An enemy combatant pokes their head over the barrier they’re hiding behind. With one shot they crumple to the ground, dead. As their companions scramble to attack or flee, they’re quickly dispatched as well. In the course of just minutes, a dozen formerly living beings lay strewn lifelessly across a room. This scenario plays out across dozens, if not hundreds, of video games. And in almost all of them, it’s fun.
Of course, art doesn’t have to be fun to have merit. Plenty of movies (Requiem for a Dream), television shows (The Leftovers), and novels (American Psycho) are deeply unpleasant to experience but still recognized as brilliant works. The same principle applies to video games, but the nature of the medium introduces complications. A movie has to hold the audience’s attention for only a few hours, but video games must keep the player engaged for much longer, potentially across dozens of hours. And while shows and physical art can be engaged with passively, games demand active participation.
Video games have flirted with the notion of putting fun aside for years to make players uncomfortable. Spec Ops: The Line asked players to consider the cost of war in its retelling of Heart of Darkness, but its gameplay is indistinguishable from the shooters that revel in their violence. Horror games like Resident Evil and Outlast use the trappings of horror to startle players, but only superficially, ushering players toward the next thrill. Very few games even attempt to make a player genuinely feel bad, and fewer succeed. It’s fully possible though, and no game series has done it as well as The Last of Us, particularly The Last of Us Part 2.
To keep an audience engaged while making them uncomfortable, any narrative-driven piece of media needs to have unassailable writing. It’s no secret The Last of Us shines in that regard. For nearly a decade now Naughty Dog has received praise for the story they crafted, and the story of Joel and Ellie (Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson respectively doing some of the best work of their careers) hits hard. Both games begin with a character—one a child, one beloved—murdered in a defenseless state. Neither scene looks away from the brutality of violence, setting the tone for the games from the start. This remains true throughout the story, with numerous named characters tortured, maimed, and killed. There are small moments of levity and humor, but the world of Last of Us is oppressively bleak.
It’s what happens between the cutscenes where The Last of Us sets itself apart in terms of making its audience squirm. The original game did an admirable job given its release in 2013 on the PlayStation 3, an infamously difficult system to develop a game on. Anyone who has played the game can remember the first time a Clicker, one of the nastier strains of the Not Zombies infested with the fungal infection behind the pandemic, ripped Joel’s throat out with their teeth. And the mini-boss Bloater tearing Joel’s face open by the jaws remains one of the most gruesome deaths in gaming. But like in all great zombie media, it’s what we do to other people that matters the most.
The Last of Us used the graphical fidelity granted by the PlayStation 3 (and later the PlayStation 4’s upscaling upon the game’s 2014 release on that console) to show the brutality Joel inflicts on the human body. Exit wounds gape open on enemies hit by headshots, their lifeless eyes staring blankly. The game’s shotgun, granted early in the story, carries enough power to rip limbs off at close range. The human body is both beautiful and fragile, and inflicting so much carnage on it is deeply unsettling.
The Last of Us Part 2, designed solely for the PlayStation 4 and taking advantage of years of graphical and technical progress, makes players feel even worse about their actions. All of the same gory ethos is there, with Ellie displaying even more ruthlessness than Joel in her hand-to-hand kills, displayed in stunning, nauseating detail. Part 2’s story, a meditation on revenge at any cost, is considerably darker than Part 1 on its own, and the level of violence displayed matches it. But it’s not just the level of violence or the depiction that Part 2 uses to confront the player; it’s the immediate consequence of it.