Daddy Issues

Fatherhood

When it comes to fiction, the topic of fatherhood is one of the most frequently explored themes. From Prospero’s role as a single father in Shakespeare’s The Tempest to pot-head schlub Seth Rogen dragged kicking and screaming into parenthood in Knocked Up, it’s a relationship ripe for the commentary and observation of fiction.

Becoming a father means taking on a massive responsibility and making a pact to protect and love the child forever, passing down wisdom and experience and ultimately, the turbulent journey into manhood. It’s an incredibly powerful theme.

Luke Skywalker finding out his father is basically Space Hitler, Daniel shunning his Karate Kid trophies for father-figure Mr. Miyagi’s proud smile and every character in LOST ever having bottled-up father issues – it’s such a widely explored part of a man’s life but, and here’s where I remember I’m writing for a gaming website, it’s almost entirely absent in games.

It’s an almost embarrassing situation – the number of playable characters with children is shockingly low, with friends resorting to Harvest Moon and The Sims when quizzed.

Splinter Cell Conviction (Ubisoft, 2010), Silent Hill (Konami, 1999), Max Payne (Remedy, 2001)

The most famous gaming fathers also suffer terrible luck with their children, either avenging their deaths (Sam Fisher, above left and Max Payne, above right) or investigating their mysterious disappearance (Silent Hill’s Harry Mason, above centre). They can often be superficially exchanged for a girlfriend, a princess or even a box of treasure – any such motivation to relentlessly push on and kill nameless goons.

With the kids merely being present in the final cutscene, or their death being the impetus for unbridled anger and revenge (which, on the contrary, is a criminally overused and lazy theme in games), there’s rarely room for relationships between parent and child to bloom. You see your father sporadically throughout your adventures in Fallout 3, and periodically return home to see your kids in Fable 2, but if you’re sharing an adventure with someone it’s more likely to be a similarly treetrunk-necked meathead or some flirtatious blonde, than your own son or daughter.

The Japanese has a firmer grasp than the West by a long shot, with playable characters from RPGs like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and Rune Factory being mummies and daddies. They also play with father figures and mentorship – Yakuza’s no-nonsense brawler Kazuma has to deal with the responsibility of looking after a little girl, Haruka.

Die Hard 4.0 (2007), The Road (2006/2009), Taken (2008)

The images above are portrayals of fathers that can be realistically represented in games; three blockbusters that prove action heroes needn’t be the immature bachelors that Gears of War or Army of Two might suggest. Above, Bruce Willis attempts to rekindle his relationship with his estranged daughter in Die Hard 4.0, but manages to entangle her in a web of crime. In Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, a father and son travel across a post apocalyptic America and Liam Neeson joins actors such as Willis and 24’s Keifer Sutherland as a daughter-rescuing badass in Taken.

There are plenty of excuses for gaming’s lack of positive father figures. Gaming has a castrated and narrow spectrum of protagonists; being a straight white male who can shoot witticisms faster than bullets are prerequisites for signing up to game character college. There are only a handful of female characters, even less ethnic minority protagonists and I can only think of about two gay heroes off the top of my head.

There’s also the need for experience and inspiration – Dad blogger Martin could probably do a better job of this post than me, and the experienced fathers of Hollywood are more inclined to tackle fatherhood than the 20-something game developers that churn out our action epics.

But most of all, gaming is just at the cusp of its coming maturation. As the technology hits a plateau, as developers grow older and the quest for shiny graphics is replaced with the hunt for an affecting narrative, we’ll see the classic literary themes and less frequently used archetypes hit our favourite medium.


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8 responses to “Daddy Issues”

  1. Kate avatar
    Kate

    I recall the well-known RPG cliche where you are the protagonist and your dad has undoubtedly been killed or disappeared when was a famous hero. Mothers – to my knowledge – get even less of a look in. If they’re alive they’re probably as bland as beige wallpaper. But I have to admit, in my experience, if you are taking on the role of a parent in a videogame, 9 times out of 10 your child is bloody annoying – Silent Hill 1 springs to mind. Ten minutes into that game and I was quite happy to let the little girl rot.

  2. Michael avatar

    I’ve often wondered about what will happen as the technology does hit a plateau. Like yourself, I’ve hoped (or speculated) that the medium will go along a stronger narrative-driven direction with more characterisation in kind. But, despite you saying gaming is on the cusp of maturation, what of the developers that have worked in the industry for going on two decades, if not more? Where are the tales of parenthood from them? Perhaps the shiny graphics were all that was pursued?

  3. Sarah-Lou avatar

    It is a very good point that you made about the absent of parents. sometimes I do wonder how some games would pan out if these heroes and heroines would have to interact with their family…i guess there left out so not to complicate or drag out the story too much. But I must say that I did see a glimmer of hope on Gears of War 2…good old Dom Santiago is looking for his wife and i believe there was a brief mention of him having kids too and I must admit it made the story seem more human.

  4. MrCuddleswick avatar
    MrCuddleswick

    “we’ll see the classic literary themes and less frequently used archetypes hit our favourite medium.”

