"I had a dog hit a trip mine. I didn't sleep well after that," USgamer guides editor Jake Green told me at one point, not long before our review of Naughty Dog's much-anticipated follow-up was set to go live. The Last of Us Part 2, which launches Friday, has already invited a considerable amount of discussion regarding its violent content. Many of the words associated with it have been "grim" and "gruesome." In my preview comparing it to Animal Crossing, I noted how I had come to call it my "Ellie stabs people in the face game."
Its reputation is well-earned. The Last of Us Part 2 is unsparing in its depictions of violence, with several characters meeting horrifying fates at the hands of Ellie and other characters. If you saw one of the original trailers, which depicted a character getting their belly slit open by a religious cult called the Scars, you have a pretty good idea of what you might be in for.
"Dear Naughty Dog, please stop torturing people in your trailers," Nadia plaintively wrote after the trailer dropped.
For many people, it will likely be too much, especially given real-world headlines. This leads me to a question: Is The Last of Us Part 2 simply too violent for its own good? Does 2020 need a game that basically turns its heroine into a psychopath; one who strides slowly up to an enemy while they flail on the ground, their leg ripped to shreds by a shotgun blast? Do we need a game seemingly designed to break the "Does the Dog Die" website?
Many critics seem to think it might indeed go too far. In its review roundup, Inverse said Last of Us Part 2 sounded stunning but that "it might be too brutal to endure." Polygon called The Last of Us Part 2 "blood-curdling in its gruesomeness," and that it would "show you the bad stuff" and "rub your face in it."
For my part, I've been weirdly sanguine about the violence. While The Last of Us Part 2 certainly had its moments—the ritual disemboweling I mentioned above really is a lot—it never quite crossed the rubicon to where I was actively sickened and wanted to stop. And it's not like I relish video game violence. In discussing the subject with the USG staff, I hearkened back to Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes, a game so graphic in its depiction of emergency surgery that just thinking about it makes me want to wretch. Other games, from Grand Theft Auto 5 to Mortal Kombat X, have had scenes that could be described as flatout grotesque.
So why doesn't The Last of Us Part 2 hit as hard, despite being a game in which it's possible to basically plaster enemies to the ceiling? I suppose one reason is that, while graphic, its violence tends to move quickly. If Ellie gets struck by a hammer, the camera cuts to black almost immediately. Bodies are often viewed at a remove, and with a couple notable exceptions, it's not tremendously bloody.
Before the review, I wrote about how The Last of Us Part 2 could be oddly cathartic in a world where isolation and an endless string of depressing news is the order of the day: "I've heard it said more than once that violent games can be an outlet for real-world frustrations, and I can't deny that it's been cathartic bashing hapless Infected with axes and baseball bats."
In GameXplain's review roundtable, I further discussed how the violence seems somehow necessary in a game like The Last of Us Part 2. Should a game about the darkness of humanity in a zombie-infested world pull its punches? I'm not so sure.
Then there's the fact that the bar for violence has shifted considerably on both TV and elsewhere. I'm currently watching True Blood, and I have to say that show is more disgusting than almost anything I've ever seen in a video game, including The Last of Us Part 2. The same can be said for Game of Thrones, a show in which a man's head is at one point crushed like a melon.
That may be damning with faint praise, as there are plenty who will argue that depictions of ultra-violence are a problem, whether or not they're on a sliding scale of gruesomeness. It's an argument that's as old as the media itself, and it's one that's apt to continue well into the future. I think back to that aforementioned scene in Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes, or the various executions in God of War—scenes that are almost pornographic in their depictions of violence, and I shudder a bit. But where The Last of Us Part 2 pushes boundaries, it manages to avoid being outright tasteless.
I think what's difficult about The Last of Us Part 2 is that while games like God of War, or the film Kill Bill, are cartoonish and ridiculous, The Last of Us Part 2 is often frighteningly realistic. The screams; the way people will yell after their friends, and that familiar splort sound—like a hammer hitting a melon—are all intended to drive home the fact that you're doing violence to other human beings. It's not as over-the-top as other media, but it does land harder in its own way.
For a lot of people, it will be too much, especially in this time and place. One hardly needs a video game to remind them of how awful people can be these days; not when there are so many examples on social media alone. In that, The Last of Us Part 2 may not be as graphic as some other games, but it will be too violent nonetheless.
The Last of Us Part 2 is out Friday.