As gamers and consumers of entertainment, when a highly anticipated product emerges on the horizon we tend to scavenge for as much detail and information as possible, going over developer interviews, game trailers and fan-driven internet rumour with a fine-tooth comb, like online Sherlock Holmes’ leaving no stone unturned. Gaming sequels, like movies, tend to come out at long intervals, and with the growth in technology increasing the scope of these titles, the intervals have only gotten longer with each passing generation, while the well of potential information – thanks to the integration of the internet into the everyday social fabric – has only gotten deeper.The trailer for The Last Of Us Part II, the hotly anticipated sequel to the acclaimed first title developed by Naughty Dog, is an amalgamation of modern video gaming promotion at its best, and also its most visceral.
Highly cinematic, the behind the shoulder camera which trails the trailer’s unknown protagonist and her captors as thunder roars the skies above and rain pummels them and the ground below establishes a tense and hostile atmosphere from the get-go. Much has been made of how violent the trailer is and, simply, there is no denying it. While realistic depictions of gratuitous violence have been commonplace in film and television for half a Century now, comparable displays of violence have only emerged in video games very recently as it was impossible for the relatively new medium to do so with the primitive technology and graphical ability of previous generations. In fact, it really wasn’t until the sixth generation of consoles, which emerged at the turn of the millennium that realistic, that the hardware was sufficiently powerful enough to depict convincing visual brutality (it could even be argued that it wasn’t until the seventh generation, the last one before the current generation, that it became truly realistic). What makes the trailer so hard to stomach for most people, I believe, is lack of context.
In film, heinous violence can be rendered bearable to the viewer if it is acceptably contextualised; it’s what separates, albeit brutal, movies like Hacksaw Ridge and Casino from the gore-porn of Saw and Hostel – emotional engagement, morality and quality storytelling. The problem that this trailer faces is that without sufficient narrative context, a woman having her arms broken with a claw-hammer is just, well, a woman having her arms broken with a claw-hammer. The first Last Of Us game was critically acclaimed not because of how violent it was (and it is, as anyone who has played it will tell you, exceptionally violent) but because, among a litany of other redeeming qualities, how it was able to suck the player into its dystopian world, through brilliant storytelling, outstanding scripting and voice acting, and the genuine emotion it evoked. Therefore, just as in Cormack McCarthy’s novel The Road, which is arguably The Last Of Us’ greatest source of inspiration, it is able to deal with uncomfortable themes of murder, starvation, tribalism, the death of children, rape and molestation without coming off as being deliberately antagonist or controversial. It’ll be interesting to see as graphics improve in gaming, becoming more detailed and vibrant if developers will forego quality storytelling in favour of graphical flare and depictions of increasingly graphic violence and death. Some games, in the past, have driven explicit violence to the forefront as the focal point of the experience (such as Manhunt or State of Emergency), and with rare exception – such as the latest seventh instalment in the Resident Evil franchise – it usually highlights a game lacking in any redeemable content or, worse still, overshadows any quality that may exist.
The good news is that, in an industry with a relatively low percentage of casual and passive consumers (when compared to film and music), I cannot see most developers becoming complacent with regards to its software’s other integral elements, one of which is storytelling, by simply relying on using violence as a shock tactic. What’s even better is that this is less likely to occur with The Last of Us Part II. Naughty Dog has, at this point, a rock solid track record and a reputation as one of the best developers in the world to uphold, with the first Last of Us game being one of the brightest jewels in its crown. (A quick side note on the sparseness of the trailer too is that games which tend to have minimalist trailers, or are indifferent to promoting their games at expo’s, usually indicate a developers confidence in their product – just look at Rockstar’s history of cryptic trailers and E3 no-shows.) It will be violent yes, probably the most violent product the studio has ever sold to the masses, but the violence will take place in a beautiful dystopian world, within which a wonderful story is likely to be woven, the chapters of which will be accessible through what is likely to be a masterfully crafted gameplay experience. In context – bloody, glorious context.