A general assumption about videogames might be that we play them to have fun. Of course, both gaming scholars and journalists have long delved deeper into the experience of playing a game, elucidating the sense of identification, escapism, catharsis, and social connection that gameplay can offer. When it comes to The Last of Us Part II, though, it’s worth considering that initial assumption. The Last of Us Part II is not a “fun” game to play, as Andrew Webster’s review for The Verge points out; that is not to say that there aren’t moments of levity and enjoyable sequences, but rather that, on the whole, the game is a painful, arduous journey.
It’s painful for two reasons: “ludonarrative dissonance” and the “daddening effect.” Each of these phenomena, on their own, are common to gameplay; but, when paired up, they generate a devastating and decidedly un-fun game.
Dads get to do violence. That is: father figures who need to protect vulnerable children, usually young girls, are often framed as morally righteous. Stories about such figures, in both videogames and wider media (films like Taken, for instance), tend to be forgiving of even unspeakable violence. This justification is what gaming’s critics term the “daddening effect”: players, in games like the first Last of Us, get to deal out violence as dads without feeling bad about it. The connection between the father figure and the child is not always biological. But, when the male protagonist assumes a paternal role, excessive violence is excused if it is designed to secure the safety of the child.
Moreover, games don’t always practice what they preach. That is: some games have a narrative that condemns violence, while the gameplay itself encourages it. This disconnect is what gaming’s critics call “ludonarrative dissonance,” a phrase coined by Clint Hocking writing about Bioshock. Ludonarrative dissonance is when gameplay elements and narrative elements work in opposition with respect to the game’s overall meaning; the gameplay may reward or even demand actions that the narrative clearly condemns. The Last of Us Part II possesses a moral narrative that condemns violence and those who practice it. And yet, the game requires you, as the player, to commit such violence—again and again and again—in order to complete the game.
The Last of Us Part II, then, is a strange game. It demands that players commit violence, but forces them to feel guilty. And, yet, because of its rules, players can never convert that guilt into something else; they can’t decide not to kill. And while the popular first iteration of the game—no less violent—had one play as the dad (defending his pseudo-daughter), the sequel has one mostly play as the daughter. The violence she deals out—and has done to her—bends the game toward something resembling torture porn.
As such, TLoU2 is not a fun game. Even so, it’s been highly rated as an important gaming experience. Enacting and enduring vicarious violence through gaming can have a stark and meaningful impact on players. And yet, such violence in excess—and with the aforementioned disconnect between gameplay and narrative—means that the impact of this game and others like it becomes overdrawn and entirely too prescriptive.
If the violence of games like TLoU2 feels upsetting and harrowing, it is because it should. However, the violence in the first Last of Us game only truly becomes excessive at the game’s climax—and, as result, that game feeds the idea that paternal violence is excusable, if conducted for the right reasons. The sequel, which almost immediately introduces excessive and upsetting violence, seems to support the idea that female violence merely leads to punishment, pain, and trauma—while paternal violence remains justifiable.
When a game’s male protagonist assumes a paternal role, excessive violence is excused if it is designed to secure the safety of the child.
Ellie is the daughter figure in the first game; throughout that iteration, Ellie’s father figure, Joel, violently defends her. Now, in the sequel, Ellie loses Joel; in response, she embarks on a bloody and punishing quest for vengeance. The violence depicted is visceral and upsetting.
Players don’t just play as Ellie, however; the perspective often shifts to her enemy, Abby. These two are at odds for the majority of the game. By having the player assume control of both protagonist and antagonist in this violent narrative, the game utilizes shifting identification to make a moral argument. Specifically, using this technique, the game’s narrative undermines any justification for the use of violence. TLoU2 gives both women a reason for their actions, but it lingers on the aftereffects in order to highlight the futility of such violence.1
Players are repeatedly reminded of the consequences of Ellie’s brutal actions. When the game switches to center Abby as the playable character, the player circles back to the same events they just experienced as Ellie, only from a very different perspective. Now, the player gets to know the side characters that they—as Ellie—have just mowed down. Both main characters suffer PTSD as a result of the player’s actions. The game assumes that the player will identify with Ellie, since she is a familiar character and given more narrative time than Abby; thus, the player is presumably intended to feel the guilt of the actions Ellie takes while under their control.
However, players who want to win have no choice. It’s already uncomfortable to watch Ellie (and ourselves, as her) murder dogs or brutally slit the throats of other human beings, despite the common enemy of the infected (zombie-like creatures, in this postapocalyptic world) lurking around. But that discomfort is compounded when the narrative continuously beats players over the head with moral condemnation for these actions. It’s exhausting.
