Stop using extreme violence to sell your game

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.)

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.

Comments

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.

I think too much weigh is being put on the importance of this specific trailer. The Last of Us Part 2 is a direct sequel to the first game, where you spent most of your time mowing down both the living and the living-dead. That in itself provides all the justification for violence that’s needed.

Also, one of the death animations for Joel in the first game is the beginnings of him literally getting his face ripped apart. It would violate the suspension of disbelief if, in a setting like The Last of Us’, violence was only directed towards men.

I also would totally post THAT death scene but I’m like… it’s pretty gruesome. People should look it up.

Too late, someone posted it.

The only cool things in that trailer were the artistry (animation, textures, editing, camera, etc) and the glimpse of the clickers. The rest was sensationalistic violence. I can think of few movies where violence of the level (seeing a woman’s arm smashed with a hammer,) in a completely serious tone works, is earned, and enhances the narrative. It really did reek of over the top violence in the guise of gritty artistic storytelling.

I’m all for violence in art, 100%, give me all the violence and gore, but this was depicted in poor taste. If this wasn’t used as a trailer, to entice people to psyched for the game, and just lived as an in game cut scene, surrounded by narrative for context, it could work. As it stands it truly just is extreme violence used to sell video games. Enjoy 16 year-old kids, high art it is not.

I’m on the same page as you. I think they thought they were going for tension but the majority of my tension came from wondering if I was watching a Death Stranding trailer for the first minute or two.

Nobody is sensationalizing violence, except you.

you need to watch again and listen to what they are saying. They clearly establish the women being attacked is part of the cult or under the rule of the cult the attacker is part of. She was in trouble for being pregnant. Your point is heard but this article needs to be re-thought out they do a lot of world building in the trailer. It’s a fair point that hyper violence for the sake of hyper violence isn’t for everyone and can be off putting and a bad way to sell a game and the trailer was over the top with how much context we had but to write an article saying that there we didn’t know why she was attacked is not correct at all. I get that the imagery could shut off what is being said but there are clear motives going on here. Not good ones but I thought they did a remarkable job of setting up the world and what was going on.

I disagree that this should be defended but I like your tone and your approach and I just wanted to commend that.

So why didn’t you address the points brought up?

It’s not really fair to believe something should be attackable, but not defendable. Either the reasoning speaks for it, or it doesn’t. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion as to whether or not they like this trailer or this story or this kind of content, but no one’s opinion gets to trump objectivity and reason. How else are they to portray the direness of the situation if not by showing what this cult/these people are doing in the world? I guess they could just describe it all. "Oh, man, these guys are REALLY bad. If they ever found a pregnant woman, they would probably torture her in really, really bad ways. Luckily, they never actually find anyone or do anything bad, because the good guys always fix everything before anything bad can ever happen."

At worst, the sheer display of "too much" violence weakens the effect they’re going for. But there’s nothing objectively incorrect with the design of their story or their approach to telling it. It’s 100% fine for you to dislike it, but that means nothing beyond the fact that you dislike it. Just like someone else liking it doesn’t make it inherently good. People like stuff, and people dislike stuff. Then there’s separate, factual/objective information about it. If I love eating bowls of sugar, that doesn’t change the fact that bowls of sugar provide little-to-no nutritional value for a human body, and that that’s probably an objectively bad thing for me to eat on any kind of regular basis. I can’t go take a vote and see that a lot of people love eating bowls of sugar every day, and have that somehow effect the truth of the matter.

To be honest, the extent of my engagement with this argument was one of "yeah, I can see why you would think that," without fully agreeing, but this trailer really puts the argument into perspective. It felt schlocky and dumb, but more than that, exploitative and gross, like they knew exactly what they were doing when they sent that to PR. I feel like somewhere during the making of, there was a conversation about whether one of those women was going to have her top torn off in the encounter because we want you to know that whoooaaaa this is a mature game, guys, and ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN.

Well, that’s a whole lot of projecting and assumptions without any foundation for it at the end there. Bravo?

It’s very unhealthy to live life making huge logical leaps like that. They’ve done the opposite of what you describe here. None of it felt exploitative or gross, whereas violence against women often can. To me it felt very progressive in simply showing a group of women fighting for their lives in a grim world.

I understand that shock value can be overused in genres like this to push a point. The only thing I found to be close to "shocking" was them breaking the girl’s arm. The threat of having her belly cut open, being strangled, and the arrows killing the guys didn’t seem shocking. I get that our culture is saturated in violence and becoming desensitized can be big bridge to cross especially if you are a parent. However, this is a game where the premise revolves around people, mutated by a fungus, that feed on other people not to mention the collapse of modern society. By your terms the whole game would be considered a shocking game. Or have we become desensitized enough to accept the dead people eating people premise but not kids and women being subjected to violent situations? (which would happen in a world where dead people ate people)

makes me wonder if you even played the original game with daft comments like that … or any naughty dog game for that matter ..

I think you are the one making this a mysionistic thing. Not the game. There are no tops being ripped off but in your mind. Theres no sexualization going on AT ALL. The whole violence against women is irrelevant and a non issue in this trailer. Seems like you’re smack talking the developper here based on huge assumptions in fact free land

Wow so you just made wild and super negative assumptions and for that reason the trailer is bad? It’s this kind of knee jerk, politicised response that is running roughshod over logical social discourse at the moment. You just see a woman and violence and decide in your own head that the makers of the trailer are some old boys club sitting around a table floating ideas of nudity to rile up a male fan base.

You suck, please consider your choices.

This teaser trailer was deliberately brutal, and implies nothing of gender stereotypes. All you have to do is put this trailer in a playlist with everything else related to The Last of Us 2, and the intention is obvious.

This is not Uncharted, the world of LOU2 is disturbing, and gruesome. Why make a point to single out a woman torturing another woman, but not highlight the Asian child with combat skills? You don’t get to pick and choose the narrative.

this reminds me of the tomb raider trailer debacle where implied rape was used to intrigue an audience. the takeaway being: set that bar low so you can set the horrific violence high

the absence of reasoning is crucial here, i agree. without context we’re essentially watching torture/murder porn with the promise that it will make sense later. think of it: we’re getting excited over a game simply because of the fidelity with which this horrific violence is being portrayed. that’s kind of fucked up even before you introduce the wider context of gendered violence

i have to admit that i feel into this mental trap myself and declared that the trailer looked incredible. but upon reflection i’m not sure why i thought that. sure, the cinematography is way above par, as are the performances, but that still doesn’t explain my elation upon completing my viewing. just what am i excited for, and is that excitement justified from that trailer?

thank you for the article. if nothing else it’s delicious food for thought

100% agree, well put.

I disagree. Upon reading your comment I too reflect on why I became excited. I became excited because the intensity dredged up the feelings I had when I player the 1st game. The surprise when I found out Ellie had the cure. The despair when Joel got sick and she had to fend for herself. The feelings I had at the end which I won’t say so as not to spoil it. However, I definitely think we should take time to check our thoughts and make sure we are not falling into a constant state of desensitization.

I agree with your desensitization comment, but at the other end of that spectrum is the culture of constant outrage, and that should be avoided as well. I think the people at ND have proven themselves to be above-level storytellers, and anyone in this thread pretending that they are producing anything "shlocky" or "dumb" is just plain ignorant and has zero credibility.

Still, nice to see some people commenting with some common sense once in a while, that’s refreshing.

I’m getting excited cause TLOU was brilliant and had a great story. I don’t need a full exploration in the trailer, I need to feel how bad TLOU actually was to begin with. I still shudder as I think of "winter".

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