Video game protagonists are still predominantly male, and are often incapable of expressing themselves through words, like Gordon Freeman from the Half-Life series, or Doomguy from Doom. Silent protagonists are as old as video games themselves, but their silence often extends beyond technical limitations and fill in roles commonly associated with men: engineers, soldiers, detectives, that is, problem solvers, who are defined by their actions rather than their words. The prevalence and romanticization of these silent, male protagonists reminds me of the Golden Age of Hollywood, a period where the cinema was dominated by strong, silent types; cowboys, detectives, and men in positions of power who speak with actions rather than words.
However, when looking at how the films of this era portrayed their human relationships, they revealed the men to be domineering, toward women especially. This hegemonic relationship and its variations are well-documented and still persist on the screen and in society at large.
Since the scope of this essay is limited, I’ll only focus on male masculinity, and explore it through the lens of The Hustler (1961). Furthermore, I will compare The Hustler’s portrayal of masculinity and gender roles to The Void’s, since both works share similarities in revealing the downsides of hypermasculinity.
Contrary to its contemporaries, The Hustler presents hypermasculinity as a destructive force harmful to the person himself and the people surrounding him. Paul Newman plays the role of an opportunistic pool player vagabond, “Fast Eddie” Felson, who makes a living playing high-stakes games and swindles people less skillful than him to make ends meet. He’s a man without conviction, whose sole interest lies in maintaining his own self-image and wealth.
Video games often put the player in similar shoes, asking players to identify with a big, burly, manly-man character who will often engage in constant posturing and actively seek out competition. Military shooters are noteworthy for indulging in such brutish machismo, where the player’s companions regularly taunt them to perform better — that is, to kill more effectively — and compliment them when they do so, priming the player to behave more aggressively. Surprisingly, the first Gears of War — known for its exaggerated male characters and over-the-top violence — offers a subversive take on the dude-bro posture, as observed by Ethan Gach. But Gears stands out as more of an exception, because most male player characters, even those who are less physically capable, can be driven by hypermasculine posturing. Gordon Freeman, the violent engineer, constantly gets showered in compliments in Half-Life 2 whenever he encounters friendly people and when he saves them from their certain demise. This positive reinforcement primes him — and us, the player — to strive to impress a female companion, Alyx, when she joins us in the later missions. I was playing far more recklessly in front of her, neglecting my own well-being in hopes of receiving compliments for my performance.
“Fast Eddie” Felson is driven by the same impulses as I was as Gordon Freeman, but his recklessness far exceeded mine when he tried to obliterate his opponent in his competitive stupor. When a long-awaited pool game takes place against a more experienced pool player, with increasing stakes and in front of a large audience of men, the pressure Felson feels to perform is palpable due to his desperate need to have his ability validated by an audience. So, living up to his nickname, he plays “fast and loose” — that is, with reckless bravado — but his body could only take so much. “I’m gonna beat him, Mister. I beat him all night and I’m gonna beat him all day,” said Eddie to his opponent’s manager in front of everyone, trying to sound convincing, even though his physical appearance indicated otherwise: he had large circles under his eyes and was gasping for air. His partner tried to stop him, but despite his advice and a healthy lead, Eddie pushed on, refusing to settle for a modest victory when he has the chance to obliterate his opponent in front of all his peers.
Eddie couldn’t win the competition, because the game stretched out so long that he passed out from sleep deprivation. However, in his competitive stupor, Eddie not only neglected his bodily needs, but would also lose all his money and would later break up with his partner.
Ice Pick-Lodge’s The Void recreates this destructive relationship between player and environment by emphasizing the player character’s bodily needs and their relationship to others through game mechanics. In The Void, the player inhabits the body of a mute man who has to accumulate “hearts”, which act as containers for “color”. We must fill our hearts with color, if we want to survive, because time is against us in the void. Navigating the void takes a toll on our color; only in the so called chambers, time stands still, and we can move around freely. But interacting with the various entities cost us color, wherever we are, regardless if we engage them in a peaceful or violent manner. Color is a singular unit that represents our energy and life-force. So, surviving The Void is a balancing act, where we must use color to carry out our tasks, while at the same time, have enough for ourselves to survive.
The core mechanic sets the ground for the game’s hypermasculine world, where navigating costs us our precious life-force, drawing a direct parallel with the aforementioned scene from The Hustler. Eddie was draining his energy by playing recklessly because of his masculine impulses, similarly, our life is slipping away when we’re in the void, so we must act fast and loose when navigating the void.
Mechanically, The Void indulges in typical survival game tropes, which often convey unchecked masculine values by focusing on self-preservation at the expense of the environment and others. But when considered in line with the game’s theme and its societal rules, they lend themselves for a more meaningful exploration of masculinity. Color in The Void is substance that women crave, but can’t take themselves, while men have all the color, but are forbidden to give. In this sense, color represents power in a hypermasculine, patriarchal society, where women are defenseless and completely repressed by men, while men hold all the power, but are constrained by masculine values they impose on each other and themselves.
Since the player inhabits a male body, men of the void (known as Brothers) approach them according to the traditional gender norms: with distance, disdain, mistrust, or with outright hostility. And per the Brothers’ demand, the player must go through a series of trials to become one of them. In one of tests, a Brother tasks us to mine resources without giving us proper tools. In another, we have to kill a creature within a limited amount of time as a demonstration of raw strength and power. But it’s another impossible task, or at least impossible in a sense that it couldn’t be completed through the means of masculinity, because the usual means of violence can’t penetrate the skin of the creature. During the first task, one of the Sisters (women of the void) willingly offers their help, while during the second, we must seek them out to overcome the test. Their help, however, involves learning forbidden practices the Brothers would deem emasculating, such as the ability to create life by giving away color, or techniques that teach patience above all. Failing to pass the tests would anger the more powerful Brothers, but to complete them, we must learn techniques they resent and forbid. We have no choice, but to indulge in exploitative and self-perpetuating practices that ultimately only serve to uphold the rules of a patriarchal society.
