“I’ve always envied people who sleep easily. Their brains must be cleaner, the floorboards of the skull well swept, all the little monsters closed up in a steamer trunk at the foot of the bed.”
― David Benioff, City of Thieves
Gamergate, which I’m to believe is the societal realization that gamers are all Nazis because they tend to swear, soiled itself with a corporate man-bunned try for more diverse pixelizations. Neil Druckmann, fresh off one of the first novels with buttons, quite quickly claimed himself woke. He acted like a cookie-thieving scamp, talking the bought lingo. Now, I would venture that whoever either puts the work in, or happens to be born gifted, is capable of making excellent art, in spite of a wide range of petty ideologies. Talent is a trained behavior, assisted only sporadically by intellect. The Uncharted games, leaning toward entertainment, away from art, but well done, woked out a bit toward the end, and who cares, candy tends to melt. Alas, certainly the long-awaited sequel to the highest possible class of dystopian brutality as an electronic interface wouldn’t cater to trends. The encore should have been an earned vision, perhaps reached after the micro-doses added up at one of Druckmann’s summer homes. All we had to hang our headsets on was the great promise of his statement: part one was about love… part two will be about hate.
In the original movie-game, someone paid at least some attention during the David Milch lectures and used Breaking Bad expository television dialogue to zip along smartly in a mainstream way (as long as I am given my: oh damn! rollercoaster violence I can parse cinematic marvelousness from a thing, watched over a commentated shoulder online as my zilch generation is wont). Weighty moral fuckery was afoot. The loveable Ellen Page bot, babygirl lamb a father bit the world in half to save, surpassed the typical politicking of her likeness. Lo, here dared to come a sequel with what must be, in retrospect of the depths achieved, strategic leaks about how social justice would spoil (spoilers) the culture further fey. Thanks to the rarities of art bobbing for apples in these lopsided polarizations, what’s left of my sanity can assess this final product as more of a fuck you to gamers and woke alike, a fairly sophisticated interpretation of the ideological dummy divide, an experience made at the cost of a reputation, an entire company’s collective mental well-being, and the fury of its fans: art.
The culture is a bad spouse. She never cared in the first place. She courts you arbitrarily, if at all. She’ll run off with whoever placates a pathological amount of her gored attention span. You pursue your work regardless of her response to it. This delicate Cuckmann may have gotten lucky twice, but, by god, he did it, despite the lameness of everything in our air, despite himself! He had his cuck and ate it too! He interrupted the Machiavellian allegation timetable, libelous mobs, to hand them themselves: the second game is about hate. Our real-life pandemic was supposed to cancel the cancel flummery (Harper’s Harry Potter letter signage sure won’t, her half-literate magic helped sort millennial snowflakes into our goddamn houses forever). No more Maoist purging (at least they had the dignity to kill you) of the arts, high or low, no more talking head shit-posts in either direction. No, these plagues will only spread. Godspeed. Druckmann, like Joel (de facto dad), forfeited everything at the cost of his integrity, a fleeting concept anyway, and stumbled into beauty (we are the Ellie (Ellen Page clone) he lied to). Someone spammed square on my hatred and I like it. If he must bear the burden of being a clickbait turncoat chasing after the warm hug of popular opinion (ouchie, success hurts), so be it, because he defeats his cause by being too talented for his own good, bleaker than he knew he should.
It wasn’t the depressing atmosphere of the game exhausting me, but the reality that all is lost by way of pure art in regards to the masses (fuck em, they don’t deserve it, I wept). The (sort of) false leaks sustained this dread until finally, triumphantly, I was relieved into a third option. Five Minutes of Heaven (vastly underrated masterpiece of a film with many parallels to Last of Us 2) meets 28 Days Later can’t keep me incensed for its duration. The identity shuffle becomes analogous (hard to do allegory – everyone wants to feel smart, we’re a series of gotcha dunks and we deserve worse than forty hours of misery), surpassing character development. Hate doesn’t care about your character. The more we sit with the man-armed woman, the more fun it is to see her and hers hurt for their pettily performed deed early on (Joel suspends his disbelief a second, as will we, because he saved her life, and is somewhat domesticated now – and we will see how domestication (distraction from one’s calling (murder)) is the game’s true antagonist), but her social justice warriors vs alt right traditionalists (open to interpretation: maybe Abby’s military is the traditionalist alt right and the SCARS are a woke religion) are vague and subtle echoes of the mania Druckmann is willing to wallow in.