    There.

    It’s cultured prose like that that allows me to forgive you smacking me in the bonce with your baseball bat in GTA every damn week.

    Could we maybe sling Bioshock into consideration here? The Little Sisters perhaps stir a parental instinct in the player – Bioshock 2 may explore this theme further.

    Beyond the theme of loss (or motivation to avoid loss), how else could parenthood be explored through games? That’s not rhetorical – I’m sure there are other ways to explore it, but I’m struggling a bit to think of any beyond The Sims. Help me.

  5. Scott avatar
    Scott

    Some excellent points Mark, but I’m surprised to see no mention of the Metal Gear series in a blog which discusses parental figures and their influences (unless you haven’t played through the games). Granted, Metal Gear brings with it both positive and negative figures for the kids of the series to look up to, but I can’t think of a better exploration of father/son relations in gaming.

    More so than the initial themes of genetics, information control, and nuclear deterence, the centre-point of the Metal Gear saga is arguably the relationship between The Boss (yes, a woman), Big Boss, as well his cloned children. Spoilers (and rant) ahead!

    The Boss is simply an amazing character. To sum her up in a simple paragraph does not do her justice, but I will say that she brilliantly plays the role of both mother and father to multiple characters in the series, despite enourmous personal baggage from everything she gave up in the second World War. In one of the saddest endings to a video game, she makes one final sacrifice for her country, dying by the hands of her metaphorical “son” for the greater good.

    Big Boss, on the other-hand, is perhaps the most beat-up Dad in games today. Starting off as an aspiring partriotic soldier, he’s handed the usual “Stop the terrorists, save the world!” mission by the US government, gladly accepting. But things go ary sharpish, throwing him into a bloody political mess which forces him to end the life of his mentor, the aforementioned Boss. By the end of his experiences in MGS3, he becomes understandably bitter and jaded at the world around him, and tragic, society-altering decisions follow. He’s the archetypal Darth Vader of Metal Gear; promoted to powerful badass for his actions, but ultimately regretting them, waiting for his son to show him the light.

    Solid Snake, the end product of this madness, is then tasked with killing his Dad, stopping his abhorant twin brother from going on a nuclear power-trip (a man both jealous of Snake for ending his Dad’s life and for his “superior” birthright), and preventing a man who was quite clearly gay for his father from re-shaping society once more (confusingly, he’s the good guy!). Oh, and Solid Snake might also be an walking apocolypse, himself. Yikes!

    … Of course, it all works out in the end, but not without a mass of death and destruction along the way, all of which could have been avoided if parental relations had turned out just a /litte/ differently. To quote the credits theme of MGS3, “Way to Fall”:

    “Son, you’ve got a way to fall
    They’ll tell you where to go
    But they won’t know

    Son, you’d better take it all
    They’ll tell you what they know
    But they won’t show”

    (Good job ranting, Scott. This could have easily been a blog post.)

  6. Mark avatar
    Mark

    Hi Scott. Unfortuantly I’ve only ever played 4, so I haven’t got the full story! But that sounds great, I think MGS gets a short shrift for being “crazy” and nothing more than a bundle of “Kojimaisms”, but there’s definitly some powerful stuff there.

    Cuddles, I think the themes of protection, working together and passing down experience would be really interesting with a father-son team, rather than two meathead space cowboys. OH! And I know you’re a big The Road fan, you made the topic on the forums! There – perfect example of how a father puts himself in danger and gives up food in a horrible post apocoloyptic world, becuase of the love with his son.

    Thanks for all your comments.

  7. PedanticJase avatar
    PedanticJase

    tempted to trot out the old gaming as escapism game and that fatherhood (realistically depicted fatherhood) might slice a little to close to home for some gamers.

    Running around chainsawing mans in half is pure fantasy for me (or atleast that’s my story!) but raising a child that’s something that is pretty troubling (mostly worried about being a good father while also having no idea what that entails).

    Alot of people these days don’t have a full set of parents or don’t maintain a traditional relationship with them that’s ofcourse a deeply personal and complex issue where the player brings a lot of baggage to the table before the game even starts.

    Although saying that I do enjoy games that genitally nudge players towards thinking about new ideas. Bioshock and its exploration of objectivism , even with its entirely negative perspective, was a real watershed moment for myself where I realised that games don’t have to exist in a bubble and can cross pollinate with other experiences.

    Interesting topic 😀

  8. Emily avatar
    Emily

    Agree with Scott – there’s some really powerful parenting relationships in Metal Gear. Could also mention the relationship between Meryl and Campbell. She becomes a soldier jsut to aspire to him, to follow in her father’s footsteps – not necessarily because she wants to.

    ALSO – Jecht and Tidus in Final Fantasy X!
    Tidus seemed haunted by memories of his father throughout the entire game, and although you never really see them interacting with eachother again as Tidus reaches adulthood, you piece together the way Spira changes his father, and in the end this seems to change Tidus’s impression of him too.

    I’d definately like to see more father/mother/son/daughter relationships in games. When they work, they’re so emotionally engaging.

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