Attaching Real World Guilt to The Last of Us: Part II’s Violence is Bullshit

We are not responsible for an established character's actions.

Conversations surrounding the relationship between video game violence and what it says about the people who play them are as old as the medium, but every now and then a new, weird wrinkle comes up that gets me thinking about the barriers between people who play games and the characters they play as.

As a connoisseur of choice-based RPGs like Mass Effect, I’m a big proponent of the idea that games can offer forms of player expression. When we’re given the proper tools to convey our beliefs and worldviews through in-game decisions, it can create an interesting time capsule of who we were when we played them. In some cases, it can even facilitate an interesting dichotomy where playing later games in the same universe can show the ways we’ve changed, like how it felt playing Mass Effect: Andromeda years after the original trilogy, where I was making decisions as a man in his mid-20s that seemed antithetical to the ones I made as a teenager. 

When I was an angsty kid in the midst of my emo phase, I made rash decisions that put other characters in the line of fire. But as I grew up, I found those things harder to parse, so it made replaying the first few games and sticking to my original script more taxing on me than it was back then. By the time I got to Andromeda, my character of Ryder was a demonstrably kinder, more empathetic person than my Shepard was back then. By being choice-driven and allowing us to put our feelings into the main character’s actions, we are, in a sense, responsible for things that happen in these games. I can feel any level of guilt or discomfort, or even satisfaction based on whatever I did, because when given the option to choose one course of action or another, I went with the one I did.

With the launch of The Last of Us: Part II a few days away, there’s been a discussion around the game and its violence and how it can cause certain emotional reactions. Generally, the game is very effective at making its carnage uncomfortable, and a lot of that comes from watching main character Ellie carry out gruesome acts at the press of a button. Playing through Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic tragedy made me feel a lot of things, but responsibility for what happened wasn’t one of them, but for some reason, Naughty Dog thinks I should have felt something along those lines.

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In an interview with GQ, director Neil Druckmann described feelings the studio was hoping to evoke in players, specifically tied to feelings of guilt or regret relating to the violent acts Ellie commits.

“I was like, ‘Oh, we can make the player feel that,’” he said. “We can make you experience this thirst for revenge. This thirst for retribution and having you actually, like, commit the acts of finding it and then showing you the other side to make you regret it. To make you feel dirty for everything you’ve done in the game, making you realise ‘I’m actually the villain of the story.’”

This has become a talking point in The Last of Us’ marketing dating back to the original game. There’s a notion that we as players should feel vicarious guilt for what we do in video games, and this isn’t to say that we can’t feel uncomfortable doing things games ask us to do, and whether or not that’s an effective storytelling method is another conversation entirely, but I can’t help but feel like by attempting to insert ourselves into the morality of video games in which we are mostly a passive observer, we’re attaching reductive layers to stories that don’t need us to be moving in their own right.

Why are we so determined to lay the blame of the violence that happens in scripted video games at the feet of the player, as if there’s guilt for them to bear for the actions of characters with established motivations and stories that necessitate said actions? The Last of Us: Part II is a brutal, messy, emotionally-taxing game featuring characters who make morally questionable decisions, often ending in violence….but what does that have to do with me?

The interactive nature of video games frequently has us fixated on how we are able to influence them, and while I think that’s an interesting tool for the types of stories the medium is capable of, I don’t think it should be a requirement of video game stories to involve us in such a way that we have to feel like our in-game actions are a commentary on us, actually. 

In stories like The Last of Us: Part II, it’s more accurate to say that we take on the role of Ellie as an actor would in a film or stage play. We immerse ourselves in her perspective, carrying out actions that make sense in her worldview, even if they make us squirm, but ultimately, we’re not responsible for what a story requires us to do. Especially in a game like The Last of Us: Part II that doesn’t actually give you choices or any other options. That’s not a fault of the game, it’s just a fact of its linear nature. Not every game should require us or our worldview to be inserted into it to move forward, and I think by involving ourselves in a story that stands on its own, we undermine the arcs of characters who deserve to have the blame for everything that happens given solely to them.

Video games may require our input to move forward, but it sometimes feels as if there’s so much obsession around the ways they can immerse us that we put unfair expectations on people to feel responsible for the actions of characters they inhabit. For me, The Last of Us: Part II did a great job at recontextualizing horrific events in ways that changed my view of its characters, for good and for ill, but there was no point where I felt like Ellie’s murdering of people who may not have deserved it was my fault. And despite what some people at Naughty Dog would like you to believe, it’s not your fault, either.

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Kenneth Shepard

Kenneth is a Georgia-based writer who still periodically cries about the Mass Effect trilogy years after it concluded.

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