In 1997, Michael Haneke released a dark and intentionally unpleasant home invasion movie, Funny Games, then remade it with a larger budget in 2007. Both films are grim, and were intended by Haneke as lessons about media violence. He said that “anyone who leaves the cinema doesn’t need the film, and anybody who stays does.”
The Last of Us Part II has been widely acclaimed as the best game of 2020, and praised as innovative and emotionally resonant. It was one of the reasons I bought a PS4, but I only made it through about ten hours before deciding that it had nothing to say to me and stopped playing. As beautiful as the game is, there is an ugliness below the surface that repulses me. The game’s morality is broken.
When you’re playing videogames, the worlds are designed to look real, but represent a less complicated logical universe. Like how some stones on the ground can be picked up as weapons, but others are decoration. Or how wooden doors in games sometimes require a key and are impervious to bazooka fire. Or you can open drawers to find hidden items, but only some drawers.
The Last of Us pretends to be an open world, but not all the windows can be levered open. Sometimes, I found myself wandering an area, looking for the gap I should squeeze through to enter the next area. Sometimes I could see that area through a chainlink face, but not all the fences are climbable, only the ones where an icon appears. Rather than simply exist in this virtual world, I had to learn to interpret it. What was implied to be an open world was actually a series of controlled corridors.
This same forced path happens in the game’s morality. The revenge plot relies on the main character feeling remorse for the people they have slaughtered. But these murders are not chosen by the character. Sometimes the only way to progress is to fight your way past ‘enemies’. The game attempts to humanise these guards through their companions call their names as they die. Forcing the player to kill to progress, then blaming them for it, is some sort of Skinnerian experiment in misplaced empathy.
Having given up on the game, it’s sad to learn that this problematic morality is by design, with director Neil Druckman saying in an interview:
“we can make you experience this thirst for revenge. This thirst for retribution and having you actually, like, commit the acts of finding it and then showing you the other side to make you regret it. To make you feel dirty for everything you’ve done in the game, making you realise ‘I’m actually the villain of the story.’”
Vice magazines’s review described TLOUP2 as a game about revenge that “digs two graves, fills them with blood, and then just fucking wallows in them”. As much as I loved the post-apocalypse setting, I wasn’t up for the wallowing.
The game has produced some interesting critical responses. Some have pointed out that the game’s plot is implicitly Conservative, with a selfishness at its heart. One of the best pieces I read was about the treatment of one of the Black characters (an incident I did not progress far enough to see): “The torture and death of Nora is considered in the game only in the effect that it has on Ellie, as if the decision to torture someone is something that happens to you instead of a choice.” On top of this there is the abuse of staff who made this game through the use of crunch time, so I guess things have not improved since the days of EA Spouse.
There were far better stories that could have been told using the setting and technology than one that forces the player into murder and then blames them for it. The only choice, like in Funny Games is whether to play or not.