The most common joke about the difficulty video games have reconciling their storytelling impulses with the violent action so many of them depend on revolves around the character Nathan Drake. Star of the Uncharted series, Drake is famed for his easygoing, flippant charm – yet over the course of a single game he will typically kill hundreds of people. They call him the smiling psychopath.
The joke must have stung the Californian Sony studio Naughty Dog, Uncharted’s maker. In 2013 they started to grapple with its implications in The Last of Us, a moody post-apocalyptic thriller that upped the graphic brutality while seeking to frame it in the context of a desperate, cruel world, and also contrast it with the delicate bond developing between the protagonist, gruff smuggler Joel, and his cargo, a teen called Ellie.
Now The Last of Us has a sequel, and in that sequel the wrestling match between the game’s violent action and its thematic intentions has developed into a full-on, bareknuckle brawl. It is, perhaps for the first time in the history of big-budget action games, a fair match. It gets messy and problematic, and neither side comes out unscathed. But, by taking some big gambles, the developers land decisive blows that will send you reeling.