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.

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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage