People are arguing about the violence in The Last of Us 2. I don’t know if I have much to add but inspired by that conversation, here is a line of thought.

Nearly every game I saw in all these E3 trailers has killing as its core mechanic. Mostly, casual, more or less stylish killing of disposable people who you will think no more about as soon as they’re off the screen. There will be better or worse justifications for why these people deserve to die: “they are invading your country”, “they’re working for the oppressive ruler”, “they’re a post-apocalyptic cult”, “they’re inhuman monsters” all the way down to “they’re prisoners and you know incarcerated people deserve it” or whatever that fucking colonialist poison of a Tomb Raider game offers (I’m drawing the line at watching that one).

The justifications are not really what it’s about though. They’re just a cover. We play the samurai game (there’s like three upcoming samurai games, samurai seem to be in right now) because we want to play out this story of a dude killing people with a sword. The only reason the enemies are doing whatever awful things they are doing is to set up what we’re really here for: killing them and getting satisfaction out of it. It’s in that regard that I’m not sure Nazi-killing games actually do anything to challenge the modern forms of fascism.

I don’t want to say that’s always bad, necessarily. I would be a hypocrite if I did. I do get a lot out of character action games, Dark Souls and the like; and the miserable state of affairs is that if you don’t play games about killing or at least violence, there would be very very few games available to you. And, a game with killing as its core mechanic can have an awful lot of meaningful, honest things to say about violence and trauma - Yoko Taro’s kind of made a career of doing this to greater or lesser effect, best realised in NieR Automata.

Anyway, The Last of Us 2 (a game whose developers have, I’ve heard, swept sexual harassment allegations under the rug, so bear that in mind…) appears to be showing fighting in (in many ways) a particularly realistic way, in terms of showing the effects of injuries like arrow wounds and knife cuts, the animations connecting in ways a lot of games don’t, the whole thing coming across as not so much an elegant battle as a clumsy struggle, that kind of thing.

By the ‘connecting’ thing I mean, most games the approach is, you play your attack animation, the enemy probably plays their stagger back animation with very little connection to how you hit them before jumping into the next animation (having recognisable animations is crucial to let the player ‘read’ the battle). The exception is that usually when they die, they ‘ragdoll’ according to a physics simulation. Occasionally you’ll trigger a canned animation (a backstab or parry say, or a slow-mo special move) where they’ll respond to your move in a designated way. In contrast to that, in the TLoU2 trailer, it felt more like the arrows or punches or whatever were impacting on people. It was a terrifyingly impressive bit of animation if it’s truly real-time gameplay (if it’s pre-animated, less impressive but still well executed). Frankly it’s… really not all that pleasant to watch. Which they’d probably say is the point?

I think that may be something the original game did too (within the bounds of its technology), but I never played it (I don’t have a Playstation 3-4) so I can’t really comment on what its ‘philosophy of violence’ (to borrow Yoko Taro’s phrase) might be. I get the impression it’s some kind of awful ‘a man’s gotta do awful things to protect his family’ crap. But, I can’t really comment without actually playing it.

Just from this E3… the enemies in that trailer also seem unusually people-like, in terms of ‘enemy barks’, how they search for the protagonist and so on. They make little effort to explain why she’s killing them… well, OK, at the start of the trailer, she sees some dude hanging someone and pulling his guts out, and the other people are presumably allied with that guy, so you know they’re bad people. But most of the enemies searching for her seem to be just as scared and desperate as she is - frankly, more so. It’s not clear why she’s in this camp, what she’s trying to accomplish by sneaking around and killing all these people… but the killing is certainly horrible.

The protagonist was also injured, and while it wasn’t clear exactly what the game mechanics will be, it included things like pulling an arrowhead out of her in the place she’d gotten hit earlier, which is more detailed than average abstracted hit point representations. Enemies had arrows piercing their bodies oozing blood. It seemed like… a woman killing a bunch of people, not a woman going through a bunch of hitpoint bars.

Videogames rarely have enemies who run away or surrender. This game didn’t seem to either (in fact the only surrendering enemy I noticed was in Metro: Exodus’s trailer and I’m not even sure about that one?) When enemies show fear, it’s kind of a cartoonish fear designed to fulfil the power fantasy. The fear expressed by the enemies in the TLoU2 trailer felt… more sympathetic, perhaps.

There’s still videogame liberties - the protagonist seems to somehow never get tired as she kills like ten people over the course of the trailer, she can run and jump and do parkour with an improbable skill - but it’s taken the situation of making another person not alive anymore and made it feel like something that could actually be happening in a way very few games do.

It reminds me of that passage from the tabletop RPG Unknown Armies, which begins with a list of possible alternatives for fighting and then goes “the rest of this chapter contains rules for simulating the murder of other human beings.” It felt like… unglamorous? idk.

So.

I don’t know what to make of that. Does making videogame violence more ‘realistic’ in the fashion of TLoU2 just like… desensitise us to it more, compared to an obviously ‘fake’ game like DMC or something? Or does it inspire more critical consideration of what we’re doing, make us think about violence in a different way?

I guess it can never inspire that much critical consideration, because ultimately the point is to sell itself. It depends on us getting something out of that violence, which precludes the possibility that there will be another way. It’s not going to chance or end the production of violent videogames any more than Yoko Taro was capable of doing so, or Spec Ops: The Line, or Undertale. People who aren’t so put off that they’re willing to play it will nod and say… yeah that made a point, or complain about it, or whatever. Then they’ll play the next game and forget about it. Maybe that’s not even bad? But it seems… unsatisfying.

Ultimately what happens is - what Sony and Naughty Dog presumably want - is a bunch of tweets and posts about how ‘brutal’ and ‘hardcore’ the game is; a bunch of handwringing articles (like this one!) about what it means to portray violence in this way, whether it’s ethically justified etc.; they want attention, and therefore, profit. In this case, rather than Gears of War-style hypermasculinity and chainsaw swords, they’ve gone for something more down to earth, which makes it feel much more unpleasant in a way. But the goal is the same.

Beyond that, I don’t know what the aims of the TLoU2 devs were in this, why they spent so much money and effort simulating pain and injury with such fidelity. Perhaps it was so cynical, perhaps they’re trying to say something worthwhile, probably they want to have their cake and eat it.

Regardless of what TLoU2 is trying to do, I don’t really know how you can, faced with a medium whose primary concern is making simulation of inflicting injury and death on hundreds of people gratifying and satisfying, somehow shake it out of… doing that. How to tell a story, imagine a path to a future, where violence is truly a last resort, or not done for its own sake. Somehow, truly honestly represent what the consequences of these fictional actions are, push the player to identify with the victims and not the one holding the sword and then actually offer an alternative rather than just cheap guilt.

Perhaps it can only come when AI is sophisticated enough to create more complex non-combat interactions with people than dialogue trees. Perhaps we should look to interactive fiction here.

Anyway I’m probably a hypocrite or something because my upcoming project with Jackie is set in a period of horrific civil war and opens with beheading your husband and a fighting through a violent uprising. I am trying to say something different with it, portray the killing of people as messy and traumatic and horrible even when it’s justified, but… I don’t know. Maybe it’s just more of the same.

Violence for its own sake. Violence because it’s what our society is built on, and that’s all we know how to say.