Joel struggles desperately on the ground, the blood pouring down his face from his broken nose as he wrestles for his life with an overpowering aggressor. The tables turn and in a frenzy of adrenaline, he desperately grabs a nearby shotgun. A blunt strike to the head and his opponent is on the ground with only a single blood-curdling moment for his victim to scream a panic-stricken “don’t!” before his life is ended. The stage demo for Naughty Dog’s latest creation, the post-apocalyptic third person shooter The Last of Us, was impressive in many ways but perhaps most surprisingly in terms of its approach to death in videogames or, to put it bluntly, murder.

In fact, The Last of Us reveals an almost undetectable schism in gaming between the guilt-free murder of most first-person shooters and the presentation of murder as an unfortunate necessity found in far fewer instances. In most gaming experiences, we are presented with a mode of killing that is completely guilt-free; Zombie games are paradigmatically representative of this trait as they pit us against a foe that is human in appearance but an empty vessel on the inside, and unsurprisingly, there is no ethical debate surrounding the killing of zombies.

Such morally ambivalent enemies go on to include Nazis; in the late 90s and the the early 00s, a flurry of first-person shooters set in World War 2 (such titles included Medal of Honor, Call of Duty and Battlefield 1942) drew upon the universal view of all Nazis as an immoral, almost inhuman, organisation and perpetuated a mode of killing that characterised the enemy ideologically rather than individually. Because the Nazis were evil, all German soldiers were therefore evil and thus any moral complexities were absolved. Why then did all these World War 2 games disappear?

The answer is that the idealogical framework of their gameplay mechanics simply became outdated, to be replaced by a new idealogical enemy, nuclear terrorism. Within the post-9/11 and the interventionist political landscape of the modern day, there exists the potential for a new universal enemy to exploit and a new social fear to embody. Once again, in titles such as Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare, the Rainbow Six series and countless others, ideology has replaced individuality to create a guilt-free enemy for the modern day.

The Last of Us challenges these mindless kill streaks, and confronts us with an enemy who demonstrates a personalised survival instinct; most importantly, it is one that is not solitary but one that shows regard for their companions. But is this change necessarily a good one? The Grand Theft Auto Series allows, nay actively encourages, the player to get in a tank and steam roll as many cars and people as they can; whilst such an approach pays as much heed to the sanctity of life as it does to realism, there is a definite element of catharsis involved in such mindless rampages. No other form of media seems to rival the adrenaline rush of such an experience. Indeed, forcing a player to think deeply about every enemy they killed could be potentially damaging; could we see a future where the battles in video games are so real players begin to suffer post-traumatic-stress-disorder?

The Last of Us is a refreshing approach that ought to be applauded; however, rather than replace the role of guilt-free killing entirely it is sufficient to reconsider the motivations behind such killing. When the motivations lie in political ideologies and cultural fears, when they presuppose an agenda of thought and the universalism thereof, when such games begin to stray into the realm of propaganda: it is then that there must be moderation.

Tom Mackay

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2 Comments

  1. June 19, 2012 at 19:39 — Reply

    Nice write up. I’ve been following E3 for quite a while and what struck me most from the Sony Press Conference demo of “The Last of Us”, apart from the general game aesthetics, was the audience’s reaction to those moments of violence. I’m a gamer and an avid film fan so I’m used to violence in entertainment, but there’s something slightly concerning with an audience cheering a brutal shotgun to the face of someone asking for mercy. A gasp= understandable Cheering= worrying.

    To be brutally honest, I like the intent of Naughty Dog’s post-apocalpytic setting, human interactions and ideology, but when the rest of the game is a “survival horror” against fungus-infected zombies, I doubt those gameplay elements will make the majority of gamers change their approach to murder. Gamer’s don’t like to be told what to do, mostly.

  2. Ruth
    June 20, 2012 at 08:48 — Reply

    A very thoughtful and insightful peace. Whilst I play MMOs for the majority of my time and killing the enemy is nothing short of a necessity, this game offers a fresh, and as it has been highlighted, challenging perspective on considering the enemy you kill.

    The debate has been captured accurately here as I have to agree in the questioning of how long these types of games will survive – considering the ‘auto-pilot’ state of mind we adopt when gaming. We don’t game for a philosophical debate, although games like Deux Ex do put body into such issues and whether they will last is a matter to be explored further

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