is sitting watching that scene thinking about its atmosphere, its characterisation, or the glimpses it offers of the sequel’s story — if they are, it’s clearly not Naughty Dog’s intent. They’re thinking about the brutality of the girl’s elbow being pummelled, or the young woman hanging from a noose with a knife caressed along her abdomen. This isn’t a “mature” trailer, but rather one that’s selling sadism for shock value.
I love my violent games. My qualms with the reaction to The Last of Us Part 2‘s trailer don’t fall within the tired “do video games cause violence?” debate, because by now a barrage of studies have proven that this isn’t the case. But just because violence in the medium doesn’t have a tangible real-world impact, that doesn’t mean that its portrayal in games shouldn’t be privy to criticism. Arguing against the gore in The Last of Us Part 2‘s trailer doesn’t automatically make the critic a detractor of violence in games altogether, as evidenced by my long history of playing and enjoying violent video games. But games don’t exist as part of a homogeneous, indistinguishable blob — the ultra violence of Gears of War, Doom or Mortal Kombat isn’t being brought into question just because I have an issue with Naughty Dog’s decision to sell their game on the back of a kid’s mutilated arm.
Responding to criticisms of the trailer, PlayStation boss Jim Ryan called The Last of Us Part 2 “a game made by adults to be played by adults.” But in my estimation, while the gore featured in the trailer is definitely deserving of an 18+ certification, the approach to this brutality was anything but “adult.” In a pre-recorded interview broadcast after the Paris Games Week event in which the trailer was shown, the game’s creative director Neil Druckmann discusses the upgrades made to the game’s graphics engine while the trailer plays in the background. “This is the evolution of our Naughty Dog engine,” he says, as the young woman is depicted being dragged on her knees along the wet floor with her hands tied behind her back. He goes on to discuss the improved musculature of the game’s characters and their upgraded facial animations, as we see the two burly guards carrying the woman throwing her into the sodden dirt.
Regardless of whether or not it’s intentional, the implication to be derived from this is that Naughty Dog is essentially selling more realistic pain. If we hadn’t experienced the violence of the original The Last of Us, would this be nearly as acceptable? And even with the context of the first game in our minds, isn’t it still somewhat perverse to be sold the quality of a graphics engine on the back of a woman wincing in pain and fear?
We should stop conflating the criticism of the depiction of violence in games with a general disdain of violent video games. I am no stranger to blood-soaked pixels and polygons, but what I am definitely not about is watching a young girl’s arm being broken into pieces in order to sell me on the strength of a graphics engine. Sprinkling claret and broken bones on top of a game doesn’t make it a “mature experience,” and depth isn’t measured by how deeply you can embed a hammer into one of your character’s skulls. While The Last of Us Part 2 remains one of my most highly anticipated games, and this trailer will likely be just a blip on the road map to its release, now more than ever it’s important that developers and publishers are cognizant of the wider world when marketing their games. Naughty Dog failed to do so this time around.