Designing games so that they encourage the player to engage in self-reflection and question the violence common in the medium is not new. Very often, though, it falls into the trap of ludonarrative dissonance, wherein the lack of cohesion between narrative and gameplay renders any self-reflective or provocative statement the game is trying to make moot.
Violent videogames can definitely be fun, sophisticated, and have important affective impact on players. Violence can be used for a variety of reasons in gaming, and entire genres are predicated on unrestrained (usually comical and unrealistic) violence. But TLoU2 and other games like it condemn the violence of their own gameplay. Trying to tell a story about the futility of violence and revenge doesn’t mesh with the active role of the player, in these games. Certainly, many players would opt not to murder dogs or commit heinous acts of torture, but they’re simply not given a choice; to then painfully elaborate why these actions were bad, through the suffering of Ellie and Abby, seems redundant and overly prescriptive.
TLoU2 includes a harrowing scene in which Ellie tortures and kills Nora, one of Abby’s friends. Then, Ellie kills two more side characters, Owen and Mel. Both scenes are difficult to watch, but the second is particularly harrowing for the player, who must button mash (repeatedly and quickly press a particular button) to overpower Mel and kill her with her own knife. This adds to the responsibility the player feels—especially given that Mel is posthumously revealed to be pregnant. That implied guilt is then made overt, as the player shifts to Abby’s perspective, searching in desperation for Owen (her ex-boyfriend) and Mel.
The player is forced into the shoes of a woman dealing with fear, panic, and grief, struggling to rescue her friends. The player knows that Owen and Mel are dead; and the player knows this because they (as Ellie) murdered them. Thereafter, Abby is motivated to seek further vengeance against Ellie, and Ellie is traumatized by her own violent actions.
“TLoU2” and other games like it condemn the violence of their own gameplay.
The in-game violence is positioned to evoke guilt and regret on the part of the player. However, the player never really had a choice in these actions. You, as Ellie, cannot choose to spare Mel. In fact, every gameplay encounter up to that point has demanded you fight your way through with violence in order to advance the narrative.
In any videogame, the choices you make are only partly your own (as Bioshock emphasized, in 2007). They are limited by the options with which you’re presented, and the narrative is always pre-scripted. Gaming presents itself as a medium in which the player has a more active role than in traditional media. Even so, there are limitations to this interactivity. Some games have morality meters—Red Dead Redemption gives you the option to play honorably or dishonorably, for instance—but the main events of the game always happen the same way, so ludic violence has almost no connection to the narrative as a whole.
Games from smaller studios, such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead, attempt to give more weight to the repercussions of your actions, especially in terms of paternal protection (there are multiple different tactics the player can adopt in this game, including attempts to limit violence); but, again, these repercussions are minor and the main story still plays out the same, in the end.
The games that give players more options and different approaches to problem solving are trying to use choice-based play to push the boundaries of what is possible in terms of videogame morality. Some games (such as Bioshock) have multiple endings, contingent on your in-game actions; some have nonplayable characters that remember the playable character’s previous in-game decisions and, as a result, trust the latter more or less. The result is still limited. And it is largely indie games exploring these gameplay possibilities, while more mainstream games—like TLoU2—have singular endings and no player choice at all, removing any illusion of player agency.
It would seem there are stark limitations to any morality play of an AAA game (one that is produced by a major studio on a big budget), which ultimately makes any built-in moral condemnation come off as didactic and unconvincing. No matter how much the narrative condemns the player’s actions, the player can’t decide not to commit these actions, if they’re invested in continuing to play.
This is one way that fun is leeched from TLoU2. We cannot choose whether Ellie seeks revenge or kills Abby’s friends, but the narrative goes to great lengths to elaborate on how awful these actions are.
Both iterations of The Last of Us are examples of the “daddening effect,” which gaming journalist Stephen Totilo has described. In the latter half of the 2010s, a videogame narrative in which father figures must protect or rescue their young (usually female) wards began trending. The father figures in these games are ruthlessly violent, but this violence is usually justified by their need to protect their innocent child/ward.
It is interesting, then, to see games that attest to this daddening effect becoming vessels to explore or critique videogame violence. The ludonarrative dissonance such an approach generates is gendered. TLoU2 makes clear that ludonarrative dissonance within a daddening framework is complicit in the continued valorizing of violent male characters. Female characters must bear the burden of guilt and regret for acts that violent men have committed in games for decades.
The first iteration of The Last of Us ended with the questioning of Joel’s moral justification for his excessive violence. The final sequence of that game is horrifying and uncomfortable; it isn’t fun to play. This finale is the climax of Joel’s increasingly violent actions to protect and save Ellie. But the sequel exhausts that same question—when is excessive violence ever justifiable?—and, what’s worse, it leaves the daughter figure of the first game to deal with all the ramifications of this violence.
The ludonarrative dissonance debate began with Bioshock—and, all these years later, it seems AAA games still can’t synthesize gameplay with narrative morality about violence. This is not just a failing of TLoU2, but of all AAA games that ask players to question their choices while giving them few options to choose from.
Games that are part of the daddening trend could be perfect vessels to explore questions around the use of violence. While the player actions of Mortal Kombat, say, or Grand Theft Auto are clearly abhorrent and far removed from real life, the violence of TLoU2 is presented somewhat differently. The game asks: Would you commit these acts in order to save your child? The daddening effect positions fatherly violence as a necessary evil.
That all changes when the father figure is absent—as in TLoU2. Then, the gratuitous violence and the ludonarrative dissonance deliver a harrowing journey of consistent punishment for actions you have no choice but to commit. Again, though, this valorizes male violence—Joel is never subjected to the mental anguish and isolation that Ellie experiences—and punishes female violence.
In any videogame, the choices you make are only partly your own.
A game’s violence is not just that which is perpetrated against others; it is also the physical hardship we see our protagonists go through. The punished body crops up often in action-adventure media: think John McClane crawling through broken glass in Die Hard, or Solid Snake crawling through a microwave tunnel in Metal Gear Solid 4. The gender politics at work in TLoU and its sequel make this punished body theme particularly upsetting: men endure this hardship and then die; women endure just as much, and continue to live. At the end of TLoU2, Ellie is shown completely isolated, traumatized, and permanently disfigured; Joel, meanwhile, seems relatively fine after the events of the first game.
The punishment of the male body fetishes its strength and endurance, but the punishment of the female body is more common in torture porn. If these games intend to portray a female perspective and avoid the male gaze, they need to differentiate themselves from that cultural product. The 2013 Tomb Raider reboot features inordinately gruesome death scenes whenever the playable character (a woman) dies, as do both Last of Us games. These brutal scenes occur when the player fails to perform the necessary actions to continue gameplay. They are yet another way the ludic elements of the game demand the player commit acts of violence, since doing so will help them avoid these scenes.
If the game’s narrative aims to question the morality of depicting brutal violence in gameplay, this seems counterproductive; if the player dies gruesomely, it only encourages more violent gameplay. The horrifying torture of Abby near TLoU2’s end, and the injuries Ellie suffers throughout the game, set up a trope more akin to rape-revenge narratives—in which the excessive use of violence is excused because of the trauma the protagonist has endured.
Having the weight and guilt of all this trauma, as well as the actions of Joel, land squarely on Ellie’s shoulders is problematic. The daddening effect justifies violence, but only for paternal figures. Although Ellie acts as Joel has in the past, she is a female character with no innocent child to protect; she suffers guilt, remorse, and even PTSD (something Joel is never shown to suffer from).
The daughter, then, inherits the trauma of her father figure, and more. TLoU2 frequently suggests that Ellie has inherited her sadistic capabilities from Joel—both characters are known for their torture methods. But, unlike Joel, Ellie is never given the redemption of having a child character she must protect. (Meanwhile, all the in-game flashbacks of Joel portray him as a much more jovial and loving character than he appeared in the first game, further excusing his actions.)
In efforts to question videogame violence, a stark gender difference becomes apparent. This is crystalized in TLoU2, as a daddening sequel that condemns the violence of its own gameplay when the father figure is absent. The gender difference is further emphasized by the limitations on morality plays in any AAA games; daddified games suffer from ludonarrative dissonance in any case; but when only female characters are punished, this dissonance is all the more frustrating and apparent (especially when these are the playable characters). Abby and Ellie work as doubles of each other: they both seek revenge for their murdered paternal figures; they are both punished relentlessly for this endeavor; and they are both left traumatized and alone.
The somber, harrowing narrative journey of TLoU2 is meant to act as a morality play. But with little to no choice possible on the player’s part and the absence of a paternal figure, this game serves to emphasize the limitations on any meaningful discourse about videogame violence (and particularly gendered violence) in AAA games. The result is a frustrating and exhausting game.
This article was commissioned by Matt Margini.
- This shifting identification is made somewhat more complicated by the fact that players are more familiar with Ellie, from the first game. ↩