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.