In the opening scenes of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, an adult man named Joel, who is controlled by the player, leads his daughter through the burning streets of a zombie apocalypse, only to find himself unable to save her from being gunned down by a soldier. The rest of the game follows the haunted hero as he tries to protect another young girl, Ellie, from the same fate as they tramp across a ruined America. Think Children of Men meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in video-game form. Protecting Ellie becomes Joel’s obsession. Not for her sake, and not because she might be humanity’s savior, but for purely selfish and redemptive reasons: to prove he can protect her; to prove he is still a good father; to prove he is still a good man.
Despite being played by men and women in equal measure, video games have long been construed as a masculinist enterprise. Most are designed by men, with a male audience in mind, and nearly every blockbuster features a male protagonist. The few games with leading women, such as Dontnod’s Remember Me or Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider, present them more as sex objects than active subjects, there for the (assumed) male audience to gawk at while pressing buttons. Meanwhile, Grand Theft Auto V, a game with three protagonists, has not a single leading woman.
“The concept of being masculine was so key to this story” is the line Rockstar cofounder Dan Houser
gave The Guardian.
It’s a poor excuse, one trotted out all too often by the male-dominated industry in
response to any question concerning the dearth of significant women in games. But given the boys’-club atmosphere, video games are a fascinating place to see dominant ideals of masculinity played out.
Up until the past few years, the representations of masculinity we have seen in games were traditional: manly men protecting their women, children, and homelands with muscles and firearms. Video-game story lines, moreover, have largely taken place within the genres of sci-fi, fantasy, action, and Western, all of which offer their brawny heroes ample opportunities to make conspicuous displays of old-school manliness: In Super Mario Bros., Mario saves the princess; in Halo, Master Chief saves the Earth; in Time Crisis 2, a cop team blasts through terrorists to save both the world and the girl.
The preponderance of macho saviors in video games reflects their overrepresentation in other media. There’s no shortage of films, novels, comics, and songs that give men the role of protector and possessor.
But in video games, retrograde masculinity has found an almost natural home. Video games, after all, are about doing something—pressing buttons to create effects in virtual worlds. Few actions are as simple to design as those that are physical: pulling a trigger, throwing a punch, making a giant leap. It’s easy for video-game makers to represent normative ideas of what it means to be a man.
Despite all that, something new has been afoot in recent years. We’re not seeing a broader representation of masculinity: The vast majority of games (the Modern Warfare trilogy, for just one example) still feature muscular fellows who triumph in the end. But a few recent games are critiquing the dominant view of masculinity in subtle ways, presenting players with heroes who find that their guns and biceps prove insufficient for the challenges thrown their way, who try to protect what they hold dear, only to see it slip from their control.
The posture of this new hero slumps a little; his winking confidence is starting to droop; his facial hair is less a beard and more of an instantiation of apathy.
As suggested by the experiences of Joel in The Last of Us, who spends an entire game mourning the daughter he failed to save, the old masculine ideal is becoming less of a crown and more of a burden.
The trope of a male protagonist who, like Joel in The Last of Us, undertakes a quest for revenge (or justice) after suffering the horrendous death of someone close to him is certainly nothing new. In story after story, a terrible event sends the hero on a journey that gives him a chance to find himself and prove his strength. Think of Mad Max or Dirty Harry, in the movies. In comics, similarly, the Green Lantern springs into action after finding his girlfriend’s corpse shoved into a fridge by his nemesis, a story element that has given rise to the shorthand phrase “Women in Refrigerators,” a term meant to signal this all-too-common story device. But in recent games, the tone of this narrative is different, darker. Protagonists like Joel still seek revenge and redemption—but now they don’t always find what they are looking for.
Or take Max Payne. In the series of games that shares the title, Payne is a superhuman character, able to leap through the air in slow motion while firing two pistols with pinpoint accuracy. He takes down terrorists and crooks and corrupt cops by the roomful. Yet he proves unable to save anyone or anything he loves.
When Rockstar’s Max Payne 3 begins, Payne is already at rock bottom. Across the previous two games, his wife, baby, and girlfriend have all perished, despite Payne’s efforts to save them. We encounter him as a drunk and a drug addict, his hair unkempt, his face grizzly. He is working as a private security guard for a rich Brazilian man whose wife is promptly kidnapped on Payne’s watch. Throughout the game, despite all his action-hero feats, Payne is unable to meet the challenge. Regardless of how skilled the player behind the controller is, the woman will die.
Payne is strong and capable, but those attributes are useless for the events he and his player are faced with. Toward the end of Max Payne 3, the woman he has been chasing is shot in the face as he stands by, useless.
“Martin Walker” is no “Max Payne,” but it is still a good, strong name. He is the protagonist of Spec Ops: The Line, which, on first play, seems to be a conventional military shooter, part of the subgenre of shoot-’em-up games that usually depicts American or Western armies saving the world from communists or terrorists through superior firepower and tactical knowledge. Spec Ops: The Line, however, flips this. It begins with three American men walking into a near-future Dubai, which has been utterly destroyed by a sandstorm, with the hope of saving those trapped there. What unfolds is a brutal series of events that sees Walker (not to mention the player at the controller) responsible for hundreds of deaths, while saving no one.
Walker goes mad. He hallucinates, and the player is unable to tell what is real and what isn’t. Walker is so obsessed with being a hero, with being a man, that he destroys everything while saving nothing.
There are many other recent games in which a character’s best attempts to be a traditional protective figure prove insufficient, where the scripted story defies the player’s best attempts to set things right. The leading men of Gears of War, Grand Theft Auto IV, L.A. Noire, The Walking Dead, BioShock: Infinite, and Splinter Cell: Conviction all face similar conundrums. Players might play these games well; they might shoot all the enemies; they might make all the “right” decisions; but the story will, regardless, take the player deep into losing territory. Characters and players alike come to these video-game scenarios with a tried-and-tested masculine skill set—only to find it lacking.
It’s the tragedy of modern manhood played out again and again. These days, the games tell us, being a man, in the old sense, is not enough. These days, global financial crises reveal the fickle stability of man-as-breadwinner. These days, unmanned drones and more than a decade of futile military interventions have emasculated man-as-protector. These days, dozens of other identities—other masculinities, other genders, other ethnicities, other sexualities—have challenged the myth of a dominant masculinity to a near-breaking point. Men are still the most privileged people in our society—undeniably—but that does not lessen the force of the blow that comes with the realization that the mythical properties of manliness are just that: a myth.
Such anxiety comes through vividly in The Last of Us, Max Payne 3, and Spec Ops: The Line. This sense of futility, of impotence. Of growing up in a world in which being a man is not as straightforward an endeavor as previous generations of movies and games have promised. “I’m a dumb-move guy,” Payne muses toward the end of Max Payne 3. “That’s my style, and it’s too late in the day to hope for change.”
What we are seeing in this complicating of the male stereotype isn’t necessarily a conscious critique by game developers. They are, in the end, still making action games about men for a young male audience. Rather, we are seeing the modern man’s frustrations at the constrictions of such a narrow identity, rendered in high-def detail. We are seeing the realization that dominant notions of manliness are incompatible with the world of 2014.
It’s no longer enough to be a strong man with a beard who is really good at shooting or punching things—nor should it be. A more diverse and nuanced array of characters and perspectives is essential if video games are to be recognized as a legitimate cultural form. Plumbing the depths of the old notion of masculinity is but the first step in realizing that masculinity is not, perhaps, a one-size-fits-all identity. Joel, Martin Walker, and Max Payne are the rear guard. But the futility of their tragic stories isn’t something to pity; rather, it’s exciting. It signals an acceptance that perhaps masculinity is more complex than we have made it out to be.
which isn’t to say we’ll be seeing fewer video games about guys saving the world—but the old-style heroes no longer rule this cultural sphere. The heartfelt Papo & Yo, for one, presents a vulnerable side of masculinity, telling the story of a boy with a drunk and abusive father; it is based on the childhood experiences of its designer, Vander Caballero. Meanwhile, Gone Home, one of the most critically acclaimed games of the past year, puts the player in the role of a young woman exploring her family’s house and history—not “saving” or “conquering” anything, just exploring.
Games like these suggest a future in which developers will tell nuanced stories, creating games that allow players to explore intricate ideas of self and society, where the hero’s identity is challenged and stretched.