I’ve lived long enough never to underestimate a lesbian with a razor, but tiny cuties killing armies with absurd skill never pain my eyes too badly, if well-written and acted. The onslaught works due to facial recognition machines recording some of the best post-traumatic stress and death throes via expression on a human face ever rendered. The violence tumbles into a feral choreography that seems almost doable with the right amount of sneakiness and deranged training (and our elastic disbelief), the enormous will behind quality hate. Dueling victimhoods dot the palette of our millennial heroines: ingrates bratting out about the people who saved them, steroid revenge over any sexuality (and the meme’d doggystyle to follow), the flakey flirt who loves you situationally, the fun online sin of offing dogs, the culture is all represented and thankfully brought to tears with itself.
The bickering, squabbling relationships a comfortable community affords are the quiet source of every problem the characters confront and they surpass them by relying on the sublime talents they have been motivated to put into practice. Ellie cures her PTSD by confronting it at the cost of all the nostalgia in her life. She can’t be left to her own devices, drawing and playing guitar, because killing is her art. Her existence spites the planet. Her flitty wife, full of teasing challenges to keep Ellie hypnotized at home, on a whim, has her bluff called and walks away. She would have left over something else. Again and again we pick individualism over group identity, selfish pursuit over love, talent over community, revenge over piousness. It is all the more exquisite to obtain an anguish you can decide to dole out proportionately, as long as all the satanic effort imaginable has been employed. Joel’s brother, wife gone, is the harbinger of death, the mutilated face of revenge. He drafts Ellie back to the scythe. Their spouses meant nothing. They were wan indulgences secondary to the task at hand. And what are relationships today but a flipped-through excess. The second game is about hate: how positive and glorious it can be.
Crucified by her dogma, malnourished with a double-reverse gender corollary to Ellie, scuttling along the beach post slave-trade in a sun-bleached nightmare where they’ve clearly done worse to her once the arms deflated, Abby is still not likeable. Empathy, likeability, relatability – the pretentious list above every TV writers’ room. Payback has nothing to do with what the crowd demands. The game works, I dare assert. Ellie rips Abby’s skeleton out of hell to fuck it up and put it back in worse condition. The characters coo to themselves after every kill, in elation, so that when the final murder means something intimate, they can’t get hard. It’s a hatred too perfect to squander with fulfillment. Joel’s outdated honor of expecting someone you saved not to harm you immediately, missing that the cute blond is grossly jacked (millennials have no dignity) and has a bone to pick with the patriarchy, subverts the damsel in distress trope by eating the player alive with a limp wristed maneuver, on purpose. Take that, Nazi gamers, but also, our maid-wrought, game developer lives can be agony too (BDSM). Abby, building herself into her father, scared of standing at his height, promotes the penultimate case of (poono) ludonarrative dissonance, until we’re all her damsel, then they allow her the courtesy of joining in on our distress. Stroll about atop the middle finger Silicon Valley wants inside you. Somehow it feels better. The agendas are slipping. Sometimes prime time escapes its own aftertaste. Art survives better under a rock. Come to art by your own means, at the cost of everything and everyone you know. Try to capture the inevitability of this chain reaction fatalism to console yourself. Welcome to the festering lie of life and its bottomless, pointless consequences. Do we not appear sexier through tears?
Sean Kilpatrick is published in Boston Review, Fence, NERVE, Vice, Evergreen Review, and Exquisite Corpse. Kilpatrick’s ‘Collected Scripts’ is forthcoming from 11:11 Press. He blogs at:
*Image credit: Still from ‘The Last of Us Part II’, developed by Naughty Dog and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment for the PlayStation 4, 2020.