The Last of Us 2: Thrusting Your Audience Into Violence
I can pinpoint the exact thing I was thinking when The Last of Us Part 2 was announced: “this is the one game that never needed a sequel.” It was about as clinical as a thought could get. This was made not only from how the first game never even intended to have a follow up story, or from my disappointment in mainstream titles and their sequels, fueling my growing cynicism with the stagnation of the AAA gaming industry (pretentious opinion, I know). I thoroughly enjoyed the first game for what it was. The story was just different enough from the post apocalyptic settings of the time, and the characters were way more compelling. Joel was not a hero, nor was he someone to dislike; he was a deeply flawed character making the best choices he could. Elle was more than just a surrogate daughter for Joel; she was the thing that brought him back from one of the darkest places a person could go. The journey though their year in post-cordycept America was indeed memorable; I felt like I lived in those character’s shoes for the duration of the game, especially because of the focus on the relationship between Joel and Ellie.
Naturally, curiosity (and a little apathy) grew as the release date for Part 2 drew closer. I exposed myself to all of the leaks, opinions, and commentaries the game caused in its home stretch to release because I had no intention to actually play it in the first place. However, with a few days to go before launch, I pulled back from all of the noise and bought the game on a whim, with the attempt to play it as blindly as I could at that point. After completing the game, I can say that it honestly sets out to do what its director intended it to do. The story, or lack of a compelling story, isn’t even center stage in my opinion. Granted, discussing the story is not the most important thing here; rather, its how the game presents a raw, unbridled violence that really drives the experience home. I cannot think of another game that’s pulled off this kind of savagery in human nature. The only piece of media that I can really compare this game to is Elem Klimov’s 1985 anti-war movie Come and See. The game’s use of its amazing physics, graphical fidelity, and unflinching interaction that makes this a game worth experiencing.
A World Rebuilding
The Last of Us had a pretty bleak introduction to the world; starting off with the outbreak kicking into full gear, you’re dropped into the world at the beginning of the end. After the incredibly effective title sequence, you’re thrust twenty years into this horrible future and are forced to navigate its horrors, from martial law and warring factions to groups of cannibals and the iconic cordycept zombies. Part 2 takes place a five years after the conclusion of The Last of Us. Tommy and his wife have greatly expanded on Jackson, and the town has gone from a small fort around a hydroelectric dam to a fully fledged city. Jackson has a life all to its own, protected by high walls, constant patrols and a large population. It’s here where you start the game as Elle; Elle has matured into an adult, and now has a more established place among all of the familiar faces. You play though the opening hours of the game getting to see the town, meet new people and reminisce about some of the old times. However, things don’t stay even-keel for long, and soon bad things happen. To keep it brief, revenge comes into play, and the vast majority of the game is spent seeking and extracting revenge against other people. To go beyond that would enter spoiler territory, but there’s another reason I don’t want to touch on it. As stated earlier, despite what critics and gaming sites say, the “cinematic narrative” is the least interesting part of the game. It’s predictable, has some serious gaps in logic, and far too often suffers from “ this thing is here because plot needs to happen” kind of moments (deus ex cordycept, I like to call it). The story could not exist at all and it would have the same effect on me. Mind you, I absolutely adore heavily story driven games, seeing as how much I gush about the Silent Hill series. Plenty of games exist that have little to no story substance, yet they get their hooks into me so deep I feel like I’m coming out of a coma when I stop playing them. The Doom series, Dino Crisis 2, and all my time in various Call of Duty games go to show that I either have really bad taste (not that farfetched of an idea), or that if you create a solid enough gameplay loop, the story has the luxury of taking a backseat. To quote the wonderful John Carmack, one of the co-creators of Doom:
“Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.”
To say that Part 2 is a technical marvel is an understatement; I’ve been playing video games for lord knows how long, and have got to see them transition from 16 bit blobs to fully realized 3D characters and landscapes. I still remember seeing Silent Hill 2 for the first time and thinking “this is it; this is where video games finally become realistic.” Granted, there have been a lot more advances since that time, but in the last six years or so, nothing has really leapt forwards from a technical standpoint. Engines get new updates and releases, but most developers are years behind where the current tech can actually be, and there’s a variety of reasons for that. However, even with all of the limitations of engines on the market right now, Part 2’s engine shatters a lot of things I expected from video games in the current generation.
First, there are the soft physics. Without getting too wordy, this is represented by objects that are fairly pliable, like clothing, hair, cables and so forth. I cannot think of a game in recent memory that was able to create such realistically hanging clothing. In most games, when a character takes off a soft object like a shirt, the camera angle either fades out during the change, or it suddenly switches away from said character. Occasionally, you’ll comeback to the character and they’ll be holding a soft object that will animate, but almost never get to see the character directly influence how that object falls onto a physical object, be it something like a chair or a body. Part 2 shows this off brilliantly; when you’re using a med-kit, you wrap your arm with what actually looks like a bandage, and it stays for a good chunk of time. The ropes and cables in this game can be wrapped around, tossed over and under objects, and their behavior will change accordingly with their length. Clothing and hair will swish around like its actually there.
Additionally, the overall presentation of the game is beautiful. The first time I stepped into a forest in Seattle, I had to sit there for a few minutes and really soak it all in. The way light shafts made their ways through the pines; the little flocks of birds flying through the mist. I actually had to stop playing and grab my wife (who doesn’t really care for games all that much) just to show her how truly serene it looked. I can’t even think of the last time a game this generation made me do that. Every kind of environment is seeped in mood and atmosphere. From the overgrown neighborhoods full of uncut and wild grasses to the musky and ruined buildings, the dilapidated state of everything carries a haunting beauty with it. This extends to characters as well. Everyone feels and looks like they’ve been pushed beyond the brink, and still somehow find the will to continue. Even the NPCs, who are mostly fodder, all feel like semi-broken people just barely hanging on.
