Last night, I'd slit somebody's throat just as they were screaming for help. I was able to drag them into a room as they gurgled and took their last breaths. But it was too late - dogs were barking, people were yelling. I scrambled for cover and dove into some tall grass. Twenty feet in front of me, I saw the exit, guarded by a dog and a militia member.
In my backpack were three molotovs.
I took a deep breath, then let one sail.
"Maybe YOU'RE The Real Monster!"
A lot's been made of The Last Of Us Part II's controversial (and, frankly, bad) marketing - especially in terms of its handling of violence. Neil Druckmann has gleefully described making players feel like garbage about murder. GameStop advertised killable dogs with the fevered excitement of an edgy thirteen-year-old. Honestly, it's the same old guff that AAA gaming has been selling us for years at this point.
"Oh, you're just gonna hate murdering in this game," says the gaming industry. "We make you feel super bad about killing. It feels real. Gosh, you're going to just feel terrible!"
Now, it's honestly rare that video games make me give a single, solitary fuck about killing somebody. Violence in gaming is a means to an end, and very rarely does any game actually make me question my actions in a meaningful capacity. There are examples, of course - outliers to the norm. Manhunt makes the act of murder feel desperate and slimy. Spec Ops: The Line forces players to commit war crimes. Last year's stellar Blair Witch only lets you kill one person: a defenseless woman killed in an act of wartime cruelty and cowardice. Games can make the nasty, heinous act of taking a life feel as terrible as it should be.
But most of the time? They fail. They fail because they make killing too damn fun.
What's The Deal With Ludic Violence?
I hate to be the umpteenth game critic to bring up "ludic violence," but hey, here we are. For the unfamiliar, the concept of ludic violence relates to the idea that video games make violence into a game. When Nathan Drake is committing large-scale atrocities, when Lara Croft is destroying an entire city, when Call of Duty is forcing you to depersonalize and slaughter virtual stand-ins for real-life people, it's hard to feel bad. It's hard because the game doesn't want it to be hard. It's hard because the act of murder is like picking up a mushroom, revving up a spindash, hitting a ball with a paddle - it's a means to an end, a repeatable mechanic that's focus tested to perfection until the game goes gold.
In essence, ludic violence is the act of gamifying murder.
See, Druckmann's insistence that the game is "engaging" and not "fun" is a real crock of shit. This is Naughty Dog we're talking about here. The company that tries to turn destroying and pillaging indigenous cultures into a goofy, B-movie romp. You're expecting me to believe, for one instant, that "fun" wasn't a focus here?
Ha! Good one, y'all. You almost had us going for a second there.
Fun Times With Brutal Murder
The Last of Us Part II is one of the most mechanically satisfying games I've touched in quite a while. It still has that dreadful AAA insistence of feeling heavy and weighty to try and be "realistic," of course, but the things that players can do within the confines of the slow controls feel incredible. Blowing somebody's skull into fleshy, brain-speckled chunks with a pump-action has a satisfying, tactile feel to it. Watching militia members scramble as you set them on fire is a gleeful, hilarious experience. Scrambling to rush somebody and slash their throat before they squeal is a frantic, stressful, and cathartic experience.
The act of killing in this game is so meticulously thought out. It's designed to make murder thrilling, to give players the perverse pleasure of horrendous maiming and stomach-churning as a fun little treat. Its approach to violence reminds me of 2004's Postal 2, minus the terrible politics. That, too, was a game that reveled in its violence, while also cheekily telling players that violence was just a choice. If it's just a choice, why is it the most engaging thing to do in this damn thing?
That's why I don't buy this game's claim of being some thoughtful, introspective meditation on violence. In text, sure, it tells us that killing is bad. The game's whole thematic thrust is built around the alleged fallacy of revenge, and it stops at every possible second to remind us that death is scary and violence is bad. But forget about the text - where is that in the mechanics? Where is that in the world?
Nowhere, because it wasn't a priority. Because Neil Druckmann is a snake oil salesman, peddling guilt and woe when he's really selling you a gleeful, sadistic murder sandbox.
If he were an honest artist, he'd come clean about that. The Last of Us Part II isn't a meditation on murder - it's a celebration of it. A circus sideshow of carnage meant to titillate, excite, and amuse.
You're A Winner!
My molotov, aimed right for the dog's face, exploded on impact.
The dog yelped and writhed as it burned to a crisp. Its owner tried to lean in and help it, only to catch fire and begin to scream as their flesh melted from their bone. Their friends immediately noticed and started to move in, but I wouldn't let them. Two soldiers rushed the area, but I hurled two more molotovs to keep them in line. As they screamed for their fallen friend, as they cried over their lost dog, as they tried to put out the fires I'd trapped them behind, I made a break for the exit.
Shots rang out behind me. A few stray bullets connected with my shoulder. But in the end, I survived. I survived so I could kill again. I won. I won! Yay!
And in that moment, I couldn't wait to win again - however many people I'd have to kill for that sweet, sweet victory.
Vi and Caitlyn are gay and nobody can change my mind.