***Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.
The Purpose of Brutality in The Last of Us
The player character in The Last of Us performs innumerable acts of violence. As Joel, a staggered bandit can be grabbed by the back of the neck, his head slammed into a brick wall. Another may be smacked in the skull with a wooden 2x4, each sickening hit sounding like a bag of wet laundry being swung against concrete. Playing as Ellie, sneaking up on an oblivious enemy results in her launching herself up onto his back, legs gripping him in place so she can plunge her switchblade into his chest, over and over again until he falls to the ground. It says a lot that straightforward descriptions of these killings do not appear out of place in videogames—that, if character names weren't mentioned, they could easily belong to just about any major release from the past few years. Audiences are used to the most extreme acts of violence being made rote by games. Yet The Last of Us still manages to shock. It’s not due to the grim imagination present in each, animated kill, but because of how its characters react to the post-apocalypse they inhabit. Even as the player dispatches enemies with automatic brutality, the game forces at least cursory introspection through voiced reactions. Ellie breathes “Jesus Christ, Joel” or a hushed, awestruck “fuck” following gory executions. More horrifying is the occasional enemy who falls to the ground and begs, “Let’s just be cool” as Joel stalks toward him to make the killing blow. Others choke out a desperate “No . . . please” as they’re strangled, a small moment of clear human desperation between hacking coughs and low gurgles. These details are key to The Last of Us’ approach to violence. They’re indications that the game is interested less in impressing its players with the immediate thrill of shockingly bloody combat than in portraying characters capable of both dealing out and reacting with apparently genuine horror to deeply violent acts. On one hand, the game’s focus on the viciousness of its action seems like an attempt to recentre an audience long since grown unimpressed by any sadism the medium can display. We need Ellie’s voiced repulsion and the pitiful begging of soon-to-die enemies to stir something in deadened hearts More important, though,is how The Last of Us’ violence ties into the game’s larger narrative concerns. The story revolves around whether hope is possible in a world that’s not only been overrun with walking corpses, but has confirmed the cynical theory that complete social collapse would lead humanity into a Hobbesian “war of all against all.” Ellie, young and the physical embodiment of a cure for the plague, still believes in the future in a broad sense. But Joel, hardened by the death of his daughter and memories of life before disaster fell, has a much narrower view. He begins the game as an animalistic nihilist, disavowing the new world’s political factions in favour of self-interested survival and caring for his immediate social circle. Where Ellie’s violence is purposeful, only filled with malice when it comes to the repulsive David, Joel’s is innate and dispassionate. His ultimate act—rampaging through a hospital filled with Firefly members to “save” Ellie from sacrificing her life to create the cure—is selfishness on an extraordinary level. The most telling moment is a doctor who tries to stop him from freeing the girl by waving around a tiny scalpel. Joel shoots him dead (and has the option, too, to kill a pair of nearby, unarmed nurses). This scene works as the complete realization of what’s been developing throughout the entire story. Joel is never more frightening a character than he is in these moments, and it’s not just because he kills in cold blood. The physical brutality that fills Joel and Ellie’s journey across America is enormously important to The Last of Us, but it’s the emotional horror that runs throughout the game that makes the biggest impact. The story’s greatest villains are those willing to inflict trauma on others in ways more insidious than the physical. There’s David who is not just a murderer and cannibal, but also a pedophile who deceives Ellie into short-lived trust. There’s Firefly leader Marlene who fights for the greater good by tricking Joel and Ellie into their doomed journey, stripping the girl of her right to choose her fate in a minor echo of the game’s final moments. It’s Joel, though, who is the worst offender, enlarging Marlene’s mistake enormously and for no reason other than to preserve a lopsided relationship with the surrogate daughter he’s just betrayed. Joel tests our implicit faith in the videogame protagonists we’ve been trained to accept as heroic by default. Like the reframing of its violence as horrific, The Last of Us must shock to break through, showing that a game is capable of true brutality of a kind typically pantomimed by hollow gore and obnoxious avatars we’re still meant to admire. Joel’s position as nominal hero makes the development of his character all the more impactful. We see the way he thinks, from his daughter’s death in the prologue through to his gradual willingness to open himself to Ellie’s friendship. We understand his motivations, which makes coming to understand the depths of his selfishness all the more powerful. His betrayal hits on multiple levels, quieting any remaining doubts that his violence is any more justified than that perpetrated by the hundreds of bandits killed throughout the preceding hours. It isn’t easy for the modern post-apocalyptic story to truly communicate how awful its vision of the future is meant to be. The genre has been established and audiences have been hardened to any number of its staples. This is especially true in videogames, where the violence of a dog-eat-dog world remains at the same fever pitch in games set at any time, in any place. The Last of Us has purpose beyond shocking the player, but most of its themes depend on our ability to truly believe that the brutality it shows isn’t just a continuation of what we’ve seen before. Through proper characterization—and an understanding of humanity that goes deeper than the usual action game caricature—it accomplishes this. It manages to shake us from a stupor established by decades of poor videogame storytelling in order to stir emotions and spark thoughts too often neglected.