The Last Of Us Has The Most Horrifying Death Scenes

I am an intermediate player; it takes practise and time for me to complete a single player campaign, and inevitably, I die a lot during that journey. And out of all the video games death scenes I've witnessed, The Last of Us's are still in a disturbing class of their own. I've been replaying this game, again, and it occurred to me that Naughty Dog understands what many of its contemporaries do not — that the most terrifying weapon in a horror game developer's repertoire is restraint.

In The Last of Us, you rarely see Joel and Ellie's actual deaths. Instead, you see the cause of their deaths; Joel is very much alive throughout his various ordeals. Take a look at this compilation video, and you'll see what I mean:

One moment, there's utter chaos. A terrified Joel hollers bloody murder. The clicker rips a vessel from his neck, and blood spurts out. A high pitched, jump scare noise — a clear tribute to Psycho — shrieks in the background. The screen cuts to black. Joe's screams echo for a second longer. And then, dead silence, as if a life has been snuffed out in an instant. This sequence is not especially gory, per se, but it's a creepy, disturbing juxtaposition that catches Joel at his most petrified and defenceless.

Image Credit: NeoGaf

That's not to say that explicitness and splatter don't have their place; some of the most iconic moments in horror video games are drenched in blood. The chainsaw decapitation in Resident Evil 4 comes to mind. You watch the entire chainsaw death in its entirety, from the moment the blade touches Leon's skin to the moment that his torso hits the floor.

But as cringeworthy as this kill is, it has a definitive beginning, middle and end. The chainsaw maniac stops attacking you as your neck bleeds out; he inflicts a known, finite quantity of suffering and terror upon Leon.

What makes the deaths in The Last of Us so unique and disturbing are their comparative lack of resolution. Joel and Ellie are still alive, albeit barely, when the camera cuts to black; these animations are not so much "death" scenes as "being killed" scenes. We're left to speculate. What, exactly, happens after that initial bite? Does the clicker proceed to eat Joel's entire face? Is Joel screaming throughout? How much does he suffer before passing out? Does he become an Infected himself? And what is Ellie going to do, now that she's alone in the wilderness? Whatever we imagine is probably more vivid and horrifying than what Naughty Dog could portray on screen.

The most explicit death in The Last of Us is when the Bloater rips Joel's face apart, and even then, we only get a couple of animated frames. Again, the worst part of these scenes is not what you actually see (which isn't much), but what your imagination fills in for you.

There's one, small variation to these death scenes. If Joel catches on fire, the diegetic sound continues for several more seconds after the screen cuts to black. We hear Joel's agonised screams as he's burning. Troy Baker, Joel's voice actor, recorded several different audio takes of this death animation, and you appreciate its variation over the course of multiple playthroughs. It seems that no death by fire hurts in exactly the same way.

Great entertainers trust their audience's imagination and exercise restraint. On the season finale of Games of Thrones, we don't see what the Mountain does to Septa Unella, but her screams are enough to make us think the worst. In the film Psycho, the we never see the knife penetrate Janet Leigh's skin during the famous shower scene. Hitchcock used multiple film cuts to create the impression of a stabbing. That resulted in one of the most iconic, and scariest, film scenes in cinematic history.

Game developers should also exercise restraint, not out of some misguided prudery towards violence, but because excessiveness decreases its impact. Blood and gore are storytelling devices, and like all storytelling devices, they must be used discretely, at the right time and in the right place. The more we see these devices exposed, with all their gears and guts on display, the less effective they become.

The Last of Us strikes a perfect balance. Death is secondary to the suffering that leads to it. Rather than zeroing in on the moments with the most blood, the developers zeroed in on the moments when the characters were at their most terrified and helpless. Especially in the horror genre, explicit visuals are a poor substitute for excellent psychology.


Comments

    The open up and say aah death scene of Joel is one of the most gruesome in last of us.

    Yeah, I died violently a couple of times then shelved it.

    I loved the Uncharted games because I could zip through them, and my gf was entertained just watching.
    Figured TLOU would be the same. My inherit 'shittiness' at stealth games, coupled with god-awful death animations, meant this game belongs squarely in my didn't-like pile.

    I realise it's probably an awesome game - just not my cup of tea.

      So u stopped playing because the violent nature of the deaths put you off? Of you didn't know going in it was stealth? It took me a couple hours to get used to the stealth and gameplay and then I was hooked. I thought it was all a bit generic at first tbh but boy was i wrong - master class in apocalyptic storytelling.

        see the deaths were not an issue for me, i just found the game and story kinda meh, especially after all the hype around the game i played it on hard and finished it but still didn't have the reaction that others have to it.

    All the death scenes made me very scared of the clickers (their purpose??) it freaked me out about them but by my second play through I made sure to kill every clicker I passed just for revenge.

    This article points out the under-appreciated strength of an individual's imagination. It will often do far better than gratuitous or visceral violence played out in visual detail. Whether it be a cut to black or simply off-screen, it is a brilliant device. High time I gave TLOU another go.

    And it may explain why I didn't enjoy Sin City, a film that I felt lacked any sort of subtlety.

      That's the point of sin city but Yeh if u don't like violence then frank miller ain't for u 😉

        I wouldn't say I 'enjoy' violence but I enjoy video games so...hmmm. Anyway, the issue with Sin City - and the same for any game or film that saturates the content violence - is that it desensitises the act of violence. Used economically or sparsely gives it much more power and impact.