Even though the player character is new to the void’s societal rules, they’re shaped by its dominant forces. The game-world’s purist norms predetermine its inhabitants’ role based on their gender and force the male player character to be self-serving: they can plant trees, only to squeeze them dry; feed animals, only to deceive them and strip them of their color. In fact, whenever the player character chooses to use color, it damages the void, making their mere presence corrosive. The player has no choice, but to engage in these activities, otherwise the Brothers would beat them to the precious color. Competition and conflict is unavoidable.
However, The Void’s plot is ultimately about aiding the Sisters to help overthrow the patriarchy, as concluded by Patrick Lee in his thorough essay as well: “In a power-unbalanced society, evening the odds requires the empowered party to sacrifice power to the powerless party.” But The Void’s depiction of gender relations mirrors The Hustler’s. Following the events of Eddie’s loss, he meets a girl, named Sarah, who has a history with the strong and silent type. She has been exploited by men like Eddie, yet she remains attracted to men like him. It’s a common gender stereotype of the era, but The Hustler shows how harmful and one-sided this kind of relationship is. The Void portrays its women characters in a similar fashion, who are completely defenseless to men, yet can’t resist them when they offer their attention. So when the player offers color, the Sisters can’t help, but accept it and expose themselves. Literally, by getting naked, and metaphorically, by exposing their soul to the player.
While the player has the opportunity to overthrow the tyranny of men, they could only save one of the Sisters from the crumbling world of the void, per their choice. In The Hustler, Sarah often remarks to Eddie that they barely talk and how their relationship is just about sex. This kind of relationship is mirrored in The Void, as the player could only progress by filling the hearts of the Sisters, who in turn expose themselves by bathing in color, in an often sexualized manner. It’s our only way of interacting with them, without words. I felt as though I was only hustling the Sisters before coming to a decision, especially considering how the plot incentivized saving Ole, the Sister who represents urban normality and was “promised” to the player in a manner that mirrors the traditional image of marriage.
The Void’s gender dynamics dampen the game’s otherwise forward-looking message, because the game portrays the act of overthrowing the patriarchy as a collaborative and mutually beneficial exercise. The protagonist needs the Sisters’ feminine values to reject toxic masculinity, while the Sisters need the male protagonist’s status and power to undermine the system. But at the same time, the Sisters remain subservient to the player throughout the game. While their teachings only help the protagonist to deal with the Brothers, and ultimately, to fully indulge in hypermasculine behavior.
The Void’s original title, Tension, may refer to this kind of relationship between the sexes. But the game’s narrative vaguely gestures towards a better society, one that could be achieved by sacrificing power to the disempowered party. However, power takes the form of hypermasculinity. The player indulges in hypermasculine behavior — greed, aggression, violence — as a means to ascend one of the Sisters to power. Would it cause a positive, systematic change that would benefit all genders? Unlikely, since replicating the dominant forces would merely shift the power to the stronger party.
However, The Void’s plot may undermine its antiquated, but well-meaning view on gender dynamics further by introducing a dramatic shift in the form of a suicide. The Sister who helped the protagonist since the beginning kills herself, as a rebellious sacrifice, emitting color from her body. Her color is ripe for the taking, but more importantly, the event takes place after the chapter titled “Feast”, during which the player could revel in their hypermasculine vices. Her death starts the chapter of “Confusion” with an introduction that suggests that the void’s societal system may have deep flaws. But she was the Sister who saved the player character’s life by giving them directions, and later, her own heart. Since hers and the other Sisters’ offerings are essential to the protagonist’s survival, even her suicide could allude to the idea that the disempowered party should take the first steps and that men should only take action when there’s a price in it.
The Hustler is similar in its use of suicide as a motivating device, since Sarah’s suicide prompts Eddie to question his own values. Which isn’t any less deplorable, but it leads to the protagonist’s maturation. Like his failure at the high-stakes pool game, the death of his loved one is also the result of his indulgence in destructive, hypermasculine behavior. In the end, Eddie recognizes the harmful effects of his own behavior, and ends up retiring from competitive pool. By focusing on the inner-world of the protagonist and how his masculinity affects him, The Hustler ultimately succeeds at rejecting hypermasculinity. The Void on the other hand has a far larger scope and wants to have it both ways: portray what it’s like to navigate, and to change a hypermasculine society. It stumbles, but more damningly, fails to completely reject hypermasculinity by utilizing its mechanics to reveal it as a corrosive force, and then proceeding to use the same mechanics to combat this force.
However, in the uncritical landscape of video games, The Void’s commentary on hypermasculinity is immensely valuable. It uses its unforgiving mechanics to portray it as a harmful force. Navigating the void is a difficult exercise, as the rules of its world are purposefully obfuscated. It’s very easy to perish in the void when the player revels in their competitive vices, be it chasing women, or exploiting the environment. But even if the player masters the game’s unforgiving rules, they damage the void whenever they exercise power — that is, use color –, making harder to survive as more hostile creatures pop up. Indulging in the game’s hypermasculine mechanics makes the game-world more toxic and hostile.
When a medium so thoroughly embraces the status quo — as video games so often do — turning to other media that bears similarities in its dominant motifs can prove to be helpful. Hypermasculine men of classical Hollywood cinema probably would’ve revelled in The Void’s game-world as much as the typical macho video game protagonist. But like The Hustler in the last mid-century, The Void also subverts familiar tropes to reveal some of driving forces behind hypermasculinity. Even though this understanding through comparison is severely limited, the approach could still provide an alternative look at the common tropes that so often go unchallenged.