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Stop using extreme violence to sell your game

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It’s time to step back and recognize the connotation of imagery

Bones bludgeoned with hammers. A noose wrapped tightly around a struggling woman’s neck. The blade of a knife pressed into a vulnerable stomach. The gruesome imagery Naughty Dog manages to cram into a five-minute trailer for The Last of Us Part 2 is physically uncomfortable to sit through.

The victims of the vicious assault, two women, are unnamed. It’s not clear why we’re watching two people be tortured, but we’re asked to take in the extreme violence under the assumption that we’ll be rewarded with more information for doing so. That information never comes, however, and all we’re left with is residual nausea.

A trailer is a pitch to its audience of what to expect from the full game. In the past, Naughty Dog’s trailers have captured a particular mood or suggested a compelling relationship. But here, the promise is almost exclusively gore. There's an argument to be made that the trailer raises an enticing question — Why are these women being attacked? — but that mystery is both too familiar and too broad.

Without any context, the trailer fails to introduce (or even really tease) the story players will embark on. That is its problem.

The violence is particularly upsetting as it features the assault of women. Violent attacks on women, many times for perfunctory purposes, isn’t new. The Killing Joke saw the Joker torture Barbara Gordon in a statement that reinforced the notion that gender influences violence. The volatile imagery used in the trailer to underline the heinous acts being committed are familiar scenes to us. We’ve seen this play out in other TV shows or movies before, and in real life. 35 percent of women have experienced violence at the hands of another person in their lifetime, according to 2017 report from the United Nations.

The fact that their antagonist is a woman herself does little to undercut what this trailer is on its most blunt level: an extended sequence of brutal and unexplained violence against women being used to thrill the viewer, and ultimately, sell a video game.

With a game like The Last of Us Part 2, in which presumably there are dozens of other scenes to showcase, why pick the scene where women are being sadistically brutalized? When Naughty Dog played a gameplay trailer during E3 in 2012, people called the five minutes Joel spent tracking down hunters and annihilating them gratuitous with its violence.

Neil Druckmann, creative director at Naughty Dog, told Shack News then that the violence players would encounter in The Last of Us wasn’t perfunctory, but served a purpose.

“The violence you see inside this world isn't gratuitous and over-the-top just for the sake of being violent,” Druckmann said. “It's setting a tone. It's setting a reality that Joel and Ellie are having to deal with. Everything has to feel tense. Everything has to feel grounded in reality. The reason why we're going for such realistic violence is because we want you to believe that the stakes are high for Ellie and Joel.”

There’s a difference in how Naughty Dog handled the trailers for The Last of Us and The Last of Us Part 2. In The Last of Us, Joel may be gunning down hunters, but we understand why he’s doing it, and those he’s attacking aren’t women or marginalized people. The trailer is violent, but it’s justified; none of that justification exists in The Last of Us Part 2’s trailer, where violence simply exists.

In context with the rest of the game, the scene may have an emotional hook beyond disgust. We will probably get to know the characters and learn why this violence was necessary. Naughty Dog did put forth extra effort to put women in more leading roles. The trailer hints at larger roles for both women involved. These women exist in a violent world, set up by Naughty Dog in the original Last of Us. To repeat previous points — because it’s important — it’s not the situation the women were in that’s jarring and inexcusable, but how that scene and those characters were introduced. If the trailer had spent 30 more seconds explaining what had led to this repugnant moment, the violence may have been explicable.

Providing a trailer with little to no context leads to more questions about how this trailer came to be. How many women were involved in the creation, editing and approval of this trailer? In an industry (and studio) that's predominantly run by men, did women feel comfortable offering a critique?

This trend is bigger than Last of Us Part 2. A new trailer for Detroit: Become Human, also shown at Paris Games Week, included an extended sequence of domestic abuse in which a drunken man beats his daughter and maid.

Nor is this issue limited to video game marketing. Last year, Fox came under fire after a billboard in Los Angeles promoting X-Men: Apocalypse depicted Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) being strangled by Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac). Like the new trailer for The Last of Us Part 2, there is no context for the assault. (And even with context, is this the best image to sell the film? To capture what makes X-men special? No.)

X-Men: Apocalypse billboard
A billboard for X-Men: Apocalypse in Los Angeles.

Fox later apologized for the billboard, removing it and other similar marketing materials, admitting that the advertisement carried with it a negative connotation that invoked imagery and history of violence against women.

“In our enthusiasm to show the villainy of the character Apocalypse we didn’t immediately recognize the upsetting connotation of this image in print form,” Fox said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter.

The new Last of Us Part 2 trailer was supposed to introduce new characters, including Yara (and possibly even Ellie’s mom), but all we met were victims of abuse. We met ideas of what women should be in games like this, not actual women.