It's game over for archetypal men in video games

The characterisation of Joel in <em>The Last of Us</em> marks a change in how video games view masculinity - the game doesn't champion archetypal maleness, it shows it for what it is: selfish and meat-headed.

Joel, from The Last of Us, cuts a pitiful figure. A man living in apocalypse America, his days are spent stealing, fighting and killing. But although those actions are typical of videogame men, Joel's attitude is not.

He's emasculated. At the start of the “zombie” outbreak which backgrounds The Last of Us, Joel's daughter is killed and twenty years later, there's nothing male left in him. He's a criminal and a fighter and he carries a gun, but unlike other game characters that do those things, those found in Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto or BioShock, Joel is subservient. He's failed in his role as a father and feels less of a man for it.

Working as a smuggler in the Boston quarantine zone, Joel shifts many of the typically male responsibilities – leadership, decision-making, killing – onto his female partner, Tess. He readily takes her orders, replying with a dutiful “yes ma'am” whenever she tells him to lift her over a fence, and catching up to her when she barks “get your ass over here.” In their first scene together, Joel uses a cloth to dab a wound on Tess' face. He's her eunuch, her bodyguard, her servant. Whereas male characters in games are usually given agency, Joel is a serf. He's not trying to be masculine, in the traditional sense, anymore:  he's frightened too much of the pressures.

Later, when he's charged with protecting Ellie, a girl of similar age to his daughter, he wants nothing to do with her. Again, he tries to shift the responsibility, asking his younger brother Tommy to escort Ellie. This isn't what videogame men do. Usually they're either priapic manly types, willing and able to complete whatever mission is given to them or, if like Joel they've had their manliness somehow taken from them, they're on a quest to earn it back.

In Heavy Rain, Ethan Mars is investigating the man who kidnapped his son. In Shadows of the Damned, Gabriel Hotspur is trying to resurrect his dead girlfriend. Both these men, and many others in popular videogames, have had signifiers of their masculinity removed from them, and are trying to re-assert their typically male roles; Mars as a father, Hotspur as a boyfriend. Joel is in a similar situation but is reticent to even try. If he can look after Ellie, it's a chance to re-establish himself as a father figure, but he won't. There's a terrific scene where Tommy offers Joel an old picture of his daughter, as if to say, “remember when you used to be a dad?” Joel rejects it flatly with a muttered “I'm good.” Rather than fight to re-affirm his maleness, Joel is trying his hardest to keep it at bay.

And when he finally does cave in, it's devastating. At the end of The Last of Us, Ellie, who is immune to the zombie virus, is about to undergo surgery that will create a vaccine using her brain tissue but kill her in the process. Joel, now determined to make her his daughter, bursts in, kills the surgeons and carries her away, thus dooming humankind. Whereas videogame narratives are usually resolved when the leading man reaffirms his maleness, when Joel does it, it ruins everything. The Last of Us doesn't champion archetypal maleness, it shows it for what it is – selfish and meat-headed.

And as the audience for videogames grows more diverse, that's an important point to make. Games are no longer only played by young men. The toy-shop, boisterous, power fantasies videogames used to sell aren't really applicable now, as the audience for games becomes increasingly older, smarter and female. The Last of Us marks a change. It satirises gaming's long held tradition of celebrating masculine agency, telling us that, sometimes in games, as in real-life, men can be wrong.

A still from "The Last of Us".

Edward Smith is a writer based in Liverpool. Follow him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle