By Tauriq Moosa
Male power fantasies have long focused on bulking up men, whether physically, or intellectually, and using their powers to defeat their enemies. Whether it’s a Stallone or a McClane, a Sherlock or a Dr House, portrayals of men in media has focused on providing them seeming immunity, due to some extraordinary quality primarily designed to defeat obstructions before them. Physicality provides immunity from death (Terminator, Conan, Die Hard) and intellect from consequences (Dr House MD, Sherlock, etc.).
Video games too have long had such no-necked, muscle men as heroes –who progressed primarily through defeating their enemies. But, after the horrific year that was 2017, I was delighted to see more games embrace alternatives to masculinity where progress wasn’t dependent on conquering.
In Assassin’s Creed: Origins, the lead character Bayek is a large, powerful warrior who can slaughter and kill entire garrisons. Yet, he is also a kind, loving, and a charming father figure. He laughs with children, indulges them and never once talks down to them. The entire game is in fact premised on revenge for the death of his child, making even his lost fatherhood his primary motivation.
Instead of some vague, grand purpose, Bayek’s story is simple. Around him, historical figures place their pawns, drag their kings and queens across a chess board made of nations, but Bayek uses such powerful figures solely to obtain more information on those who took his child’s life. (Indeed, it’s almost by accident that the Assassin order is even invented, grounded as it is on the bones of his child). But we see Bayek the father shine not only in the overarching game, but moment-to-moment. Some missions entirely revolve around children and Bayek or an acquaintance’s relationship. Here is a powerful warrior charmed at child’s innocent joke or delusions of grandeur. He wants to help, not belittle.
But Bayek was not alone in Dad-ing it up in 2017, while remaining a badass hero. In The Evil Within 2, Sebastian’s central focus also concerns his child – this time one that lives that he thought dead.
Despite being the typical grizzled, grim male lead, Seb displays wit, insight, humour, warmth and strength that is admirable. He genuinely cares about the people he meets and doesn’t talk down to the numerous female characters (there are more women with speaking roles than there are men in this game, all of whom play major parts. Indeed, it’s Seb who twice requires saving by women). The Evil Within 2 is my Game of the Year for 2017 because of Sebastian’s reaction to the world and people around him. He’s frequently afraid and openly cries, hugs, and shows a wide range of emotions beyond grim stoicism.
There is a moment where Sebastian appears to gain a kind of superhuman strength, but it feels earned: he confronts his literal demons and refuses to back down. As someone who’s been with Sebastian since the first The Evil Within, I felt invigorated and literally cried aloud in support as Seb finally stood up to his demons. I felt empowered because, as a player, I’d earned it as Seb had too.
Seb can die quickly, has no magic powers, shows a range of emotions and treats people with care, sympathy and love. This is far from the mould of the typical, grimbro protagonist and a welcome one.
But by far the biggest breaker is Wolfestein’s BJ Blazkowicz. Here’s a male lead who seems to exhibit all the ideas of the traditional male lead: big, growling, powerful and a master at killing others. Yet, in the hands of MachineGames, he becomes eloquent, introspective, sensitive and respectful – twisting the thread of the BJ from previous games, but not breaking it. Like the other men I’ve named, he is also a father and cares deeply for the people around him, showing respect and admiration for the women in his life. As Chris Franklin suggested in his review, BJ seems to get on with women better than men, immediately accepting their leadership when they assume such roles. Even his lover, Anya, he treats with respect and as a partner, never as a damsel. She in fact saves him.
The entire game explores BJ as a person. The dual conflict at the heart of BJ has spilled out on to the world. His hatred of Nazism isn’t actually about Nazism, but toxic white masculinity, as exhibited by his abusive, racist, sexist father. The thousands of Nazis he’s smashed are just a million mirrors reflecting that. His mother’s love, a Jewish woman who loved and cared for him, is what BJ seeks to protect in himself and in the world. This central conflict is one he’ll never actually overcome, since he is the child of both good and evil; he’s at once his father’s son – violent, unrelenting, unforgiving toward those he believes not worthy of personhood (Nazis) and his mother’s – caring, loving, tender and ready to protect what’s good in the world, ready to clutch on to even the smallest tokens of humanity in places burning from the oils of hatred.
What drives the plot is not getting rid of Nazis, but BJ’s fight in himself. He, too, is concerned about making the world better for the sake of his unborn child.
All these men are driven by personal conflicts in themselves and relating to themselves, about children, the future and those around them. They all treat women with respect, show love, care, admiration and are never demeaning unless it’s toward the evil or powerful. None believe themselves immortal or unstoppable, all begin from a place of recognising their vulnerabilities but acting anyway.
Indeed, the connecting theme that makes them fascinating to me is that their games begin with them realising their vulnerability and what we experience with them, controlling them, is dealing with this vulnerability. Men made mortal, overcoming their demons, accepting they are not gods.
We need more men in media like this, who ground themselves in wanting to be better and wanting it for others; who view women as their equal; who love and care and are sensitive to others; who stand up for what’s right and what’s good, even if the world around them is designed to stop them. Men require more diverse representation than simply the power fantasies of old, that told them they were invulnerable because they were men and they were strong or smart.
Men must do better and one way that helps is a greater showing of what men, being openly vulnerable and yet still supportive, decent and gentle, can achieve in media we consume.
Tauriq is a law student, unprofessional critic, and has written for the Guardian, Polygon, The Daily Beast and elsewhere. You can support his work on Patreon