For a lot of games, the environment is just that; a place to put the player in so that they can go from point A to point B while participating in the main hook. Some developers use the environment as means to an end, utilizing player controlled events to create new pathways, kill opponents, and solve puzzles to progress. Fewer still are developers that use an environment as a character, telling its own personal narrative and containing stories within the stories. I usually point to the Half-Life series when it comes to finding examples of this. Half-Life, which came out in 1998, has an unbroken narrative experience from the player’s perspective. All of the major and minor story elements had to be told in real time while the player remained in control. As you moved further into the game, you came across situations, either in progress or after the fact, that told their own little story. Part 2’s environments all tell their own little stories, painted out in delicate strokes on the canvas of the world. Even with all of that, there are some interesting things that Naughty Dog chose to put into the world. In this version of the word, everyone had PS3s, way more people were into Warhammer 40K than I assumed, and PS Vitas are still played by survivors (one survivor is literally playing Hotline Miami at a point in the game).
Within those places lies stories with a little more narrative; notes you discover within the world often act as a hook to find secrets, but also contain a narrative for the parties involved. One of my favorites has to be a note you find near the beginning, talking about a safe in the back room of a tire shop. The note mentions some people and the kinds of supplies locked up, but then it takes a very odd turn at its ending which I will not detail here. This is just one example; the game is full of these little stories scattered around, giving a sense that the world is a living thing being lived in. Part 2 always has little threads to pull on to help create the nooks and crannies of the larger story. There are even little prompts throughout the game that help Elle flesh out her journal, giving the players a deeper looking into her thoughts and feelings that may not be present on the surface.
Unflinching and Uncanny
All of this to get to, what I consider, the real “meat and potatoes” of the game: intense and brutal violence on a very personal scale. There have been plenty of violent games made in the past, several this year in fact. Doom Eternal had you ripping out spines, tearing your enemies in half and being an overall nuisance to demon-kind. The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners requires you to physically thrust all manner of weapons into zombies and humans alike, calculating the force used for this eerily realistic effect while the people you invited over watch you flailing around in VR. Zombie Army 4 comes with it’s sister series “gore cam” on particularly gruesome shots. However, what all of these games lack is the insanely personal view on violence against other human beings.
Part 2 is rife with horrific violence against everyone. It doesn’t matter if the character is a mainstay, a side character, or an NPC. Likewise, regardless of race, gender or species, everything is affected or defined by violence in its purest form. The game’s physically disturbing aspects far outweigh the emotionally troubling aspects moment to moment. For example, stealth killing in most games is quick, tidy and almost formal. Stealth kills are usually just a way to eliminate a piece of the environmental “puzzle” (moving from point A to B while guards patrol the path in-between). Part 2 makes it deeply personal; you as a player not only stab someone through the neck, but you hold on to them for an uncomfortably long time, until finally removing the blade in one swipe. Sometimes, that enemy will lay on the ground and gargle for a bit, drowning in their own blood; other times, Ellie or Abby will whisper something under their breath like “mother fucker” or some other kind of insult. Shooting an enemy does not always promise a clean kill. Occasionally, a bullet to the head won’t just end someone’s life, but will instead hit them in the neck or jaw, and cause them to let out a gurgling scream or a sound that’s closely related. Gunshots to the extremities will cause people to drop their guns, fall over, scream, or panic. Gut shots that aren’t from a high powered weapon results in enemies holding themselves, writhing on the ground screaming for help, in pain, or for their loved ones. The only other game that does anything near this in recent memory was the Red Orchestra/Rising Storm series, which is straight up nightmare fuel.
It’s insanely grim, and even writing that passage, I feel a bit like an edgy teen, but it shows these horrible things being done to everyone across the board. Its not just “Generic guy #36;” its Joanne or Craig. Even our main characters aren’t safe from disastrous bodily harm. As each of the characters make their respective journeys, they experience incredibly harsh trauma stemming from the world around them and their actions on the world. The opening hours of the game a quite tame; almost like frolicking through a beautiful forest before tripping over a tree root and being thrust headlong into a nightmare underworld. There’s a lot of things that exist in this game to really drive home how brutal everything is in this hopeless future. Cannibals exist, but what about an entire society of zealots that refuses to embrace technology, operating on a very strict pre-industrial level, and kill anyone they deem as a heretic? What about military groups, based around claiming as much of Seattle as brutally as possible? Slave drivers, bandits, rapists; they all exist in the forefront of this world, and the strongest and most brutal are the ones to rule it. As a player, you’re asked very quickly if you will become the kind of person to thrive or fail in this sort of world.
Closing Down, Going Home
When I finally finished the game, I was exhausted. The game’s length didn’t get to me (although Part 2 is a surprisingly long game), nor did its story, but the game’s content made me feel quite awful at the end of it all. The things done to the people and animals in game were not my character’s actions; they were my actions. The killing, the maiming and the pain was my fault. To say Part 2 is depressing is a mild statement; after beating it, I don’t think it will be one of those games I boot back up any time soon, if ever. It hits hard in a lot of places, and keeps up the brutality until you’re begging for it to be over (seriously, in the home stretch of the game, I was actually saying the word “stop” out loud, as if that could do anything). Movies being brutal and savage is nothing new, but rarely does a director take you into the savagery and directly implicate you in it. This is why I think the Come and See comparison is accurate; the film worked to force its viewers beyond being voyeuristic perverts to the point of breaking into their comfortable spaces behind the lens and invading it with raw brutality. Part 2 hits this on the nose, and I suspect will be the only game to do so for quite a long time.