          Oh for sure I agree. I kinda grew up watching lots of horror and Tarantino films and am well and truly immune to any sort of shock from violence now and I appreciate it if it's done stylishly. I sorta think miller did that in sin city with the blood on the black and white motif etc. but it's not for everyone.
          Actually there is this one show called Banshee that is just absolute gratuitous violence seemingly for the sake of it, and it sorta made me double take when my fiancée showed me it. Pretty nasty, I couldn't see the appeal tbh.
          She digs it though!

            She sounds like a keeper XD

            Confession: I fail badly at horror. Couldn't watch Resident Evil through. Weirdly, despite watching all the damn sequels, I can't watch Alien. I don't watch The Walking Dead. The original F.E.A.R. Game nearly killed me..... But TLOU had such a great origin basis (the fact that virus is kinda real) and is well written. Totally worth it.

    Really well done. Probably the closest thing I have seen to these would be some of Lara's deaths in the new tomb raider (becoming impaled on a spike through the neck or bashing your head against rocks on the ocean floor rings a bell!

      Agree, they were brutal moments and I felt horrible for it. They had an air of finality to them.

      Agree, they were brutal moments and I felt horrible for it. They had an air of finality to them.

      I came here to see if anybody had mentioned the Tomb Raider spike-through-the-neck yet. The blurst.

    The evil within?
    Condemned 2?
    Dead space series?

      The Evil Within... I remember that room with the giant rotating blade, was morbid and terrifying at the same time to simply be sliced in half and that's just it! Dead Space had some pretty cool ones too, though you were kind of like a sack of potatoes.

    The only thing I didn't like about TLOU (and I fricken love TLOU) is the frequency of which I died. don't get me wrong, I'm no MLG gamer, but I'm not generally that bloody bad, I even ran the game on easy. Maybe I was just having one of those months where I was a bit of a spaz, but at a few of the spots through the game, I died quite a few times. The odd death here and there I can handle, but for me, a story driven game about survival loses a bit of it's immersion when you die multiple times through some of the fights. I know I know, Git Gud scrub or GTFO. I am still yet to play through my PS4 version and as I've been playing a lot of the Division I've kind of got some form on a controller.

    actually there was 1 other thing, I REALLY wish that in Left behind you could get through the whole DLC without killing anything. I'm happy enough with Joel 'gettin shit dun' in the main game, but half of his value was in providing protection to Ellie, a small girl not exactly physically equipped to deal with large infected. I'm not saying she shouldn't be able to kill them, and I know the game doesn't exactly shoehorn her into any massive brawls, but I think she would have been looking to avoid all infected at all costs, not looking to kill them. I avoided killing all that I could, but at times the game forces you to kill to advance, it would have been amazing to sneak through the whole thing and never get drawn into a fight.

    wow...that comment escalated quickly

      It was pretty difficult, but that's what I enjoyed about it - surviving felt like a struggle, had it been too easy it would lead me to wonder why there aren't more Joels out there :P

      Then again this is coming from four survival mode playthroughs, lol. The moment I realised you could pretty much stealth 80% of the game (there are a few sections where you're forced to kill all enemies before proceeding), it made the game a lot easier. Especially since stealth uses practically no resources (just bricks/bottles for the most part), and you're able to scrounge for resources to help you through the action-y bits. That and exploring in general, searching every nook and cranny and ensuring you're always decently equipped.

        yeah I played through it twice on PS3 (main game not Left behind) and the second time I upped the difficulty and enjoyed the challenge a lot more, the deaths didn't worry me because I wasn't too concerned with plot immersion, but I do kind of wish the first playthrough had of been a bit easier so I could soak up the story without too many deaths. As it's now been a long time since I touched it, I think I'll do another playthrough on PS4 on easy to enjoy the story, and hopefully now that I'm in a bit more form with a controller, I can breeze through

    Unfortunately I didn't like The Last of Us. Loved Uncharted, Resident Evil and other games like that and I especially enjoy stealth but I could never enjoy The Last of Us, no matter how hard I tried, I even pushed through to the end but that's another story anyway.
    There's a much more grusome death within Resident Evil 4 to show off instead of the chainsaw kill and that's the kill from the Novistador's

    https://youtu.be/naEXmn_Bw78?t=282

      I think it's more about how suddenly things go from seemingly fine to just fucked up. The Novistador death is what follows after a blatant grapple and without really fighting back much. The chainsaw kill - regardless of your health or ego at that point in the game - is instant, brutal, and final.

        That's certainly true, for the Novistador death to happen you already have to be low on health and for him to use that specific attack and as you said, it's drawn out a little while the chainsaw is instant.

    TLOU was great and I enjoyed the story, but the deaths and the multiplayer violence made me feel really gross. I like violent games like doom because they're dumb, but mentally watching the hero get his head torn in half or scoring a point by stomping someone's brains in gives me the heeby jeebies in a not fun way.

      Is it messed up that I find curb stomping in games satisfying? I blame Gears of War.

    You know you can turn the gore off in TLOU.

    that kill compilation in the article is just the exact same death animation 30 times in a row I was expecting some Tomb Raider 2013 style variation (maybe if you die in a different area, something different will happen!)

    Man I'm so desensitized to violence that I don't even recall it being particularly bad. I remember digging the death scenes because they had this stark realistic quality to them due to the stellar graphics and looked quite gruesome and sinister. Which was fitting because you know, the apocalyptic setting and all, kinda demonstrated the hopelessness and danger of the world quite well imo.

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