This is not the first time that a video game has reckoned with the inhumane acts around which so much of the medium’s output is based, but never has it been done with such lavish production values. In this, the sequel to 2013’s divisive, post-apocalyptic The Last of Us, you play as Ellie, a young woman immune to the virus that has during the past 25 years devastated North America, turning most of the population into zombies. Only pockets of survivors are left, living in fractious scavenger communities.
This adventure game, which mostly takes place in Seattle, is a revenge story that charts, in preposterously high definition, Ellie’s physical and psychological descent into violence. It’s brutal stuff (offset by odd moments of guitar-twanging downtime): you hear the gurgling death rattles, see the puddling blood, survey images of the kind of brutality and its aftermath that usually exist only in police files and on the dark web.
The game sets various new high-water marks in terms of its spectacular production. The crumbling vistas, exquisitely rendered faces and memorable action set pieces all dazzle, while the poised dialogue casts a lingering spell. But the central message, which hinges on the kind of structural conceit of a boldness and invention almost never seen in this category of big budget crowd-pleasers, is less readily convincing. During the course of the game Ellie kills hundreds of zombies and humans from different hostile factions – a particularly American conception of human survival: gun-toting and ravenously dog-eat-dog. As she does so, you witness and become inveigled by the corrupting influence of her chosen behaviours.
Later, during a flashback, Ellie must use a sniper rifle to take potshots at zombies shuffling on a hill across a sunlit valley. Once you get your eye in, compensating for each bullet’s gravitational drop, the thrill of guiltless cause and effect is shared between character and player. The game’s violence is designed, through years of iteration, to be deeply enjoyable, a fact that threatens to undercut its message that violence is a corrupting, abhorrent cycle.
There is virtue in interrogating the gun violence around which the video game blockbuster has become orientated, and The Last of Us Part 2 offers a profound and thoughtful attempt to cause the player to dwell on what it means to aim a gun at another human being and pull the trigger. But it cannot wholly shake off the fact that its core message conflicts with its fundamental pleasures.