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The Last of Us, a video game released to critical acclaim in 2013, follows a man’s journey, along with his adolescent female charge, through a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested world. The game, though popular with critics and gamers alike, is characterised as extraordinarily graphic and rife with edgy, gritty and often gruesome themes and images — it is, after all, the apocalypse. Both central and peripheral characters meet brutal — and in some cases, egregious — ends, all in the name of entertainment and painting a vivid and violent world.
In the past couple months, Naughty Dog studios, the company responsible for the first The Last of Us, has confirmed the sequel is in its final stages pre-release. Then, on October 30, the studio posted a sample cinematic from the upcoming The Last of Us Part II. There is no better word for this short sequence than graphic. Viewer discretion is advised.
In it, a female cult leader — we have to assume — orchestrates the torture and near-hanging of two other female characters, including a particularly grotesque sequence in which one woman has her arm pulverised by a hammer. In the end, the timely entrance of a young man saves the two, and more vivid hammer action follows. The gaming community, for its part, reacted with mixed reviews and impressions.
Some lauded the The Last of Us Part II’s trailer as a gritty masterpiece, praising the lifelike graphics and realistic staging of the fight scenes, the palpable gore, and shiver-inducing destruction of human bodies, as really evoking the apocalypse for viewers. Others have lashed out at Naughty Dog for going too far in this direction, brushing up against the region of gore-porn in place of a substantive and sensitive storyline. Many viewers commented on the targeting of female characters in The Last of Us Part II’s in-game cinematic as a ploy for easy thrills.
Whatever your opinion of the first game and this recently released cinematic, the outrage at female suffering in video games is nothing new. For the past decade, the feminist movement has taken a keen interest in the overtly male-dominated area of gaming. While the presence of women has skyrocketed in gaming in recent years, the industry still caters to an overwhelmingly male population.
Anita Sarkeesian is a known name in the gaming community. She first rose to the public spotlight during the height of the Gamergate attacks in 2014, in which a loosely organised group of gamers targeted prominent female players and commentators. During this period, Sarkeesian, along with other vocal figures, received threats of death, rape and other deeply troubling actions. The Gamergate posters claimed to be combating expanding progressiveness and feminism in the video game community.
Sarkeesian, for her part, has written extensively on the topics of female objectification in video games. In many ways, these personal attacks served to underline her commentary on the male domination of the industry and the dangerous implications and echo-chamber effects of such an isolated population. One of Sarkeesian’s most-debated areas of writing is the explicit and continued use of casual cruelty on incidental female characters.
It is one thing for the female body to be put on display in a playable — quite literally empowered — fashion. Games like Mortal Kombat and League of Legends, though featuring well-endowed female characters in uniformly revealing outfits, allow these characters to be played and utilised in the same capacity as any male characters. Though the distortion of the female body in these games carries its own set of problems, these characters appear on a fundamentally even field as any other characters.
For Evil Purposes
Given this, Sarkeesian’s focus has drifted to narrative-driven games. In them, female characters are often relegated to marginal and unplayable roles and are subject to aggression and violence on the part of male antagonists as a means to drive the storyline and elicit a natural emotional response from the player. Cinematics such as those found in The Last of Us II potentially fall into this category.
In Sarkeesian’s estimation, there is no more straightforward way of demonstrating who is righteous and who is evil than by causing violence to incidental female characters. Male gamers fall prey to the age-old tropes of chivalry and feeling a deep, guttural reaction when exposed to female harm. This type of response is warranted when characters gradually develop over the course of a storyline and are tragically ripped from us. However, Sarkeesian says this is rarely the case.
Instead, the inconsequential female characters appear as simple tools to advance the storyline and accentuate the depravity of certain — typically male — characters. Game developers seem to have this all down to a science and will usually target female sex workers or women in otherwise compromising positions — the social “throwaways.” Enforcing the expendable image of these women carries a massive and terrifying implication of its own.
However, female objectification manifests in another, hugely popular video game trope. In this, the typical “sexiness” of women portrayed in video games since the genesis of story-driven titles is mixed with violence as a means to evoke an edgy and dangerous but aesthetically pleasing world.
Instead of using specific and active instances of violence against women to evoke an emotional response, certain games utilise casual violence as a sort of game aesthetic. These titles portray women’s suffering as set pieces for certain stages of the game and allow the player to indulge in certain fantasies vicariously. From the exotic dancers of Grand Theft Auto to the trailer for Hitman: Absolution, women appear framed in demeaning and deadly ways for the benefit of the player.
Some Concerns From Gamers
This phenomenon is a slippery one to pin down: What constitutes excessive violence or humiliation on the part of non-player female characters, and what is reasonably accepted as a game aesthetic? There are arguments to be made that eliminating female-directed violence from games contributes to an unrealistic worldview for players.
Violence against women does exist in the real world and can be found more graphically in certain locations than others. To keep the escapist roots of video games alive, perhaps disallowing specific scenarios or areas is not the best way forward.
Further, enforcing the notion that bad guys participate in violence against women has its benefits, for all the weak story writing such tropes contribute to. If nothing else, studios still rely on the moral indignation players feel when experiencing violence against women, normalising how unacceptable such action is.
The real problem, it seems, is the portrayal of the characters targeted. They are anonymous, inconsequential to the story and simply introduced for the brief, unconscious reaction they elicit from the player. Video games struggle horrifically — for the most part, at least — to meet the Bechdel Test, which is a measure of gender depiction in media. The test only includes three rules: there must be at least two named female characters, those women must talk to each other, and they must talk about something other than a man. The majority of movies and video games alike do not meet this simple criteria, and that is simply lazy. Female anonymity is lazy. This technique does not do justice to the women of our world — or of any world these games are meant to create.